Moses and the Kid, Judah and the Calf, and the Disavowal of Compassion: Reading Rabbinic Stories with The Question of the Animal and Religion

Geoffrey D. Claussen
Elon University

In the opening chapters of the biblical book of Exodus, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has enslaved the people of Israel and has demanded the death of all male Israelite children. Moses, an Israelite who grows up in Pharaoh’s household, sees the suffering of his people, kills an Egyptian taskmaster, flees to Midian, and there defends a group of women from a group of shepherds. He marries one of those women, Zipporah, and becomes a shepherd himself to work for his Midianite father-in-law Jethro. God has taken notice of the Israelites’ suffering in Egypt, and while Moses is “tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro” (Exodus 3:1), God calls to Moses from a burning bush and commissions him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Why does God choose Moses at this moment, while Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s flock? A midrash found in Exodus Rabbah tells the story as follows:

The Holy Blessed One only tested Moses by the flock. Our rabbis have said that when Moses our rabbi, peace be upon him, was shepherding the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a kid escaped. He ran after it until he reached a shady place. When he reached the shady place, he happened upon a pool of water where the kid was standing, drinking. When Moses reached the kid, he said: “I had not known that you had run away because of thirst. You must be tired.” He placed it on his shoulder and walked back. The Holy Blessed One said: “You have shown compassion in guiding a flock belonging to a mortal; so, by your life, you should shepherd My flock, Israel.”[1] 

In this midrash, God characterizes Moses as acting with exemplary compassion. Moses does not rebuke the kid for escaping from the flock. Instead, he admits that he had not understood what it needed, and he shows the empathy required to understand what it must be feeling; he responds with an action that offers relief to the kid. God appears to Moses and charges him with his mission precisely because of this display of compassion to the kid. It would seem that the burning bush appears where it appears—at the “mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1), Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai—precisely because its location has been sanctified by Moses’s compassion. The midrash suggests that this site, regarded by many Jewish interpreters as the site where all written and oral Torah is revealed by God, is first distinguished by a display of compassion for a non-human animal.

In this paper, I will bring this episode in the life of Moses into dialogue with an episode in the life of a later Jewish leader who may be compared to Moses in many respects: Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, the putative redactor of the Mishnah, a text often viewed as capturing much of the “oral Torah” first revealed to Moses at Sinai. Rabbinic Jews who have imagined Moses as writing down the written Torah have often viewed Judah as writing down the oral Torah. Just as a rabbinic story describes how Moses’s life is transformed by his encounter with a non-human animal who escapes from human control, a rabbinic story describes how Judah’s life is transformed by his encounter with a non-human animal who escapes from human control.

Judah, the Calf, and the Cattle at Agriprocessors

The story involving Judah is found in multiple sources and manuscripts, with some differences among them.[2] The version found in standard printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud describes how Judah came to suffer deeply for thirteen years:

The sufferings of Rabbi [Judah the Patriarch] came due to an incident. What was it? A calf which they were bringing to slaughter went and hung its head in the corner of Rabbi [Judah’s] garment. And it cried. [Rabbi Judah] said to it, “Go. For this you were created.” [The heavenly court] said: “Since he shows no compassion, let sufferings come upon him.”[3]

The story concludes by describing a moment of compassion that takes place thirteen years later:

And these [sufferings] left as a result of an incident. One day, Rabbi [Judah]’s maid was sweeping the house. There were baby rats scattered there and she swept them up. [Rabbi Judah] said to her, “Let them go! It is written, ‘[God’s] compassion is upon all of [God’s] works’” (Psalms 145:9). [The heavenly court] said: “Since he shows compassion, we will have compassion on him.”[4]

In his book The Question of the Animal and Religion, Aaron Gross offers a thoughtful analysis of this story, focusing on the significance of the pleading face of the animal that demands a response. Gross links Judah’s experience of being confronted by the calf with the experience of viewers of a 2004 undercover video recorded at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse, a video that also showed pleading animals and that also produced significant Jewish responses.[5] Documenting the extreme suffering of cattle as their internal organs were removed while they were still conscious, the video revealed “what is normally hidden from view and disavowed—namely, the fact that in contemporary industrial slaughterhouses animals are regularly treated in ways most people would deem monstrous.”[6] Just as these suffering animals demonstrated their agency and demanded a response, so too the calf demanded a response from Rabbi Judah.

