The American Golden Calf

4,256 total words    

17 minutes of reading

There is an interesting rabbinic text about Rabbi Judah the Prince and his interaction with a calf on its way to slaughter. Rabbi Judah lived during the turn of the third century and was known for his scholarship and wisdom. Through the following passage, however, one can see that even the greatest scholar must be humbled to see the universe through a different lens.[1]

While he was walking to his study, Rabbi Judah saw a calf being led to slaughter. The calf ran to him and hid under his coat, wanting to receive mercy from his fate. The rabbi sent him back to his owner, explaining to the calf that he must go back because this was his purpose. The heavens then decreed that because of Judah’s lack of mercy, he would be afflicted with illnesses.

The suffering lasted for several years, until Judah redeemed himself by saving tiny mice that were being swept away by his maid. When doing so, Rabbi Judah referenced Psalm 145:9, which states, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made,” explaining that human beings should show mercy and compassion to all God’s works. Because of his kind action, the heavens created a new decree that healed Judah from his previous illnesses.

The importance of animals is oftentimes overlooked in biblical scholarship. Animals are a fundamental part of storytelling in scripture, and not recognizing their presence is a less-than-optimum interpretative course. The calf is an interesting animal to study, specifically because of how ubiquitous it is. Throughout scripture, it is noteworthy that calves are referenced 48 times, and, as a whole, cattle are mentioned 151 times for the purposes of celebration, consumption, metaphor, doctrine, sacrifice, and worship.[2] The age of the animal, while important in sacrifice, is not noted in dietary law, so eating veal—the meat of a young calf—was permitted.

The key to the Bible’s view of animals is the interpretation of Genesis 1:26-31, in which humankind has been given dominion over both domestic and wild animals. While biblical injunction gives permission to this end, the definition of “dominion” is problematic and has been the source of much scholarly debate. It is generally assumed that because animals were viewed as a rich and valuable resource, it would naturally follow that the well-being of livestock would serve both animal and human needs. This is not necessarily so. The notable absence of biblical precedence regarding calf welfare in particular may have contributed to the disregard for bovine welfare in antiquity and modernity.

Dominion is commonly defined as an anthropocentric worldview of creation. Its interpretative counterpoint, “stewardship,” focuses more on the responsibility and welfare of creation. Because Genesis 1 has been interpreted as the permission for humankind to utilize the earth for human use, ancient calf handling and modern practices of veal production may indeed reflect the biblical text’s absent instructions regarding compassionate livestock welfare. While the lack of scriptural precedence and interpretative difficulties of Genesis 1 may not be the sole reason for the harsh or cruel treatment of young calves in the modern veal industry, it certainly can be argued that it is a contributing factor in shaping our worldview regarding non-human creation.

One can fast-forward to the modern veal industry and quickly note the anthropocentric practices performed. Thus, modern farmers and consumers are not sensitive to the intrinsic value of God’s creatures. In this essay, I explore contemporary practices in the production of veal, and then turn to scriptural precedent regarding the treatment of calves. My aim is to create a dialogue among religious scholars, animal ethicists, and modern veal producers to promote ethical farming practices for God’s animals.

Modern Veal

The word veal derives from the Latin word vitellus, which can be translated as “calf.” Cattle are naturally gregarious animals that eat grass and roughage roughly six to ten hours a day. There is a strong maternal bond between a mother cow and her offspring. When cows are ready for parturition, they usually separate themselves at night from the herd for protection. Once they give birth, the mother will begin to lick the calf, which serves three functions: “(i) to encourage the calf to stand and suckle; (ii) to clean off amniotic fluid; and (iii) to facilitate recognition of the individual calf by the dam.”[3] Calves will communicate through olfactory, audible, and tactile signals to show companionship or discomfort with another calf. Through physical contact, such as allogrooming (social licking), “cattle form grooming partnerships with specific individuals within a group.”[4]

Mother cow snuggling her calf

The Holstein breed has been selected biologically for mass milk production due to their large and profitable output of milk. For heifers to produce milk, they must become pregnant. In order to gain maximum milk yield for human consumption, their calves, once born, must be immediately removed from them. Since dairy farms have no use for the male calves born to these heifers, they are sold for meat. Thus, the veal industry is a product of modern industrial dairy farming.

