Religion: Friend or Foe of Animal Activism
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Religion: Friend or Foe of Animal Activism
by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D. and Rabbi Dovid Sears

Many animal activists regard organized religion as an ideological opponent.

Concerning Judaism, this negative presumption is largely due to the misunderstanding of two important biblical verses that, when properly conceived, actually endorse the struggle to improve conditions for animals.

The first misunderstanding is that the biblical teaching that humans are granted dominion over animals gives us a warrant to treat them in whatever way we may wish. Jewish tradition interprets "dominion" as guardianship, or stewardship, not domination: we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. This biblical mandate does not mean that people have the right to wantonly exploit animals, and it certainly does not permit us to breed animals and then treat them as machines designed solely to meet human needs.

In "A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace," Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a leading 20th century Jewish thinker, states:

"There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person that [the Divine empowerment of humanity to derive benefit from nature] does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to satisfy his whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Divine Law would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is 'good to all, and His mercy is upon all his works' (Psalms 145:9), and Who declared, 'The world shall be built with kindness' (Psalms 89:33)."

This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet best suited to humans (Genesis 1:29). This mandate is almost immediately followed by God's declaration that all of Creation was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Perhaps this indicates that Adam and Eve's original vegetarian diet was consistent with the stewardship that God entrusted to them and to all humankind.

The second error of some animal activists is the presumption that the biblical teaching that only people are created in the Divine Image means that God places little or no value on animals. While the Torah states that only human beings are created "in the Divine Image" (Genesis 1:27, 5:1), animals are also God's creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state that to be "created in the Divine Image," means that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. "As God is compassionate," they teach, "so you should be compassionate."

A rabbinic teaching that we should imitate God is Hama bar Hanina's interpretation of the verse, "After the Lord your God you shall walk" (Deuteronomy 13:5): "How can man walk after God?" the ancient sage queries. "Is He not called a 'consuming fire'? Rather, what is meant is that man ought to emulate the attributes of God. Just as God clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked.

Just as God visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as God comforts the bereaved, so you shall comfort the bereaved. Just as He buries the dead, so you shall bury the dead."

In his classic work Ahavat Chesed ("The Love of Kindness"), the revered Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin) discusses this teaching at length. He writes that whoever emulates the Divine love and compassion to all creatures "will bear the stamp of God on his person." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century Jewish thinker, also discusses this concept: "You can know God only through His acts of love and justice; and, in turn, you too are called upon to act with love and justice." Concerning the biblical concept that human beings were created to "serve and safeguard the earth" (Genesis 2:15), Rabbi Hirsch states that this actually limits our rights over other living things. He writes: "The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creatures - to be respected, loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God's will... To this end, your heartstrings vibrate sympathetically with any cry of distress sounding anywhere in Creation, and with any glad sound uttered by a joyful creature."

In summation, as the Lord is our shepherd, we are to be shepherds of voiceless creatures. As God is kind and compassionate to us, we must be considerate of the needs and feelings of animals. To this we may add that by showing compassion to animals through a vegetarian diet, we help fulfill the commandment to imitate God's ways.

Critics of religion may be correct in asserting that the various religious communities are not doing enough to end the many horrible abuses of animals today. However, the correct response to this failure is not to scorn and repudiate religion altogether, but as much as possible to enlist the religious world in the common cause of eliminating the cruel misuses of animals.

Jewish tradition clearly forbids any display of cruelty toward animals. In Hebrew, this is called tza'ar ba'alei chayim, the biblical mandate not to cause "pain to any living creature." In contrast to this, Psalms 104 and 148 bespeak the worthiness of the animals of the field, creatures of the sea, and birds of the air before their Creator. Psalm 104 depicts God as "giving drink to every beast of the field," and "causing grass to spring up for the cattle."

Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by Proverbs 12:10:

"The righteous person regards the life of his or her animal." In his explanation of this verse, the Malbim, a 19th century biblical commentator, explained that the righteous person understands the nature of the animal, and hence provides food at the proper time, and according to the amount needed. He is also careful not to overwork the animal. According to the Malbim, the tzaddik (righteous person) acts according to the laws of justice. Not only does he act according to these laws with human beings, but also with animals.

In conclusion, it would be a tragic mistake for animal activists to dismiss the various religious communities as unconcerned with the plight of animals.

Rather, we all should seek ways to transcend our philosophical differences, and find a common ground on which we may stand together for the benefit of animals and humankind.


Rabbi Dovid Sears is the director of the New York-based Breslov Center for Spirituality and Inner Growth. His comprehensive anthology of original translations and essays entitled “The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism,” was published by OROT in 2003. His previous books include “Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition,” “The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chasidic Teachings and Customs,” and “The Flame of the
Heart: Prayers of a Chasidic Mystic.”

Richard H. Schwartz is Professor Emeritus, Mathematics, College of Staten Island , and the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival. He has over 100 articles on the Internet at jewishveg.com/schwartz.  His e-mail address is rschw12345@aol.com.

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