Based on an email dialogue between a passionate secular Jewish vegetarian activist and a more equivocal Orthodox vegetarian.
Some teachings in Jewish religious literature say animals have no intellect and cannot speak. Yet recent scientific studies clearly show that animals are intelligent and some species do have language.
Animals plan and strategize, solve problems, learn from experience, adapt to new situations, and demonstrate other elements of intelligence. Some primates can remember and repeat sequences of numbers faster and more accurately than human college students, and there is no question that dolphins, bonobos, gray parrots and other animals are intelligent creatures.
As for language, some animals have been taught an English vocabulary exceeding a thousand words, and certain birds can tell the difference between languages such as Japanese and English. Studies show that primates can communicate with humans using sign language or by pressing symbols in sequence on keyboards. Certain animals communicate in a range above human hearing, and faster than our hearing can register. So for every note we hear, for example, a bird might hear as many as ten. Other animals communicate in ranges too low for human hearing. And like human children, animals are not born knowing what they need to know to survive and prosper. They must be taught or learn on their own.
The Talmudic sages do not say that animals have "no intellect," but implicitly consider the human intellect as superior. If one occasionally comes across statements from later Jewish religious thinkers that man possesses "sekhel (intellect)" and animals don't, this should not be taken at face value. These authors only mean to say that there is a categorical difference between humans and animals.
The donkey of Rabbi Pinchos ben Ya’ir would have remained undistinguished if the rest of its long-eared brothers, too, refused to eat untithed barley, nor would Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s donkey have had much claim to fame if other animals commonly refused to eat or drink stolen foods. And despite the unusual intellectual abilities of these animals of the tzaddikim, we do not find that they passed the entrance exams to the local yeshivah.
Jewish philosophers, as well as the kabbalists, define man as "medaber," the "speaking being." At the same time, they and the sages of the Talmud before them acknowledge that animals and birds, too, have some sort of speech. King Solomon is said to have understood that speech. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai even understood the “speech” of leaves rustling in the wind!
You are right that animals also communicate, and some more highly-developed species have their own kinds of language; but you must admit that these communication systems are far less sophisticated than those of humans -- prairie dogs notwithstanding. We must teach those parrots and myna birds our human words. This is not their natural way of communicating with each other. The complex sounds certain animals make are not the equivalent of human speech.
It is fundamental to Jewish thought that despite the encompassing unity of life, there is a hierarchy in creation, and the dignity -- and responsibility -- of humanity stands at the top of the ladder. Yet Judaism places G-d at the center of everything. Thus, our greatest characteristic is that we are created "in G-d's image (be-tzelem Elokim)." As Rav Kook states in his "Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace," we exist not in order to dominate the rest of creation like tyrants, but to recognize and "reconnect" to G-d -- "be-gin de-ishtimodin lei," as the Zohar states -- and to fulfill the great task G-d has given us: to perfect His kingship on earth according to the guidance of the Torah.
We need not reject this idea of a hierarchy for fear that it will lead to wanton exploitation because we, as religious Jews, bring unity and harmony to the entire matrix of life through the mitzvos that we perform and through the compassion that the Torah instills in us.
And if a Jew should behave in a way that violates the mitzvos, or merely remains insensitive to the spirit and intent of the Torah, that individual has failed to understand his mission in life -- even if he puts on talis and tefillin every morning, even if she lights the Shabbos candles and keeps a kosher kitchen, etc. As the Ramban states in his commentary on the Torah portion "Kedoshim" (Leviticus 19:2), the Torah demands that we strive for holiness, and one who does not take this to heart could easily remain a menuval, a coarse and depraved person, without actually breaking the laws of the Torah.
So you consider Orthodox supervisory rabbis and kosher slaughterhouses that mistreat animals to be violating the Torah?
To be continued...
(A Simple Jew)