Among the mitzvot enumerated in parshat Emor is this one, familiar to us from the Torah reading from many of our holidays: “Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day” (Lev. 22:28). Maimonides and Nachmanides famously disagree on how to understand this commandment. In his Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam includes this verse along with the commandment (Deut. 22:6) to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs from the nest. “There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes. The purpose of both commandments is to alleviate the suffering of the animals.
Ramban disagrees. “The real reason” for both mitzvot “is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy, that we may not become cruel, for cruelty envelops the entire personality of man, as is well known from the example of professional animal killers who often become hardened to human suffering” (Ramban on Deut. 22:6). Where Maimonides sees the purpose of the mitzvot here as focused on the suffering of the animals, Nachmanides sees them as addressing human moral development. Ramban cites the teaching of Abba Gurya in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:14), who evaluates a number of unfavorable occupations and concludes by saying “even the best of slaughterers is a companion of Amalek.” Which is to say, killing for a living ultimately leads to cruelty in human relations. (Nechama Leibowitz’s second essay on this parasha develops these positions further.)
Neither Rambam nor Ramban could have imagined a world in which meat came to the mouths of people without some exposure to the process of killing. While death was a more regular feature of pre-modern, and certainly pre-industrial life, its ubiquity also had the effect of humanizing it. It was normal to kill an animal for food, and it was known by sages throughout the ages that too much killing would make a person cruel. Today, however, most of us who eat meat never interact with the animals we’re eating. Indeed, the thought that the beef or chicken on our plate was once an actual living creature grosses us out. We are not used to animal life, and we’re not used to animal death either.
Thus animal-welfare conversations today tend to focus more on the Rambam’s line of thinking: it’s about animal welfare, or animal rights. If we’re vegetarians, or if we simply advocate for greater sensitivity in ritual slaughter or the raising of livestock, we make our arguments in terms of the welfare of the animal. We don’t tend to adopt the Ramban’s line of thinking, because we’ve industrialized the process of slaughter to the point that, like the gas in our cars that we never actually see, the meat that arrives on our supermarket shelves wrapped in plastic is divorced in our imagination from any human process other than stocking it on the counter.
But what if we did? What if the question in our consumption of meat, and food in general, was more about what kind of moral and ethical development it entails and leads to? This, after all, is the Rambam’s ultimate point: the purpose of showing compassion for animals is to cultivate our sense of compassion for all of God’s creation, including human beings. It is to fulfill the Rambam’s understanding of the ultimate imperative of the mitzvot, v’halachta bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways.
That is the greater challenge of kashrut (a challenge which my colleagues at Uri l’Tzedek tirelessly address). God is not mechanized. Our relationship with God, and with one another, shouldn’t be either.