When calves are taken away from their mothers, they do not develop a tactile relationship, and this would normally lead to anxiety, depression, and aggression for both the mother and calf. The weaning process for calves can become extremely stressful for both the cow and the calf. According to Per Jensen, “if [calves are] separated from other animals, isolated cattle will show clear signs of stress including increased heart rate, vocalization and defecation/ urination.”[5] Because of this, the three bonding stimulants mentioned earlier that are inherent in mother cows have been bred out of Holsteins through genetic manipulation. This is to eliminate the stress of immediate weaning so the cow can focus only on milk production. Holsteins have been genetically selected for a lack of maternal instinct—so much so that they no longer feel protective of their calves. Animal scientist Temple Grandin writes that because the social bonding has been bred out of Holsteins, the cow is “less traumatized than a beef cow when she loses her calf. . . . She’s been bred so intensively for milking that she doesn’t care as much about her baby.”[6]

Roughly 1.2 million calves are raised annually in extreme conditions to meet consumer demand.[7] In order to preserve the delicacy of their meat, male calves are immediately removed from their mothers and placed in a crate where mobility is impossible. They reside there where they grow to a size that prevents them from physically turning around. This lack of mobility creates atrophy of their muscle tissue, which ensures the tender pink meat that consumers demand.

Two Holstein cows

In these small stalls, the calves do not receive any straw bedding to lie on because a calf could consume the straw, which would change the iron level in his meat. Instead, calves stand or lie on metal slatted floors, which allow manure to fall through to a pit below. Robert Wennberg writes:

As a consequence of all this, the animals are prevented from engaging in a number of natural behaviors: they cannot turn to groom themselves, chew cud, or suckle. Further, the peculiar iron-free diet provided the calves results in anemia . . . various other health complications, and a mortality rate of 10 to 15 percent.[8]

Over 55 percent of veal calves develop a respiratory disease due to the unnatural environment in which they are housed.[9] They are fed a milk supplement twice a day from a plastic pail until they reach roughly five hundred pounds (usually at about twenty-four weeks old) and are then taken to slaughter. Before the development of animal science in the veal industry, rural farmers would remove the calf from its mother immediately after birth and take it to slaughter. This would yield an animal with ninety pounds of meat—far less than the five hundred pounds produced through modern methods.

Abnormal behaviors, or “stereotypies,” tend to develop in these calves. For example, there is “overgrooming,” in which a calf will habitually lick its coat to accommodate for the lack of roughage in its diet. This leads to internal complications and discomforts like chronic indigestion.[10] Also, because these calves are deprived of physical contact and communication with other animals, they will lay with their hindquarters touching the calf in the next stall. They suck and bite on the wood or metal bars in front of them, as well as on the mouths of neighboring calves, called prepuce sucking, to mimic nursing. They also perform behavior called “weaving,” swinging their heads from side to side to promote the excretion of endorphins, which improves their mental well-being. And finally, they may engage in “tongue playing,” rolling their tongues for no purpose. These stereotypies have been proven to negatively affect the physical health of animals involved in other large-scale meat production, which affects meat quality, yet they continue to be neglected in the veal industry.

Holstein calves are separated to decrease disease, yet diseases are more likely to occur due to artificial farming practices. But even with the health risks addressed (such as heart disease, obesity, etc.), the environmental impact and animal welfare issues outweigh the industry’s convenience to humans. Grandin writes, “Calves should be raised with other calves, not in isolation. . . . All animals have to be socialized from a young age, and cows are no exception.”[11] Grandin also addresses the biological problems with dairy and veal production. She writes:

The other welfare problem with dairy cows is that breeders have been pushing their biology too hard. There’s a huge difference in strength between baby Holstein and baby beef calves. The little Angus calf will be up and nursing and running with mama a few hours after birth but a Holstein calf is not fully mobile for two days. Breeders have overselected so much for milk production that they’ve created a weak fragile animal that’s so frail it’s starting to be hard to breed them.[12]

The Finest Calves

Cattle are arguably the most important domestic animals throughout human history. They have been utilized for labor, transport, and food. Cattle have proven especially useful for agriculture. For example, anthropologists have found evidence of a short-legged and short-horned cow found in the southern part of Judah that was used for labor because of its docile nature and submission to the yoke.[13] The calf was especially valued by the Hebrews, as seen from the uses described: sacrifice, food, currency, symbolism, prophecy, and even as an object of worship.[14]

Calves in scripture were predominately used for consumption and a model of wealth and hospitality. For example, in the book of Genesis, when Abraham was visited by three gentlemen, he runs to the herd, chooses a calf that is “tender and choice,” and has it prepared for his guests. Furthermore, it can be presumed that the dairy products served came from the calf’s mother, which enhanced the meal (Genesis 18.7-8). These gentlemen (angels/God) are receiving the best foods Abraham and Sarah have to offer. The cows’ welfare is neither mentioned nor acknowledged as important to the story.

