Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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Dedicated on the first yahrtzeit of Arnie Niederhoffer, za”l,  a man of wisdom, warmth and forever inspiring optimism.

The animal rights movement has such impetus now.

And much of that impetus – believe it or not - stems from Adolf Hitler, may his memory be cursed.

Hitler, a vegetarian himself, was greatly concerned about animal rights. So much so, that he made animal rights a cornerstone of Nazi legislation.

“In Nazi Germany…people who mistreated pets could be sentenced to two years in jail. The Nazis banned foie gras (because of cruelty to fowl). They also banned docking animals without anesthesia and severely restricted invasive animal research. They established the first laws protecting animals used in films … and also mandated humane slaughter … and euthanasia for terminally ill pets (the Nazis were particularly concerned with how lobsters suffered in restaurants)…and instituted school curricula for the humane treatment of animals …”

“Heinrich Himmler once asked his doctor, who was a hunter, ‘How can you … shoot … poor creatures browsing on the edge of a wood...it is murder.’ Perhaps the most chilling episode in the bizarre annals of Nazi animal protection was a 1942 law banning pet-keeping by Jews. As a result, pets owned by Jews were rounded up and humanely euthanized … Jews themselves were not covered by humane slaughter legislation.”[1]

What motivated this focus on animal rights?

One motivation may have been the desire to hide Nazi monstrosities behind a patina of respectability. The pioneering of animal rights, let Nazis say “Look we’re moral - we even treat animals humanely.”

Why, though, did their attempt at respectability focus on animals? It may go back to one of Nazi Germany’s first anti-Semitic legislations - the banning of shechita in April of 1933, right when the Nazis assumed power. Nazis were still obfuscating their murderous anti-Semitism then. To abet that obfuscation shechita was banned to “protect animals” – not as anti-Semitic legislation. This “protective” legislation – once in place – likely created a culture of animal protection.

Another reason for focusing on animals may be because “animal rights” – surprisingly - “validated” the murder of Jews. Why? Because extending “rights” to animals compared animals, on some level, to humans. That comparison allowed Nazis to compare “lower humans” (in Nazi eyes, Jews were lower humans) to “lower animals” - which “validated” killing “lower humans” the way we kill “lower animals” like vermin.[2]

Yet another motivation stems from the innate morality that most people feel – and need to “express.” Nazis “expressed” those feelings on animals. That expression may have addressed their moral “needs” thereby “freeing” them to be cruel towards humans.

Nazis, then, “misdirected” morality. Away from people. On towards animals. This conveys a valuable lesson to us.

No, not a lesson about not extending mercy towards animals.

Our Torah extends much mercy towards animals. That mercy obligates us to slaughter animals in the least painful of manners.[3] That mercy manifests itself in our repudiation of sport-hunting.[4] That mercy also prohibits us from “taking” an egg from it’s nest while the mother is still there. Why? Because it’s “painful for the mother bird to see this.”[5]

That mercy also explains why the traditional new-garment benediction - “wear it until it wears out and then make a new garment”[6] - isn’t said on new leather items. That benediction is, essentially, a request to kill an animal – because leather is formed from dead animals. We don’t make a benediction that “requests” that animals be killed.

And that mercy also manifests itself is in the ambivalence about meat-consumption displayed in the following possuk: “If … your soul desires to eat meat…you may eat meat.”[7] This possuk doesn’t portray meat-consumption as an ideal. It, rather, portrays it as a concession to “if… your soul desires to eat meat”.

This explain why meat was banned from the time of creation until after the Great Flood. Yes, meat was permitted to us after the flood. Only, though, because the rich nutrition that meat provides became necessary post-flood. And that was because a strictly vegetarian diet wouldn’t address our nutritional needs in a post-flood world of altered climate and of poorer topsoil.[8]

This is why we are taught: “meat was only allowed because of need… it was banned in early human history...it is like wine…one who abstains from it is called holy.”[9]

Yes, we care about animals. We just don’t equate them with humans. Which is why we have a “hierarchy of moral responsibility” that places people far above animals.

You realize, though, that this hierarchy shouldn’t just distinguish between people and animals?

It should also distinguish between different people.

Our relationships with our spouses, our children, our siblings and our friends should all be at different hierarchical levels.

A parent’s needs should precede a tzedaka cause’s needs. And a child’s event is more important than a friend’s event.

But we don’t always keep to this hierarchy.

We sometimes allocate time - that is needed by spouses and children - towards communal needs. That communal focus may be prompted by a moral drive. That drive, though, may be misdirected.

We sometimes find deep kinship with friends. That’s a positive expression of the moral search for love and community. That kinship, though, if at all possible, shouldn’t be prioritized over family – because family should stand higher on our moral hierarchy.

We should channel good towards society, community and friends.

We should, though, channel good within the hierarchy of moral responsibility.

That will ensure that our good is really good.

Rabbi Weber is founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim. Rabbi Weber will be scholar in residence at the Hudson Valley Resort for the Yomim Noraim & Sukkos. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000

[1] Psychology Today, Nov. 17, 2011 quoting “Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust”

[2] Seattle Times, February 1, 1996, quoting ibid.

[3] Moreh Nevuchim 3:48

[4] Noda be-Yehuda, Yorah Deah 2:10

[5] Ibid, although see Berachos 33b

[6] Rema, Orach Chaim, 223:6

[7] Devarim 12:20

[8] Sforno, Bereishis 6:13, 8:22.

[9] Sefer Ikkarim 3:12

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