A few years ago I saw a cat hit by a car. It rolled over several times but escaped unhurt. Its face showed no sign of shock (1), but its body language indicated clear signs of panic and disorientation. It ran to the side of the road, turned over several times more, as if in total confusion, and then calmed down. I waited a few seconds wondering what I could do to help, but a moment later the cat went on its way and then disappeared.
This unusual and painful sight triggered several thoughts that I have been contemplating for some time now.
How do we know that animals experience less pain than we do? How can we measure this? What is it that makes animals different from human beings, and their lives of less value?
It has been argued that animals do not possess the sophisticated level of consciousness that humans have. Humans are aware of their very being, of their thinking. They are much more intelligent, far more creative. They can think in abstract terms. Animals are unable to do so, at least not on the same level as humans (2).
Surely there is an ontological difference between animals and humans. Human beings live life on a level that animals do not share, but we don’t even know what this consists of. We recognize that there is a “jump in level” from the animal to the human species, but we don’t know what actually constitutes this jump (3). We merely see the outer aspects of it. Physics and chemistry don’t help; they can only describe it. To claim that they can explain it is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but an aspect of a particular combination of letters. But in fact, the particular combination of letters is nothing but an aspect of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We cannot describe its gestalt. This ultimately remains mysterious. It seems that even the best life sciences can hardly explain life as such. It is simply elusive.
But even when we acknowledge that these differences are real, what criteria determine that the lives of animals are less valuable than those of human beings? How do we know that ontological decline also means a lesser claim to the sanctity of life? Who says that less gestalt means less significance and meaning? What gives us the right to kill animals for our consumption, use them for scientific research or force them to experience pain for the sake of human beings? Perhaps all forms of life, from the simple to the sophisticated, are of the same “life value” and none of them should have any claim on the other or be subordinate to the other.
What moral criterion, then, do we rely on when we kill animals for food? However careful we may be in sparing them pain while slaughtering, what gives us the right to kill them at all, even painlessly? This challenge does not stop here. We must also ask what gives us the right to pluck a flower and stop its life flow, or to kill an insect, even if it is dangerous. How do we know that our blood is redder than that of the insect? Perhaps human life must be sacrificed for the sake of an insect’s life. The astonishing conclusion is that there are no objective criteria to follow.
Let us take this matter even further. What gives a husband the right to impregnate his wife, knowing she will no doubt undergo serious pain and discomfort when giving birth? Is this entirely dependent on his wife’s consent? Who says we are allowed to put her in the slightest danger even if she has fully agreed? What gives us the right to have sexual relations with a human being but forbids us to do so with another creature? Once again, we lack absolute moral criteria.
It is for this reason that there are serious doubts about whether “morality” could ever permit any of the above. If there are no absolute criteria by which we determine how to deal with these questions, a consistent approach may well have to conclude that the slaughtering of animals, the killing of insects, the plucking of a flower and the impregnation of women should be strictly forbidden. In case of doubt, the rule should be: No!
Like it or not, we may be forced to conclude that much of what we assume to be permitted should in fact be prohibited. The list of forbidden acts would be nearly infinite.
This leads us to a most amazing conclusion: A strictly secular approach to major moral issues may have to be much more restrictive than what any religion would ever demand. In fact, a secular moral attitude may make life extremely difficult and even impossible.
It is religion, and not a consistent secular attitude, that has the more liberal approach to major moral issues. Religion, in fact, removes many restrictions that would otherwise be required by secular standards of morality. In the case of Judaism, Halacha rules that one is allowed to slaughter an animal, albeit under certain circumstances. It allows and even obligates us to kill a dangerous insect. And in the case of a married woman, it makes the radical claim that it is a mitzvah for her husband to impregnate her and have children, even though this is accompanied by excruciating pain. It does so purely on the basis of its faith that the Creator not only permitted these but even demanded them. This of course cannot be proven, but once Halacha would reject this belief it would have no option but to forbid all the above, as would secular morality.
We may therefore have to admit that we have been wrong for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is not religion that restricts our lives, but it should be secularism. True, we may not have seen secularism in this light and may have allowed ourselves many liberties in its name. But we should be aware that this approach may have been entirely wrong. It should perhaps have been the reverse; it is secularity that would make life much more difficult.
If so, we must argue that in the case of Judaism, the 613 commandments are not restrictive but are ways to liberate us from hundreds if not thousands of prohibitions that honest secularism would have imposed on us.
