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Whilst the world's ecosystem and natural phenomena are magnificently complex and awe-inspiring, it is undoubtedly a system that is brutal - 'red in tooth and claw'. The laws of nature we can observe involve spectacular intricacies but also immense animal suffering. Why would an omnipotent God create a vicious foodchain and unforgiving evolutionary process when a "kinder" perfectly-functioning model could have been implemented?

Based on Isaiah 11:6; "[In the Messianic age] The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together", implies that the current ecosystem of our planet is not ideal or utopian. The prophet therefore seems to acknowledge there is an evil in nature.

The classical theodicies attempting to explain human suffering, and many answers suggested as a solution to the problem of evil do not seem to apply to the suffering endured by animals who have no free will. Are there any sources that address natural evil that is not caused by man, and to a very large degree do no directly impact mankind? What approaches can be taken to this question?

  • What, you didn't like my answer on Facebook? – Micha Berger Apr 27 at 22:02
  • What makes animal "suffering" different from plant or mineral "suffering?" Once we are talking about parts of nature devoid of free will, it's difficult to define true "suffering." – Tesvov Apr 29 at 1:08
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R. Natan Slifkin wrote a whole chapter on this topic in his work "Man and Beast." (This was published in 2006, after the controversy over his other works; it has the haskama of Rav Berel Wein. It addressed the relationship between animals and people in Judaism, not touching on the controversial topics of his other works.)

In "When bad things happen to good animals" (chapter 5) he considers various possibilities discussed in Jewish sources, none of them really satisfying. These include: Hashem compensating the in Olam Haba, the animals are gilgulim, or the current "laws of nature" (including the imperfect animal suffering) are a result of the sin of Adam Harishon, which made the entire world imperfect, and thus will remain this way until Moshiach comes (as the OP mentioned).

Each of these reasons have problems, as he enumerates in the chapter.

His basic conclusion is that of the Kuzari- When we see that Hashem clearly set up the world in this way, then we put this in the category of things Hashem does that we don't understand. It's not an accident, but we don't have the necessary wisdom to comprehend the need for it.

It's a fascinating read, though obviously in any work like this there is room to disagree. But it's a thought-provoking discussion. He provides a couple of practical lessons we can learn out from animal suffering as well.

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  • Which view, if any, does R. Slifkin proposes is the best, most realistic view in his book? – Turk Hill Apr 27 at 16:51
  • @TurkHill He ultimately says it's something that is out of our range of understanding. It's clear the world is designed for it, which means Hashem plans it, but we can't understand it. (He compares it to our lack of understanding of divine justice in general: why do the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive. Except there, we can at least come up with theoretical answers (just we never know which ones apply.) Here, we don't even have that much.) He quotes the Kuzari who says this. – Binyomin Apr 27 at 17:05
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    Yes, I agree with you. I think G-d answered this best when He told Job that the world is like a whirlwind. What is your view? – Turk Hill Apr 27 at 17:08
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    I do think there is a reason for suffering but with our limited, finite knowledge, we cannot understand why things are the way they are. – Turk Hill Apr 27 at 22:22
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    @TurkHill I also think it's the most intellectually honest approach. I didn't mention in my answer, but R. Slifkin does quote that whole section of Job/Iyov as part of his conclusion. That's G-d's way of telling us "somethings you just can't understand in this world." – Binyomin Apr 28 at 15:02
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I ask whether animals are proper subjects for this kind of moral question. Human beings know what we're thinking or feeling. Neurologically, it's done in an area in the prefrontal cortex other animals don't have. So, we have no scientific reason to believe animals know what they are thinking or feeling.

The Behaviorists tried saying that mental states were entirely defined as a set of predispositions about how we respond to upcoming stimuli. No first person account. No "qualia", what it's like to experience something. The school of psychology died because of that last one. It is hard to convince people they don't have first-hand experiences when everyone has them all the time.

