Torah, Revelation, & Natural Law
By Rabbi Ezra Labaton ZS”L
Coming to Shavuot we should begin to appreciate the meaning of the word “Revelation.” We understand how this, once in world history, event shaped the character and destiny of a small semi-nomadic desert tribe. This revelatory experience gave direction, meaning and purpose to the collective life of the Israelite nation, as well as to the individual who experienced Bore Olam’s power and grace-up close.
Yet, it was not the first revelation of a law code intended to shape the world’s values. Based on Parashat Beresheit the Rabbis speak of the “Seven Noahide Commandments.” All of humanity had to obey these seven commandments or suffer the consequences of the Almighty’s wrath. Whether we explain these commandments as rooted in human reason (as many philosophers) or as part the genetic code with which we are born, or as natural law, they are the fundamental building blocks of all civil society. Sadly, though the Western part of the world recognizes the legitimacy of these Divine commandments, the Eastern part of the world (notably certain sects and elements in Islam) does not. We are witnessing the consequences of this lack of recognition of the seven commandments in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and other countries. The price they pay is steep.
It behooves us to think about these principals of natural law and make sure we understand them. Again, they are at the root of all civil society.
The Seven Commandments:
1- Don’t Kill
2- Don’t Steal
3- Don’t engage in sexual immorality
4- Don’t curse G-d
5- Don’t engage in Idolatry
6- Don’t engage in cruelty to animals
7- Just courts of law
Note that there are six negative and one positive commandment.
Philosophers have debated for centuries whether these principles are rooted in reason or in a natural law to which mankind has access. As well, Jewish philosophers have engaged in endless debates regarding this very same issue. Yet, no matter how one resolves this debate, all agree that once a person accepts these seven commandments, he/she is treated with all the same rights and privileges as other Jews. Maimonides teaches that we must feed the Noahide (known as ger toshav) as we feed the poor of Israel; we must visit him when he is ill and comfort him when he mourns. These precepts represent a universal religion of ethics and deeds, rooted in reason, that can change mankind. Imagine a world that recognizes the Creator and follows these Seven Commandments. This would pave the way for the Messiah and the period known as the Messianic Era.
All of these precepts are prominent. Yet, the commandment of ever min hahai – cruelty to animals – has always captured my attention. I was mesmerized by the notion that Torah is concerned – very concerned – about the lowly beast. The ancient pagan had no such concern. He would slice a limb of the animal, roast it, and eat it as the animal lay writhing in pain. Torah forbids such action and demands that we treat all animals kindly. Torah is so concerned about cruelty to animals that it highlights this issue in multiple halachot throughout its narrative.
One implication of this Misva is that Hacham Ovadia Yoseph prohibits going to bullfights (yehave Daat v-III). He reasons that not on only is it contrary to the spirit of Torah, it violates the biblical prohibition of cruelty to animals. Indeed, he proves this point by noting that we are obligated to lift a heavy burden from a donkey that is suffering. Similarly, one is allowed to violate a rabbinic law on Shabbat to feed an animal that is knee deep in water and cannot be rescued (Shabbat Daf 128). The biblical law of animal suffering (Tsaar Baale Haim), pushes aside the rabbinic law of Shabbat. Hacham Ovadia further emphasizes the point by teaching that we don’t violate Shabbat rabbinic law even to do a Brit Milah. Thus, “the Rabbis of the Talmud were more concerned about the Tsaar Baale Haim, than about other mitzvot!” Therefore, no bull fights.
Torah, of course, lists other Mitzvot that seem to be rooted in the concept prohibiting cruelty to animals. As for example, Torah prohibits plowing with an ox and donkey physically bound together. Here the Rabbis explain that the stronger ox may pull along the slower moving and weaker donkey causing distress and pain to the donkey. This is forbidden. (See Devarim 22:10)
Similarly, Torah does not allow a farmer to muzzle his ox as the ox works the field. Presumably, this would cause the animal pain if it had to work the field and not be able to eat as it works. To this degree, Torah was concerned about an animal’s well being (Devarim 25:4)
Torah goes further and demands that we allow the animal to rest on Shabbat, as we rest on Shabbat (Shemot 23:12). And Torah even goes so far as to assert that the animal is to be fed first before the master is to sit and eat. (See Devarim 11:15 – notice the sequence of verbs).
In one striking step, Torah goes even further. Torah teaches: If an ox gores and kills a person, the ox must be put to death. Yet there has to be a trial with 23 judges as there would be if a person kills another person. (See Mishna, Sanhedrin 1:4) How overwhelming is this! The goring ox who kills is treated as a person who kills! Again, Torah does not want us to treat trivially the life of an animal. He too is Bore Olam’s creation.
In conclusion, Torah is an educational system that attempts to create a society that embodies the right religious and spiritual values. The system emphasizes that we have to do that which is right in the “eyes of G-d and Man.” Yet, not all people see Torah as so all-embracing. There are those who ignore basic ritual laws such as complete observance of kashrut or Shabbat. And there are those who ignore basic ethical obligations: treating each person with dignity and respect; avoiding gossip; misleading people in certain business decisions. All of these ethical values – and there are many more – are part of Torah legislation.
 Original article contained this paragraph: “In light of all this, it is obvious that Torah prohibits hunting as a sport. It is prohibited to kill any animal for any reason – except for an overwhelming human need. And even here Torah provides us with strict guidelines. Granted that the human need for meat is a great “need” and that leather shoes are a necessity. Although in today‘s industrial world we can (probably?) manufacture shoes “artificially” that are as good as leather shoes, in quality and in appearance. Given this, should we still kill animals just to use their skins for leather shoes? The same for mink coats. Not knowing the process of shoe production and mink coat manufacturing, I cannot come to a Pesak Halacha on these issues, but our great poskim should be raising and answering these questions.”
This was proceeded by: “Torah is an all-embracing term that is very much a part of our spiritual vocabulary. It refers not only to the five books of Torat Moshe but to all of our religious literature. Ritual law, Civil law, criminal law, are all part of our Torah. Ethics and religious values round out the picture.”
 The original article concluded as follows: “Interestingly, in certain historical periods and in certain social context, the Rabbis of that community in that historical period had to emphasize one area of law (ritual or ethical) over another. People were simply lax in that particular area of observance. For example, Rabbenu Bahye emphasized the “Duties of the head and mind” over the Duties of the Limbs.” In his historical context (11th century Spain), people observed the duties of the limbs while they ignored the observance of the duties of the head and mind. Hence, he authored, Hobot Halebabot. Similarly, the reform Jews of Germany in the 19th century were lax in their observance of Torah ritual law. Thus the rabbis of the German orthodox community reacted appropriately by emphasizing the importance of these laws (note Rabbi S.R Hirsch’s Horeb – an explanation of why we must keep these ritual laws).
Each Rabbi in his historical context must take note of his own community and emphasize those areas of Torah law that, for some reason or other, have fallen by the way side….