By: Rabbi Dovid Markel
The following is the first lesson of a course that will deal with the Torah’s view of the humane treatment of animals and what Torah’s approach is to animal rights issue’s in general.
The topic of protecting animals from cruelty is not something that is usually associated with Judaism in today’s day and age. Associations such as PETA and other animal rights groups are quick to condemn the slaughter and consumption of meat in general, and as part of the general condemnation, have zoned in on Jewish religious and dietary practices as well.
However, if a person steps back and takes a good look at Judaism’s actual stance on the subject of cruelty to animals and analyzes it from a vantage point that is objective, he will clearly see that not only does Judaism value animals and protects them, but on the contrary, from time immemorial it is specifically Torah which has been the champion against cruelty to animals or all of G-d’s creatures. The very first legal document in history protecting animals is the Torah. Moreover, throughout the ages, Talmudic and Rabbinic literature has extensively analyzed and elucidated the injunction not to cause undo pain to animals and much has been written on the subject.
Far from Judaism being a latecomer in the discussion of the protection of animals, Judaism has been the pioneer at the forefront of protection of animals, even during times when, in the world at large, protection of animals was not even a subject under consideration.
When thinking of protecting animals we often tend to view it as a modern, 21st century innovation, as another step in man’s progress of leaving the muck and mire of barbarism towards the goal of ethical and refined society.
We look on with disgust and revulsion at earlier generations that killed for sport. We are appalled by the Roman practice of forcing their captives to fight to the death in arenas where the only rule was “kill or be killed” by man or beast alike. We look aghast at the Spanish and their bull fights where innocent animals are killed to the cheers of bloodthirsty spectators, drunk with glee at the prospect of viewing a cruel death. Our stomachs grow queasy imagining all the grotesque exploitation of animals that has been perpetrated from the beginning of history.
As we think of the savagery of prior generations we may often become filled with pride about man’s progress from an age of brutality. We would like to think that, as a whole, mankind is progressing toward a more ethical, cultured and sensitive awareness of the world around him and though we recognize that we are still far from human perfection, we feel that we are well on our way.
There were times when human sacrifice was not only accepted, but a cherished form of worship. Thankfully, due to the Torah’s civilizing influence upon the world, this practice has been relegated to the distant past. There were times when being the victor in war meant throwing your adversary into a coliseum to be torn apart by bears or lions. Thankfully, today, there are laws regarding warfare and the taking of prisoners, such as the Geneva Convention, which regulate that the victor must treat the vanquished in a humane fashion.
In our times, it has become fashionable to view the planet as one homogenous entity in which humanity along with all the creatures are interdependent and symbiotic partners in the ecological whole, and as the “Intelligent” creature it is our responsibility as humans to be the wards of the planet. Cruelty is the result of viewing the creatures of the world as separate, disjointed and disconnected entities. According to this view, mankind is beginning to conceive of the world as one entity, each part of which has intrinsic and irreplaceable value in the delicate ecology of the world.
This is the message that animal rights activists advance. They insist that not only must we care for the needs of disadvantaged humans, whose voices are not heard because they have less power or wealth, but that we must also stand up for the cause of animals, who have no voices at all. They claim that just as it is immoral to murder a human being, so is the killing of animals also murder.
The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the merits of this claim from a Judaic perspective. It will explain the Torah’s position in regard to avoiding cruelty to animals and vegetarianism and what place animals generally have in the cosmic scheme of things.
Although this is a lengthy topic, we will try to touch upon its central themes and ideas and we examine them as they are found in the Torah and in various Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic texts.
We will begin with a discussion of the Torah’s views on the treatment of animals in general and will continue with its views on the consumption of meat and on vegetarianism.
We sincerely hope that at the conclusion of this essay the reader will have a greater appreciation of the world in general and of the animal kingdom in particular.
The following is a statement that Leonardo da Vinci made concerning animal cruelty and vegetarianism;
“Truly man is the king of the beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. We live by the death of others: we are burial places! I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look on the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.”
In essence, what he is saying is that animals are persons just as we are persons; that there is no distinction between humans and animals. Therefore, if cruelty is to be abhorred, it must be abhorred across the board, without discrimination. Thus, the killing of animals is no less murder than the killing of humans.
Point to ponder: What is your stance on vegetarianism and why?
Take a moment to reflect on your opinion about cruelty to animals, vegetarianism, and the reasons that you believe what you do. Why do you believe what you do? Have you considered the other side of the equation? It may be a good idea to jot down your reasons so that you can reflect upon them as the essay progresses.
Though we are inclined to think of the Torah as religion, in fact it is much more than religion. For, while most religions focus primarily on the service of G-d, Torah is in fact HaShem’s organizational plan and blueprint for an organized world.
As such, it takes into account each and every creature and instructs us on how to act in relation to them. It explains the place of every creature in the Divine hierarchy and how it fits into HaShem’s plan for the world. Since He created every creature, therefore every creature plays its part in the Divine plan. Every creature; man, beast and even inanimate objects, has importance and purpose.
