The relationship between humans and other animals continues to be as vexed and complex as it was in Torah times, for we recognize that we have consciousness somewhat higher than the animals, while also being animals ourselves. A rabbinic midrash puts it quite bluntly, paraphrased as follows: “Like animals, humans eat, drink, defecate, procreate and die. Like the higher beings, humans stand upright, understand, speak and perceive”. What do we do with these differences? The tradition has acknowledged our power over animals, yet responsibility for them as well.
The Psalmist writes: “You have made the mortal human little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty. You have made him master over your handiwork, laying the world at his feet, sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too; the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas.” (Psalm 8:5–7). This power over the rest of animal life reflects other teachings of the Torah, including those from the opening story of creation in which we are given “dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and the animals of the land”. While some have used these verses to justify our absolute right to use animals as we wish, Jews have never understood or taught Torah in this manner. According to thousands of years of received tradition, our dominion requires care for and duty toward animals. Judaism expects all humanity to avoid “tz’ar ba’ale chayim,” causing pain to animals.
In this week’s parasha, for a second time, we are taught the lessons of kashrut: laws that need to be seen in the context of the fact that when humans were given dominion over the animals, they were supposed to be eating a strict vegetarian diet of “the seed-bearing fruits of trees and plants.” Later teachings of Torah allow the consumption of animals, and in this light the laws of kashrut are to limit ourselves to eating 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. Other received traditions limit our use of animals in many ways; even animals have the right to rest on Shabbat.
These limitations must be seen in terms of what the ancients knew about animals in general. Contemporary scientists tell us there are even more similarities between us and animals; animals are far more sentient and similar to humans than the ancients understood. These days, not causing cruelty to animals requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for cosmetic products and many other related issues. 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.
If we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at our fellow animals with eyes that are not merely human but humane.