As Gross points out, the story of Rabbi Judah points to the bodily vulnerability shared by humans and animals, in part as it seeks to explain the severe bodily pain that Judah experiences for many years, in part as it goes on to discuss human vulnerability amidst a lack of rain, and in part as it points to the vulnerability of young animals “still dependent on motherly care.”[7] In Gross’s analysis, the story elevates the value of compassion as it presents the development of Judah’s compassion, demonstrating how a great sage may move away from thinking that “animals are intended for human use” and may learn to instead privilege the sentiment that compassion is owed to all of God’s works.[8]

Moses, the Kid, and the Needs of All Creatures

The story of Moses and the kid does not present the same stark dichotomy between using an animal for human purposes and responding with compassion to save animal lives; Moses does not speak to any animal in quite the way that Judah does, nor does Moses hear the kid speak as Judah appears to hear the cow’s cries, nor is Moses’s compassionately carrying the kid the same as preventing baby rats from being swept away. Still, Moses is, like Judah, a leader whose life is transformed by an encounter with an individual animal who escapes from human beings and to whom compassion is owed. The animal who demands Moses’s compassion is, like the animals who demand Judah’s, a young and vulnerable animal who exercises considerable agency in running away. Moreover, both narratives depict the shared vulnerability of human beings and non-human animals, and they elevate the value of compassion. When both figures show compassion for animals, their compassion helps to trigger or reveal God’s compassion for vulnerable human beings: God relieves Judah from his suffering, and God commissions Moses to relieve the suffering of the enslaved people of Israel.

The story of Moses does not explicitly depict Moses’s compassion as emulating divine compassion, as the story of Judah’s compassion for the rats does, but later interpreters have seen the two figures as linked by the ways that both of them emulate divine compassion. For example, one early twentieth-century rabbi, Rabbi Natan Tzevi Finkel of Slabodka, Lithuania, a leader of the virtue-centered Musar movement, describes Moses’s encounter with the kid as revealing that Moses was able to “understand and discern the needs of every creature.” Finkel explains:

Our rabbi Moses, who followed the kid so that he could figure out why it ran away, after he found that it was tired and thirsty, he had compassion for it, and he placed it on his shoulder, and so it was revealed that he could understand and discern the needs of every creature. And so the Holy Blessed One found him fit to be the shepherd of Israel…. So it is written regarding the Holy Blessed One: “[God’s] compassion is upon all of [God’s] works” (Psalms 145:9), which includes all creatures, as in the story of Rabbi [Judah] and the calf and the young rats (BT Bava Metzia 85a). Moreover, it is written: “The eyes of all look to You expectantly, and You give them their food promptly” (Psalms 145:15), as [God] is concerned for each [creature] in its own right, in accordance with its needs, promptly. Therefore, only a person who follows in the ways of God and who also has compassion for all creatures, and who knows how to determine and think deeply about the needs of each and every one of them, passes the test and is fit for the position of being a shepherd and leader.[9]

From Finkel’s perspective, Moses is fit to lead the people of Israel because his compassion for the kid is in line with the divine concern for the needs of all creatures; a similar sort of concern, emulating the divine, is visible in the incident of Rabbi Judah and the young rats.

But whereas Judah’s compassionate encounter occurs later in his life, correcting his earlier lack of compassion, Moses’s compassionate encounter occurs early in his life. Gross appropriately reads the story of Judah as offering us a model for the development of compassion, showing us how Judah moved from cruelty to compassion. I find it easy to imagine Moses’s story, by contrast, as offering us a model of how one may move away from compassion for non-human animals. I suggest that whereas we might follow Gross in seeing Judah moving towards compassion, we may imagine Moses as moving away from compassion. Gross’s analysis can help us see Moses’s life as offering a counter-narrative to Judah’s life—or to see Judah’s life as offering a counter-narrative to Moses’s life.