In the book of Amos, Israelite leaders are admonished for feasting on the delicacies of veal and lamb, while forgetting their responsibilities to God’s chosen people. It is written, “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall” (Amos 6:4). The consumption of “calves from the stall” was—along with “beds of ivory”—a sign of wealth and leisure. What is unclear from this passage is what it means for the calves to be in stalls. This passage could be an example of how a modern veal farmer could use scripture to advocate for calf confinement for human convenience, thus interpreting Genesis 1 as humans having an anthropocentric “dominion” over animals.

The famous parable of the prodigal son includes the detail of the consumption of calf meat for celebration (Luke 15). Once the squandering son returns home, the father, overcome with joy at his son’s return, prepares a feast that includes a fattened calf, celebrating his son as a rightful heir (Luke 15:23, 27, 30). This choice calf (veal) is central to the festive homecoming and denotes the calf’s primacy of place in ritual and celebration.

What is not explained in this passage is what a “fattened calf” denotes in regards to age, weight, or consumption. “Fattened” could describe an older animal, an overweight animal, or how much meat would be served at the feast—it is unclear. Also excluded are the details surrounding the housing, handling, and slaughtering of the animal. An animal studies lens strives to uncover these absent details and biblical mysteries, while also adding a rich dimension to the story, making the calf not a mere symbol of prosperity, but part of God’s loving creation, helping to bring a sinner home. The inherent value of calves in these passages, while culturally based, suggests prosperity and wealth that is only shared at significant moments in biblical history, demonstrating the primacy of calf meat (veal) in scripture.

The Value of Animals in Scripture

From the beginning of the book of Genesis, it is clear that in the creation of non-human animals, the God of Israel sanctioned non-human life as “good.” Charles Camosy explains how in Genesis 1, “nonhuman animals are pronounced ‘good’ by God without reference to human beings and even before human beings are created.”[15] While animals seem to stand alone, scripture quickly identifies a precious human-animal relationship in Genesis 2. Michael Northcott writes, “This preciousness is evidenced in the fact that animals are Adam’s first companions in the Garden of Eden, and that Adam’s first task on earth is to name them.”[16] This companionship shows a special relationship and sense of kinship, modeling a stewardship ethic.[17]

Turning to the book of Job, interpreters can read accounts of animal sentience. In chapter 12, it reads, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you. . . . Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-9) The purpose of this passage is to point to the omnipotence of God and God’s hand in all of creation. In addition, because God instructs Job to ask the animals, it demonstrates that animals not only understand their Creator, but also embody animal cognition and sentience. We as humans should turn to them to learn the true nature of God. This is a beautiful way to view God’s creation and nonhuman animals’ awareness and worth.

Biblical Welfare

There is an important account of animal welfare that should be addressed in order to understand scripture and animal cruelty. In Numbers 22, readers are exposed to animal intelligence through a talking donkey that speaks against cruelty. While Balaam and his donkey are walking along a path, an angel of the Lord appears ahead of them with a sword. The donkey is the only one who can see him. Wanting to protect his owner, the donkey turns away from the danger ahead. Balaam beats his donkey because he does not understand why the donkey will not continue forward.

God then does something interesting: God “opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’” (Numbers 22:28). Here, the donkey is holding Balaam accountable for his harsh mistreatment. Balaam threatens to kill him if he does not comply. One would presume he would be more surprised about his animal talking. Nevertheless, the donkey responds to Balaam’s harsh words by saying, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” (Numbers 22:30). What the donkey means is that it must have a good reason for not moving forward.

It is interesting that God allows an animal to speak out against cruelty in this moment. This account describes the donkey feeling pain and vocalizing its discomfort, demonstrating animal sentience and awareness of the current situation. While some would interpret this story as paralleling Balaam’s message to Israel, it holds more than one single lesson. The fact that the donkey is able to see the angel could show that animals are aligned with the Divine and can see the truth behind reality. This is a pivotal example of animal knowingness and intelligence. Before the donkey’s mouth was opened, he was trying to communicate through resistance and apprehension—which is how animals communicate with us today. This passage can be applied to modern animal welfare as a cue to evaluate an animal’s behavior and try to decipher and understand what it is trying to communicate.