You may have been up late one night in the dorm wondering whether the mental experience you have when seeing red is the same as my red. Maybe your experience of red is mine for blue, and my blue -- your red. We'd both use the words "red" and "blue" for the same stimuli, so there is no way either of us could know.

The behaviorists would have considered the question unscientific at best because it's first person, not objective, provable to others and reproducible in experiments. And the purists would even say the question is entirely meaningless.

But what if it's true for animals? What if they have no "I" inside to experience suffering? That "pain" is just a stimulus that causes avoidance responses, and there is no one there to watch the state of the internal variables to actually suffer?

The lack of having the parts of the brain we use to do that implies we have little reason to assume otherwise. Yes, animal behavior seems complex, and we end up speaking of our pets the way we speak of people. But the truth is, we speak of the behavior of complicated programs in the same terms too. "The Roomba wants to clean the corner." "The chess program wants me to move my queen." Triggering our instinct to anthropomorphize isn't proof that they actually are thinking.

Now, since this is Mi Yodeya, let me make a religious argument for that conclusion.

A fundamental element of free will is being able to think about our thoughts and feelings. You can't willingly choose unless you can watch the process of choice and make decisions about decisions.

Animals don't have free will. They're automata. Adam is given free will in Bereishis 2:7, "and He breathed into him a nishmas chayah -- a living soul." (See Meshekh Chokhmah ad loc.) Having the ability to decide what you become is the "image of the Divine" that Hashem gave Adam. Which means that other living beings can't make decisions about their decisions. There is no thought about thought, experience of emotions.

And with this, we can understand the halakhah of tza'ar ba'alei chaim -- [unnecessary] cruelty to animals. It is a Torah (as opposed to rabbinic) prohibition to cause needless pain to animals. But with the slightest justification -- other than a cruel person's enjoyment of the pain itself -- causing the pain is permitted. We don't require some threashold of utility to outweigh the price on the animal.

I am arguing that's because the animal's pain is not similar in kind to human suffering.

There is a comparatively famous ruling by the Noda biYhudah on the subject of hunting. He opens by finding hunting technically permitted by halakhah. But the majority and theme of the responsum is that it's morally wrong, associated in Jewish tradition with villains like Nimrod and Eisav.

We are more concerned with the mental state of the person inflicting the pain than the animal. The stereotype story of a psychopath often has him pulling the wings off flies or throwing rocks at birds as steps along the downward spiral. After all, they have to fight the firsthand experience which sure seems like they're causing suffering, and so callousness develops.

This would explain why the threshold for tza'ar ba'alei chaim is so low, and why Rabbi Yechezqeil Landau frames going beyond that threshold in terms of duties of personal character development.

But it only goes half-way to explaining why G-d would set up a natural order that is so competitive and brutal. If animals can't suffer in this sense of the word, it explains why He was unconcerned with animal suffering. But it doesn't explain why Hashem was unconcerned with leaving that around as as something humans may take a lesson from. Social Darwinism, or Nietzche, or Objectivism are all based on the fallacy that looking out for myself and my power is more important than caring for the weak. As Nietzche put it, the weak take up resources, the strong and bright contribute to the community more than they take up.

But that's as far as I know how to take your question. I would be dissatisfied with the answer "as a challenge to overcome". As though Hashem makes being good harder for us for the fun of it. Meanwhile, evolution works at getting many things done -- we have complex life. We have to learn how to balance today's disease with creating the threat of tomorrow's superbugs. I just don't know out of the infinite possibilities open to the Creator Who even got to choose the laws of nature to work with, why one that sets so many examples we shouldn't follow.

