Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mishpatim: Animals and Man

The complex dietary laws of the Torah have been interpreted in many ways. Hygiene, symbolism and isolationism all are plausible, and provide insight into the regulations. It bears repeating that the binding authority of the law is independent of the ratio legis; we keep the commandments ultimately in obedience to the Divine authority that commanded them. Only when placed in this context can the benefits of the search for טעמי המצוות, the legal rationale, be realized.

I would like to present a quote from Rabbi Kook in reference to the law of טרפה, a terminally ill animal. The Torah commands us not to eat this meat (Exod. 22:30).

Distinctive [among the traits of Israel] is the compassion that waits to blossom into manifestation from amidst the feelings of the pure-hearted, and spread from humanity to all living creatures. This compassion is nascent within the prohibition of eating neveilah (an animal that has died as a result of sickness) or a treifah (an animal that has died as a result of bodily injury).

Just as we naturally feel greater pity for sick or injured human beings than we feel for the healthy, the unfortunate injured animal deserves our additional sympathy. Having internalized the ethical implications of the Torah's prohibition of eating the flesh of a torn animal, our hearts can fully experience the spirit of enlightenment that relates the precept of visiting the sick, prompting us to relieve their distress.

The commonality that exists between our feelings of compassion [for both animals and human beings] also expresses itself in connection with the need to guard our health, both spiritually and physically, and in not putting ourselves on the same plane as the predatory beasts. Rather, [the Torah] imposes upon us the further obligation to bring about their good, to benefit and to enlighten them. How could we consume the treifah lying in the field, which would appear like "dividing the spoil" with [the wild beasts], and constitute a tacit approval of their predatory habits?

It is true that, among the various categories of treifah discussed by the Talmudic sages, we must distinguish between a mortally injured animal in the field and a terminally ill human being. However, the suffering of both creatures calls for our compassion, which initially should be awakened on behalf of the wretched and the outcast. The law of the animal that died as a result of sickness prepares the heart to feel even greater repugnance toward exploiting the misfortune of other creatures in the event of their deaths. This sensitivity signals a sense of comradeship, sharing another's pain, and our having entered the borders of their inner world. With this, the "motivation by virtue of enlightenment" will supercede the "motivation by virtue of the law," causing us to distance ourselves from committing any evil upon these, our comrades in the universe, since we all come forth from the hand of One Creator, the Master of All His Works.

Humanity has a tremendous capacity for empathy, but we also have the ability to de-sensitize ourselves to the plight of others. Naturally, the pain of an animal is legally on a lower plane than the pain of a human being. However, emotionally, the pitiful cry of an injured animal, or the look of pain in its eye, evokes strong emotions of concern and sympathy. We can almost see our own children in the eyes of a puppy.

The Torah aims to use the suffering of animals, and the well of emotions that awakens within us, to help us re-sensitize ourselves to the troubles of others. We do not treat the weak animal as an easy kill, as the buzzards do, but see them as unfit to eat. The compassion they evoke makes us better humans must be treasured. Otherwise, it will de-sensitize us to the suffering of other people, also.

A few years ago, I read a passage in Rabbi Hirsch's writings. Its effect was that we must walk a very fine line when dealing with our capacity for compassion and empathy. We must constantly develop our ability to feel another's pain, but must never allow it to disintegrate into a hysterical impotence. If we identify with the suffering of others too closely, we end up wallowing in sadness, and unable to help. Our empathy must stop short of this, so that it becomes a catalyst for us to help those in need.

Mishpatim is a portion that deals largely with social justice and the salvation of the weak from the abuse of the powerful. The Talmud (Megilah 30a) states that wherever God's glory is mentioned, his concern with the lowly is also mentioned. True power is just when it empathizes and concerns itself with the betterment of the weaker strata of society. Perhaps this is the lesson of the laws of טרפה.