Should Jews be Animal Rights Advocates/A Message for Rosh Chodesh Elul, the ‘New Year for Animals’
This is submitted on Rosh Chodeh Elul, which in the days of the Temple was considered the New Year for Animals, a day for the tithing of animals for sacrifices. Today some Jews are working to restore this ancient holiday and convert it into a day to increase awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings about compasion to animals and how far the current mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings is from these teachings.
Jews should be animal rights advocates for at least 3 reasons:
1. Although it is not well known, Judaism has very powerful teachings about the proper treatment of animals. If Jews took these teachings seriously, they would be among the strongest protesters of many current practices related to animals.
According to Judaism, animals are part of God’s creation and people have special responsibilities to them. The Jewish tradition clearly indicates that we are forbidden to be cruel to animals and that we are to treat them with compassion. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the Torah mandate not to cause “pain to any living creature.”
Although the Torah clearly indicates that people are to have dominion over animals (Gen. 1-26), Judaism teaches that animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain; hence they must be protected and treated with compassion and justice.
The Psalms indicate God’s concern for animals, for “His tender mercies are over all His creatures” (Psalms 145:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by the statement in Proverbs 12:10, “The righteous person regards the life of his or her animal.” In Judaism, one who is cruel to animals cannot be regarded as a righteous individual.
There are many Torah laws involving compassion to animals. An ox is not to be muzzled when threshing in a field of corn (Deuteronomy 25:4). A farmer should not plow with an ox and an ass together (so that the weaker animal would not suffer pain in trying to keep up with the stronger one) (Deuteronomy 22:10). Animals, as well as people, are to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:10). The importance of this verse is indicated by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments and its recitation as part of kiddush (sanctification ceremony using wine or grape juice) on Sabbath mornings.
Many great Jewish heroes were chosen because they showed kindness to animals. Moses and King David were considered worthy to be leaders (Exodus Rabbah 2:2). Rebecca was judged suitable to be Isaac’s wife because of her kindness in providing water to the camels of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant.
2. Consistent with Jewish teachings, animals cannot be equated with human beings. But, one need not believe that human beings and animals have the same value to protest against the extremely cruel treatment that animals are subjected to today. The insanity of current policies toward animals can be summarized as follows: First millions of animals are killed to protect our livestock. Then billions of animals are slaughtered for our food. As a result of our flesh-centered diets, millions of people contract degenerative diseases. Then millions of additional animals are tortured and killed seeking cures for these diseases, which people generally wouldn’t get in the first place if we had more sensible diets.
Since Jews are to be “rachmanim b’nei rachmanim” (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors): Can we justify the force-feeding of ducks and geese to create pate de foie gras? Can we justify taking day-old calves from their mothers so that they can be raised for veal in very cramped conditions? Can we justify the killing of over 200 million male chicks immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries because they cannot produce eggs and have not been genetically programmed to be able to have much flesh? Can we justify artificially impregnating cows every year on what the industry calls “rape racks” so that they will be able to produce more milk? Can we justify the many other ways that animals are unnecessarily exploited and mistreated in our society to meet people’s perceived needs. It should be noted that hunting for recreation is forbidden by Jewish law.
3. Generally when animals are mistreated, it also has negative effects for people. Studies have shown that the mistreatment of animals by an individual is often a sign of later violence or criminal behavior. The consumption of meat and other animal-products has been conclusively linked to many chronic degenerative diseases. Modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes significantly to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, loss of biodiversity, destruction of tropical rain forests and other important habitats, and and other environmental problems; it also uses vast amounts of water, energy, pesticides, fertlizer, and other agricultural resources. In view of the many global threats related to today`s livestock agriculture, working to promote vegetarianism, and even more veganism, may be the most important action that one can take for global survival.
In summary, there is much in Judaism that mandates that animals be treated kindly. Hence, being an advocate for animal rights is not a rejection of Judaism, but an attempt to apply Judaism’s splendid teachings. It is essential that this message become widely known and practiced in order to end the horrendous conditions under which so many animals currently exist and to to show the applicability of Judaism’s eternal values to some of today’s critical issues.