Even “militant” atheists like me can acknowledge when religion gets something morally right. Despite our view that religion is dangerous and detrimental to the progress of our species and our planet, sometimes religion does something that makes my heart warm. This is a rare feat for religion to accomplish. I think we need to continuously remind ourselves that within the clutter of terror, bigotry, and ignorance espoused by religion, there are sometimes little pieces of moral greatness. (This is not to say that these are strictly the domain of religion).
When I was 18 I moved in with my Jewish Israeli girlfriend. (Another post on that in the future, I’m sure). While living in sin we adopted a cat. And when it came supper time she taught me an old Jewish tradition gleaned from the Talmud:
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: It is forbidden to eat before feeding one’s animal, as it says, “I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and then, thou shalt eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 11).
This teaching, based on Deuteronomy, gets to the heart of the welfare of our companion animals (even though the bible is chock full of animal cruelty and sacrifice). It’s difficult to imagine, sometimes, that a religion known for its horrendous kosher laws can also provide us with a perfect form of animal welfare moralism that still stands to this day.
It is indeed a mitzvah to make sure the animals in your care are taken care of, even if this means you go hungry for the night. I remember once during a rough semester as an undergrad living on ramen for an entire month just so I could afford to keep buying my cat his favorite (and expensive) wet cat food.
But Jewish teaching goes further. Judaism recognizes that animals feel physical and emotional pain. (I’ve met some Christians, like my grandfather, who claim animals are incapable of feeling pain, based on the teachings in Genesis). When it comes to feeding your animals, some Jewish leaders say you must give a portion of your meal to an animal who smells your food because it will ensure the animal does not feel hunger, although other Jewish sources suggest it is forbidden to feed animals food prepared for humans. Either way, sometimes it’s good to ignore kosher law and feed your dog what he wants.
These teachings about basic animal welfare are universal. While not the domain of Judaism or any religion alone, it’s nice to sometimes see religion going out of its way to show compassion towards animals whose survival and happiness depend on us. Keep this Jewish teaching in mind every time you come home from work famished and see your dog waiting for you by the door. Feed your animals first. Only then can you eat.