The Animal Kingdom

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

In all of Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein—the commandment to send away the mother bird before taking the egg—is the most seemingly eccentric and confusing. To the enterprising mind, however, this supposedly ethical dilemma of shiluach hakein underlies the divine enterprise that the Creation story presents to humanity.

On that point, the fifth day of Creation presents the Jewish people with an overarching moral quandary. As we will discern, the universe would not be complete without the diversity of the fauna that roams upon the lands. The totality of Torah articulates a myriad of responsibilities that humans have for animals. These responsibilities are intertwined with opportunities for the cultivation of Jewish values. Perhaps the premier mechanism to cultivate reverence for the wondrous multiplicity of Creation is to avoid eating God’s creatures altogether.

Indeed, vegetarianism/veganism—and Jewish awareness toward the overarching umbrella of animal welfare—is the most dynamic and growing trend in the American Jewish community and has been for the past few decades. Yet, the biblical text presents us with a conundrum. In the latter part of the Creation story, humans are told they “shall hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). This seems to be in contradiction to the human obligation to emulate God’s ways and be “good to all” (Psalm 145:9). How could the consumption of God’s creatures be commensurate with the duty to uphold mercy?

The biblical history of animal consumption experienced three distinct eras. In the Garden of Eden humans did not consume animals. After the Great Deluge[1] and construction of the ark, God perceived the violent nature of humans and thus permitted meat consumption as a concession so they would channel their violent nature to kill animals instead of people. Finally, we come to learn that after meat was only permitted as a sacrifice to God, it later became permitted as a more regular staple of diets outside of sacrificial worship. These three eras mark the progression of an admittedly supernal ideal and evolution of a certain religious pragmatism. Are we now in a fourth era, and in the position to consider the well-being and rights of animals as comparable to the basic rights that humans are privileged to hold?

Following this reasoning, a midrash explains that Moses was chosen as the leader and prophet for the Jewish people because of his consideration for animals.[2] It is not only the prophets and kings of Israel who are so often portrayed as compassionate shepherds; this is also a popular way of personifying God: “The Eternal is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). This value is also reflected in one of the best-known instances of animal protection in the Talmud: That we may not eat until we have fed our animals (BT B’rachot 40a).

The Torah states, “When…you say: ‘I shall eat some meat,’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish” (Deuteronomy 12:20). A commentary in the Talmud goes even further, interpreting the verse from Deuteronomy to mean that “a person should not eat meat unless they have a special craving for it” (BT Chulin 84a).

Throughout the millennia, Jews have yearned to return to the Garden of Eden. The Creation story is not the story of the Jews, but of every creature that God found worthy to exist. By being compassionate to animals, we not only fulfill the mandate of the Torah, but we regain our humanity. In fact, the great sages of the Talmud consider mercy and compassion to be essential characteristics of being Jewish (BT Beitzah 32b). Choosing not to eat meat for ethical reasons has the power to imprint the values of mercy and compassion deep within our souls. From the lowliest microbe to the most complex being, all gain life from the same holy source.

When we arrive at the insight that the world was not created for us alone[3]—that the mother bird and her egg are precious to God— and that we are not entitled to consume whatever we wish, we reach a powerful Torah ideal, one that may be the most spiritual ideal of all. We share this beautiful world with a remarkable diversity of life. We are only one aspect of this biosphere.  And when we respect it for what it is, we venerate that which brought it forth from the far reaches of time and space.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Rabbi Yanklowitz is also the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

[1] Also known as the Flood, seen later in Genesis 6–9.

[2] Sh’mot Rabbah 2:2.

[3] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:13.


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