Injunctions of the daily care and welfare of calves are not clear from scripture. The first book of Samuel contains a powerful story regarding the yoking of two cows that have never been used for labor. It reads:

‘Now then, get ready a new cart and two milch cows that have never borne a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them.’ . . . The men did so; they took two milch cows and yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. (1 Samuel 6:7-10)

This demonstrates an unusually harsh weaning process that is executed in order for two milking (milch) cows to carry the Ark of the Covenant. There is no further information regarding the feeding or welfare for these two small calves.

Here lies a welfare issue on both ends. Such an abrupt weaning and the isolation of the nursing calves from their mothers surely caused anxiety for both. This means that the mothers must have been belting to their calves, and that in addition to separation anxiety, they had to undergo the trauma of a new training practice that involved carrying a yoke and pulling the Ark of the Covenant. Cattle must be properly trained to pull a load, so expecting them to haul such a sacred object is negligent, particularly when they were preoccupied with the location of their calves. Temple Grandin writes how calves “bawl and scream and pace for three to five days trying to get back to their moms,”[18] while the mothers do the same, trying to find their calves. Having two anxious and unruly animals pull such a holy object seems ignorant and careless. One wonders if the “shutting up” of the two calves has been used to justify the small stalls in modern industrial veal production.

Jesus does not chide the use of domestic animals for human use. In John 10:11, he describes himself as a Good Shepherd. It follows that he would not have done so if he disagreed with the practices of herding and domesticating animals. Jesus was also concerned for the welfare of individual animals, as described in the parable of the lost sheep. His concern for that one sheep’s well-being provides support for individual animal welfare and safety. In addition, in the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, Jesus attends a wedding where prized bovines are prepared as the main course. Precious oxen and calves are likened to the treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven.

While Jesus does not directly address calf welfare, he does speak of proper bovine care and labor. In the gospel of Luke, he advocates for animals’ feeding and watering, even on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). Jesus says to the leader of the synagogue and other followers, “You hypocrites! Do not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Jesus is adamant that the welfare of animals is important, even on the Sabbath, and that no law is greater than loving God and one’s neighbor, even including animals. While this passage could be interpreted as Jesus’ disdain toward the “hypocrites,” it nevertheless demonstrates that Jesus’ parables address compassionate welfare toward animals rather than disregarding them.

Calf Worship

While the calf was used as a sacrificial animal to worship and honor God, there is a large divide between the practice of sacrificing and consuming calves and concern for the welfare of God’s animals. Camosy writes:

From the perspective of the Bible, our Christian tradition, and current Church teaching, nonhuman animals are cared for and valued by God independent of the interest of human beings. But it is precisely because most of us do not see nonhuman animals as objectively valuable—and have an important interest in seeing them as mere objects and products to satisfy our desires—that they are a vulnerable population which has been pushed to the margins of society.[19]

The belief that the earth is only for humanity is an anthropocentric interpretation of scripture. While the scripture writers could not have imagined our modern industrial farming practices, there are a number of passages that could be applied to achieve a sustainable stewardship with the earth. In the Bible, there are multiple accounts of the earth and God’s creatures being theocentric, with God caring for the animals. Take, for example, Psalm 104:

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. These all look to you to give them their food in due season.[20]

This is just one example of the many that involve God’s creation knowing and worshipping their Creator.

Calves were used in the Hebrew Bible as a symbol for worship in different contexts. The most popular story is about the Israelites becoming impatient while waiting for Moses to return from Mount Sinai. Because they felt abandoned by God, during Moses’ absence, they fashioned a golden calf to worship (ironically) from the jewelry God told them to take from the Egyptians upon their departure (Exodus 12:35-36). Moses becomes enraged upon seeing the golden calf and has to retreat to the top of the mountain to speak again with God.

This image of a golden calf being worshipped was not foreign to the Israelites. Calves, or more commonly bulls, symbolized strength and prosperity. While these golden calf stories do not speak specifically to proper calf welfare, they do allow a window into the Israelites’ culture and how calves and cattle were perceived by them in a cultural and religious context. More importantly, this story demonstrates how our own capitalist society has turned away from the true God and toward a golden idol—the mass production of meat—choosing instead to worship efficiency and neglecting to recognize God’s presence in the animals.

