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Man Bites Dog

This week’s parasha—a careful account of the ritualistic sacrifice of animals—has much to teach us about animals, compassion, forgiveness, and Michael Vick

Liel Leibovitz
March 11, 2011
Lucy and Otis.(melgupta/Flickr)
Lucy and Otis.(melgupta/Flickr)

I like to think of myself as a forgiving person. When—shortly after being shot by some unknown sniper as part of my service in the Israel Defense Forces—a friend asked me if I forgave the shooter, I didn’t have to think for very long. Sure, I said, I forgave him completely. He had tried to kill me, true, but I was a Jew and a humanist, and both, I believed, commanded me to practice mercy first.

Unless dogs are involved.

When I witnessed Michael Vick return to professional football last year after a 19-month prison sentence for running a dog-fighting organization and personally ending the lives of several animals, I experienced the sort of rage I rarely feel, a thick, deep, and bubbling anger. The man, I said, should never be allowed back on the gridiron. He shouldn’t even be allowed his freedom.

A number of my friends took me to task. How, they asked, could I be so quick to forgive my worst enemies but reluctant to pardon a man whose crime, as heinous as it was, hurt no human beings? Did I value the lives of dogs more than the lives of people? One acquaintance, a serious and faithful student of Christian theology, said that my inability to accept Vick’s statements of repentance was not so much my own personal fault as it was a glitch in Jewish ethics as a whole; lacking a Christ figure who commands and offers forgiveness, my acquaintance said, Jews were left to judge on a case-by-case basis, a far more difficult proposition, and one that often allowed for personal and irrelevant criteria to enter into the equation.

I took this criticism to heart. As I watched Vick go on to have a stellar season, I struggled mightily with myself, trying my best to find some merit in the voices of those calling on us fans to give the man a second chance. But no matter how hard I tried, I always failed.

This week’s parasha helped me understand why. There is, to be sure, little in it about being kind to our four-legged friends. On the contrary: The entire text deals with the ritualistic sacrifice of beasts as part of the complicated process designed to relieve human beings of the burden of their sins. But reading the parasha, I was once again awe-struck by Judaism’s meticulous approach to animals.

According to most historical accounts, we first encounter serious concern for animals’ rights in the work of Pythagoras, who believed that both humans and animals shared the same sort of indestructible soul and that the transmigration of these shared souls could often cause a human being to be reincarnated as an animal and vice versa. Around the same time the Greek philosopher was busy with these thoughts, a prince, Siddhārtha Gautama, was born in Lumbini, which today is located in Nepal; when he was 29, he left his palace to meet his subjects, saw the world’s sorrows firsthand, became the Buddha, and inspired a host of teachings, the most prominent of which, perhaps, commands refraining from taking another living creature’s life.

But the laws of the Hebrew Bible precede these events by nearly 700 years, and they do not share the same logic as Buddha and Pythagoras. For the most part, Judaism doesn’t necessarily believe that animals possess the same spiritual endowment as do humans. Maimonides, for example, wrote that “my view is that Divine Providence in this world applies to human beings” and not to animals or plants, as both most Buddhists and some ancient Greek thinkers believed. All the Bible’s many laws demanding kindness to animals—from the command to allow one’s beasts to rest on the Sabbath to the prohibition on muzzling an animal while it plowed the field—stem not from a sense of interspecies egalitarianism but rather from a strong sense of duty: Man is elevated above the beasts, and therefore has an obligation to show them the same quality of mercy he’d expect the Lord himself to show mankind.

Therefore, even as we read about animal sacrifice, we are constantly aware that the greatest care has been taken to guarantee the elimination of needless bloodshed and suffering. The occasions for sacrifice are exhaustively detailed, lest anyone get a bit too knife-happy.

Which brings me back to Michael Vick. Reading about the great care with which God describes the minutia of animal sacrifice, I realized that my disdain for Vick is a result not only of his horrific actions but also of the imperious cruelty required in anyone running an underground organization dedicated solely to the infliction of pain on other living creatures. This, I think, is a specifically Jewish kind of rage: Not believing, like the Buddhists, that all creatures are equally sacred, and not believing, like the Christians, that forgiveness is always de rigeur, Jews considering the case of Michael Vick are angry with the athlete for having betrayed that most sacred of edicts, the one compelling us to show animals the care and consideration the Lord himself had instructed us to bestow.

This, alas, leaves us in a very tight spot. “For Jews, forgiveness is a much more difficult achievement, especially since most of the beings that would need to forgive Michael Vick, being dogs, may not communicate in the same level as human beings or may not be alive,” Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., told me. That being the case, all we have to go on isn’t intent—who, after all, knows if Vick’s numerous declarations of remorse are truly sincere?—but action. Vick, said Hammerman, is “getting a lot of accolades and money and positive attention; let’s see if he falls again.” Until then, all we can do is wait, obliged to overcome our fury and disgust and give Vick not the firm handshake of absolution but the tentative nod of allowing him another shot at redeeming himself.

It’s a message that this week’s parasha communicates as well, however softly. The concern for the animals being offered on the altar is there in every tortured sentence, in every tiny detail that God takes care to communicate to Moses. And while the theme of God’s speech is sin and forgiveness—that, after all, is the purpose of all those offerings—not a word is said about the stirrings of the heart. God doesn’t care how we feel, or whether or not we’re truly sorry. When it comes to forgiveness, he is all about actions, about having things done the proper way, about tangible proof. We should adhere to the same standard when it comes to Michael Vick.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.