Torah’s Animal Rights
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
By Braha Bender
In America, it’s squirrels. Fuzzy, supine tails flounce and curve as the chipper little bodies scamper up trees and across sidewalks. Children clamor to feed them at the playground as mothers tsk and herd their young away. “It could have rabies! Don’t ever let me see you trying to feed a squirrel again, you hear me?”
In Israel, it’s cats. The relationship between Israelis and their street cats is not one of affection. True, some kind old ladies leave scraps or even store-bought cat food out for the feral creatures, but most Israeli children fear them and most Israeli adults find them disgusting.
Not me. I love watching the saucy little things tinsel-toeing along the edges of fences, skirting the fenders of parked cars, twisting around park benches. I love the insolent gleam in their green, black, or golden eyes. I love the varieties of their color, the way they move their hips and shoulder blades like dancers. They can’t help it. They’re cats. They are naturally graceful, naturally insolent. Something about that combination intrigues me.
But I know that most of my neighbors see them as nothing more than pestering, caterwauling carriers of filth and disease. What can I tell you? I like squirrels, too.
But each to their own. Nobody said you had to be a cat person. Not everyone connects with animals. However, although Torah does not advocate an admiration of or love for animals, it does demand that we respect their feelings.
What feelings? Yes, animals have feelings just like we do. And, according to Jewish law, acting with sensitivity to animal emotions is part of what makes us human.
Mothers and Babies
First of all, in explaining the Torah’s stance on animal-human relations, let’s not be coy: humans are permitted to eat meat. Additionally, Jews are obligated to slaughter animals in certain very specific commandments involving offerings in the Beis HaMikdash (temple). These facts can’t be denied. However, put them together with another set of facts about Jewish law and a very different picture begins to emerge.
The general rule regarding animal emotions is that it is forbidden to cause them sorrow. This body of Jewish law is collectively referred to under the rubric of tza’ar ba’aley chayim, the commandment not to cause animals suffering. The Torah discusses specific applications of this general rule in a number of places. Each such discussion brings out a different aspect of the mitzvah to be sensitive to animal emotions.
In Parashas Emor, the Torah relates this principle directly to the issue of slaughtering for meat and for temple offerings: “An ox or sheep you shall not slaughter it and its offspring in one day.” (VaYikra-Leviticus 22:28) In other words, on the day that you slaughter a calf, it is forbidden to slaughter its mother on the same day. Likewise, on the day that you slaughter a cow you may not slaughter her calf.
Why? I mean, let’s be honest. You’re slaughtering them anyway. But the Rambam explains that there is a difference between killing out of necessity and gratuitous cruelty:
It is forbidden to slaughter both the parent and [her] offspring in one day in order to guard and distance from slaughtering both of them [together], the baby before the eyes of its mother, because the emotional pain of animals in this matter is very great. There is no difference between the emotional pain of the human being regarding this and the emotional pain of the rest of the animals. For the love of the mother and her compassion for her baby does not derive from the intellect; it derives entirely from the ability to experience events internally [not just physically], which exists in most animals just as it exists in human beings. (The Guide to the Perplexed, Section Three)
It is one thing to kill an animal in a humane manner for legitimate purposes. It is another thing entirely to show cold indifference to the maternal and paternal instincts that speak just as loudly in a bovine mother as in a human mother.
Who is entitled to make that distinction, the distinction between legitimate killing and illegitimate cruelty? According to Torah, the only one capable and justified in making that distinction is G-d Himself. If the Torah hadn’t explicitly permitted it, Jews would not even eat meat.
Top of the Food Chain
So what do we learn from this? Our human arrogance suggests that being the top of the food chain legitimizes us in doing more or less whatever we want. Animal life, plant life, the inanimate world? If we claim authority over them than PETA is just as correct as the ASHA, the American Hunters and Shooters Association. What’s the difference? One group of people think one way and another group thinks another way. Who is to say which group is correct?
It is only when we lift the discussion out of the realm of human subjectivity and into the realm of divine wisdom and law that our true capacity for compassion, for humanity, emerges. Our stance vis-à-vis the animal kingdom is not ours by right, but by appointment. The qualities that make us superior to animals – our capacity for conscious self-awareness and connection with others outside the realm of the purely instinctual – these qualities are gifts from our Creator. They do not entitle us to behave with abandon. They entitle us to use them towards the purposes for which they were allotted to us, the fulfillment of the Torah in all of its different aspects.
Moreover, in the arenas where animal and human experience is equal, we have no claim to superiority and privilege at all. On the levels of biology and instinct, including instinctive emotional responses such as the maternal drive, we must respect animal emotions as carefully as we must respect human emotions.
Why? Because that awareness and that compassion is the true distinction that grants us our humanity. It is only when we ascribe authority to Torah that we exit the fight for the survival of the fittest, and only when we actualize the Torah that we earn the right to claim human authority over the animal world.