The Jewish Ethicist: Animal Suffering, Part 3
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The Jewish Ethicist: Animal Suffering, Part 3

The Jewish Ethicist: Animal Suffering, Part 3

Animal suffering is sanctioned when it serves a legitimate human need.

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Last week we examined the various Torah verses mandating humane treatment of animals; we saw that beyond the underlying prohibition of cruel treatment towards any animal, there is an additional obligation to act positively to relieve the suffering of animals that work with us and serve us -- for example, to give our animals rest on Shabbat, to relieve the load of an overloaded pack animal, and so on.

There is still a bit of a paradox. We are not allowed to cause suffering gratuitously to any animal, but if there is a valid human need then even if the animal will suffer the treatment is not considered cruelty. For this reason, there is no question that it is permissible and proper to use animals in medical experiments that are expected to lead to treatments that will alleviate human suffering. But this very usefulness is also what cements our obligation to show concern for the animals.

So the prohibition on animal suffering would never forbid using animals for an important human need, even if the use involved animal suffering; but it would forbid causing suffering not necessary for that need. Nachmanides writes, "[God's] mercy on creatures with an animal soul does not extend to prevent us from using them for our needs." (1)

This standard seems to be stricter than the standard for bal taschchit, which forbids gratuitous harm to or destruction of anything valuable or useful to humans. Regarding i>bal tashchit only gratuitous harm is forbidden, but tzaar baalei chaim, the prohibition on animal suffering, would seem to forbid also disproportionate suffering. In one place in the Talmud the sage Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair states that hamstringing an animal would constitute forbidden suffering, but only killing it would constitute gratuitous harm. My interpretation is that hamstringing the animal does bring some benefit, but not enough to justify the suffering induced. (2)

An additional reason mentioned by the rabbis for human treatment of animals is that it cultivates humane conduct towards people, while inhumane treatment of animals carries the danger of inculcating insensitivity towards other people. (Some recent research confirms a connection between people who torture animals as youngsters and those who are violent as adults, though there is no way to tell if there is a causal relationship.)

The Sefer Hachinukh (596) writes: "Among the motivations for this commandment is to accustom ourselves to delicate souls, choosing the straight path and adhering to it, and seeking mercy and kindness. And once we obtain this habit, then even towards animals, which were created to serve us, we will show concern."

And Nachmanides writes: "The reason for refraining [from taking the eggs in the presence of the mother] is to teach us the quality of mercy, and not to act cruelty. For cruelty [towards animals afterwards] spreads in the soul of man [and expresses itself towards people as well]". (1)

Each consideration is an independent aspect of the law. For example, the noted Medieval authority Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin ruled that plucking geese while they are alive, when there is a need for the feathers, is permissible; the geese do suffer, but there is an evident benefit. However, he then writes that people customarily refrain, because plucking the birds in this way leads to bad traits. (3) Rabbi Moshe Isserlish writes approvingly of this custom. (4)

SOURCES: (1) Ramban Torah commentary Devarim 22:6. (2) Babylonian Talmud Chullin 7b; see explanation in Piskei Trumat Hadeshen 105. (3) Piskei Trumat Hadeshen 105 (4) Rema Shulchan Arukh Even Haezer 5:14

Published: August 2, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) yehudit levy, August 8, 2009 7:46 PM

in defense of Rabbi Meir

Everyone seems to be up in arms about all the animal experimentation that IS NOT FOR THE SPECIFIC USE OF ALLEVIATING HUMAN SUFFERING. You are all correct about these things. Rabbi Meir, I would presume, is talking about strictly supervised use of animals in a closely monitored fashion that would draw the line at any unnecessary suffering for the worthy causes of, say, cancer research, or deadly infant diseases etc etc. To bring up the indiscriminate use of animals for commercial, cosmetic or household products is merely showing your clear disregard for the divine foundation of all torah ethics, and disrespect for the rabbinical standing of the author. Before you stand on your soapboxes, you might want to ask yourselves: If your spouse or child's life depended on medication which was the result of a month of invasive research on a lab full of rabbits, would you refuse it? At the very least, you would ask a rabbi !!!!! And here is your answer.... May none of us ever need to know!

