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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

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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.

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Bryan says:

Here is an amazing video about how the Michael Vick dogs are doing today, which speaks to the power and beauty of redemption and recovery:

Lessons to be learned for all.

*rolls eyes* – get over it.

“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.” I feel like this is completely contrary to the teachings of Torah. All throughout the Scriptures, it is emphasized that the Father looks at our hearts, wants mercy and not sacrifice, and desires that we turn our hearts back to him (t’shuvah) in order to be forgiven, etc. – the list goes on and on. The Spirit of the law goes far beyond the letter; acts of repentance flow from a heart pierced by contrition and the pain of having grieved the Father. It doesn’t have to be some big circus of emotion – just an acknowledgement that we have done wrong, and a desire to do right again. Anything less is just lip service. If someone does not really want or think they need his forgiveness, why go through the motions?

@ C: It appears as if you are mixing christian theology up with Judaism. Calling God the “Father” alludes to the trinity, a concept not even all christians believe is taught in christian scriptures. In Judaism, there are differing opinions as to whether mitzvot must be accompanied by the proper intent, or whether the deed alone is suffcient, and may lead to right intent at a later time. The same may be said of repentance. repentance/teshuvah by definition must involve action. And it is within the realm of possibility that someone repenting and returning outwardly may well have a change of heart later as a result of his actions.

VHJM van Neerven says:

Deat Liel,

I wonder at your calculations for the age of the text discussed here. With Pythagoras and Gautama living around 500 BCE, your adding of 700 years brings us to a bible-birth of circa 1200 BCE. Recent finds might, just might roll that birth back, from the commonly accepted 600 BCE to the tenth century BCE. But that is still a ways off from your 1200 BCE

I am very interested in the basis of your calculations.


I know how you feel. I hate that Vick is getting all this positive press for doing nothing while it’s still way too early to see if he has changed.

In my opinion, he is the lowest of the low. Check out this list of things he’s done.

J. of New York says:

Consideration of the results of behavior, retribution, deterrence and the likelihood of rehabilitation count for more than the ontologically suspect contents of the heart and the notion of granting some kind of affective forgiveness. Secular law trumps religion and vague notions of humanism.

virginia says:

Crueltyis the problem. The Supreme Court has weighed in twice. Once in the case of “crush” videos where animal are stomped on. Tortured until they died. What an example to our children. The otherc case is the U. S Navy conducting operations with piercing sounds in

areas where whales are. This causes pain and disruption to the whales.

Tsivya says:

Judaism frequently refers to as G*d the Father. Take a look at the Yom Kippur service.

There may be forgiveness for torture of the innocent(heck,for torture of the sentient)…but it won’t come from me…


1200BCE is the approximate year of the exodus according to traditional Judaism. This date is arrived at based on the chronology found in TANACH, and is thus what most religious Jews believe to be the age of the Torah.

The dating of the Torah by modern scholars refers to the Torah in its mostly modern form. This form took shape when various versions of the Biblical narrative were stitched together by a redactor. However the biblical narratives existed long before the redactor , albeit in fragmentary form. It is no different than Homer, which took its final form around the 7-6 centuries BCE, but the stories were around for hundreds of years before that. Thus, even if one does not accept the traditional age of the Torah, the general point made by Liel, that the stories and ethical teachings found in the Torah date back to 1200BCE, is most likely true.


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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

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