In the biblical narrative, after all, Moses quickly turns from compassionately responding to the needs of a vulnerable animal (and, if we accept Finkel’s reading, from showing that he can understand and discern the needs of every creature) to engaging in animal sacrifice. In some ways, this turn is unremarkable, given the ways in which the biblical narrative depicts animal sacrifice as commanded by God. Even at the burning bush, while Moses might still be holding the tired kid on his shoulder, Moses hears the divine voice command him to slaughter animals; he is instructed to ask Pharaoh to “let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Eternal our God” (Exodus 3:18).[10] When he returns to Egypt, Moses also hears God’s commandment for every Israelite household to slaughter a kid, the blood of which will protect the people of Israel from death (Exodus 12:13). And when Moses brings the freed Israelites back to Mount Sinai, he seals the covenant at the mountain with the blood of slaughtered animals that he dashes upon the altar and dashes upon the assembled people of Israel (Exodus 24:5–8).

If we imagine, following Finkel, that Moses had previously proved his high level of compassion, such that “he could understand and discern the needs of every creature,” why did he show no apparent concern for the kids slaughtered in Egypt or the bulls slaughtered at Sinai? How might Moses have reconciled what God seemed to tell him about his compassion with what God seemed to tell him about the necessity of killing? If Moses took God’s words to heart and saw himself as kind to animals, how did he maintain what Gross calls “a structure of subjectivity that makes it acceptable to kill animals while understanding oneself as kind to them”?[11]

The Disavowal of Compassion

We might imagine a variety of answers to these questions, but Gross’s The Question of the Animal and Religion points us to one sort of justification as to why such slaughter may have been viewed as necessary. Gross points to the insight of the philosopher Jacques Derrida that sacrifice and other acts of violence against animals authorize that violence “in the name of protecting the human,” ensuring that we think of humans (or, at least, certain humans—not, say, the Egyptian firstborns struck down by God) as ultimately valuable in contrast to animals. Humans can be defined precisely as those who are not slaughtered, as those whose desires, livelihoods, and rights are protected (with compassion), thanks to the sacrifice of animals.[12] “The very concepts of ‘human’ and ‘animal,’” Gross writes, “are forged in a sacrificial fire.”[13] “The dignity of the human is nourished by the shedding of animal blood.”[14]

If Mount Sinai is first introduced in Exodus Rabbah’s narrative as the location where compassion for both humans and animals was revealed, then perhaps Mount Sinai later becomes the location where humans and animals are wholly distinguished from each other. Animals are now understood as those whose throats should be slit, not only to feed human beings but also to offer them protection and atonement; humans are those who find atonement precisely when Moses dashes the blood of slaughtered animals upon them.[15]

We might imagine that, after his encounter with the kid, Moses might have found it difficult to defend the stark human/animal dichotomy. If indeed, as Finkel suggests, Moses was called by God precisely because he was inclined to compassionately consider the needs of each and every creature, he would now need to repress his compassion and refuse to think about the desires of those animals that might seek to resist slaughter.

This would seem difficult for Moses; after all, as Jacques Derrida puts it (and Gross quotes Derrida on this point): “no one can deny the suffering, fear or panic, the terror or fright that can seize certain animals and that we humans can witness”—that “they suffer, like us.” Nor is there doubt “of there being within us the possibility of giving vent to a surge of compassion, even if it is then misunderstood, repressed, or denied, held at bay”[16] —and there is certainly no doubt that Moses, the acknowledged master of compassion, has this possibility within him. But Moses must find a way to avoid the suffering animal eyes that demand compassion and that will necessarily threaten the human/animal dichotomy. He may now turn away from the memory of the gaze of the particular animal, and instead turn to giving instructions about how to relate to “the animal” in general. Perhaps one should not be needlessly cruel to an animal, but one may kill when necessary—to satisfy cravings, to seal a covenant, to accommodate the way of life to which one is accustomed, or to protect human identity as distinct from the identity of the animal.[17] As Gross writes, building on Derrida, “The generality of ‘the animal,’ insinuated in language, works silently to disavow impulses of pity and the often spontaneous tendency to place human and nonhuman animals in the same or proximate categories.”[18] If Moses had at first emulated a divine compassion that responded to all suffering creatures, he may now come to disavow that understanding, perhaps coming to respond like Judah the Patriarch to any sacrificial animal that sought shelter within his garments and to say, “Go. For this you were created.” But whereas the Talmudic story of Judah suggests that Judah disavows his disavowal, I find it easy to imagine that Moses’s development leads him in the opposite direction, such that he disavows his earlier compassion.

