The Musar movement was a nineteenth-century Jewish pietistic
movement focused on the cultivation of moral virtue. It emerged in
Lithuania under the leadership of Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter
(1810-1883), who built on a long-standing Jewish tradition of focusing
on "Musar," the disciplined cultivation of moral virtue.
Salanter sought to develop a mass movement focused on Musar, stressing
the importance of practices that might help people to identify their
moral weaknesses and improve their moral character. He gave particular
attention to the ways in which irrational and generally selfish emotions
and desires could be harnessed in service of reason. Drawing on a
long-standing tradition in Jewish thought, Salanter saw reason as what
distinguished human beings from animals, but he saw reason as incredibly
weak, in need of support from the more "animalistic" parts of
the human soul. Salanter wrote that most people conducted themselves
like animals, drawn after their desires without any rational, moral
reflection, (1) but he also held out the hope that the animal impulses
within the human soul could be tamed and transformed. Just as animals
can be tamed, he wrote, so that their natures are changed for the
better, so too a person can change his nature from evil to good. (2)
This is the primary way in which animality is discussed in
Salanter's writings, and the theme of becoming less like an animal
by harnessing one's animal impulses continues in the writings of
Salanter's disciples. Discussions along these lines, as well as
other reflections on animals and animality, are especially prominent in
the writings of Salanter's senior disciple, Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv
Simhah Zissel stresses that a human being must know "his own
animal soul," the often-inhumane tendencies that pervade human
nature; his proof text for this is a verse from the book of Proverbs
(11:12) stating that a "righteous person knows the soul of his
animal"--"his animal" here being his own animality. (3)
Along Aristotelian lines, and following the language of Maimonides,
Simhah Zissel describes how that animality must be disciplined so that
it is under the control of reason; if a human being does not properly
employ his reason, he is merely "an animal in the form of a human
being." (4) Above all, reason should direct people to display
proper compassion in response to the suffering of others--to "share
the burdens" of their fellows, as Simhah Zissel puts it--and human
beings who lack such compassion are particularly animal-like. For Simhah
Zissel, people do not reflect the "image of God," by which
they should be distinguished from animals, if they do not reflect the
divine qualities of compassionate love. (5) Those who "do not feel
the pain of their fellows" are, rather, "comparable to
Given this sort of language, Simhah Zissel would not seem to hold
non-human animals in high esteem. But it is worth noting that his
judgments are leveled against human beings who act like animals, not
against animals themselves. Indeed, in one of his discourses, he
concludes that animals are on a higher level than people who act like
animals. For the man who "has only an animal spirit in him,"
Simhah Zissel writes, "the animal is better than him, for it
fulfils its purpose," whereas he does not. (7) All of God's
creatures, in Simhah Zissel's vision, are expected to serve God
according to their capacities. Human beings are expected to serve God by
acting with rationality and with love, but they generally resist their
task. Simhah Zissel describes animals, on the other hand, as readily
"surrendering themselves to be servants of God" (8) and as
possessing an intuitive understanding of God's existence and power.
Human nature leaves human beings as far less disposed to be
dedicated to God. Simhah Zissel sees a particularly brutish sort of
animality as characterizing human nature, as "man is born a wild
ass" (Job 11:12). (10) He would seem to share the judgment of
Israel Salanter that most people act like untamed animals and are far
from fulfilling their human purpose. Still, Simhah Zissel indicates that
even human beings who rank below animals in their status are deserving
of compassionate love. He reasons that "the Torah has compassion
for animals, and so (learning from this) we should have compassion for
[evildoers] as we do for animals." (11) That one should have
compassion for animals is taken to be an obvious, clear mandate of the
The Babylonian Talmud, as traditionally interpreted, does indicate
that a prohibition on causing unnecessary suffering to animals is a
Biblical mandate. (12) The Talmud does not link the prohibition to
virtues of love or compassion, however, whereas Simhah Zissel sees the
prohibition as stemming from such virtues. He describes love for animal
life as part of God's perfect love, a love which human beings are
required to emulate:
In this picture, the entire world, including the animal world, is
sustained by God's infinite love, and human beings are called upon
to emulate that love to the degree that they can by caring for all
living beings. The divine virtue of love is expressed through
responsiveness to the legitimate needs and desires of all creatures.
Responding to the desires of animals to be free from suffering is, for
example, part of the work of showing the love that God commands.
