What is Our Responsibility to Other Creatures?

A Jewish perspective on animal suffering and conservation.

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A fundamental source for this discussion comes from the Gemara in Berakhot (33b) which discusses an incorrect practice certain cantors had of inserting a prayer  praising God for having mercy on the mother bird (referring to the mitzvah of shiluah haken). One reason offered by the Gemara as to why the sages disapproved of this prayer is:  "For such a statement implies God's character is influenced by compassion, when in fact his actions are purely decrees." 

Taken at face value, this statement is extremely difficult, for it implies that God does not act out of mercy, when in fact the Torah in other places refers to God as merciful (see for example Exodus 34:6). Clearly then, the Gemara must be referring only to animals and not humans. In other words, the Sages frowned upon praising God in prayer for having mercy on animals through the mitzvot of shiluah haken and other similar mitzvot because at least in regard to animals, God does not act out of mercy. However, this too is very difficult to understand at face value because any common sense interpretation of the mitzvot discussed above can only lead one to believe that their purpose is related to showing compassion and mercy for God's creations; any other interpretation is counterintuitive.

Therefore, this Gemara is interpreted differently by Ramban [Nahmanides] and Rambam [Maimonides], each of them endorsing the idea that indeed Torah ethics require us to treat animals mercifully, and this is in fact the basis for these mitzvot. However, there is a difference of opinion between Rambam and Ramban which leaves us with two different perspectives on animal suffering and conservation.

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim [Guide of the Perplexed] 3:48) states:  "The reason behind the mitzvah of shiluah haken and oto v'et beno are to prohibit one from slaughtering the child in front of the mother's eyes. For animals suffer extreme anguish because there is no difference between the anguish felt by a human or an animal; the love of a mother for its child does not come from the cognitive domain [rather, the emotional domain]." 

As far as the Gemara in Berakhot is concerned which is in direct opposition to this idea, Rambam's answer is that this Gemara is in accordance with a minority opinion, which holds in general that we are not allowed to seek reasons for the mitzvot. Therefore, the Gemara frowns upon any suggestion that the reason for this mitzvah is God's mercy. However, in point of fact, Rambam rules that not only is it permitted to study and speculate the reasons for the mitzvot, it is also to be encouraged.  See Yad, Hilkhot Temura 4:13, and Hilkhot Meila 8:8.) Therefore, Rambam believes the opinion expressed in this Gemara is not the halakha.

While Rambam's position is that indeed animals do suffer, because in terms of their emotions, they are similar to humans, Ramban's position is more limited (see commentary of Ramban, Deuteronomy 22:6.)  He holds the Torah is obviously not concerned for the feelings of animals per se, as we see in the fact that we are permitted to eat them and use them as sacrifices. However, the Torah does not want us to engage in behavior that is subjectively cruel because it can lead us to evil character traits, even if objectively, the animal is not suffering. Ramban suggests these mitzvot teach us to behave with mercy and kindness, and in addition, they also promote a conservationist awareness to be careful not to cause an entire species to become extinct. This is symbolically represented in the prohibition of not slaughtering mother and child at the same time.

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Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman provide psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and families.