The Claims of Animals

I am following Gross in imagining Judah’s experience as truly transformative: as Gross puts it, Judah found himself “transformed by the encounter” with the calf.[19] Much of that transformative power may be explained by Judah’s experience of years of suffering as a result of his encounter with the calf. If we imagine Moses as less transformed by his encounter with the kid, we might note that even though his encounter is linked with the experience of feeling the suffering of the people of Israel, non-human animal suffering is not the cause of intense and lasting bodily pain for him as it is for Judah. Following Gross, we might also see Judah’s encounter with the calf as uniquely transformative because of the powerful experience of “seeing an animal resist its death,”[20] and also because of how the calf assumes agency in the story. “The calf in this Talmudic story is a subject,” Gross writes. “It faces the rabbi and says with gestures and tears, ‘don’t kill me.’”[21] While in the Babylonian Talmud’s version of the story, the communication may be through gestures and tears, we should note that in the Palestinian Talmud, the calf actually speaks in words that Judah can understand:

One time [Rabbi Judah] passed a certain calf going to be slaughtered. [The calf] lowed and said to him: “Rabbi, save me!” [Rabbi Judah] said to him: “For this you were created.” And in the end, how was [Rabbi Judah] cured? He saw them killing a nest of mice. He said, “Leave them alone!—for it is written ‘[God’s] compassion is upon all of [God’s] works’ (Psalms 145:9).”[22]

Whether through gestures and tears or through lowing and a cry to be saved from death, the calf’s subjecthood and agency are clear in these Talmudic narratives. Perhaps the judgment against Rabbi Judah is so severe because he has no excuse for rejecting the claims that the calf so clearly makes—claims which he finally recognizes “in the end,” thirteen years later. The claims of non-human animals are so powerfully impressed upon Rabbi Judah because of the calf whose claim he cannot fairly deny. For Moses, by contrast, though he may witness the kid exercising agency, the kid’s voice does not make the same kinds of demands of him that the calf’s voice does of Judah. In the story of Moses, Moses speaks on behalf of the kid, but does not hear the kid speaking directly. Perhaps this helps to explain why the experience of Moses does not have the same kind of long-term effect as the experience of Judah. Whereas Judah’s profound experience of the calf as a subject leads him from disavowing compassion to developing compassion, Moses’s much more limited experience of the kid as a subject allows him to move from a place of compassion to disavowing compassion, denying significant animal suffering and re-inscribing the human/animal binary.

The Possibilities of Oral Torah

One need not read the stories in this way, of course. As I have considered elsewhere, one might imagine that Moses deepens his compassion for animals later in his life, disavowing his disavowal just as Judah seems to do.[23] And one might certainly imagine that Judah’s experience of compassion with the rats (or mice) is limited, and that he comes to disavow that very compassion as he redacts the Mishnah, the writing-down of oral Torah that reinscribes the sacrificial system put in place by Moses in the written Torah. But in this paper, I am imagining that Moses’s moral development moves in the opposite direction from that of Judah and that Judah’s transformation after thirteen years of suffering (perhaps taking place late in his life) is truly lasting. As such, perhaps we can imagine that whereas the Torah written down by Moses inscribes the human/animal binary on its parchment, the oral Torah that Judah transmits leaves greater openness to including the voices of non-human animals. For even though the written version of Judah’s Mishnah may fully inscribe the animal-human binary, the oral Torah that Judah conveyed could never have been fully written down in the Mishnah. “The oral Torah was never written down,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote. “The meaning of the Torah has never been contained by books.”[24] Quite the contrary, oral Torah continues to develop over time. Gross’s The Question of the Animal and Religion can help us to see that the face—and the voice—of the calf that confronted Judah continues to shape the oral Torah today, as seen in the ways that Jewish understandings of Torah have continued to shift through more recent encounters with pleading animals.

Even if Moses’s compassion had limited effects on the written Torah, the oral Torah with which Rabbi Judah is linked has continued to grow and make room for the claims of non-human animals. Responding to the claims of suffering animals—whether documented in the 2004 Agriprocessors video or elsewhere—Jews have denounced, disavowed, and boycotted the animal agriculture industry, have worked to protect these animals, and have seen contemporary practices of consuming “kosher” animal products as in fact forbidden by the Torah.[25] Gross himself is among those who have contributed to an oral Torah that has developed in response to pleas that animals have made, just as Judah’s assertions of compassion—“leave them alone!” “let them go!”—developed in response to the pleas of animals. Judah’s final responses to the claims of animals may be a source of inspiration to all of us who seek to hear the claims of animals in our day and to respond with a Torah of greater compassion.