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  • The only answer we can give, I think, is that this is the way G-d wants things to be and since G-d is perfect, things could not have been any better than it is. G-d tells Job that the world is like a whirlwind. Are you comfortable with this answer? How does it make you feel? – Turk Hill Apr 28 at 14:48
  • Do you think we have a duty, a religious duty to try to understand the world and how G-d functions in it? – Turk Hill Apr 28 at 14:59
  • @Heshy: Corrected. Yes, the name of the sefer had me mistype. – Micha Berger Apr 28 at 18:22
  • @TurkHill: Except I questioned whether or not there ever was a question. Do animals know they are feeling pain, or is it "just" processed without the kind of consciousness we have? And so the question I was left with was what justifies leaving a brutally competitive nature for some people to learn from. Yes, the answer Iyov was given applies to that latter question -- but it's a very different question than "why do bad things happen". – Micha Berger Apr 28 at 18:26
  • In the Guide, Maimonides explains that animals, like humans, have feelings and can feel pain. You seem to be taking Nachmanides' view. – Turk Hill Apr 28 at 18:31
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Why would an omnipotent God create a vicious food chain and unforgiving evolutionary process when a "kinder" perfectly-functioning model could have been implemented?

What kinder and perfectly-functioning model are you suggesting? Most animals being eaten by predators don't even feel the pain because they go into shock.Tremendous chesed of Hashem

Although I don't know enough about Hashem's relationship with animals and how he runs the world to know the answer this question, unless you are a vegetarian who also doesn't wear leather or fur, the question "of why does Hashem allow?" is being asked about something that you voluntarily partner in.Apparently you intuitively feel that there is some justification in causing animals pain for your own needs. Why doesn't your personal justification answer why Hashem allows it?

While one can ask so why doesn't meat and leather grow on trees and why isn't the ecological balance kept without predatory animals etc. such questions really boil down to why didn't Hashem make a world simple enough for everyone to understand the hows and the whys of everything he does.

One would expect a more complex world than that from G-d

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  • Do you think we have a religious duty to understand the world and how G-d functions in it? – Turk Hill Apr 28 at 14:45
  • Yes but only according to our theoretical ability. For some things you can only get more understanding but never really know. The Ramchal says this even about HUMAN suffering – Schmerel Apr 28 at 14:58
  • I think part of the question is that while we don't need to know how things work, we like having theoretical models which "could" explain in. i.e. - why do people suffer? Meforshim give lots of reasons which "could" apply in any circumstance- as atonement, or to ensure free will, or to create opportunity for chesed etc. We don't know for sure, but we can grasp the general idea. Here, we're lacking even that. When piranhas start eating a gazelle's leg while it's still alive, and the animal seemingly is in lots of pain, we lack even potential answers. it's harder to understand the potential. – Binyomin Apr 28 at 15:08
  • Micah posits that animals do not feel pain when they suffer at the paw of others. Rambam disagrees. In any event, I do think humans have a responsibility to try to understand the world and how G-d functions in it, even if our limited, finite knowledge can never fully comprehend the reality. Kabbalists say that it is a duty to know G-d even when knowing His essence is impossible. Rambam said the same thing. – Turk Hill Apr 28 at 15:21
  • To be clear 'knowledge' of G-d means an understanding of how He functions in the world. That is the impact of natural law or how the world works. Thus, people should learn physics and study science. Its a mitzvah. – Turk Hill Apr 28 at 15:21
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You ask a good question. What is the source of evil? The famed Jewish sage, Moses Maimonides was of the opinion that G-d does not cause evil. G-d only does good. Thus, evil is the result of one of three things. Three events cause harm. People harm themselves, harm others, and natural law, which is good for the world as a whole but may harm individuals. For example, a hurricane cleans the earth but may kill people. However, nature is not really evil. Humans perceive it as such because they are too self-centered. In contrast to human suffering, the Rambam writes that most suffering is self-inflicting.

When Isaiah described lions lying with sheep and beating swords into plowshares, these were parables (Maimonides). The Rambam writes that he was speaking figuratively about an ideal society. Interestingly, but to the surprise of many, Rambam did not think the laws of nature will change in the messianic age. Rather, Jews will have political freedom.[1]

Also contrary to the beliefs of many, Maimonides felt that G-d neither needs nor wants sacrifices, but "allowed" Jews to have them as a concession, a concession to the primitive nature of human beings. Maimonides wrote that there seems to be a law of nature of the principle of gradual development.[2] Things develop gradually. Just as flowers sprouts in stages or steps and not by leaps, so too do the people of Israel, spiritually.

