GOOD MORNING! Americans have a love affair with pets. In 2020 it was estimated that almost 70% of homes owned at least one pet, including almost 58% of American homes owning a dog. The pandemic (and the subsequent loneliness brought on by isolation) also provided a short term spike in pet ownership; though that led to some sad outcomes when people who weren’t truly prepared for the responsibility began abandoning their pets.

There are no reliable statistics on dog ownership within the Orthodox Jewish community, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that only a small percentage of Orthodox homes have dogs. This may have to do with the fact that raising large families seems to be their main priority (according a recent Pew Research Center Survey, Orthodox Jews (ages 40-59) average 4.1 children per household compared with 1.9 for Jewish adults overall).

Growing up I always wanted a pet and my parents comprised by getting me fish. I still remember when my mother came home from the hospital in 1975 with yet another brother and I wailed, “I don’t want a brother; I want a dog!”

This week’s Torah reading discusses the Great Flood that the Almighty rained upon the earth during the wicked generation of that period. As most everyone knows, the Bible describes that it rained for forty days and forty nights and the righteous Noah saved a sliver of both mankind and the animal kingdom by bringing them onto the ark that he built.

My brilliant father often mentions how much we can learn from children if we just listen to what they are saying. A few weeks ago, Dr. Joshua Portnoy, a close friend of mine (who is actually more like a brother than a friend), asked me a question that he heard from his six-year-old son Yaakov Chaim:

“I understand why God brought a flood to destroy all of the people because they had become very wicked, but why did God kill all the animals in the world too? What did they do to deserve to die?”

One of the remarkable elements of Jewish scholarship is that intelligent questions and possible solutions have been raised and debated for several millennia. Here too, our rabbis deal with this very question. The famous medieval Biblical commentator known as Rashi quotes two reasons that all the animals had to be killed along with all of humanity (Genesis 6:7): “The animals had also become corrupted – they began to attempt interbreeding between different species. Another reason (for this decree) is that animals were merely created for the use of mankind. They have no intrinsic right to exist without mankind.”

In other words, God created the world to benefit mankind. There is no other purpose. Animals have no God given right to exist in their own world. When mankind forfeited his right to exist he essentially caused the cessation of all other beings as well. All creatures in the animal kingdom are inherently tied to the fate of man. In fact, they are so closely bound with man that the animals also adopted some of the perversions that had permeated mankind. Bottom line: Animals don’t have an intrinsic right to exist on their own.

This concept is very hard for some to accept. One can only imagine PETA’s opinion of this worldview. Actually, one doesn’t need any imagination – every single page of PETA’s website runs contrary to this notion.

Like most extreme positions, the concept of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) began with its foundations based on solid moral ground. But PETA (similar to other “woke” doctrines) long ago departed the station we shall term “sanity” and arrived somewhere between “La La Land” and “Crazyville.” Don’t take my word for it – anyone can readily see their nuttiness on the PETA website.

(A word of caution: Like other purveyors of extreme positions, they try to justify their stance by using the most intense and horrific imagery to support their deeply flawed ethical conclusions. Their website is replete with nauseating images; as if portraying absolutely abhorrent animal suffering gives them license to fabricate a new reality of ethics.)

Of course PETA is right when it comes to wanting to eliminate animal suffering. But they are far from the first ones to embrace this ideal. The fact that PETA twists this viewpoint to impossible conclusions – and the nonsensical cause known as eliminating “speciesism” (because people and animals are exactly the same) is merely a perversion of both logic and ethics. It’s this kind of foolish thinking that led to “Bark Mitzvas.”

Both the Bible and Jewish law teach us to treat animals with kindness and respect and to protect nature and conserve its resources. Indeed, such teachings are fundamental to Judaism and its traditions. The rules governing the raising and slaughter of animals used for food are especially detailed. It’s clear from these laws that part of the original purpose was to ensure that such creatures are not subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering.