But although the story of Judah as understood by Gross offers an inspiring model, the story of Moses that I have narrated in this paper would seem to offer a more typical response to the claims that animals make. Even those who witness the monstrous cruelty of industrial agriculture (“normally hidden from view and disavowed”), including many viewers of the Agriprocessors video or similar videos, commonly respond in ways that resemble not Judah’s final statements of compassion but, rather, Moses’s final disavowal of compassion. When we are confronted by suffering animals, we may feel compassion in the moment, we may even act like Moses and respond to the needs of a particular animal, and we may understand ourselves as concerned for animal welfare. But, like Moses, we maintain the “structure of subjectivity” that makes it acceptable to kill some animals even while we understand ourselves as kind to other animals. Most of us put aside the sentiment that compassion is owed to all sentient creatures and instead privilege the idea that, for the sake of our human identities, some must be sacrificed, exploited, and eaten. (“Eating animals is… arguably the most literal form of sacrifice today,” Gross writes.[26]) Many of us are able to watch videos of animal abuse without the claims of animals making a deep impression on our consciousness. We rationalize the abuse, we respond defensively to the claims that animals make, we avoid attributing agency to those animals, and we disavow compassion. Even if, like Moses, we sometimes carry beloved animals on our shoulders, many of us are quick to distinguish between that particular animal to whom compassion is owed and “the animal” in general whose claims we refuse to hear. Like Moses later in his life (or like Judah earlier in his life), many of us are less likely to say, “Leave them alone!” or “Let them go!” and more likely to say, “Go. For this you were created”—and to insist that the latter statement, for which Judah was punished, in fact reflects God’s Torah. Even as there is great potential within Jewish tradition for the continued development of deeply compassionate models of Torah, we may see here the persistence of models of Torah that refuse to respond compassionately to the claims of non-human animals.


[1] Exodus Rabbah 2:2.
[2] See Beth A. Berkowitz, Animals and Animality in the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 97–98. Parallels may be found in the Palestinian Talmud, Kilayim 42a (9:3) and Ketubbot 35a (12:2), and in Genesis Rabbah 33:1.
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 85a, following the translation in Aaron S. Gross, The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 167.
[4] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 85a, following the translation in Gross, 168. Others identify the animals as weasels or as other animals.
[5] Gross, 5, 58, 164–71, 176, 201.
[6] Gross, 176.
[7] Gross, 169.
[8] Gross, 170.
[9] Natan Tzevi Finkel, Or Ha-Tzafun (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Ḥevron, 1959), 2:7–8.
[10] Cf. Exodus 3:12.
[11] Gross, Question of the Animal and Religion, 187.
[12] Gross, 137–38. Gross is pointing to Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
[13] Gross, 141.
[14] Gross, 193.
[15] This would be in line with the rabbinic teaching that “there is no atonement except with blood,” a statement made with reference to Leviticus 17:11, appearing in B. Zevaḥim 6a, B. Yoma 5a, and B. Menaḥot 93b.
[16] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 28.
[17] Some of my language here draws from Geoffrey D. Claussen, “‘I Will Be with Them’: God at the Burning Bush as an Ideal of Compassion for All Creatures,” in Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, ed. David Birnbaum and Martin S. Cohen (New York: New Paradigm Matrix, 2019), 254–55, where I discuss some of these possibilities at greater length.
[18] Gross, Question of the Animal and Religion, 127.
[19] Gross, 201.
[20] Gross, 58.
[21] Gross, 176.
[22] Palestinian Talmud, Kilayim 42a (9:3); translation adapted from that of Beth Berkowitz in Beth A. Berkowitz and Marion Katz, “The Cowering Calf and the Thirsty Dog Narrating and Legislating Kindness to Animals in Jewish and Islamic Texts,” in Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: Encountering Our Legal Other, ed. Anver M. Emon (London: Oneworld, 2016), 93.
[23] Claussen, “I Will Be with Them,” 257–61.
[24] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955), 276.
[25] For a discussion of some of these efforts, see Jacob Labendz and Shmuly Yanklowitz, eds., Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions (Albany: SUNY Press, 2019). Gross describes his personal perspective in the final pages of that volume (328–329).
[26] Gross, Question of the Animal and Religion, 145.