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Home » Animal Rights, Miscellaneous, Vayikra Parshah

Vayikra: Is Animal Sacrifice Cruel?

Submitted by on March 18, 2007 – 3:54 amNo Comment | 1,247 views

Is it Condoned?

“Rabbi,” I am often implored, “Please don’t tell me that the Torah condones animal sacrifice.” Many believe that animal sacrifice is immoral and ought to be discarded in the modern, enlightened age. When I reply that animal sacrifice is still condoned and that should the temple be erected today we would reconstitute the sacrificial rite, most people are simply aghast. (1)

So I pose the following question: Is animal sacrifice cruel? Is it wrong to slaughter a perfectly innocent sheep and orphan its baby calves ? Many believe it is, but I ask, why?

Darwinian Science posits that human existence is a product of random selection. Our evolution was not purposefully intended by a higher being; we are simply a quirk of nature. In fact, with time we will probably be replaced by a stronger, more adaptable specimen.

We are here today because we are more fit to survive than our primates were. Because nature is in a constant state of evolution, a more sophisticated creature will, at some point, evolve that will outperform us. The only reason it will replace us is that it will outperform us just as we replaced our primates by outperforming them.

We are not here for a reason. Our lives have no meaning. Only the fittest survive and we, by random chance, happen to be the fittest creature of the era. This alone justifies our existence.

If all existence is, but a random quirk, why is it wrong to take the life of a living being? Neither animal nor human have a right to life. We are here by pure chance, not by right. Why, pray tell me, is it wrong to kill an animal or, for that matter, a human?

Save the Planet

Some argue that we are socially responsible for the planet we inhabit. We must protect our habitat from excess abuse in order to ensure our own survival. We cannot destroy animal life indiscriminately for fear of disturbing the delicate ecological balance of nature. To my view, this argument exaggerates the threat. This concern is only relevant  when an entire species is threatened. What if we worked to ensure the survival of the species, would it still be wrong to kill one sheep?

Social Responsibility

Some argue that sensitivity to another’s suffering is the Homo Sapien’s strength. The human brain is capable of abstract reasoning and of introspection. We are highly adept at communication and at interaction. We appreciate beauty and commiserate with pain. We welcome contribution and mourn  loss. Our system of ethics is our strength and it forms the basic structure of our society. Indiscriminate killing constitutes an abuse of the very quality that makes us superior.

This is well and good as long as we recognize that concern for the well-being of others, is merely one of preference. We enjoy living in an environment filled with beautiful creatures. We enjoy being surrounded by happiness and life. We detest needless pain and senseless loss and we prefer to avoid it whenever possible.

At the risk of sounding crass I propose that there is no difference between my preference for blue suits over black suits and my preference for the preservation of life over its destruction. That I like blue, does not make black evil. To engage in behavior that is antithetical to most of society, is not immoral. It may be contrary to the will of the majority and it may weaken our strongest quality, but it is not immoral.

Ensuring Continuity

Yet others argue that we have a responsibility to preserve our value system and our environment for the next generation. To that I reply, but why? To what end? Why is survival of the next generation imperative? If our existence is, but a quirk of nature, why is its destruction evil?

What then is the argument for the absolute value of life? Why is it immoral to take life? Why is cruelty to others undeniably and objectively evil? The only true, intellectually honest, answer is that G-d deemed it so.

The Human and The Mouse

If a human and a mouse were to step into the path of an oncoming truck, which one would you save? Most people would save the human and let the mouse die. Now why is that? Doesn’t the mouse have a life story of its own? Doesn’t the mouse have a family? Won’t some other mouse miss this mouse? Wouldn’t it be tragic if the mouse was killed by a sudden accident?

The answer is, yes. The mouse does have a family and a life story and, to other mice, it would be tragic if this mouse died. Yet, most people would save the human ahead of the mouse. Why?

Is it because the human contributes more to the universe, than the mouse? If that is the only reason then we are truly selfish and callous. We are insensitive to the plight of mice only because they don’t contribute to our cause as much as humans do. They cannot benefit us as much as humans can. This is clearly not the only reason for selecting a human over a mouse.

The reason most people select the human is because we intuit that humans are more important than mice. Should we be asked to provide a logical or legal argument, we would find ourselves incapable of furnishing one. In Nazi Germany, canine and feline life took priority over Gypsy and Jewish life. The Nazis presented perfectly logical defenses of their warped value system.

The reason we abhor the Nazi value system is not logic based. It is faith based. We instinctively embrace the idea that humans are created in the image of G-d. A mouse is a beautiful creature and critically important to its own world, but it was not created in G-d’s image. (2)

The only reason murder is evil is because G-d deemed it so. Only an absolute authority can place an absolute value on life and thus deem murder absolutely immoral. G-d deemed murder of human beings immoral. G-d also deemed needless killing of animals cruel and immoral. To my view, this is the only iron-clad reason against wanton slaughtering of animal and, for that matter, human, life.

Sacrifice

With this in mind it is easy to see why the Torah condones the sacrificial rite and is prepared to reconstitute it as soon as the temple is rebuilt. The very G-d who deems wanton slaughtering wrong, deems the sacrificial rite correct; when it is done in accordance with his wishes. If G-d declares it morally correct, on what basis do we disagree? (3)

If you can think of a compelling reason, please post a comment. (4)

Footnotes

  1. Maimonides (Maimonides, R. Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1135-1204) suggested that the sacrificial rite was intended to wean the Jewish people from practices of their pagan neighbors. The pagan rites were reversed in the Torah; what was forbidden to the pagans was permitted in Torah and what was permitted to the pagans was forbidden in Torah. (Guide for the Perplexed, Section III, ch. XLVII) This suggests that the sacrificial rite will not be reconstituted when the temple is rebuilt. Yet, Maimonides’, is a solitary view that is not shared by the majority of Jewish philosophers and mystics. Furthermore, Maimonides himself is of the opinion that the sacrificial rite will be reconstituted when the Messiah comes.
  2. The Torah provides the reason for capital punishment. “He who spills the blood of man, by man, shall his blood be spilled, for man was made in the image of G-d .” (Genesis 8: 5.)
  3. Many commentators have speculated on G-d’s reason for sacrifices. We have mentioned the view of Maimonides in footnote #1. Nachmanidies (Nachmanides, R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270), in his treatise, Toras Hashem Temimah (p. 163), suggested that offering the animal sacrifice helps the Jew realize that absent the control that we exercise over ourselves weare no different from the animal. If not for G-d’s infinite kindness it might have been his body on the altar. That is why one leaned on the sacrifice with his hands, confessed orally and reflected on repentance. In this way all three senses, thought, speech and action participated in the act of penitence. The Chinuch (The anonymous author, who identifies himself only as “a Levite from Barcelona,” was a student of the Rashba, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, in the thirteenth century) elaborated on this thought in Mitzvah #75 and provided further detail.
  4. This essay is based in part on essay by Rabbi YY Jacobson. Click here to view the lecture.
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