The mass suffering of animals in factory farming is one of the greatest ills of our time. It requires an urgent response that is not only just but loving.
Sadly, in many Jewish communities today, a culture pervades that meat consumption is not only a religious fulfillment but a cultural necessity. It is looked down upon to avoid meat consumption as a “holier than thou” attitude. Indeed, as religious Jews have become more politically reactionary in recent years, this ideology has stymied larger efforts for meat reduction in the broader community. Some seem to think that going beyond the norm of meat at every occasion is a violation of the institutions of Judaism itself.
We are better than this.
Whether through Jewish virtue ethics, the concept of imitatio Dei, a utilitarian philosophy, a deontological approach, a halakhic approach, natural morality, or the basic theology of Judaism itself, exploring how the ethos of loving non-human animals is deeply-rooted in traditional Jewish thought is indispensable for contemporary moral growth.
How might one be motivated by each of these various approaches in practice?
One may not lose sleep at night about the horrors of factory farming or industrial slaughter. Nonetheless, one recognizes that cultivating compassion within ourselves and tacitly supporting cruelty affects personal levels of virtue.
On another level, there is imitatio Dei (halachta b’drachav) to consider. We learn that God is compassionate to all and, thus, we are to emulate this compassion. Rather than being virtue-centered, here one is God-centered, focused on connection through the emulation of Divine attributes. While some people might only be concerned with compassion for other humans, the rabbis teach that this is not the Divine approach:
If a person traveling by ship encounters a great storm, he will throw his possessions and livestock overboard in order to save the passengers. He does not have the same degree of compassion for his animals and possessions as he does for other human beings. However, the Holy One… has compassion for animals just as He has compassion for humans. As it states, “[God’s] mercy is upon all [God’s] works (Psalms 145:9).”
On the other hand, in a Jewish utilitarian ethos, one is not primarily concerned with a connection to God, but rather with reducing suffering.
And in a deontological approach, one is not primarily concerned with the self, with God, or with the other, but with normative moral rules and obligations: there ought to be a society of law and moral order and animals are certainly a part of that.
Certainly, one may be motivated by a halakhic concern to avoid the prohibition of tzaar baalei chayim (not causing unnecessary pain to animals), bal tashchit (destroying needlessly), and pikuach nefesh (valuing and protecting life).
The rabbis explain the existence of natural morality based upon our ability to learn from the animal kingdom: “If we had not received the Torah we would have learned modesty from watching a cat, honesty from the ant, and fidelity from the dove.” This is to say that human capacities for observation, reason, and conscience are adequate sources for moral learning (instead of traditional texts).
Lastly, one might be motivated by the Kabbalistic teaching regarding gilgulim (reincarnation) where we see that there is a breakdown in the strict distinction between self and other; between human and animal. We are concerned for an animal because we are an animal. Human anatomy, biology, and behavior are predictable to that of animals, to the point where in a past life, we were an animal; in a future life, perhaps we will be an animal. We understand the biblical instruction to “love another like yourself” more as “love another because they are yourself.”
Or consider a theology where all beings have a Divine purpose and therefore dignity and value: “There is nothing superfluous in the universe. Even flies, gnats, and mosquitoes are part of creation and… serve a Divinely-appointed purpose.” This is not a love based on reciprocity; it’s love based upon empathy. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart.
While this list certainly doesn’t exhaust the list of possible motives for why one might care about an animal, these are possible Jewish ethical frameworks that might be relevant to one on a path of ethical cultivation. Regardless of one’s motive, following the path of mussar allows our moral and spiritual growth by actualizing the imperative of reducing needless suffering.
There is, perhaps, no phrase more powerful in the Haggadah than: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” This moves the seder night from nostalgia to urgency, from memory to mandate, from being passive to being active. It is a reminder that this current moment is as important as that historical moment. At each moment, we stand between oppression and freedom, narrowness and expansiveness, the hidden and the revealed.
But this spiritual work is not easy. On this, the great 20th century mussar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explains:
We see ourselves in the other, as if every person we encounter is simply a mirror in which we see ourselves! That is to say: we have not yet freed ourselves from the self-centered perspective to see that the other is not identified with us. The other is precisely other, different from us in essence, and it is incumbent upon us to focus on the way the other differ from us and see that which the other needs, not that which we need!”
It is impossible to understand another’s trauma and impossible to grasp the extent of another’s suffering. But we can create spaces to listen, to cultivate empathy, and to respond to their needs. And Rav Wolbe teaches here that we must start with transcending the self: getting beyond the idea that because we know our own needs that we truly understand the needs of another. There is a strong case to be made for the commonalities between humans and animals. But there is also a strong case to be made for our otherness. The work of mussar is to see the gap in our commonalities as the space for our work of empathy, to transcend our needs toward understanding the needs of the other. Indeed, the work of mussar resonates most deeply, when it comes to our obligation toward animals, precisely because of the otherness that emerges alongside our sameness.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.
 Midrash Tanchuma, Noach 6
 BT Eruvin 100b
 Bereshit Rabba 10:7
 Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb 17:125
 Alei Shur 2:6