Torah explains that man’s dominion over beast is a result of his place in the Divine hierarchy. Because of his superior intellect, his ability to articulate complex thought, and especially because he is endowed with free choice, man is placed at the center of HaShem’s world.
Man possesses the power to either drag the world down to the lowest levels and depths of depravity and perverseness or to uplift the world up to the loftiest heights. Only man, out of all creatures, was given the gift of choice and because of this he can rise to the zenith of refinement or sink to the abyss of coarseness.
He contains the power to turn the world into a jungle or into a Garden of Eden where HaShem’s presence can literally be palpable. However, with talent and authority comes responsibility. Mankind has been given the mission of shaping the destiny of the world and ultimately fulfilling the purpose for which it was created.
Man’s dominion over beast
In order for man to complete his G-d-given mission in the world he has been given Divine permission to use the things of this world to fulfill that purpose and thereby serve HaShem.
In the Torah account of the creation of man, G-d makes a statement that establishes man’s dominion over the world and everything therein;
ויאמר אלקים נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו וירדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים ובבהמה ובכל הארץ ובכל הרמש הרמש על הארץ. ויברא אלקים את האדם בצלמו בצלם אלקים ברא אתו זכר ונקבה ברא אתם. ויברך אתם אלקים ויאמר להם פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשוה ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים ובכל חיה הרומשת על הארץ.
And G-d said, “Let us make Man in Our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the animals, the whole earth and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” And G-d created Man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them. G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Here G-d gives man supremacy over the animal kingdom and charges him with the mission of subduing the earth and all therein, from fish to fowl to beast.
He is permitted to use the animal kingdom in his service, for without the help of animals it would be impossible for the world to be an inhabitable place for man.
Without enlisting the help of the ox to sow his field, the donkey to carry his load, the horse to take him from one place to another, the wool of sheep to make his clothing and other animals, each with its own specific purpose, man could not survive for very long upon this earth. 
However, this is all from a pragmatic point of view. Man uses the animals for his purposes, because without them he would be incapable of survival.
Let us examine the text of the verse and see if we can gain deeper insight into the theological reason as well. We will do this through examining the verses for the underlying principles the Torah is expressing.
The following are various questions we can ask on the verse:
It may be helpful to look at the verse again and see how each of the questions pertains to the verse. Write down any thoughts that you have to either answer or add to these questions.
A) Why does G-d grant man so much power over the animals, so much so, that He says that man should rule over them?
B) What does it mean that man should rule over them? Rule them to what end?
C) Why does the verse stress over and over that G-d is creating man in His own image? What does that mean? In what way are we in His image?
D) The verse seems to imply that man should rule the world and everything therein. What is G-d’s purpose in doing so?
E) Man was created on the last day of creation. If man is really so important why wasn’t he the first creature to be created?
When the Talmud discusses the value and importance of man it makes a statement that sheds additional light on our topic;
ת”ר אדם נברא בערב שבת…שאם תזוח דעתו עליו אומר לו יתוש קדמך במעשה בראשית דבר אחר…. שיכנס לסעודה מיד משל למלך בשר ודם שבנה פלטרין ושיכללן והתקין סעודה ואחר כך הכניס אורחין.
תלמוד בבלי, סנהדרין לח,ב
Our rabbis taught; “Why was man created on Erev Shabbat (Friday afternoon)?” (They answered,) “If he becomes too haughty we tell him, ‘Even a mosquito was created before you.’” Another point: “In order that the whole world be ready for his use, like a banquet. This is analogous to a king of flesh and blood who builds a palace and prepares a banquet and only later invites the guests.”
Talmud Sanhedrin 38b
In another place the Midrash states;
אם זכה אדם אומרים לו אתה קדמת לכל מעשה בראשית ואם לאו אומרי’ לו יתוש קדמך
ויקרא רבה פ יד,א
If a person is meritorious, we tell him; “You were primary in all of creation”, and if not, we tell him, “Even a mosquito was created before you.”
Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 14:1
These two quotes from the Midrash demonstrate that, in truth, man is not always greater than the beasts; he is not greater simply by being human. Rather, he only accomplishes greatness through his actions. If he acts in a manner unbefitting his high station, not only is he compared to animals, but even worse, he has squandered HaShem’s Divine gift and has sunken lower than the animals.
Man is dichotomous. He has the choice to be higher than all creatures or lower than the mosquito.
Point to ponder: What gives man the rights of dominion over animals?
Before you go on, write down what you believe to be the reason that man has the right to use the objects that he finds in the world around him.
That which gives man the potential to be greater than all creatures is that he was created in the image of G-d. Because of this, the same verse that stresses man’s greatness over the animal kingdom states that he was created in the image of G-d.
