Are we animals or just lower than the angels? A little bit of each, according to our tradition. In this week’s parashah, for a second time, we are taught the lessons of kashrut. In these laws, certain animals are prohibited to be eaten – land animals that do not chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, sea animals that do not have fins and scales, and birds that are not domesticated. It seems that we have so much authority over animals that we are allowed to eat them. Yet, nearly all the laws of kashrut are to limit our eating of animals. Many traditional rabbis look back to the opening of the Torah and say that the ideal human relationship to animal is to recognize the sacredness of their life as well and not to consume them at all. They note that the first story suggests that we should eat fruit and nuts.
However, all evidence indicates that one of the things that has distinguished the human animal from the other primates from which we have come is our ability to kill animals and eat their flesh. Perhaps the development of human civilization stems from our being carnivores. Again, the Torah hints that this might be the case – the opening chapters of Genesis describes humans as over and against animals: “the fear and dread” of us is upon all the animals. The question with which we must grapple is what is the ethical approach to animals. We are clearly animals – if we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at them with eyes that are not merely human but humane.
Judaism states that we must not treat animals cruelly. These days, that requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for products and many other issues. This week’s parashah tells us that we will have blessing if we follow “the commandments of God”. Throughout the Torah the notion of blessing, life and good are interconnected. If animals, as it is suggested, are driven by instinct, then humans have the power of discernment and the ability to make moral choices. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. Our daily choices have life long consequences.