Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayyim: Compassion to Animals

Can't we just love and honor them all?
Can't we just love and honor them all?

When we first moved back to California, my wife Elana, gave me the gift I had wanted for years: a puppy. Fond memories of the dog of my childhood had to suffice during my years as a college student, when dorm space was scarce, and my income was minimal. Even during graduate school, we still didn’t have enough money, and couldn’t spare time or space for the distraction of a dog. But now, established in our own home, settled in our community, we were eager for the joys and responsibilities of an animal companion.

We drove to the pound, and found an adorable and loving two-month old Shepherd-Dobie-Lab mix. She was almost entirely paws and tongue. We fell in love with her the minute the shelter staff allowed us to remove her from her cage to play. The fact that she would grow up to be an 80 pound dog didn’t dissuade us, and we signed up for her almost immediately.

Three days later, her original owner never having reclaimed her, I was allowed to return and pick up our new mutt, who we named Humie (Hebrew for “brown”). l remember how small she was then: on the ride home, she sat in my lap, staring into my face through the entire ride, uninterested in the passing view, wanting only to see the person who was taking her to some new, unknown place. I remember falling for Humie’s deep brown eyes, her calm acceptance of our connection, and her consummate trust.

All our feelings of love and joy only increased as she grew into maturity. And anyone who has ever brought home a dog or cat or other kind of animal friend knows that same sense of love, dependency, and playfulness that animals can bring to our lives. Jewish tradition knows this love as well. An ancient rabbinic midrash, for example. records that the protective “mark of Cain” was the gift of a dog as companion and as guard.

I also started reading books detailing how animals are raised for breeding and sale in the United States. Cruel “puppy farms” house females in cramped and filthy cages, forcing them to breed continuously. Often, these dogs suffer from malnutrition, exposure, and hip dysplasia. They seldom receive adequate veterinary care, as a full twenty-five percent of the breeding kennels have substandard conditions. Puppies are taken from their mothers as early as one month old and are then packed in crates. Animals not sold before they are adults are killed, often by being bashed over the head with a board. The same fate awaits the female no longer able to produce pups.

And then I read further that, in many parts of the world, dogs are considered an excellent source of meat!

Sitting and reading the morning newspaper, I would get a nudge in the arm, a wet nose forcing itself into the center of my attention, as Humie made it clear that—in her opinion—I had read enough. And it was difficult to look back into her deep round eyes, so trusting, so full of individuality and love, and then think that other people would see her only as a useful tool or a delicious meal.

Yet I also eat cows, sheep, lambs, turkeys, and chickens. They too have mothers and fathers, they too love sunny days and sleepy mornings and frolicking with each other. We routinely kill these animals, slice them up, roast their bodies, and serve them as meals. Is my lunch really worth their death?

The more I read about how animals are treated—the horrible and unsanitary conditions of their living, humanity’s reliance on high levels of hormone and antibiotic injections to counter the epidemics that naturally result from their confinement and overcrowding, the brutal methods used to kill them, the less appetizing their flesh became to me. Eating meat could be as much a threat to my health and the environment as it was an affront to moral sensitivity.

The process of reading about animals. and of looking into my dog’s eyes, expanded my ability to care beyond the limits of my species, extending compassion to other animals as well. And once that commitment emerges, it isn’t hard to help animals suffer far less, while still meeting our own nutritional and medical needs.

While it may be a struggle to persuade humanity to act compassionately toward animals, it isn’t hard to find examples of animals extending themselves to help human beings.

Several years ago, a man in Australia made international news while surfing off the coral reefs. He was attacked by a shark which ripped an enormous piece of his surfboard and slashed into the diver’s stomach.

Fortunately for this swimmer a dolphin intervened, driving away the shark and remaining near the swimmer until other human beings could return him to dry land.

That animals can, and do, show affection to people is nothing new. In many parts of the world, ancient stories of drowning sailors rescued by dolphins abound, and tales of dogs offering up their lives to save their owners emerge not only from Lassie but the Talmud, too. One midrash tells of a loyal dog who died after eating poison so its master wouldn’t. Another recounts how Abel’s dog sat guard, protecting Abel’s corpse after his calamitous fight with Cain.

What is surprising, given how loving animals can be to humans, is just how enraged some people become at the suggestion that we should reciprocate by minimizing their unnecessary pain. In much of the world, that idea still generates scorn. Take, for example, the annual prairie dog shoot out in Nucla, Colorado. Each year, the town holds a festive shooting contest, which can result in over one thousand dead prairie dogs and over two thousand shots fired. (What happens to all those wounded animals? What happens to all the lead bullets that missed their mark?) One of the hunters, asked what she would hunt after the prairie dogs were gone, responded. “protesters.”

Often, people who try to extend compassion to animals are branded as freaks. The organizer of that prairie dog slaughter explained that “we don’t subscribe to New Age philosophy,” which he characterized as “peace, love, and vegetarian rights.” Protesters reported being spat on with tobacco juice, or heckled by passing motorists, who screamed at them to “Go eat tofu!”

Imagine feeling threatened by tofu.

A while ago the Wall Street Journal published an article in which the author claimed that the animal rights movement “embodied a revolutionary principle aimed at nothing less than the overthrow of mankind, and of that most horrible of its instruments, human intelligence.” All this rage against compassion for animals, despite the fact that the author’s bio mentions that he himself owns a wire-haired terrier! Doesn’t he know that his dog is an animal? Why, then, care only for that particular dog?

