Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
An ethical topic which is important to clarify is how does the Torah relate to animals?
The basic rule is that animals should be treated compassionately and decently; the Torah prohibits causing animals pain. Not only is it forbidden to cause them pain, it is a mitzvah to make an effort to relieve them of pain, as we have learned from the mitzvah of unloading a burden from a donkey – one who sees a donkey crouching under its burden is commanded to unload it in order to prevent the donkey from suffering. From this we learn that whenever one sees an animal suffering and can help, one must attempt to rescue the animal from its suffering.
Seemingly, one might ask: If so, how can we slaughter cattle, beasts, and chicken and eat their flesh? Is there anything crueler than this? However, the basic rule is that when a conflict arises between the needs of man and those of animals, human needs take preference. For just as animals are permitted to eat vegetation, so too, man is permitted to eat the meat of animals. Nevertheless, if it is not for vital purposes, it is forbidden to cause animals pain.
Since meat is an extremely essential part of man's diet, the Torah allows us to slaughter cattle and other animals to eat them. Additionally, it is doubtful to what extent Jewish slaughtering actually causes pain to the animal; it could be that the moment of slaughtering is so short, that pain is barely felt.
Indeed, in the first generations, man was prohibited from eating meat. Although it is written (Genesis 1:28): "Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land", the meaning is that according to the order of creation, it is fitting that animals serve man, for he is the crown jewel of creation. However, man was forbidden to treat animals cruelly and to eat them.
But as a result of the Sin of Adam and the Generation of the Flood, the entire world fell from its original status; people began to behave immorally, the nature of animals became introverted and more violent, and they began to devour one another. Even the earth was blemished – producing thorns and thistles. In such a situation, man's obligation is to first repair the foundations of morality between human beings – not to steal or exploit, and all the more so, not to murder. Only after a basic system of morality between man and his fellow human is properly built, with the cessation of wars and injustice from the world, can we continue to rise to a higher moral standard in our relationship to animals. Towards this end, there was a need to set a clear distinction between animals and man -- who was created in the image of God, in order to emphasize man's destiny and responsibility, for only he was obliged with the task of repairing and elevating the world. Therefore, after the Flood, man was permitted to eat the flesh of animals, as it was said to Noah: "Like plant vegetation, I have [now] given you everything" (Genesis 9:3).
This subject requires further explanation. As a result of the Sin of Adam and the generations that preceded the Flood – nature itself changed. In other words, the moral decline influenced all systems of life, including nutrition. Until the generation of the Flood, humans could derive all the nourishment they required from vegetation. However, after the sin and the collapse of nature's system, vegetation no longer satisfied man, and therefore God permitted Noah and his son's to eat the meat of animals, fowl and fish. That is to say, the moral decline of the world created a completely new ecological situation in which we are forced to do things in conflict to the perfect ideal. Furthermore, in the present state of the world, if we stop eating meat, it is doubtful whether it would benefit the species we normally consume, for if we do not continue to raise and enlarge them for man's use, then their numbers will decline greatly.
Presently, animals significantly increase under human supervision. However, if we were to release all the beasts and fowl to the wild, within a very short time only a few would remain.
Nevertheless, we remember that in the ideal, perfect situation, before the sin, Adam was commanded not to eat the meat of animals. Therefore, we are sure that in the future, after the world is repaired, the heavens and the earth will be renewed, the nature of man and the animals will change and be elevated, and then we will return to that same supreme, ethical sensitivity according to which it is forbidden to kill animals to eat their meat (Rabbi Kook "Chazon Hatzimchanute v'Hashalom" 2).