Religion: Friend or Foe of Animal Activism?


Many animal activists regard organized religion as an ideological opponent. Concerning Judaism specifically, this negative presumption is largely due to the misunderstanding of two important biblical verses that, when properly interpreted, actually endorse the struggle to improve conditions for animals.

The first misunderstanding is that the biblical teaching granting humans dominion over other animals gives us a warrant to treat them in whatever way we may wish. However, Jewish tradition interprets “dominion” as guardianship, or stewardship; we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. This biblical mandate does not mean that people have the right to wantonly exploit animals, and it certainly does not permit us to breed animals and then treat them as machines designed solely to meet human needs. In “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a leading 20th century Jewish thinker, states:

“There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person that [the Divine empowerment of humanity to derive benefit from nature]does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to satisfy his whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Divine Law would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is ‘good to all, and His mercy is upon all his works’ (Psalms 145:9), and Who declared, ‘The world shall be built with kindness’ (ibid. 89:33).”

This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet best suited to humans (Genesis 1:29). This mandate is almost immediately followed by God’s declaration that all of Creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Adam and Eve’s original vegetarian diet was consistent with the stewardship that God entrusted to them and to all humankind.

That dominion means responsible stewardship is reinforced by a statement in the next chapter of Genesis (2:15) that indicates that humans are to work the land, but also to guard it. We are to be coworkers with God in protecting the environment.

The second error of some animal activists is the presumption that the biblical teaching that only people are created in God’s image means that God places little or no value on animals. While the Torah states that only human beings are created “in the Divine Image” (Genesis 5:1), animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned whether they are protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state that being “created in the Divine Image” means that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. “As God is compassionate,” they teach, “so you should be compassionate.”

In his classic work Ahavat Chesed (“The Love of Kindness”), the revered Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin) writes that whoever emulates the Divine love and compassion to all creatures “will bear the stamp of God on his person.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century Jewish thinker, also discusses this concept, that human beings were created to “serve and safeguard the earth” (Genesis 2:15). Rabbi Hirsch states that this actually limits our rights over other living things. He writes:

“The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God’s earth, and everything on it as God’s creation, as your fellow creatures – to be respected, loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God’s will… To this end, your heartstrings vibrate sympathetically with any cry of distress sounding anywhere in Creation, and with any glad sound uttered by a joyful creature.”

In summary, as the Lord is our shepherd, we are to be shepherds of voiceless creatures. As God is kind and compassionate to us, we must be considerate of the needs and feelings of animals. In addition, religious vegetarians of diverse faiths believe that by showing compassion to animals through a vegetarian diet, we help fulfill the commandment to imitate God’s ways.

Critics of religion in the animal rights community may argue, with some justification, that the various religious communities are not doing enough to end the many horrible abuses of animals today, especially in the meat industry. However, this failure should not lead animal activists to scorn and repudiate religion altogether, but as much as possible to enlist the religious world in the common cause of eliminating the cruel misuses of animals.

Judaism clearly forbids any gratuitous display of cruelty toward animals. In Hebrew, this is called tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the biblical mandate not to cause “pain to any living creature.” This is, in fact, a category for a significant group of laws in the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) and the responsa literature.

Furthermore, Psalms 104 and 148 bespeak the worthiness of the animals of the field, creatures of the sea, and birds of the air before their Creator. Psalm 104 depicts God as “giving drink to every beast of the field,” and “causing grass to spring up for the cattle.” Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous person regards the life of his or her animal.” In his explanation of this verse, the Malbim, a 19th century biblical commentator, explained that the righteous person understands the nature of the animal, and hence provides food at the proper time, and according to the amount needed. He is also careful not to overwork the animal. Rather, the tzaddik (righteous person) acts according to the laws of justice. Not only does he act according to these laws with human beings, but also with animals.

It would be a major mistake for animal activists to dismiss the various religious communities as unconcerned with the plight of animals. Rather, while respectfully challenging religious adherents to live up to their religions’ compassionate teachings about animals, we all should seek ways to transcend our philosophical and theological differences, and find a common ground on which we may stand together for the benefit of animals and humankind.

Featured image: cat wandering the Szydlowiec Jewish Cemetery in Poland. Credit Wojciech Domagala, CC BY 3.0

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About Author

Richard H. Schwartz is a Ph.D. Professor Emeritus at the College of Staten Island. Author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and over 250 articles at He is also President Emeritus of Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America; President, Society Of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV); and Associate Producer of A SACRED DUTY. Click to see author's profile.

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