Animal welfare: Is it a divine or moral imperative?

Animals do not have rights, but we have duties towards them. We must not cause them unnecessary pain or emotional distress.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,

Former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Reuters

Animals are part of God’s creation. They have their own integrity in the scheme of things. We now know that they are far closer to human beings than philosophers like Descartes thought. This would not have been news to the heroes of the Bible.

Abraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds who lived their formative years watching over and caring for animals. That was their first tutorial in leadership, and they knew that this was one way of understanding God Himself (“The Lord is my shepherd” ).

Judaism also reminds us of what we sometimes forget: that the moral life is too complex to summarize in a single concept like “rights.” Alongside rights, there are duties, and there can be duties without corresponding rights.

Animals do not have rights, but we have duties towards them. As several laws in Parshat Ki Teitse and elsewhere make clear, we must not cause them unnecessary pain or emotional distress.

As we saw last week in the case of environmental legislation in Shoftim, Genesis 1 gives us the mandate to “subdue” and “rule” creation, including animals, but Genesis 2 gives us the responsibility to “serve” and “guard.” Animals may not have rights but they have feelings, and we must respect them if we are to honor our role as God’s partners in creation.




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