Among the Biblical heroes whose compassion for animals is noted in
Simhah Zissel's writings is Noah, whose clear-mindedness allowed
him to cultivate a deep concern for the animals (both domestic and wild)
on his ark (14) The exemplars of compassion for animals whom Simhah
Zissel discusses at greater length are Jacob, Moses, and David, each of
whom spent time working as shepherds. Simhah Zissel notes that the
humble nature of their work as well as their ongoing care for their
flocks turned these figures away from "self-love"--the proud
self-centeredness which Simhah Zissel sees as the greatest of vices--and
to develop the disposition to "share the burden of their
fellows"--the responsive, compassionate love which Simhah Zissel
describes as the greatest of virtues. (15) Working as shepherds, then,
was a key step in the development of Jacob, David, and Moses as
political leaders who could "share the burdens" of the people
Both the lack of honor afforded to shepherds and the focus on the
needs of their flocks shaped the souls of Jacob, David, and Moses,
training them to be more compassionate human beings who would be fit to
be the leaders of Israel. In another passage, Simhah Zissel makes no
mention of the lowly nature of the occupation but refers only to the
task of "sharing the burden" of animals:
People--morally capable human beings, at least, who reflect the
divine image--clearly deserve attention "all the more" than
animals do. As Simhah Zissel notes elsewhere, "it is forbidden to
needlessly cause pain [to animals], and all the more so it is prohibited
to cause pain to a human being." (18) But animal suffering also
matters, such that one should not only refrain from causing them pain,
but should also seek to improve their welfare. The leaders of Israel
were able to recognize and respond to the legitimate needs of the
animals in their care, and Simhah Zissel points to the midrashic
traditions that indicate such responsiveness. Regarding Moses, for
example, Simhah Zissel quotes the midrash that describes how
Moses's compassion for his flock proved his worthiness to lead the
people of Israel:
Simhah Zissel also brings the related midrashic legend about David
which describes how David treated each of his sheep according to its
needs--allowing smaller sheep to graze first so that they could eat the
more tender grass, while saving the toughest grasses for the strongest
sheep. David, like Moses, is depicted as an exemplar of empathy for
animals, a shepherd who learns how to pay attention to what his sheep
need. Simhah Zissel indicates that the sorts of small acts of compassion
to animals shown by David and Moses are the sorts of actions to which
people pay little attention; indeed, he writes, "these are the
simple things that people scorn," as "they are considered
foolish in people's eyes." (20) But these are actions to
which, according to the midrash, God pays attention; indeed, God views
these acts of compassion for animals as exemplifying the trait of
Why would people view such stories as "foolish"? We might
note that the acts of compassion in question are, it seems, responding
to rather minor examples of suffering. We might further suppose that
concern for mere animals might be viewed as trivial by most people.
Indeed, Simhah Zissel does seem to think that people typically worry
little about the animals with whom they interact, viewing their
suffering as of little consequence. One of his paradigmatic cases of a
failure to "share the burden" is, accordingly, the wagon
driver who pays little attention to the needs of his horse:
The driver who is unable to put himself in his horse's place
here becomes Simhah Zissel's example of a failure of empathy.
Humans may have particular difficulty in identifying with the needs of
animals, and so this example illustrates how easily acts of cruelty
toward animals can emerge. Such ordinary acts of cruelty will then shape
an overall disposition to be cruel, whereas compassion toward animals
will shape an overall disposition to be compassionate.
Simhah Zissel stresses that their care for animals is what makes
David and Moses fit to care for other human beings. One might, then,
understand their compassion for animals as only an indirect duty,
compassion which is valued only insofar as it makes them more likely to
be compassionate toward their human "flock"; so too, the wagon
driver's cruelty toward his horse might only be bad insofar as it
would make him more likely to be cruel toward other human beings. As J.
David Bleich has argued, such an attitude has been upheld by many
traditional rabbinic authorities, whose concern for the suffering of
animals ultimately reveals "concern for the moral and spiritual
health of the human agent rather than for the protection of brute
creatures." (22) From this perspective, concern toward animals is
valuable only insofar as it helps to cultivate concern for human beings;
animals do not have moral worth in and of themselves.
Simhah Zissel certainly does see concern for animals as helping to
train people for higher forms of moral concern. But, unlike the rabbis
to whom Bleich refers, Simhah Zissel does not seem to view a concern for
animal welfare as having no direct moral significance. Animals, in his
view, may not have especially high moral status, but they do have moral
status. Recognizing their legitimate needs and responding to them with
compassion is therefore a direct duty as well as an indirect duty. As we
should recall, Simhah Zissel's paradigm of perfect rational virtue
is God--who, in Simhah Zissel's view, recognizes and attends to the
legitimate desires of all creatures as an expression of that virtue.
Indeed, it is God's fundamental virtue that God loves all creatures
in accordance with their desires and needs; God does not value animals
indirectly, but quite directly, and this is what should be imitated.
Moses, accordingly, was praised for his direct concern for the actual
needs of a particular sheep. The human expressions of compassion for
animals that Simhah Zissel describes, to be sure, instill habits of
virtue which make higher forms of love possible, but such compassion is
also good in and of itself
The virtue of compassion for animals is, for Simhah Zissel, a
virtue that, like all other virtues, is guided by reason. As such, it is
part of what makes human beings into human beings, part of what properly
distinguishes them from animals. From this perspective, failing to take
the moral status of animals seriously reduces the moral status of human
beings. Taking the moral status of animals seriously is part of what
makes human beings deserving of a higher status. Properly taming and
harnessing one's own animal soul requires sensitivity to the souls
of animals. (23)
(1.) Israel Salanter, "Or Yisra'el," in Or Yisrael,
ed. Isaac Blazer (Vilna, 1900), 41.
