Parashat Noach Noah's Ark Bible Torah
Vintage illustration of Noah's Ark and the animals. (iStock)

Animals in Judaism

Judaism's attitude toward animals.

There is no single theological view in Judaism on the purpose of the animal creation. Saadiah Gaon, discussing why God created animals, gives three possible reasons. The first is that God simply willed it so and it is not for man to try to fathom the divine will. Secondly, it may be that God created the wondrous animal kingdom in all its variety so that His wisdom could be revealed to man. Thirdly, it may be that animals have been created for man’s benefit.

Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3. 13), on the other hand, does not consider the question of why God created animals a significant one, since we must eventually fall back on the idea that it is God’s will, as it is with everything else in creation. Maimonides refuses to interpret the creation narrative in Genesis (Genesis I: 26-8) as implying that animals, sun, moon, and stars were created solely for man.

True, argues Maimonides, the Genesis account states that man can rule over the animals but this in no way implies that God created them for this specific purpose. Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3. 17) also ridicules the notion that animals will be recompensed in the hereafter for the sufferings they have to undergo on earth. This view is held by Saadiah but Maimonides believes it to be foreign to Judaism.

The Rabbinic literature was not composed by systematic theologians like Saadiah and Maimonides. In this literature there are teachings about animals which do seem to imply that everything in creation, including animals, exists for the sake of human brings. In Midrashic comment on the creation narrative in Genesis, an analogy is made between God’s creation of animals, birds, and fishes and a king who has a tower stocked with all good things. If the king receives no guests, what pleasure does he derive from so stocking it? Human beings are God’s guests and the animals are “stocked” for his benefit.

In even more startling form, the Talmud observes that nothing in creation is useless: the snail can be used as a cure for a scab, the fly as a cure for the sting of a wasp, and so on. We are not told what use the snail itself has in being used as a cure for a scab but then, as has been said, the Rabbis were not systematic theologians exploring fully the reasons for creation, and are best understood as religious poets trying to give human beings a sense of importance because the whole creation revolves around them.

The ancient compilation known as Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song), is based on the idea that each species of animal sings its own particular hymn to the Creator. Appropriate scriptural verses are listed for each of God’s creatures who “sing” His praises by their very being. For instance, the song of the birds is: “Even the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young” (Psalms 84: 4). Dogs sing: ‘O come, let us bow down and bend the knee; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker!’ (Psalms 95: 6).

Another theological problem in connection with animals, discussed particularly by Judah Halevi, is that of animal suffering: why nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Although this is part of the more general question of suffering, of why God tolerates evil in His creation, the problem is especially acute with regard to animals who have no moral sense that might be refined and developed through suffering.

Halevi admits that it is hard to explain why animals should have to find their food by preying on one another. But in the very act of the spider spinning its web to catch the fly there is to be seen the wondrous wisdom of the Creator and faith must then sustain us in the belief that, in a way beyond our grasp, this same wisdom is benevolent and in the divine plan all is well and truly put.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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