Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Jewish Virtue Ethics and Compassion for Animals: A Model from the Musar Movement

Claussen, Geoffrey. “Jewish Virtue Ethics and Compassion for Animals: A Model from the Musar Movement.” CrossCurrents 61, no. 2 (2011): 208-216.

The article is available here via Wiley Online Library.  It focuses on images of animals and animality in the writings of Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv.  Among the texts that I discuss are the following:
1. Ḥokhmah u-Musar 1:31
The [fundamental] quality of God is that [God] loves all creatures; were it not so, they could not exist in the world.  And we find that loving God’s creatures is closeness to the Blessed One…. Our sages, in their holy way, have taught us (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a): how can a person draw close to the Blessed One?  By cleaving to [God’s] attributes. And there is no attribute of the Blessed Lord that is more clear than love for [God’s] creatures.  “You open up your hand and satisfy the desire of all that lives” (Psalms 145:16)—we see that every single creature receives pleasure and satisfaction for its desire, and this is simply God’s love for [God’s] creatures.  And consequently we find that the prohibition on causing suffering to animals comes from the Torah.

2. Ḥokhmah u-Musar 1:8
Our forefathers—our father Jacob, peace be upon him, and David, and also our teacher Moses the shepherd, peace be upon him—concerned themselves with livestock as shepherds for this reason: they wanted to habituate themselves even to share the burdens of animals—all the more so to share the burdens of people of their generation.  
And this is what we have in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2:2), explaining that “Moses was a shepherd” (Exodus 3:1):
The sages said: “God tests that righteous person with small matters.  [He tested] David with sheep and found him to be a good shepherd, as he [first] brought forth the smaller sheep to graze so that they would be able to graze on the tender grass, and afterwards he brought out the older sheep so that they would graze on the regular grass, and finally he brought out the [strong] young sheep who would eat the tougher grass.  The Holy Blessed One said: “one who knows how to shepherd a flock, treating each sheep according to its strength, should come and shepherd my people.”…

And even Moses—God only tested him by means of the flock.  Our sages have said that when Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was shepherding the flock of Jethro, a lamb escaped.  He ran after it until the lamb reached a pool of water where it stopped to drink.  When Moses arrived there, he said: “I had not known that you had run away because of thirst.  You must be tired.”  He placed it on his shoulder and walked back.  God said: “You have shown mercy in guiding your flock in this way.  By your life—you should shepherd my flock, Israel.”

My brothers, gentlemen: contemplate the wonders contained in this midrash, to learn such lofty teachings from one midrashic text.  See the simple things that people scorn, and how they are considered foolish in people’s eyes.  But after they focused on this, training themselves in the character trait of “sharing the burden,” these two great figures merited the kingship.

3. Ḥokhmah u-Musar 1:14
We can understand [the quality of “sharing the burden”] when we see a wagon driver steering a full wagon, when his horse does not want to go forward, and he beats it and beats it.  If the wagon driver were himself to try to pull the burden with all his might, like a horse, then he would not be so cruel to the horse.  But because he is not pulling along with the horse, he does not have a mental image which demands compassion for the horse, which is continually pulling with all its might.  And this is what [our sages] hinted at: if you want to feel the pain of your fellow, stand next to him and pull his burden along with him, and then you will feel your fellow’s pain.
UPDATE: Full text of the article available here.