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Home » Animal Rights, Questions of Ethics, Re'e

Re’eh: Animal Rights

Submitted by on July 31, 2012 – 10:31 pmNo Comment | 3,291 views

The Golden Mean

The world is full of animal rights activists who stand in the breach and protect our animals. They work to save endangered species and prevent animal abuse. It is hard to imagine anyone not being grateful for the protection of animals. For too long humans have abused animals for either profit or sport; such cruel practices must end. But animal rights advocates run into resistance when they place animal rights above human rights. When they urge us to go vegan or spend billions to save an ant colony rather than to feed the poor we draw the line. What is the Torah’s position?

The Torah takes a middle of the way approach. Undue cruelty to animals is forbidden by Torah law, but the consumption of meat product is permitted.[1] In fact, it is often mandatory. In the Temple, when a Jew brought am festival offering, such as the Paschal Lamb, it was mandatory to partake of its flesh.[2] Even today, rabbinical law strongly encourages the consumption of meat during Jewish festivals.[3]

The Torah doesn’t accord us rights. In the Torah all rights are presented as obligations. Poor people don’t have a right to our money; we have an obligation to support them.  Animals don’t have a right to good treatment; we are obligated to treat G-d’s creations with respect. animal rights - innerstreamWe were obligated to offer animal sacrifices when the Temple stood in Jerusalem and are permitted to slaughter and eat animals.

Once rights are couched as obligations the threat of radicalizing the rights of any one group is neutralized. We all answer to the same creator and are all beholden to the same law. Within this framework some things are permitted and others, forbidden. Animal cruelty is forbidden.

Animals First

To understand the spiritual reason for the Torah’s protection of the animal, but not at the expense of the human, we must review the animal first clause with respect to feeding. The Torah requires that our animals be fed ahead of ourselves.[4]

There is a deep spiritual underpinning to the precedence of animals. Our task in life is to feed the animal. We each have an inner animal, a base nature that is entirely self absorbed. Our task is to sublimate our animal nature by making it more soulful or to subdue it by reining in our impulses, training ourselves to serve G-d and learning how to be sensitive to others.

This task is the reason for our soul’s descent from the heavenly abode where it resided before we were born. The soul was perfectly content to serve G-d in its spiritual realm, where it beheld the Divine, trembled in awe and melted in ecstasy. But it was tasked to descend from its heavenly realm and enter the human body. Its purpose was not merely to continue to serve G-d, though this remains the soul’s greatest joy, but to teach the body and train our base animal nature, to serve G-d.

To feed the animal in a spiritual sense is to teach our base animal nature the value of a Mitzvah and the reward of drawing closer to G-d. Training ourselves to be selfless, to observe a Mitzvah or to study Torah feeds our inner animal with spiritual energy and a sacred aura. The animal must be fed first. This means that the soul must prioritize training the body to become its instrument over its own celestial devotions.

Our soul would like nothing better than to seclude itself all day in prayer and meditation. This would improve the soul’s spiritual stature, but it wouldn’t benefit our base animal nature. The soul didn’t come here to improve itself; it can perfect itself much better and much more freely in the spiritual realm from which it came. It descended to this material world to refine our animalistic urges, transform a self absorbed being into a selfless one and make us holy. This is the soul’s priority and it must come first. This is the deeper meaning of feeding the animal first.

Benefit to the Soul

There is no question that this is a difficult challenge to the soul. It wants to soar to transcendental levels of sacred inspiration and instead is made to spend eight to ten decades working with a stubborn, lazy and ignorant animal. But in return, the soul is handsomely rewarded.

After a hundred-and-twenty years, when the soul returns to its heavenly abode, it will climb far higher than before. Whereas before birth the soul indulged itself with spiritual absorption, the soul now returns from a lifetime of devotion to a cause greater than itself.

By training the body to serve G-d, the soul carved out a little piece of the material world for G-d, creating an abode for G-d in the lower realm. This was G-d’s original intention in creation and the soul was given opportunity to serve a role in this cosmic purpose.

Having fulfilled its task, the soul has now reached a level of fulfillment it could never have reached on its own. It descended to this world to serve another, but it returned from this world having benefitted itself. Its descent was for the purpose of ascent, enabling the soul to climb to a spiritual rung it could never have otherwise reached.

The soul descended to teach a selfish animal to become selfless and in the process learned a lesson. Sacred as its spiritual ministrations were before its descent, it was in a small sense, a selfish pursuit. Having given up its own goals to benefit another, the soul learned to become selfless. It now reaps the benefit of its efforts and learns the lesson it labored to teach: that in the end we are doubly rewarded when we put others first.

Animal Rights

We now understand the inner reason for the Torah’s protection of animals. The inner animal is vital to humanity’s mission on earth and must be protected. Yet its protection of animals doesn’t overrule the needs of humans because our task is to sublimate the animal – to make our inner animal resemble a human, not to bring the human in us down to the level of animal.

[1] Deuteronomy 12:15.

[2] Deuteronomy 16:7.

[3] Maimonides, Hilchos Yom Tov: 6:18.

[4] Babylonian Talmud: Brachot 40a. This doesn’t mean that we must feed our animals with our last piece of bread while we die of starvation. Human life takes absolute precedence over animal life.  But if we have sufficient funds to feed both, animals should be fed first.  According to Ben Yehoyada ibid the reason is that we can prepare food at our leisure, but domesticated animals are totally dependent on their masters

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