The outcry over the death of Cecil the lion has made its way through not only environmental and wildlife conservation groups, but American society at large. A lot is troubling about how Cecil was unjustly and illegally killed: he was lured off of a preserve where he was supposed to be protected, and the pride that he was protecting was initially feared defenseless. There are certainly circumstances when hunting can be justified, especially for environmental reasons. I currently live in an area, for example, where the deer population is wildly out of control (largely due to human environmental impact, but that’s another story), and moderate hunting helps to keep the deer from overpopulating. Trophy hunting, however, is another story.
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Trophy hunting particularly touches a nerve for Jews because it goes directly against our tradition's co-dependent relationship with the animal kingdom. Most notably, it unquestionably falls under the prohibition of tzaar baalei chayim (cruelty to animals), injecting excessive cruelty into the sacred relationship we are supposed to have with all living things.
Jewish tradition teaches that hunting animals for sport is as a profession carried out by cruel people. The Torah only mentions examples of hunters, Esav and Nimrod, and the rabbis went out of their way to depict them as non-Jewish, cruel outliers rather than role models. Nimrod’s arrogant and cruel character is depicted as a foil to the modesty of our forefather Abraham, and, the rabbis tells us, Nimrod tried to kill Abraham by throwing him into a fiery oven for not consenting to his idolatry. Esav’s successful hunting prowess was well known, but the rabbis saw him as barbaric, for during his reunion with Jacob, they famously depict him as trying to bite the latter's neck during their embrace. This may be well why Rabbi Yechezkel Landau once said “we don’t find any hunters [in our tradition] besides Nimrod and Esau, and this is not the way of the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Trophy hunting also falls under the ban as excessively cruel because God presents a model for us where one hunts only out of necessity. Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg argued that “whoever hunts animals with dogs, as do the gentiles, will not take part of in the feast of the leviathan [in the world to come]” (Responsa 27). According to Jewish legend, God slew the leviathan out of necessity because had it been able to populate, it would have decimated the whole world (Bava Batra 75a). The message is clear: if you hunt in this world for sport, and commit an affront to God, then you won’t be able to enjoy the spoils of God’s hunt in the world to come.
Lastly, and most significantly, hunting an animal for sport is viewed as excessively cruel because it is an inhumane way to take an animal's life. Judaism has many laws that speak against the practice of being cruel to animals. In the Talmud, it was expected that if a person owned an animal, the animal was to be fed before a human being on the basis of a verse from Deuteronomy (11:15) that placed the animal’s needs first. Chazal, our sages of blessed memory, viewed hunting as antithetical to the institution of kashrut, which they viewed as a more humane and dignified way of taking an animal life for sustenance. In kashrut, the spilling of blood is frowned upon so highly that the shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) process requires the blood, which is the life force of the animal, be buried in the ground. Oscar Wilde once referred to fox trophy hunting as the “unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” Trophy hunting, which spills blood for no purpose other than the “thrill of the kill,” is therefore completely antithetical to why a human would take an animal's life, according to Jewish tradition.
As a result of Cecil’s death, it seems that people are waking up to the cruelty of trophy hunting. We have to remember that for every poaching that gets covered on the news, we may assume that there are others that do not get coverage. Let’s hope that Cecil’s cruel and illegal death will not be in vain and that it can help put an end to the practice of trophy hunting, which subverts the sacred relationship we are commanded to enjoy with the animal kingdom.
Dan Dorsch is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey, and is a board member of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.