The eminent historian W. E. H. Lecky (1838-1903) in his monumental work History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (published in 1869) observes that “the Jews have the longest history of concern for animals of any people,” and notes that “tenderness to animals is one of the most beautiful features in the Old Testament” and that “Rabbinical writers have been remarkable for the great emphasis with which they inculcated the duty of kindness to animals.”

In actuality, there are several Torah mandated laws that clearly show the care and compassion that we must display towards animals. To begin with there is a Torah prohibition of causing any animal suffering. This commandment is called “tzar ba’alei chayim – causing pain to any living creature.” We even abrogate some of the rabbinic prohibitions on Shabbat to prevent animals from suffering.

Based on this, the 16th century Code of Jewish Law (the “shulchan aruch”) rules that “it is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless or belongs to a non-Jew.”

Perhaps more remarkably, we are even prohibited from causing emotional distress to animals. This attitude stems from the prohibition known as “lo sachsom shor b’disho – the prohibition against muzzling your ox while he is on the threshing floor.”

In ancient times, they used large animals to trample the grains to separate to the kernels from the chaff. The Torah prohibits one from muzzling his animals to prevent them from eating while threshing as this would cause them undue frustration (being unable to eat from any of the food in front of them). W. E. H. Lecky notes the irony that the commandment that the ox be allowed to eat while working was already some 3,000 years old when peasants tending grape orchards in 18th-century Sicily would have their mouths muzzled so they could not “steal” a grape.

In fact, early codifiers of Jewish law add that this prohibition includes migrant workers in the field; meaning that they must be permitted to eat from the fruit they are harvesting (Chinuch).

There are many other Torah and rabbinic laws related to the care and compassion we must display to the animal kingdom. For instance, we are prohibited from taking eggs away from a mother bird while she is sitting in her nest. Additionally, by law we are obligated to feed our animals before we feed ourselves.

If you are a fan of veal or foie gras you may want to skip the next two paragraphs.

On the basis of the prohibition against “tzaar ba’alei hayim – causing pain to any living creature,” the preeminent Halachic scholar of the latter half of the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that the methods of overfeeding animals used to produce delicacies such as veal (and presumably foie gras as well) are prohibited. He writes:

“[In regard to the situation in which] every calf is in its own pen, which is so narrow that it does not have space even to take a few steps, and the calves are not fed the appropriate food for them, and have never tasted their mother’s milk, but they are fattened with very fatty liquids […] this is certainly forbidden on the basis of tzar ba’alei chayim” (Igg’rot Moshe, Even haEzer 4:92).

As the highest life form, man has the responsibility to protect and care for lower life forms. But we must never equate the two or consider ourselves to merely be rational animals.

Torah Portion of the Week

Noah, Genesis 6:9 - 11:32

The story of one righteous man in an evil generation. The Almighty commands Noah to build the ark on a hill far from the water. He built it over a period of 120 years. People deride Noah and ask him, “Why are you building a boat on a hill?” Noah explains that there will be a flood if people do not correct their ways. We see from this the patience of the Almighty for people to correct their ways and the genius of arousing people’s curiosity so that they will ask a question and, hopefully, hear the answer.

The generation does not do teshuva, returning from their evil ways, and God brings a flood for 40 days. They leave the ark 365 days later when the earth has once again become habitable. The Almighty makes a covenant and makes the rainbow the sign of the covenant that He will never destroy all of life again by water (hence, James Baldwin's book, The Fire Next Time). When one sees a rainbow it is an omen to do teshuva – to recognize the mistakes you are making in life, regret them, correct them/make restitution, and ask for forgiveness from anyone you have wronged as well as from the Almighty.

Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and then occurs the mysterious incident in the tent after which Noah curses his grandson Canaan. The Torah portion concludes with the story of the Tower of Babel and then a genealogy from Noah's son, Shem, to Abram (Abraham).

Candle Lighting Times

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
— Mahatma Gandhi


Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Warren Grossman

 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig