What is Our Responsibility to Other Creatures?
A Jewish perspective on animal suffering and conservation.
This article is printed as part of the Tu Bishvat Learning Campaign, sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment. For more information, visit www.canfeinesharim.org.
There is much confusion about the topic of animal rights, animal suffering, and whether Judaism recognizes the concept of conservationism to protect species from extinction. Let us study this matter to see what we can learn about our role on the planet and our responsibility to the environment.
Our interest in this matter stems from the idea that a deeper understanding of the Torah's view on animal suffering can lead a person to become more compassionate of other people's feelings, and neglect of this matter can lead to the reverse. In fact, many serial killers had a childhood history of perpetrating grotesque and sadistic acts upon animals. So it is not unreasonable to say that the way an individual or society treats its animals is a reflection of how it treats others as well.
A Mixed Message
In certain areas the Torah seems to be highly compassionate toward animals, such as the biblical commandment to send away the mother bird before taking eggs from a nest found in the wild, known as "shiluah haken" (see Deuteronomy 22:6) and the biblical prohibition against slaughtering a mother animal and its child on the same day, known as "oto v'et Beno" (see Leviticus 22:28). Additional examples of biblical prohibitions that appear to be based on compassion for animal suffering are: "Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together" (Deuteronomy 22:10) and "Do not muzzle an ox on the threshing floor" (Ibid 25:4). We also find a general prohibition in the Gemara [Talmud] against causing animals pain, known as "tzaar baalei hayim" (see for example Bava Metzia 32b), and a requirement to feeds one's animals first before feeding oneself (Berakhot 40a).
However, the Torah also condones and permits the eating of animals, as well as sacrificing them to achieve atonement for our sins (korbanot). In particular, the mitzvah of eglah arufa is most ironic: When a corpse is found outside a city and the murder is unsolved, there is a requirement upon the elders of the most populated and closest city to atone for this crime against an innocent person. How is this done? By means of breaking the neck of an innocent and helpless calf (see Deuteronomy 21:1-9).
How can we explain the Torah's selective regard and disregard for animals? What lessons can we learn from these confusing and mixed messages about our responsibilities and compassion for animals?