“What did the animals do to deserve destruction?” This question, raised by our students when discussing the Noah story, is also asked in the Zohar (Perush HaSulam I:68a), the 12th-century work on Jewish mysticism (Qabbala).
The Torah text explains that humanity had become corrupt and irredeemably sinful. But why should the innocent animals be washed away with the guilty people?
The question assumes that there is some value to the life of the individual animal. After all, Noah rescues at least two of each kind of animal, insuring species survival.
It may be that in ancient times the Torah was suggesting that species survival is more fundamental than individual survival for animals. It may also be that the Torah is alerting us to the fact that animal survival (or destruction) depends on the deeds of humans. The fate of the animals is in our hands and is our responsibility. Indeed, in the Jonah story, when Jonah is reluctant to urge the people of Nineveh to repent, the Holy One notes that the animals would suffer along with the people: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!” (Jonah 4:11).
The value of the life of the individual animal is recognized in Torah tradition. That value is implied in the Zohar’s question and codified in laws that prohibit cruelty to animals (tsa`ar ba`alei hayim) and wanton destruction (bal tashhit). There is reason to believe that these prohibitions are for the benefit of the animal as well as for that of humanity.
(The Zohar’s answer to the question, “What did the animals do to deserve destruction,” is that — I’m not making this up — they committed “bestiality,” i.e., mating across species, a sin the natural consequences of which would compromise the species’ prospect for survival!)
In our day, advocates for “Animal Rights” have taken extreme measures to protest and protect against the exploitation of animals. The sentiment behind this is noble, represents valid Torah values, and implements several specific mitsvot.
Beyond the value of the animal’s life and well-being in and of itself, and as an independent being in God’s creation, we believe that the way we view and treat an animal affects the way we treat other people. Cruelty toward animals is often a precursor to cruelty toward people.
In our panoply of values, we might in general rank our values as human species survival, human group survival, individual human life, then animal species survival, and finally individual animal survival. The weight of law and tradition, I would assert, supports such an order.
Some have complained that “Animal Rights” activists are at best “ahead of their time” or at worst placing animal “rights” ahead of human life. How can they worry about a few laboratory rabbits or a bunch of uncomfortable farm chickens while children (and adults) are literally starving and dying from easily preventable and treatable conditions? Would not their efforts be better directed toward promoting human welfare? While in California a $40,000 reward was offered to find the person who killed a dog, there is no reward for missing children in California, let alone concern for those in distant lands.
As far as it goes, this criticism is valid. But the same reasoning should apply to all other causes. How can people advocate for the “right” to have a new sports stadium, to drive gas-guzzlers, to own and carry guns, when “children (and adults) are literally starving.” It seems strange to condemn Animal Rights activists for promoting a value less important than human life while others are directing even greater resources to promote causes that are (arguably) unworthy, trivial or, at least, even less important.
The values of human life and “Animal Rights” are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are complementary. I believe that human life and rights should rightly be among our highest values and should have priority in our limited activism. But I would not condemn Animal Rights activists for promoting a cause that is not self-serving and that aims to elevate the ethical quality of our society, insofar as their advocacy and activism is lawful and not conducted directly at the expense of human welfare or dignity.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who lived in the second century CE in Israel, taught: “Be as attentive to a minor mitzva as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot” (Pirqe Avot 2:1).