Perhaps Professor E.S. Waterhouse (4) was correct, after all, when he made the disturbing observation that just as a parasite is an independent organism but dependent on its host for survival, so is secular morality dependent on religious values for its restrictions. But in our case, it has the reverse meaning: If secularism would stand on its own, it would be so restrictive as to make life extremely difficult, if not impossible. That it permits so much is due to the fact that it has adopted much from the “permissive” world of religion.
Rather an unusual observation prompted by a simple cat.
daviid lloyd klepper says
I became a vegetarian about the same time as I began moving from Reform to Orthodox practice in my Judaism. For the very reasons or questions that you have posed . I do eat fish and eggs. I don’t think eggs feel pain, although the Torah prohibition on removing egges from a mother bird does seem compassionat and correct to me. I cannot identify sufficiently with fish, and my doctor tells me I need fish to make up for the absence of meat. I have seen human-like behavior in cats and dogs, and dolphins (which are not fish) have been knnown to save drowning humans. Dogs routinely are used for rescue operations. I don’t trumpet my vegetarianism, or try to convince others, but I do not depart from it.
Esther Friedman says
Dear Rabbi Cardozo,
Wow! This is a brilliant essay. I have never thought of it this way.
It would make people tolerate eachother a lot better if we thought
this way, for example: people who eat no animal products for humanitarian reasons (strict vegans) and people who eat meat and other animal products. There would be such a better understanding
and appreciation. Also people who think religious beliefs are so
constricting under Halacha would look at secular life and see how
constricting it is in many ways and how freeing religious life is in many wasy. It completely changes one’s world view and opens up the mind, not to blindly accept the secular or religious, but see what can be better practice or intent in each, to be more humane and working
harder to make a better world, starting with one’s own beliefs and beliefs of one’s community. Thank you so much for all your leadership and open mindedness and sharing your wonderful ideas
that tie together Judaism and the world we live in, down to the minutest and beautiful detail. Yasher Koach.
Sincerely, Esther Friedman
Miguel Aguirre says
Que el Dio le bendiga senyor Cardoso!
The law is eternal, but its interpretation changes with the changing perspectives that advancement of sciences social changes provide. Thank you for driving us to the very complex world of how the law shall be understand in the modern World.
Yes. Agree. Religion provides more freedom for a man and to a man. For sure. No need to argue . However, what about a freedom for a woman? What the same Halacha is saying about it? What about a freedom to sing in public? Or testify in court? Or many other aspects that are usually go ” hash- hash”?
And it’s very honorable that we as humans do have feelings for animals that are hurt and we are wanting to help that cat or that dog who is pain. But tell me Rabbi, if you were a witness to car accident where man and a woman were hurt and with their life danger …who would you help first…a man or a woman??? What Halacha suggests to you in this case??? What is the order of the ” value”, or Mitzva ?
What freedom is offered to you here by religion..and to us….us …women???
…..Just a thought and observation by a simple Jewish woman.
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
Thanks for your important observations.
I have no doubt that many including myself would first help the woman. We would argue that this is the halacha.
As far as I remember, Rav Uziel the former Chief Rabbi of israel has already written on the issue of women testifying in court etc and argues that these laws no longer apply since the status of women has drastically changed.
Bracha Sarah Meyerowitcz says
In the shuk one night I saw a woman select a live fish and it was taken out of the tank and it lay there struggling to survive.
The fish was not killed but wrapped to take home and suffocated slowly for lack of oxygen.
I don’t eat fish. I see that other animals must be killed to they are unconscious in a matter of seconds and do not suffer but a fish lingers in death and I don’t see how this can be permitted.
Yaacov B. says
Not only would long term secularism lead to a profusion of contradictory laws, it would eventually, and not even slowly, lead to widespread factional warfare, between those very groups claiming the most compassion. The proof of this is in watching the irreconcilable differences in political views today, and the acrimony which shows no permanent signs of diminishing. Despite superficial appearances, history is replete with such examples, even among the non-secular, to whom the commandments mean less than the compassionate differences in economics.
This essay is excellent.
As a vegan from day 1 on this sojourn not lacking any vitamins and i am approaching my sixties, i am begging all humans to think twice or more before eating meat and or fish.
We have no right to take lives.
When i see my neighbours who have more than enough income to spend, celebrating every other night with “al haesh” bbq parties smelling the burnt animals i mourn each slaughtered animal.
When i was 16 years old i visited a Dutch family, farmers who had pigs
One night i heard the pigs screaming and crying till dawn, i could not stop crying myself hearing them. I asked my friend what happened why did they cry the whole night
She said:”they know my father is going to slaughter them tonight, we sell their meats. They always cry 24 hours before their slaughter”
Now can you still doubt that animals are helpless and cry out loud forcsalvation? That we are humans so selfish ?