From this view, we see that Maimonides showed much compassion for animals. He correctly understood that animals, like humans, have emotions and can feel pain. For example, Maimonides says that the commands of Deuteronomy 22:6 and Leviticus 22:28 recognize that animals have feelings.

Similarly, the Seven Laws of Noah prohibits eating flesh from a live animal. People should respect animals, for they also have feelings. We should even be cautious when walking as not to trend on ants. This is why a person does not take the eggs from a bird’s nest if the mother bird is near, for the mother can not bear to see her chicks taken before her. This is why people should chase the bird away. It may even prompt the person to feel sorry for the chicks and leave the eggs alone. We see from here that it is prohibited for people to torment animals.[3]

It is worth noting here that originally humans were vegetarians (Genesis 2:16). It's only after Noah's flood when the Torah gives permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:3). It seems that the Torah prefers a vegetarian meal, but recognizing human desires, allowed people to be carnivorous.

I will end this discussion with G-d and natural laws.

Nachmanides believed in "hidden miracles," like the falling leaf. The great sage felt that no leaf fell from a tree unless G-d decreed: “fall, keep falling, keep falling, keep falling, stop, now lay still.”

Maimonides disagreed. He felt that it is not ”through the interference of divine providence that a certain leaf falls [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of G-d due that moment… In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle…"

It seems as though Nachmainides did not believe there were laws of nature. Maimonides, in contrast, believed that there were laws of nature that govern the universe. Leaves falling, in general, is G-d's plan (we might call this gravity). I accept the latter view because it fits well with science. Since G-d is perfect, this must be the best of all possible worlds. Since G-d is perfect, everything is "good" and could not be other than what it is. Indeed, the Bible says that G-d created the world "Very good." It implies that G-d is not like a plumber, who needs to return on a daily bases to modify His creations because it is in a state of flux.

When Job hears G-d’s voice, after his suffering, G-d explains that his friends, who attempted to explain his suffering, are unaware of how the world operates. The world works according to natural law and will not change no matter how passionately one prays for G-d to alter nature. They fail to understand this because they are too selfish. They think the world was created for them; that they are the center of the universe. They think that the world operates according to a moral basis of principles of good and bad. They mistakenly think that when tragedy befalls them G-d responds like a loving father with care and warmth consideration. That G-d oversees human behavior and judges accordingly.

No, says G-d. The world is like a whirlwind. The earth is full of violence. The lion pounces upon the deer, tears it apart, consumes it. Humans, naturally being naive, wish to see the world through a lens that fits with their understandings of morality. They fail to recognize the reality as it really is, that the world functions as G-d wants it. People need to accept the world for what it is, and not want they want it to be.

[1] See Mishneh Torah, Law of Kings, chapters 11 and 12

[2] On gradual development, see Micah Goodman’s “Maimonides” for further discussion

[3] Guide, 3:48. Translation of M. Friedlander, 371.

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    I fail to see how this answers the question, which specifically asks about animals suffering at the hand (paw?) of other animals, not at the hand of humans. Your discussions about Karbanos and Eiver Min HaChai are irrelevant. – DonielF Apr 27 at 16:42
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    Rabbi Kook believed that in the future the Sanhedrin will probably make a drasha that severely limits korbanot. He did not say that we shouldn't bring them today if we can, before the Sanhedrin has made that determination. – Heshy Apr 27 at 19:33
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    @Turk Not that there’s no rhyme or reason to anything, but that we can’t always understand what the reason is. – DonielF Apr 27 at 22:08
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    @TurkHill Ecclesiastes sums up in the last verse: G-d judges people for the good and bad things they do, even if it's not obvious to humans how that works. – Heshy Apr 28 at 12:04
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    So then you should remove this sentence which is wrong: "They mistakenly think...That G-d oversees human behavior and judges accordingly." – Heshy Apr 28 at 15:49

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