Kindness to animals is a theme of many mitzvos in the Torah.
There is the positive commandment that any animal that is to be
eaten must be appropriately (and painlessly) slaughtered first.
Then, there is the prohibition of eating a limb from a living
animal. Without attempting to give reasons for mitzvos which
are Divine decrees, these commandments nevertheless certainly
include the lesson that cruelty to animals is frowned upon by
Hashem. In the words of the Sefer Hachinuch: "The Torah
has allowed man, by virtue of his superiority over animals, to
eat them and to use them for his needs -- but not to cause them
needless pain" (Mitzvah 451).
This concern for the well-being of animals is reflected in many
laws: that of not taking the eggs from a nest in the presence
of the mother, that of assisting with the unloading of an
animal that has collapsed under its burden, that of not
muzzling an ox while it works, and that of feeding one's
animals before oneself, to name but a few. Such mitzvos are
cited in the Midrash as examples of how Judaism is
vastly superior to the lifestyles of other nations of the
world, who spend their time watching bullfights, enjoying
gladiators fighting lions, hunting foxes or throwing balls
around. The Torah is a model for the development of perfectly
And yet, it is difficult to accept that exercising kindness
towards animals makes one into a better person. The facts just
don't bear it out. Consider the British: renowned animal lovers
who would do anything for their pets, including brushing their
dog's teeth with specially flavored toothpaste. And yet, while
preventing cruelty to animals is the work of a Royal Society,
preventing cruelty to children warrants only a National
Society. Nor do the British treat the Jews as well as they
treat their dogs.
Or consider Johann Vinzenz Gogl. This Nazi was rated as one of
the most dangerous murderers in the Mauthausen concentration
camp. His favorite game was to throw a prisoner's cap down near
the electric fence and order him to retrieve it. If he agreed,
Gogl would shoot him for approaching the fence; if he refused,
he would shoot him for disobedience. Gogl was brought to trial
in Austria on twenty- three counts of murder and was acquitted.
The senior public prosecutor at the Vienna provincial court,
Dr. Werner Olscher, said, "If for some decades such a man has
been socially and politically integrated, I consider it
pointless and unnecessary to tear him out of the social
Gogl was considered a socially valuable member of his
community. He owned fourteen budgerigars, several cats and a
dog that he had kindly taken in from the stray dogs' home. This
terrible Nazi was totally dedicated to the needs of all these
animals. So how does kindness to animals in any way tie in with
being a good person?
This question is exceedingly disturbing and difficult. I am not
entirely certain what the answer to it is. I would like to
suggest a possible solution; my claim to credibility is that I
myself am British-born and interested in animals.
Amongst the British, kindness to animals is performed out of an
awareness of that which is properly due to the animal. Animals
are entitled to certain privileges, and humans are enjoined to
respect these. Thus, we find the concept of "animal rights."
In the Torah, on the other hand, the mitzvos of being kind to
animals are not based on the rights of the animals per se.
It isn't even entirely clear if individual animals have any
rights. According to the majority of authorities, Hashgocho
protis extends to species of animals, but not to
individuals of those species. Thus, while Hashem cares about
the perpetuation of each species, He isn't bothered about the
particular lives of each individual; hence, "nature red in
tooth and claw."
Why, then, are there so many laws governing our treatment of
animals? They are based not on animal's rights, but on man's
responsibilities. Nature might be red in tooth and claw, but
man shouldn't be. He has to learn the traits of kindness and
compassion, and animals provide an excellent training ground
and litmus test for these qualities.
With the differences in the essential reasons for kindness to
animals, there will correspondingly be a difference in the
effect that practicing such kindness has on one. If kindness to
animals is done to train one in compassion, then it will surely
have that effect on one's general behavior, regardless of the
recipient. Thus, the Torah's laws concerning animals truly have
the effect of making its adherents into better people.
But if kindness to animals is due to the animals' rights, then
it doesn't change the doer too much. Furthermore, there is room
for debate as to how many rights the recipient actually has,
and the treatment will vary accordingly. Thus, Jews may be
considered to have less rights than animals -- after all, a
dumb brute can do no wrong, whereas Jews can cheat and steal --
and the animal lover may have no problem whatsoever in
withholding his benevolence from such people.
It also appears that overly-dedicated pet lovers, who put
themselves out to eagerly pamper their pet's every whim, are
essentially the same as cult followers who would gladly lick
the dust off their leader's feet. The sin of idolatry, in which
one subsumes one's own identity into a greater one, is
ultimately a matter of self-worship. At the end of the day, the
idol grants you your needs. The pet, too, responds to the care
and flourishes; this is a tremendous ego boost to the one who
is responsible for this development.
One wonders just how at least some of the fanatical save-the-
whale activists would feel if all the whales were actually
saved and returned to normal population levels. Would they be
genuinely happy, or would they be bitter at finding their lives
devoid of meaning and of personal significance?
A student of Rav Mordechai Epstein of Yeshivas Slobodke
recounted how he was with his rebbe before the war when they
saw a German kissing his dog. Rav Epstein commented that people
were destined to be murdered there. When asked by his student
how he knew that, he cited a posuk: "They who slaughter
people, kiss calves" (Hoshea 13:2).
Showing profound concern for the well-being of animals is a
responsibility that is demanded from us. But loving animals as
equals or superiors, and serving their needs, is a cunningly
disguised form of evil.