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Judaism: Friend or Foe of Animal Activism
By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D. and 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. However, Jewish tradition interprets "dominion" as
guardianship, or stewardship: 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
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
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 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
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. He is presently completing a comprehensive
anthology of original translations and essays entitled The Vision of Eden:
Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism. 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
2800 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10314 (718)982-3621 FAX:
Author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism", "Judaism and Global Survival", and
"Mathematics and Global Survival."
Over 100 articles and book reviews at
His e-mail address is
from the January 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine