Morally speaking, an important issue to determine is: According to the Torah, how should we treat animals? The general rule is that animals should be treated humanely and fairly, and the Torah prohibits causing harm to them. In addition, it is not only forbidden to harm animals, but we are also commanded to take action in order to ease their suffering, as we learned from the mitzvah of unloading the donkey. A person who sees a donkey lying under his burden, is commanded to unload the burden in order to prevent him from suffering. From this we learn that whenever a person sees an animal suffering, and he can help the animal, he is obliged to try and save it from its distress.
Seemingly, this poses a problem. If the above is true, how do we slaughter cattle, animals and birds, and eat their flesh? On the face of it, there is no greater cruelty than this. However, the general rule is that when there is a conflict between the needs of human’s and animal’s, human needs come first. Just as animals are allowed to eat plants, people may eat animal products. However, for any non-essential need, it is prohibited to harm animals. Therefore, since meat is very important for human nutrition, the Torah allows us to slaughter animals for their consumption. Also, there is doubt to the extent of suffering Jewish ritual slaughtering causes the animal. It is possible that the moment of slaughter is so quick that the animal feels very little pain.
In the early generations, Adam was forbidden to eat meat. And even though the Torah says:
“ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים ובכל חיה הרומשת על הארץ” (“Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land”),
the meaning is that according to the ideal of creation, animals should serve mankind, for man is the crown of creation; nevertheless, man is forbidden to be cruel towards animals, and forbidden to kill them in order to eat them.
However, following the sin of Adam and the sins of the Generation of the Flood, the whole world fell from its original stature. People become less ethical, the nature of animals became less spiritual; they began to become brutal, and devour each other. Even the land was corrupted, producing thorns and thistles. In this new state of affairs, man is obligated first to correct the moral foundations of human relations — not to steal or rob, let alone not to kill — and only after basic morality between men is correctly established, and wars and injustices cease to exist, only then can we continue to rise in our moral standards, and seek to better our relationship with animals. For that purpose, it was necessary to draw a distinct line between the animals and man, who was created in God’s image, in order to highlight the purpose and responsibility placed upon him — for only he has the responsibility to correct the world and raise it to a higher level. For that reason after the Flood, humans were allowed to eat animal flesh, as it is said to Noah:
“כירק עשב נתתי לכם את כל” – “Like plant vegetation, I have [now] given you everything.”
Furthermore, it must be explained that following the sins of Adam and the generations before the Flood – nature itself has changed. Namely, the moral decline affected all aspects of life, including the nutrition system. Up to the generation of the Flood, people could receive all their nutritional needs from plants. After the sin and the collapse of all systems of nature – plants were no longer sufficient for a person, and therefore God allowed Noah and his sons to eat the flesh of cattle, birds, animals and fish. In other words, the moral decline of the world created a completely new eco-environment, forcing us to act contrary to the original ideal.
Also, in the current state of the world, if we stop eating meat, it is not clear that this would be beneficial for those species that we consume. If we don’t continue raising and breeding them for mankind, their numbers will decrease rapidly, because presently, they breed under supervision. However, if all the cattle and chickens where let loose, very quickly there would be few of them left.
Nevertheless, we remember that in the ideal situation, before the sin, Adam was commanded not to eat animal products. And therefore we know that in the future, after tikkun olam, heaven and earth will be renewed, and the nature of man and animals will change and rise spiritually, and then we shall revert back to that ideal moral sensitivity, according to which it is forbidden to kill animals to eat their flesh (Rabbi Kook, The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, 2).
Compassion for Animals
The Talmud (Baba Metzia 85a) tells a wonderful story that helps in understanding the way we should treat animals. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (lovingly known as Rebbe) was one of the generation’s greatest Torah scholars. His great enterprise – editing the Mishnah – is the foundation of the study of Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Tradition. It is also said of him, that he had “תורה וגדולה במקום אחד” ‘Torah and greatness together’, for he was both a great scholar, and in addition, was extremely rich and held a high status in the eyes of the Roman kingdom. The gemara relates that one day a calf was taken for slaughter. Sensing the danger, and in order to escape its fate, the calf fled, and hid his head under Rebbe’s garment, bursting into tears. Rebbe said to the calf – ‘Go to the butcher, for that is the purpose for which you have been created’. At that moment, it was said in heaven that since Rebbe did not have mercy on the calf, he would be fated to anguish and suffering. Rebbe suffered for thirteen years from severe pains in his teeth, and while urinating. One day while cleaning the house, his handmaid found little rats, and wanted to throw them out. Rebbe told her to leave them alone, for it is written: “ורחמיו על כל מעשיו” (“His mercy encompasses all His works” (Psalm 145:9). At that moment, it was said in heaven that since Rebbe had shown great mercy towards animals, he was worthy of receiving mercy himself, and his anguish was relieved.
Through this story, our Sages came to teach us that, although according to halakha we are allowed to slaughter animals to eat their flesh, nonetheless, we should be slightly regretful for having to kill them, because in the ideal situation of the world, people could make do with vegetarian food; only following the world’s decline from its original stature following the sin of Adam and the sin of the Generation of the Flood, the laws of nature changed, and humans began eating animals. But from an aspect of ideal truth, we should be a little bit disturbed when we see the suffering of animals. This is why Rebbe was punished with suffering when he didn’t show pity towards a calf, for due to his elevated stature and righteousness, he should have shown mercy towards the calf, and let it hide for a short while under his garment until it calmed down and agreed to go. When he ignored the calf’s sorrow and drove it away, Rebbe was punished with suffering. In the same manner, when he showed his compassion for the little rats, pity was shown on him from heaven. (According to Rabbi Kook’s “Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace”).
It should be noted that precisely because the Rebbe was a great man – his punishment was more severe. For the entire desire and will of a great man is to attain a high moral level — to be pure and perfect, which is why the righteous rejoice in the suffering that comes to purify and cleanse them. It is told that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi himself would ask in his prayers that if it is seen in Heaven that he requires further refinement, he should receive more suffering. And since these sufferings came upon him due to his high moral stature — to sanctify and purify himself — the Sages said that in all the years he suffered, the world did not experience drought (Baba Metzia, ibid).
For our purposes, we learn from the words of our Sages, that we should develop the natural feeling of compassion toward animals, and even though we are presently used to eating their flesh, we should realize that it is not an ideal situation, and try to alleviate the sorrow of animals whenever possible. In the future, when the world will be perfected, we will rise to the level of Adam, and will not have to harm animals to eat their flesh.