(16) Tova Saul, August 6, 2009 6:30 PM

One of many xamples of where to draw the line of "benefit"

Compared to the billions of mammals that have suffered in tiny cages and died in agony at the hands of scientists, only a fraction of that number truly served to better human medicine. Take for example the fact that the US gov't. is tudying a major overhaul of the methods used to test the safety of chemicals, from household cleaners to pesticides. The goal: to see if robotic machinery can predict what products may be harmful to humans. Scientists today test chemicals mainly by injecting large doses into lab animals, mostly rodents. These so-called researchers see if the animals get sick and then kill them and analyze their tissue. Billions of animals, from mice to dogs to pigs, suffer and die in these bizarre experiments every year. That much suffering could fill the Pacific Ocean, even if it's not human suffering. Apart from its ethical depravity, this process is slow and inexact because of the physiological differences between animals and humans. Animal testing does not always predict the disastrous effect that a chemical might have on humans. Non-animal research is much more exact---and much faster. With new tools now available, the 2,500 chemicals tested on animals over the last 30 years in the Nat'l Toxicology Program could be screened, at 15 different exposure levels, in a single afternoon. My point: Look closely and carefully at what is touted to be "of benefit to humans".

(15) Chaim, August 6, 2009 11:34 AM

Life is sacred

"What you find hateful do not do to another," does not just apply to humans but to all life. When G-d gave humans charge of animals the purpose was mutual benefit, not pain for one to benefit the other. G-d was entrusting them to us just as children are entrusted to parents and citizens to rulers. To say that "animal suffering is sanctioned when it serves a legitimate human need," is no different from a government declaring that the suffering of Jews is sanctioned when it serves a legitimate national need, or that the suffering of children is justified when it serves the needs of the parents. Humanity must be humane before it can be truly human.

(14) Yehudit, August 6, 2009 3:55 AM

Wonderfully humane responses from visitors

With all due respect to the author of this article, while I'm not criticizing him, I strongly disagree with him. The responses of all the visitors' comments are so wonderfully humane ! More so than the article, I'm sorry to say. This article seems to be strictly laws ONLY - nothing else. Other things I have read by Rabbi Dr. Meir are fabulous. Like I said, I just disagree with the author on this particular issue. Kosher means fit and proper. The following example is anything but that. A couple of years ago, there was a big scandal with one of the biggest producers of kosher chicken in the USA. The most talked-about problem was that the employees were treated so terribly that people wondered how a place with those morals could have anything kosher. Then we found out that the chickens were raised in the despicable conditions that #9 refers to as "factory farms" - that's a perfect name for them ! Crammed into small spaces, fed growth hormones (bad for human and animal health), lots and lots of so-called "food" to fatten them up, no exercise at all. Regardless of proper slaughter, how on earth could a place like that produce anything kosher??? (fit and proper)

(13) SusanE, August 5, 2009 4:07 PM

Human Suffering is 90% Preventable without Animal Cruelty.

We are using animials in ways that are simply unthinkable. The below quote from the article states, ----------""""We are not allowed to cause suffering gratuitously to any animal, but if there is a valid human need then even if the animal will suffer the treatment is not considered cruelty. For this reason, there is no question that it is permissible and proper to use animals in medical experiments that are expected to lead to treatments that will alleviate human suffering. """""''------------Those two sentences sound like something out of a grizzley handbook from the 1930's. It is beyond conscience that we routinely inflict pain and agony on animals. Generally it is to produce a new drug, or cosmetic at great profit to the people doing the testing.. You absolutelly must realize that most of the animal experimens are not to alleviate human suffering, they are for producing a drug or cosmetic to make huge profits. Labs are using cats and dogs, pigs and primates in horrible experiments, It is inhumane and insane. There is no such thing as a little bit OK. It is all bad.

I took part in a Rabbi approved drug trial for a disease. The drugs must be FDA approved for other medical uses in order for my participation to be kosher and not harmful to my body.. I did it with full consent and full disclosure. It will definitely help others to prevent or to treat the disease. I could speak for myself and make my own decisions. Animals can not. They are living, breathing, feeling creatures. They need protection too. That's why we have Animal Rights Groups. Smoking, alcohol, obesity, junk food, and lifestyle, are main causes of most of the disease in our society. The diseases caused by them are readily preventable, and can be done without animal torture. but, alas, prevention is not profitable.

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