Jewish virtue ethics and compassion for animals: a model from the Musar movement.
Article Type:
Musar movement (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
Human-animal relationships (Religious aspects)
Animal welfare (Religious aspects)
Claussen, Geoffrey
Pub Date:
Name: Cross Currents Publisher: Association for Religion and Intellectual Life Audience: Professional Format: Newsletter Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life ISSN: 0011-1953
Date: June, 2011 Source Volume: 61 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product Code: 0751000 Animal Welfare NAICS Code: 813312 Environment, Conservation and Wildlife Organizations
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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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 (1824-1898).

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 beasts." (6)

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. (9)

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 Torah.

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 of Israel:

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 compassion.

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 sufficiently."

(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 support.
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
  generation. (17)

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)
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