In this week’s Torah reading of Ki Teitsei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), there are multiple commandments regulating the proper treatment of animals, including the prohibition against muzzling an ox while it is treading grain and the injunction to shoo away a mother bird before taking its young. The great medieval thinker Moses Maimonides gives three distinct rationales for the latter commandment, two of which can be found in the same work. Placing these varying explanations in the context of other halakhic restrictions on the treatment of animals, Jonathan Sacks seeks to reconcile them:
Maimonides . . . seems to embrace three sharply conflicting views: (1) the law of the mother bird is a divine decree with no reason; (2) this law is intended to spare the mother bird emotional pain [of seeing her offspring taken away]; and (3) this law is intended to have an effect on us [humans], not the animal, by training us not to be cruel.
In fact all three are true, because they answer different questions.
The first view explains why we have the laws we have. The Torah forbids certain acts that are cruel to animals but not to others. Why these and not those? Because that is the law. There will always be laws that seem arbitrary. But we observe the law because it is the law, even though, under certain circumstances, we may reason that we know better, or that it does not apply. The second view explains the immediate logic of the law. It exists to prevent needless suffering to animals, because they, too, feel physical pain and sometimes emotional distress as well.
The third view sets the law in a larger perspective. Cruelty to animals is wrong, not because animals have rights but because we have duties. The duty not to be cruel is intended to promote virtue, and the primary context of virtue is the relationship between human beings. But virtues are indivisible. Those who are cruel to animals often become cruel to people. Hence we have a duty not to cause needless pain to animals, because of its effect on us.
Judaism [thus] reminds us of what we sometimes forget: that the moral life is too complex to summarize in a single concept like “rights.” Alongside rights, there are duties, and there can be duties without corresponding rights. Animals do not have rights, but we have duties toward them.