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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Q I read that the Torah prohibits the sterilization of all creatures. Can I neuter my pet? - Josh L, Chicago
A In recent years, both public health officials and animal rights groups have advocated that pet owners neuter their pets. They note that excessive reproduction and overpopulation can endanger the animal, the species and the public. These campaigns, however, potentially conflict with the spirit, and possibly the letter, of Jewish law, which, as you note, prohibits sterilizing all creatures.
Judaism, it has been claimed, represents the only religion which has consistently prohibited castration. In other ancient cultures, castrations were performed to supply royal servants (eunuchs), to preserve sweet youthful voices, to punish criminals and, for religious purposes, to prevent sexual perversions. Animals, additionally, were sterilized to improve agricultural work output and control supply of exported prized species.
The Torah prohibits the sacrificial use of animals whose "testicles are bruised, crushed, torn or cut," and further prohibits one from performing such deeds to sexual organs (Leviticus 22:24). The sages understood this verse to prohibit sterilization of all male creatures, human and animals alike (Shabbat 110b). Castration, medieval commentators understood, defies the divine blessing to "be fruitful and multiply" and ultimately destroys His creation (Sefer Hahinuch 291). As with almost all mitzvot, however, sterilization becomes permissible when done for urgent therapeutic needs.
A related commandment severely restricts the potential spouses of a male whose genital organ, testicles or testicular cords were externally damaged by human action (Deuteronomy 23:2), and prohibits his service in the Temple (Leviticus 21:20). One medieval writer speculated that these marital restrictions were intended to combat the social incentives of antiquity to allow one's child to become a eunuch, which might help explain why this restriction only applies to males whose injury was man-made (Hinuch 559). The prohibitions of sterilization and marriage, however, remain independent, and therefore indispensable medical treatment that causes infertility (as with some prostate surgeries) does not impact their personal status (Tzitz Eliezer 10:25:24).
Consequently, rabbis uniformly prohibited sex-change surgery, although an interesting discussion ensued whether, post facto, Halacha recognizes a change in sexual identity (Tzitz Eliezer 10:25:26). A more complex case, however, involves male fertility treatments which include once-harmful incisions, like testicular biopsy, with the preponderance of scholars allowing procedures that help alleviate infertility (Igrot Moshe Even Ha'ezer 2:3).
While the biblical commandment for men remains clear, scholars debated its applicability to women. While some maintain that female species are also biblically prohibited from removing internal sexual organs, normative Halacha deems it a lighter rabbinic violation (Even Ha'ezer 5:11), with one significant decisor even stating that that this prohibition only stems from the larger proscription of causing someone pain (Taz 5:6). As such, many decisors permit hysterectomies and tubal ligation for therapeutic purposes and to prevent dangerous or unusually painful childbirth (Bah EH 5), although they remain less preferable options when nonsurgical forms of contraception are equally available (Igrot Moshe EH 4:34).
Another significant debate exists regarding the inclusion of sterilization within the Noahide laws (Sanhedrin 56b). While some scholars believe that gentiles are also included in this proscription, many decisors assert that non-Jews have the prerogative to perform these procedures (Aruch Hashulhan 5:26). (This debate has great implications for the Jewish attitude toward world population control, advocated by many international bodies, even as it might contravene the spirit of these prohibitions.)
Nonetheless, it remains prohibited for Jewish urologists or veterinarians to perform nontherapeutic sterilization for non-Jews. Moreover, as with other prohibitions, a Jew may not ask a non-Jew to sterilize for himself (amira le'akum), even in a subtle or indirect manner (EH 5:14), although using non-Jewish doctors may be preferable in certain cases of legally mandated procedures.
To prevent severe financial loss from business owners who used animals for commercial purposes, some 19th-century scholars allowed owners to sell their animals to gentiles, who in turn would get a second non-Jew to neuter the animal (Ha'elef Lecha Shlomo EH 23). Many contemporary decisors, however, do not approve of this (inconvenient) leniency for individual pets, and instead recommend buying or adopting already neutered animals, or using hormonal treatments or contraceptives, when available, to limit fertility (Shu"t Bemareh Bazak 6:77).
However, given the lighter strictures regarding female species and claims of significant health benefits, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner allows a Jewish veterinarian to spay female pets (She'elat Shlomo v.6), while Rabbi Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Halevi 6:204) more hesitantly permits a non-Jew to perform the procedure. Recently, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has alternatively contended that because of public safety concerns from wild and ownerless animals, one may ask a non-Jewish veterinarian to neuter pets of both genders. I have subsequently read that some Israeli animal groups are helping facilitate this requirement for religious pet owners, although it remains to be seen whether this leniency will take root.
The author, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.