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Animal sentience, a Jewish perspective from Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

On 5 November the British Parliament voted by 313 votes to 295 not to transfer European protocol on animal sentience into UK law.

It is argued that this was merely a procedural matter; the government considered the issue sufficiently covered under pre-existing British legislation. It is certainly fair to say that this was not a vote in support of the notion that animals are unfeeling, or that they may be treated as such.

Nevertheless, the result is a missed opportunity, arguably more on the philosophical than the legal level. As the actor and animal-activist Peter Egan said, fifty billion animals are killed each year so that humans can have a burger, steak or sandwich. Most of them live, and die, in appalling conditions across the world. Though British law is among the best in the world, it still falls short in many respects. An affirmative decision would have been a vote against complacency and consequent cruelty.

Jewish law has long acknowledged that animals feel, and suffer. The Talmudic phrase tsaar baalei chayim means just that, ‘the suffering of animals’. Whereas the exact application of the prohibition in specific instances remains debatable, it certainly forbids the inflicting of both physical and emotional pain. The response to Jeremy Bentham’s much quoted dictum that “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ Nor ‘Can they talk?’ But ‘Can they suffer’” was evident six centuries earlier to Maimonides, who wrote in his Guide for the Perplexed: (3:48)

For in these cases (of exposure to the suffering and death of its young) animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between man and the other animals.

He regarded the emotional faculties, unlike the rational and intellectual, as similar in animals and humans.

Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague (1713 – 1793) was asked if it was permitted for a Jew to go hunting. After weighing different aspects of the issue (what if a person has no other way of making a living? Is entering the abode of wild animals putting one’s life gratuitously at risk?) he concludes that the only hunters in the Torah are Nimrod and Esau, famous for their brutality, and certainly not role models for a Jew, or, for that matter, any compassionate human being.

The wider question, though, is our relationship to nature as a whole, and to the other forms of life with which we share this planet. Firmly rejecting the critique that it is the very Bible which tells us that man has unlimited dominion over the earth, Jewish and Christian environmentalists have rightly argued that, on the contrary, we are stewards and trustees of creation. What ‘dominion’ really means is acting with due regard for this all-encompassing responsibility.

The issue is both urgent and critical. In a televised debate following the publication of Silent Spring, a seminal book which helped found the science of ecology, Rachel Carson made the profound observation that

we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery not of nature, but of ourselves.

To anyone who spends time with animals and who witnesses their response to brutality on the one hand, or careful husbandry and affection on the other, it is obvious that animals have feeling. They suffer; they love; they sometimes seem to comprehend dimensions of feeling of which the humans around them are unaware; they even often forgive. They are not things, mere cells in the form of a sheep or cow, to be stuffed and transported to slaughter.

While our treatment of animals obviously affects them first and foremost, it is also a profound and disturbing reflection on ourselves, and the results, if we do not change many of our practices, will prove physically, emotionally and spiritually corrosive for us too.

To quote Peter Egan again, ‘We are waging war with every other species on the planet. It has to stop.’ If we don’t establish a more aware, compassionate, and considerably less exploitative relationship with both domestic and wild animals, we will end up devouring every living thing, including, eventually, ourselves.

A vote affirming animal sentience would at least have been an acknowledgement of the direction in which we must urgently travel.

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