We learn a very important idea from the fact that it is specifically this G-dly characteristic that gives man dominion over the beasts. It is specifically only when he uses the world to serve G-d that man is above the animals. However, if he does not serve G-d, not only is he not better than the animals, but he is actually worse. This is because an animal cannot change its nature and go against its purpose. It always goes exactly according to the nature G-d instilled in it. On the other hand, being a creature of choice, a human being can choose not to fulfill his Divine purpose or even to go against it. He can ignore his G-dly potential and squander it.
When describing the concept that man is created in the image of G-d, Tanya explains:
וכמו שנאמר”ומוראכם וחתכם יהיה על כל חית הארץ”, שאין חיה רעה מושלת באדם אלא אם כן נדמה לה כבהמה. והצדיקים, שאין צלם אלקים מסתלק מעל פניהם, כל חיות רעות אתכפיין קמייהו, כמו שכתוב בזהר גבי דניאל בגוב אריות
תניא חלק א, פרק כד
“Wild animals have no dominion over man. Rather, as the verse states, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth” (Genesis 9:2), unless he (the person) is similar to the animal. With the righteous, the image of G-d does not leave their face; therefore all wild animals are subdued before them, as the Zohar states concerning Daniel in the lion’s den.”
Tanya chapter 24
The Tanya explains that the submission of the lions to Daniel when he was thrown into their den was not a miracle in the regular sense of the word. Rather, it was the natural result of the way G-d fashioned His world. Animals are naturally afraid of man because man possesses a spark of G-dliness which is expressed in him. When a person is righteous and the spark of G-dliness is apparent in him, animals naturally will be submissive to him. However, if a person is not righteous, the opposite is true. He will be afraid of them rather than the other way around. If we, as individuals would retain our G-dly image in purity and righteousness, animals would naturally be fearful and submissive to us as well.
The purpose of it all
Why did HaShem place man in such a focal point within creation, giving him dominion over the earth and all therein? The Midrash states;
אמר רבי אמי נתאוה הקב”ה כשם שיש לו דירה למעלה שיהא לו כך דירה למטה שכך הוא אומר לאדם הראשון אם זכית כשם שאני מלך על העליונים כך אעשה אותך מלך על התחתונים
מדרש תנחומה בחוקותי
Rabbi Ami said: The Holy One blessed be He, desired that just as He has a dwelling above (in the spiritual realm) so also, he should have a dwelling below (in the temporal realm). He thus said to the first man, “If you will be worthy, then just as I am king over the supernal beings, so too, I will make you king over the temporal beings.”
Midrash Tanchumah, Parshat Bechukosay
From this we see that the dominion of man is only for the purpose of making the world a dwelling place for G-d. It is only then that we are likened to G-d and have dominion over all creatures. However, though man may use animals for his needs and the needs of the world at large, nonetheless, he must treat them with the utmost care and compassion.
- Torah is a guide for the world and everything in it.
- Man has the ability to be either the greatest of all creatures or the lowest.
- Man may use animals for the purpose of making this world into an inhabitable place.
- Man has the right to use animals when he acts G-dly.
- Man’s purpose is to make a dwelling place for G-d and turn the world into a place of spiritual refinement.
There generally are a number of arguments that people have for the consumption of meat:
a) G-d gave humans dominion over the animals. (Genesis 1:26)
b) It is culturally accepted and has been so for thousands of years.
c) I love the taste of meat and am not willing to give it up
d) Our teeth and stomachs are designed for meat consumption. Therefore it is only natural.
e) We need the nutrition that meat provides.
f) A Darwinian approach; many animals are carnivorous by nature and so are we. If it is not immoral for them to eat meat, it is therefore not immoral for us.
g) We are in a higher order than other animals. This gives us the right to eat them.
Responses to these arguments that may be given by a staunch vegetarian could be:
a.) Who says that this is the meaning of Genesis 1:26 (Later we will see how The Torah commentators explain this verse.)
b.) The fact that people have consumed animal meat for generations proves nothing. People also enslaved others for generations and that was wrong.
c.) If people did things only because they liked to do them, the world would be a pretty miserable place.
d.) This may be a good argument from a secular point of view, but just because we are biologically capable of eating meat, does not mean that it is morally right.
e.) There are many other avenues to good nutrition other than the consumption of meat.
f.) After all, though, of course, we have physical bodies, nonetheless, we are not animals because we have the intellectual capacity to make moral judgments, which animals do not.
g.) Being of a higher order does not give us the right to kill.
 It is interesting to point out that even vegetarians, who would like to equate animals to humans, believe in “enslaving” them to serve man. It would be quite impossible for any of civilization to exist without the use of animals at some point or another. The right to ownership is given in the above verse.
 The reason that the mosquito is considered the lowest of all creatures is because all other creatures take in (eat) and also give (excrete). However the mosquito only takes in.(see מדרש רבה קרח פ’ יח תניא פ’ כד )