(2.) Ibid., 80-1.
(3.) Simhah Zissel (Broida) Ziv, Sefer Hokhmah U-Musar (HuM), vol.
1 (New York, 1957), 60.
(4.) Ibid., 1:14. See also HuM, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1964), 29, 94;
Kitvei Ha-Sabba Ve-Talmidav Mi-Kelm, vol. 1 (Benei Berak: Siftei
Hakhamim, Va'ad Le-Hafatzat Torah U-Musar, 1997), 5, 9. Maimonidean
parallels can be found in Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed,
trans. Shlomo Pines, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1963), 33 (Part 1, Chapter 7); The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo
Pines, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 618-9 (Part
3, Chapter 51).
(5.) See HuM, 1:14.
(6.) Ibid., 1:2. See also Ibid., 1:13.
(7.) Ibid., 1:140.
(8.) HuM, 2:28.
(9.) HuM, 1:70. Simhah Zissel supports himself with a verse from
Psalm 104 which describes lions as "seeking their food from
God" (104:21), and also with a Talmudic tradition (Babylonian
Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b, also quoted by the classic commentary of Rashi
on Genesis 8:11) whereby the dove sent out by Noah after the great flood
similarly seeks to rely on God for sustenance and prays for God's
guidance. The dove, Simhah Zissel explains, "understood that there
is a Creator." This sort of perspective is also upheld in the
writings of another of Israel Salanter's major disciples, Rabbi
Isaac Blazer. See Isaac Blazer, "Kokhvei Or," in Or Yisrael,
ed. Isaac Blazer (Vilna, 1900), 183. Following the Babylonian Talmud,
Hullin 5h, Blazer stresses that the sort of trust and humility that
animals possess are traits that human beings should emulate.
(10.) See HuM, 2:8.
(11.) HuM, 1:59. See also Simhah Zissel's directive to have
compassion for the animal-like human body at HuM, 2:273. Simhah
Zissel's tendency to value the legitimate needs of the human body,
while seeing the body as absolutely inferior to the soul, parallels his
tendency to value animal life while seeing animal life as far less
valuable than human life. The parallel does not fully hold, though,
especially insofar as Simhah Zissel views animals as having some sort of
spiritual life and as having independent value in God's eyes in a
way in which the mere human body (separate from the soul) does not.
(12.) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 32b. At HuM, 1:135, Simhah
Zissel explains the prohibition as being "that it is forbidden to
cause them suffering without cause [be- hinnam]."
(13.) Ibid., 1:31.
(14.) Ibid., 1:255. Referring to a midrash found in Tanhuma Noah 9
(quoted by Rashi on Genesis 7:23), Simhah Zissel notes that Noah had
concern for his animals "to such an extent that the one time he was
late with the lion's food, he was immediately punished--but this
never happened to him again, only one time. Behold, how anxious he was,
for he habituated himself to the trait of equanimity, more than
(15.) The phrase "sharing the burden" comes from Mishnah
Avot 6:6. For an extended discussion of this virtue in Simhah
Zissel's thought, see Geoffrey Claussen, "Sharing the Burden:
Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv on Love and Empathy," Journal of the
Society of Christian Ethics 30, no. 2 (2010): 151-169.
(16.) HuM, 1:6.
(17.) Ibid., 1:8.
(18.) Ibid., 1:135.
(19.) Ibid., 1:8, quoting Midrash Exodus Rabbah 2:2.
(20.) Ibid., 1:8.
(21.) Ibid., 1:14.
(22.) J. David Bleich, "Animal Experimentation," in
Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. 3 (New York: Ktav, 1989), 205. See
also J. David Bleich, "Vegetarianism and Judaism," Tradition
23, no. 1 (1987): 84.
(23.) Research that informed this essay was carried out while I
served as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at
the University of Virginia; I am grateful to the Institute for their
The [fundamental] quality of God is that He 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 (Sotah 14a): how can
a person draw close to the Blessed One? By cleaving to His
attributes. And there is no attribute of the Blessed Lord that is
more clear than love for His 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 His creatures. And
consequently we find that the prohibition on causing suffering to
animals comes from the Torah. (13)
In accordance with what has been explained ... regarding the lofty
matter of sharing the burden of one's fellow, we can understand
why the great [leaders] of Israel chose to be shepherds. First,
they chose lowly work, making a living in a humble manner.
Second: humility leads to mercy, because pride is self-love and
nothing else, and one who is proud does not feel the pain of his
fellow and does not share his fellow's burden. Therefore, they
habituated themselves in the work of shepherding and in having
mercy on the flock, leading them gently and compassionately, as
befit their fine manner. And when their nature was imbued with
mercy for creatures who do not have reason [bilti medabberim],
all the more were they inclined to be merciful with rational
beings [ha-medabberim] and [in particular] the chosen people.
They were educated to lead the chosen people and to walk in the
ways of God. (16)
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
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." (19)
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. (21)