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Do Animals Have Rights?

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

"We condemn totally the infliction of suffering upon our brother animals, and the curtailment of their enjoyment, unless it be necessary for their own individual benefit. We declare our belief that all sentient creatures have rights to life, liberty, and the quest for happiness."

('A Declaration Against Speciesism', signed by 150 academics at Cambridge University, 1977. See 'Animal Rights-A Symposium,' London: Centaur Press, 1979, p.viii.)

With this declaration, the animal rights movement affirmed its belief that there is no moral difference between human beings and animals. When a 'brother' animal experiences pain it is as tragic as when a human being does. To most people, even staunch vegetarians, this philosophy sounds a bit extreme. Yes, it is wrong to inflict pain unnecessarily upon animals, but to equate it with human suffering strikes us as strange.

Yet, as Jews, whenever we encounter a value judgment, we ought to investigate what God has to say on the matter. We can't simply decide moral issues based upon how we feel. The practice of relative ethics, doing and acting with what I feel is right at the time, leaves one without any standard or measurement of values at all. 40 years ago, abortion was viewed as a heinous murderous crime and now society accepts it with open arms. Our values can change quite rapidly if we leave them to our own feelings and musings. The only method to live with a true values system is to discover what God's absolute values are, through studying His Torah.

So, what does the Torah have to say about animal rights?

It is true that we are bound never to inflict pain unnecessarily to animals. As the Talmud states, "Avoiding making animals suffer is a Torah obligation." (Baba Metzia 32b) But an animal's 'right' not to suffer in God's world is not any different from a tree's or plant's 'right' not to 'suffer' in being cut down unnecessarily.

God gave mankind the task to "Conquer the world, descend to the fish of the sea, the birds of the skies, and to all animals who swarm the earth" (Beraishis 1:28). God wants us to utilize all things in the universe, including all animals, if we deem it useful toward our path of growth and development. Specifically, God tells Noach that mankind is permitted to eat flesh from animals:

"All animals which live shall be for you to eat. Like the vegetables, I have given them to you - all of them." (Beraishis 9:3)

The verse clearly makes the point that no matter how tempted we may be to see animals as humans, no matter how many similarities to the physiological man animals possess, we are not to view them as anything more than plants, trees, and vegetables. God was not merely allowing us to eat meat from animals if we so desire, but telling us He prefers that we do. He does not indicate that we should feel for the animals' plight and refrain from partaking in meat meals. He says emphatically that we are to look at animals as vegetables and just like we sense no issue or problem in eating vegetables so too we should feel toward animals.

This is because man is the sole focus of all creation. As the Talmud says (paraphrased): "God created animals for mankind. If mankind wouldn't exist, what would be the purpose of animals' existence?"(Sanhedrin 108a) Only man possesses the power of free will with its potential for reward and punishment. Animals live by reflex only without any real free will, decision-making ability. Animals exist only to provide benefits for man.

Still, it is vital that we don't show cruelty to animals, as stated from the Talmud earlier. But animals don't have rights. Our refraining from inflicting pain to animals is not for the animal's sake, but it is for our sake. Ramban (Devorim 22:6) writes that all Mitzvot that involve our acting with compassion toward animals exist in order that we don't train ourselves to become cruel-hearted. We show mercy to animals not because the animals deserve the mercy with their 'rights'. Rather, since animals do share certain physiological similarities with us, it would be detrimental subconsciously to our personalities, if we were to act with cruelty toward them. As Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, the "Chazon Ish" (1878-1953) explains:

"Animals are similar to man in the structure of the body, with its aspects and capabilities; the material of their bodies is flesh and blood, sinews, bones and skin, and they possess a life-force. They possess senses like man, they sustain themselves like man, they are of two genders, male and female, but the difference of man from animals involves intelligence and language" (Emunah U'bitachon 1:7).

If we would be cruel to animals we would act with cruelty toward our fellow man as well.

So we must treat animals with concern and caution. We can neither torture them nor pain them for any invalid reason. But as long as we are deriving some tangible benefit from them, (yes, even a fur coat and certainly for medical experimentation), we are allowed to utilize animals.

We find a verse in Parshat Acharei mot that is relevant to our discussion:

"Any man from the House of Israel who slaughters an ox, sheep, or goat (who are sanctified and designated to be slaughtered in the Tabernacle - Rashi) in the camp, or outside the camp and does not bring the animal to the opening of the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) to be sacrificed for God, before the Tabernacle of God - it is considered as blood for that man, he has spilled blood." (Vayikra 17:3-4).

Why is slaughtering an animal outside the Temple viewed so terribly?

The explanation is this. Yes, we are allowed to make use of animals for valid purposes, which of course includes bringing them as sacrifices. But if we do anything that causes the animal's slaughter and death to be invalid and become wasted (in this case by slaughtering it outside the Tabernacle), then the Torah is teaching us that the animal's death becomes tantamount to spilling blood. If we kill an animal purposefully we have done nothing wrong and may even be sanctifying it in certain circumstances, such as sacrifices. But if we make the animal invalid for sacrifice, then, since animals do share certain physiological similarities with us, it would be detrimental subconsciously in bringing us a step closer to a bloody path.

The Torah's prohibits destroying or wasting any item in the world. This prohibition is called "Baal Tashchit" (Devorim 20:19). God gave us the world to beautify and develop, not to destroy. As Midrash Kohellet Rabbah Chapter 7 states: "God took Adam around the Garden of Eden showing him all the trees. God said, Look how beautiful My creations are. I created it all for your benefit. Make sure you don't destroy and ruin My world." To kill animals and not be able to use those animals for man's benefit is a serious violation of mankind's task of developing and utilizing God's world properly.

No, animals do not have rights. And if we ever suggest that they do, if we ever put animals on par with humans, we run the risk of treating humans like animals, and at times ignoring human suffering.

The following is a recent 2003 example of just such a misguided animal rights philosophy. On January 26, 2003, an Israeli bus was bombed by Arab terrorists. But this time, the delivery system was not a Palestinian - it was a donkey. With explosives strapped to its back, the poor animal was directed towards an Israeli bus and the bomb remotely detonated. Fortunately, the people all survived. But the donkey didn't.

Introducing PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. After receiving many protests from its shocked members, the president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, penned a letter to Yasser Arafat. PETA sympathized with an overlooked aspect of Palestinian terrorism: "If you have the opportunity, will you please add to your burdens my request that you appeal to all those who listen to you to leave the animals out of this conflict?"

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, there are certainly greater tragedies than a dead donkey. Hundreds of innocent men, women and children have been killed. Yet, PETA didn't protest that. When questioned on this by The Washington Post, Ms. Newkirk claimed, "It's not my business to inject myself into human wars." One is awestruck by the lack of any sympathy for the human victims.

Many may wish to believe that animals have rights and that since man is merely a higher-formed animal, mankind has as much (or as little) significance and function in the universe as animals. In reality, what they are doing is shirking the true responsibilities of mankind. They wish to forget that man was created in God's image, has free will, and has the responsibility to perfect the world.

We know better. We know that we have the 'rights' and that they are wrong.

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