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2 Kislev 5761 - November 29, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Torah Universe: Animal Rights and Wrongs

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

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 moral behavior.

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 fabric."

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.

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