Why is it that so many people arc so easily enraged by compassion toward animals? Why is it that advocates of such kindness are written off as fringe and crazy?

Animals pervade our economy and our lifestyles. It takes special effort not to participate in the death and torture of rabbits for the purchase of shampoo and toothpaste. Meat is carefully packaged so its source of origin—not to mention an awareness of how those animals are bred and live out their tormented lives—need never trouble us. One need not consider how those little puppies or tropical parrots get to the pet store, or how we eliminate old greyhounds and horses after the races are over.

In a world in which so many people suffer from the insensitivity and abuse of other people, it is hard to drum up much passion to minimize animal suffering. Yet the two are linked; callousness is not divisible. As the medieval sage, Maimonides, writes: “If the Torah provides that such grief should not be caused to animals or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellows (Moreh Nevuchim 3:48).” Once we desensitize ourselves to the pain of some living things, the torment of human beings also becomes that much easier to bear.

In part, then, the opposition to the animal protection movement is an unwillingness to confront the cruelty of human society, the craziness of industrial priorities and methods run rampant. This hostility to a moral imperative reflects an abdication of moral discipline to human nature. As the Thirteenth, Century sage Nachmanides observes: “the reason for the prohibition (against cruelty to animals) is to leach us the trait of compassion and that we should not be cruel, for cruelty proliferates in the human soul (Commentary to Deuteronomy 26:1).”

Yet, from a religious perspective, there is another reason for not separating respect for human dignity from concern for animal suffering.

• As a legislative aide to the Speaker of the California State Assembly for several years, I responded to constituent letters. At the height of the influx of Indochinese refugees, the so called “boat people,” we were inundated with letters opposing their admission to California. That same week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the case of a woman whose will stipulated that her pet dog be put to sleep. We received hundreds of letters from people who offered to take the dog into their own homes while simultaneously protesting the rescue of the drowning refugees!

• In a letter in the New York Times Magazine, primatologist Jane Goodall protested the appalling conditions of some laboratory chimps, writing that “I shall be forever haunted by her eyes, and by the eyes of the other infant chimpanzees I saw that day. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a person who, stressed beyond all endurance, has given up…? I once saw a little African boy…(who also) looked out at the world, unseeing, from dull, blank eyes.” Dr. Goodall understood the connection between concern for an human child and for a baby chimpanzee!

• Surprisingly, some students in my tenth grade Confirmation class found it impossible to decide between saving a drowning dog or a drowning adult, if they could only rescue one of them. And when I altered the hypothetical case to be a puppy, not a single member of the class was willing to save the adult!

Given the temptation to ignore human suffering, the equation of human and animal life could provide further grounds for rejecting the biblical axiom that every human life is infinitely precious. Part of the Jewish discomfort with some aspects of animal rights movements is a reaction against that demotion. Caring for animals cannot displace caring for human animals.

But the primary reason for popular discomfort with kindness to animals is that it is a new issue to consider, and one which takes self-discipline. Far easier to treat animals exclusively as tools for human use and convenience. Once we have to worry about where our food comes from and how it is treated, whether or not our clothing requires taking a life, and how our affluence affects the health of the planet, then previously simple choices become complex, requiring significant attention, time, and caring.

This moment offers another invitation to care, to bring us one step closer to the day when “the wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” (Isaiah 11:7) It makes no sense to love some mammals and to fill our closets with the skins and hair of others, to admire the beauty and majesty of some while using the skins of others for car seats, to bemoan the shortage of water, land and food for humanity while squandering those resources to appease our appetite for the red flesh that clogs our arteries.

Rather than allowing extremists to preempt a moral and reasonable relationship between humanity and the animal world, we must reclaim the center. There is a middle ground between devaluing humans in order to elevate the worth of animal life, on the one hand, and disregarding the pain of animals on the other. As responsible stewards, charged with caring for creation and leaving it better than we found it, we can assert the moral defensibility of using animals when absolutely necessary for human survival. But butchering animals merely to gratify human vanity or to appease our lust for blood and killing is not consistent with heightened sensitivity and appreciation for the marvel of life. And even when we do use animals because of necessity, our claim to act as God’s agents imposes an obligation to minimize their pain.

That is precisely the agenda of the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim (literally, “the pain of living creatures”). Judaism points us toward an idyllic future when humanity and animals will live in harmony with themselves and with each other. “In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground.” (Hosea 2:20) What we are willing to kill animals for, and how we treat them up to that point may well define us as individuals and as a culture.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” The Jewish religion has insisted on humanity’s responsibility to minimize the pain of animals. In our own age, that millennial concern has expanded to include responsibility to the ecosystem of the earth and the maintenance of human health.

At its core, however, tza’ar ba’alei hayyim remains a moral charge, an insistence that how we treat the living things around us shapes the contours of our souls and the measure of our compassion. In a time when people are enslaved to fashion, fun, and the need to be entertained, perhaps the path to a renewed freedom is to be found precisely in kindness to animals. By restoring our traditional sense of priorities, so that once again compassion, morality, and responsibility direct our course, we may again become a “light to the nations,” and a symbol of God’s loving providence for the work of Creation.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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