It seems that American society still worships and sacrifices calves through modern veal production. According to Nicolette H. Niman, Americans have deemed beef the “King of Meats.”[21] The mere term suggests patriarchal idol worship. Our society reveres the “golden calf” through its overconsumption of meat and questionable production practices—valuing inexpensive quantity over sustainable quality. While this use is markedly different from biblical antiquity in terms of numbers and volume, beef and veal are still the centerpiece of a celebratory diet. Veal calves have been placed on a pedestal as a delicacy—but for whom? Humans are the consumers of this meat. We have put our needs and preferences before those of the animals and therefore before God.

The ways that calves are bred, housed, fed, and handled are a direct response to consumer demand. This would align with interpreting “dominion” in Genesis 1 as advocating specifically for what is profitable and convenient for farmers and consumers. If a veal farmer wished to interpret dominion as stewardship, she would have to place the calf’s welfare before her own convenience. This would first involve incorporating proper weaning practices, which allow adequate time for the calf to become independent of its mother. Next, calves should be grouped with other calves and allowed to graze naturally on grass. This would benefit the physical, emotional, and social health of the animals and would have the added advantage of promoting more sustainable practices for the environment, such as allowing the calves’ manure to decompose on the pasture, thereby fertilizing the earth. These types of sustainable and humane farming practices are just the beginning of representing a more earth-centered method of farming and recognize the calf’s intrinsic value and worth, which acknowledges the Divine presence in the animal. Christian consumers have the ultimate responsibility to honor God through purchasing products that respect the animal’s life and God’s earth that is giving us food for nourishment. Anything less falls into idolizing our American golden calf.

While academia and popular belief are slowly accepting the value of animals’ emotional well-being and physical presence in literature and scripture, it is still not deemed important enough to effect change in our epistemologies, pedagogies, or interpretations of scripture and therefore our farming practices. It is important to strive for the most sustainable and natural environment for calves in modern meat science and veal production. With the threat of climate change, species’ extinction, and increasing risks to human health, using an animal studies lens to study scripture is more important than ever. Scripture has given us what we need in order to eliminate unnecessary suffering for animals. Even though these veal calves cannot open their mouths like Balaam’s donkey, they show us in other ways that they are in pain. We need to change our hearts and open our eyes to the realities of the golden calf that is before us.

Photo credit: Julia Johnson

[1]. A.S. Gross, “Jewish Animal Ethics,” in E. N. Dorff and J.K. Crane, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2013), 419-432.

[2]. R. Pinney, The Animals in the Bible: The Identity and Natural History of All the Animals Mentioned in the Bible(Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Books, 1964), 104.

[3]. P. Jensen, The Ethology of Domestic Animals: An Introductory Text(Cambridge, U.K.: CABI, 2009), 157.

[4]. Ibid., 153.

[5]. Ibid., 152.

[6]. T. Grandin, Animals Make Us Human(New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009),159.

[7]. R. Wennberg, God, Humans, and Animals(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 238.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. T. Beauchamp, The Human Use of Animals(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008),63.

[10] This type of organ damage directly affects the meat quality and is not in accordance with scripture. In Levitical laws (Leviticus 1), a clean animal can only be consumed if the organs are intact. With this type of damage, the animal is deemed unclean for consumption.

[11]. Grandin,Animals Make Us Human, 160-61.

[12]. Ibid.,164.

[13]. R. Pinney, The Animals in the Bible, 104.

[14]. Ibid., 104.

[15]. C. Camosy, For the Love of Animals(Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2013),46-47.

[16]. M.S. Northcott, “Eucharistic Eating, and Why Many Early Christians Preferred Fish,” in D. Grumett and R. Muers, Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 234.

[17]. Camosy, For the Love of Animals,46-47.

[18]. Grandin, Animals Make Us Human,158-159.

[19]. Camosy, For the Love of Animals,100.

[20] See also Job 38; Exodus 23; Leviticus 25; Hosea 4:1-4; Proverbs 12:10; Matthew 6; Romans 8; Colossians 1:15-22; and 2 Peter 3.

[21]. N.H. Niman, The Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009),139.

  • Julia Anne Johnson

    Julia Anne Johnson is pursuing her Master of Divinity degree at the Yale Divinity School, where she is co-coordinator of the student group on Faith, Ecology, Religion, Nature, and Spirituality, as well as a Master of Science degree in Anthrozoology at Canisius College.

More Stories & Ideas

Scroll to Top