Earlier this month, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) drew outrage and mockery for suggesting the deportation of thousands of Israel’s stray cats. The suggestion was withdrawn, but instead Ariel proposed to reallocate the entire budget for spaying and neutering cats to research, saying Jewish law against animal cruelty and a biblical commandment to populate the earth were reason not to spay them. That decision was overruled by the attorney general.
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Why the kerfuffle? It’s no secret that Trap, Neuter, Return programs do wonders for lowering the birthrate of street cats. Indeed, officials at Israeli animal-rights organizations say that the government's allocation of funds to spaying and neutering since 2008 has been an exceptionally effective method for curbing reproduction. It’s equally obvious that overpopulation leads to thousands of cats living a life of starvation, illness, and risk of injury or death under the wheels of cars. One would think that spaying and neutering street cats is a win-win situation: fewer unwanted kittens, but still plenty of healthy adult cats to keep rodents and snakes in check.
This is where hard pragmatism comes up against a somewhat mushy wall of idealism enshrined in Jewish law. Because while Ariel’s suggested population transfer didn’t go over too well, it is true that halakha (Jewish law) has a problem with sterilizing animals—or humans, for that matter.
The halakhic prohibition of sexual sterilization leans on a verse in Leviticus (22:24) that prohibits the sacrificial offering of male animals with damaged or disfigured sexual organs: “You shall not offer these to God, and in your land you shall not do so.” The seemingly superfluous phrase, “You shall not do so” was interpreted in the Oral Law as a further prohibition of castrating cattle, or any other sort of animal, or even a man.
Why this prohibition? The anonymous author of Sefer Hachinuch (the Book of Education) in 13th-century Spain speculated that castration undermined the biological imperative of individuals to reproduce, and risked the extinction of species. The will of species to continue and to forge their own destiny is considered a divine blessing, not to be interfered with. Immortality was originally seen as manifested in one’s progeny, and this held for species as well as individuals, mankind as well as animals.
Although the law against castration came about long before the discovery of evolution, philosophically it is sensitive to the fact that any individual may have what it takes to allow his or her species to survive. This is a very modern way of looking at the world, and would accord well with the environmental standpoint that says “live and let live. Man has no right to meddle in the destiny of other species.”
But what do we do when human agency has already interfered with the destiny of a species? We have already determined, though without any conscious intention to do so, that those animals who survive our cities are those who can adapt to our ways. Once adapted, there is no barrier to reproduction: they have no natural enemies save hunger and traffic, neither of which promise an easy death. Are we to leave them to produce litter after litter of hapless progeny, doomed to a short, hard life? And what of the danger to human beings from pestilence borne by rampant overbreeding? Granted, cats are usually not the preferred vector of disease, being solicitous of their own hygiene; but overbreeding often produces the conditions where even the most careful cat is subject to parasites.
In the final analysis, the value of non-interference collides headlong with the need to take responsibility for our own meddling. When we were children of nature, the rule of “hands off” was appropriate. Now that we have already meddled enough in nature as to change our environment beyond all recognition, “hands off” is merely an excuse, absolving us of the responsibility to deal with the mess that we’ve created.
It turns out that this dilemma is nothing new: since at least the middle ages, rabbis have had to find ways of softening the Torah’s absolute prohibition against sterilization for purposes of agriculture and commerce. To prevent severe financial loss from those whose business relied on animals, some 19th-century scholars allowed owners to sell their animals to non-Jews, who in turn would get a second non-Jew to neuter the animal, before selling the animal back to the Jewish businessman.
However, we are not permitted to directly ask a non-Jew to neuter an animal. In fact, some consider castration to be prohibited not only to Jews, but also to non-Jews. However, the tactic of selling the animal to a non-Jew is still often used to get around the strict rule against castration. This loophole wouldn’t work in the case of Israel’s street cats, however, as they belong to no one but themselves. (For that matter, it’s hard to imagine even a housecat admitting to being “owned” by anyone.)
Another halakhic “loophole” derives from the fact that, while some scholars maintain that females are also included in the biblical prohibition from removing sexual organs, normative halakha considers this a lighter rabbinic violation. This is reflected in the permission given to women to use oral contraceptives to prevent dangerous or unusually painful childbirths, even at the risk of permanent sterilization.
In fact, one significant decisor (Taz 5:6) considers the prohibition against female sterilization to stem only from the larger proscription of causing someone pain. Since surgical sterilization takes place under full anesthetic, the prohibition would not apply.
Thus, given the lighter strictures regarding females and claims of significant health benefits, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner allows a Jewish veterinarian to spay female pets (She’elat Shlomo v.6). Other decisors prefer that the procedure be carried out—at least partially—by a non-Jewish veterinarian.
And, as is the case with almost all mitzvot, urgent therapeutic needs negate even biblical prohibitions. In modern times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Even Haezer 4:28-32, Choshen Mishpat 2:30) wrote that castration can be performed in the case of medical necessity. It’s not too much of a stretch to apply the same considerations to an animal, though it’s preferable that the operation be performed by a non-Jewish veterinarian.
One interesting note about contemporary responsa on this issue is that decisors in Israel seemed more willing to look for halakhically-permissible workarounds than were those in the Diaspora. A rabbi whose opinions determine the fate of whole communities—and their beloved street cats—has to be more pragmatic than one whose opinion is primarily aimed at students of Jewish law. At the end of the day, we find that necessity is indeed the mother of invention—or at least halakhic creativity.
Yael Shahar divides her time between researching organizational dynamics and Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish topics can be found at www.damaged-mirror.com.