Is Judaism a religion of the left or the right? Or neither? I raise the question because I’ve been reading a new book that on the surface seems to have little to do with Judaism. Matthew Scully’s “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy” is one of the best books of the last year and, to many critics, one of the most surprising. Scully passionately advocates treating animals in a humane fashion, blasting the meat industry, medical labs and hunters alike for their stupidity and cruelty. He also happens to be a former speechwriter for President Bush, a conservative Republican and a Christian.
He makes his case not on the familiar leftish grounds that people are animals so we should love our furry, four-footed cousins, but rather on biblical grounds. The title of the book refers us to Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (1:26). Scully observes that animals are not our equals: humans are unique in creation, but that is what gives us the obligation to exercise mercy in relationship to lesser creatures.
This splicing together of sentiments associated variously with the right and left has annoyed some politically engaged reviewers. After all, conservatives are supposed to be the ones who invoke God in support of their politics and who love animals mainly for dinner, while secular liberals denounce cruelty to animals — and a certain variety of political thinker likes to keep his stereotypes clear and distinct. It’s like the biblical commandment prohibiting kilayim, that is, mixing various types of planted produce in one field, such as grapes and wheat (Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:9).
Thus in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, lefty Caroline Fraser becomes bothered and anxious at Scully’s mixing of liberal and conservative motifs: “the novelty in his cri de couer — and its most drastic shortcoming — lies in the fact that he is a Christian conservative.… He writes about ‘the lowly animals,’ with ‘their little joys and travails,’ in a dated, patronizing and sentimental way…. Scully seems to have lost track of an essential fact: We, too, are animals.”
That is the nub of the issue. In the eyes of the left, humans are just clever beasts, and no defense of animals makes sense unless that “fact” is acknowledged.
The relationship of animal to man is also what brings us back to Judaism, because Fraser is wrong about many things, including that the view Scully takes is “novel.” It is not. In fact, it is Jewish, with a very ancient pedigree.
Citing verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy, a great 19th-century German advocate of militant Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, lays out the clearest account of where Torah has always stood on animal welfare.
In outlining the ethical underpinnings of two commandments, shiluach ha’ken and tza’ar ba’alei chaim — respectively, sending forth the mother bird before taking her eggs, and in general despising cruelty to animals — Hirsch begins with the premise of transcendent human superiority: “God has given creation to you freely for your appropriation, for your benefit.” For that reason, however, you must “Have regard for this creation when it serves not you but the cosmic purpose,” as a mother bird does in tending her nest.
In his philosophical work “Horeb,” Hirsch dramatically warns against ever forgetting the feelings of beasts: “There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which, like man, have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man.” We must take great care, he admonishes, not to become “the torturer of the animal soul, which has been subjected to [us] only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes.”
By way of practical illustration, this explains why Jewish law makes it impossible for a Jew to hunt. Meat must be slaughtered while the animal is still perfect and whole, so death is instant. But, as Scully points out, an animal that’s been shot and wounded with a gun or bow — crossbows are chic at the moment — often limps away, escaping the hunter only to die an excruciatingly painful death hours or days later.
Hirsch wrote in 1837, well before the rise of the particular abuses of our day that Scully challenges in direct, sometimes nauseatingly graphic terms — caged, diseased farm animals, unjustifiable medical experimentation and animals “hunted” in pens, to name a few. Nonetheless, the rabbinic sage takes precisely the philosophical stance you’ll find in “Dominion.” In the simplest terms, human superiority entails human responsibility.
But one hesitates to use the word “simple” when talking about Torah, for Judaism refuses to fit into the familiar and often rather simple ideological categories in which we have become accustomed to think. That, of course, is because the Torah outlook precedes all modern ideologies — in time, because it was given more than 3,000 years ago, and in importance, because it was given, not made up.
That is not to say that Judaism is without definite political implications — quite the contrary. To see how political it is, just contemplate the attention given in the Torah to laws governing kings and to critiques of their actions. Compared to the New Testament, in which the Gospels and the letters of Paul advocate passive detachment from such affairs, Judaism is the ultimate political religion.
Yet political mustn’t be confused with partisan. As Hirsch on animal welfare makes clear, Judaism is not of the left, nor is it of the right. It is complicated.
David Klinghoffer is the author of a memoir, “The Lord Will Gather Me In.” His new book, “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism,” will be published in April by Doubleday.