Question:

I am a doctorate student in biology. I work mainly in the laboratory and do research on animal models. I was wondering whether, from a Jewish perspective, it is okay to sacrifice animals for research and therapeutic purposes.

Answer:

From a Torah perspective, there is no question about the sensitivity required in caring for the physical as well as psychological well-being of animals. This we learn from (among other places in the Torah) the commandment to help a suffering donkey that is collapsing under its burden,1 as well as from the prohibition to muzzle one’s ox while plowing lest the ox be pained that it is surrounded by so much food it cannot eat.2

Every creation has an intrinsic value and purpose for its creation, as the Talmud puts it: “Of all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He did not create a single thing without purpose.”3 And we are, therefore, prohibited from destroying or wasting resources for no reason.4 On the other hand, the Torah explicitly grants man dominion over the animal kingdom;5 and man may benefit from animals for both work and consumption.

This power granted to man can perhaps be better understood by looking at the basic structure of creation. In general, all of creation can be divided into a hierarchy of four general realms or kingdoms: Inanimate (or Mineral), Vegetable, Animal and Human. Built into this hierarchy, G‑d created a natural means of progression from lower forms of creation to higher forms through the consumption or use of the lower form by the higher form. For example, plants grow from the soil and are then eaten by animals. The animal is then used or consumed by man, and elevated to a higher state.

This progression reaches its peak when a person steps beyond himself in the service of his Creator.6 As the Talmud put it, “These creatures were created to serve man and man was created to serve his Creator.”7

Based on this principle, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis rules that when it comes to healing or other beneficial purposes there is no prohibition of causing pain to animals, (Tzaar Baalei Chayim).8 He adds in a gloss to this ruling, however, that even in cases where it may technically be permitted to cause pain to an animal, one should refrain from causing unnecessary pain9 since acting in a cruel manner can have a negative effect on a person’s character.10

In light of the above gloss, some postulate that while according to Jewish law it may be permitted to cause pain to animals for scientific research or medical study, one should, as a measure of piety, refrain from doing so as this may cause the person to develop a cruel nature.11

However, this position is countered by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1885-1966) who writes that one may opt to act with extreme piety only when it is his own welfare that is involved. But when the lives other people are involved, one is not allowed to let his personal morality or “piety” hold him to a standard higher than that set by Jewish law. For what type of morality is it that permits placing concern for the welfare of animals over that of human beings? Therefore, even according to Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, it is permitted to experiment on animals for the good of human beings.12

The above discussion about misplaced piety holds true with regards to research done for the sake of medicine and the like. However, when it comes to the use of animals for other purposes and forms of research, one has to take into account the warning of Rabbi Moshe Isserlis to refrain from cruelty.13 One should consult with a Rabbi who is an expert in these laws to determine whether a specific case is permitted.

See also Does a Spider Have a Soul?

Rabbi Yehudah Shurpin
Chabad.org/AskTheRabbi