Rabbi Avi Shafran, in an article in Hamodea (5/2/14), writes about the lawsuit of Tommy, from Gloversville, New York, against Patrick and Diane Lowrey for what he claims was his unlawful detention. Let me quote from the plaintiff’s brief: “he sued because he was detained—against his will—in a small, dank cage which was located in a dark shed on the Lowrey’s property.” The suit claimed that Tommy’s civil rights were violated by this imprisonment and that the Lowrey’s had no right to keep Tommy in a cage, in view of the 13th amendment to the constitution which abolishes slavery.
Now I ask you: If one of your friends or one of your neighbors brought a suit in which he claimed that he was detained against his will in a small, dank cage which was located in a dark shed, how would you feel? I would be outraged. Wouldn’t you? And yet, I’m happy to report to you that this lawsuit was thrown out of court by the judge. Why? Because Tommy is a chimpanzee, not a human being, and therefore has no legal rights to bring a lawsuit…and the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolishes slavery, does not apply to him.
To be technical, Tommy was not the one who brought the actual suit. It was brought on his behalf by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is an organization that has been created to fight for the civil rights of animals. At the same time that this organization went to court on behalf of Tommy, they also instituted actions on behalf of Kiko, a chimp who lives in Niagara Falls…and Leo and Hercules, who are part of a research project at Stony Brook University. They claimed that these animals are intelligent, sensitive creatures and that no one has the right to conduct medical experiments on them without their consent. Therefore, they have no right to be imprisoned in cages or anywhere else. The judge found in all 3 of these cases that the 13th amendment only applies to human beings, and not to animals.
The president of the Nonhuman Rights Project is Steven Wise of Harvard Law School. Why does he think that he will win on behalf of the civil rights of chimpanzees? Because he says: “Chimpanzees possess complex cognitive abilities that are strictly protected when they are found in human beings”. In other words, chimpanzees are just as smart as human beings and if we’re not allowed to use human beings as guinea pigs without their consent, we shouldn’t use chimpanzees either.
What’s the Jewish approach? Should animals have rights? Of course they should. In today’s Torah portion, Noah not only saves himself and his family from the flood that destroys the world, but he saves all the animals of the world by bringing at least 2 of each species aboard. After the flood Gd tells Noah (Ber. 9:4) that cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden. The case mentioned, according to Rashi, is that of Eyver min hachai, eating a limb of an animal while it is still alive. This barbarous practice was common in the ancient world without refrigeration, to keep meat fresh. It’s an extreme case, but taken together with many other laws in the Torah—such as not muzzling an ox when he’s threshing, not plowing a field with a donkey an ox on the same plow, feeding your animal before you feed yourself—points to the Torah prohibition of Tzaar baaley chayim, being cruel to animals. So yes animals have rights and must not be mistreated.
Having said that…I must tell you that the Torah disagrees with Mr. Wise. Judaism insists that human beings—and only human beings—are created b’tzelem Elokim, in the Image of Gd. To blur the difference between humans and animals is just plain wrong. Animals are precious, wonderful creatures created by Gd. But they are not made in the Image of Gd. Therefore, since Gd has given us permission we have the right to eat them for food and we have the right to experiment on them—in the least cruel way—in order to discover drugs and cures that may save human lives!
If Mr. Wise were the only one who held the view that there is no substantial difference between humans and animals, I would not take your time to discuss this with you today. But there are many others like him. There’s an organization called Peta which dares to compare the slaughter of chickens for food to the way Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. There’s a professor named Singer at Princeton, who says that the life of a pig or a dog or a chimpanzee has no less value than the life of a newborn child. And I must tell you that I shiver when I hear such views expressed, because they are literally dehumanizing. I shiver because I have seen some of these groups start out pleading for the rights of animals and end up denying the rights of human beings.
Dennis Prager, in his column, comments (8/20/13): Since the 1970s, I have asked students if they would first try to save their drowning dog or a drowning stranger. And for 40 years I have received the same results: One third vote for their dog, one third for the stranger, and one third don’t know what they would do.
He cites a Wall Street Journal column by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, about another such experiment:
Participants in the study were told a hypothetical scenario in which a bus is hurtling out of control, bearing down on a dog and a human. Which do you save? With responses from more than 500 people, the answer was that it depended: What kind of human and what kind of dog?
Everyone would save a sibling, grandparent or close friend rather than a strange dog. But when people considered their own dog versus people less connected with them…votes in favor of saving the dog came rolling in. And an astonishing 40 percent of respondents, including 46 percent of women, voted to save their dog over a foreign tourist.
We’re living at a time when the status of animals is on the rise. People today have less and less children and more and more pets. I get calls—and I am sure that other rabbis do as well—asking if I would officiate at the funeral of a beloved pet. There are many liberal synagogues in which the parsha of Noah is observed by inviting people to bring their pets to shule—like Noah brought the animals into the ark—and having them blessed by the rabbi.
All of us feel more for a being we love than for a being we don’t know—let alone don’t love. But there’s a higher value than our feelings, higher than our opinions or our faculty of reason—even higher than our conscience. That higher source is Gd who teaches us that human life is infinitely precious—infinitely more precious than animal life. I love my dogs but Gd demands I save any of you 1st.
We are witnessing an increasing bankruptcy of moral values as our society becomes more and more secular. Dennis Prager challenges us:
Pose the dog-stranger question to 10 people who believe Genesis is divine writ and 10 people who believe the Bible is written entirely by men. When you tally the results, you will feel safer swimming among religious Jews and Christians.
If I have offended any of you or insulted your Yorkshire Terrier or Golden Retriever, I sincerely apologize. They are precious gifts from Gd and you should love them. But never forget that your holy soul is infinitely more precious. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis