Category Archives: Animal Rights

Chapter One: The Sixth Day

“Let us remember that animals are not mere resources for human consumption. They are splendid beings in their own right, who have evolved alongside us as co-inheritors of all the beauty and abundance of life on this planet” ~ Marc Bekoff

The Animals’ Story Begins

On the sixth day of creation, this happened . . .

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩ אֶת־חַיַּ֨ת הָאָ֜רֶץ לְמִינָ֗הּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ וְאֵ֛ת כָּל־רֶ֥מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה לְמִינֵ֑הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃

God made wild beasts of every kind and cattle of every kind, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. And God saw that this was good. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ 

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים הִנֵּה֩ נָתַ֨תִּי לָכֶ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵ֣עַ זֶ֗רַע אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵ֛ץ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ פְרִי־עֵ֖ץ זֹרֵ֣עַ זָ֑רַע לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָֽה׃ 

God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. 

וּֽלְכָל־חַיַּ֣ת הָ֠אָרֶץ וּלְכָל־ע֨וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וּלְכֹ֣ל ׀ רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה אֶת־כָּל־יֶ֥רֶק עֵ֖שֶׂב לְאָכְלָ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃ 

And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so. 

וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃ (פ) 

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. ~ Genesis 1:24-31

A Story of Parallel Relationships

This story begins not on the first but on the sixth day. It is the nonhuman animals’ story in the Torah. As it happens, it is also the beginning of the human story and therefore the beginning of the story of a human – nonhuman animal relationship.

The animals’ story, like the story of God’s relationship with humans, is a story of relationship. As humans relate to God, nonhuman animals relate to humans, who are intended to be representatives of God in creation.

God “makes” both human and nonhuman animals (וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֩), but there is a difference between human and nonhuman animals. The human is in the image and likeness of God. What does this mean?

As a king places a local statue to represent his rule to his subjects, so God places human beings on earth to represent God’s sovereignty over creation. This phrase, then, establishes the intended human role in creation. As God’s kingly representatives, humans are to subdue and “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

So God is the ultimate ruler, and humans represent God’s sovereignty in creation. The God-human relationship parallels the human-animal relationship.

But the story hints at an inherent problem. Taking a closer look at the nonhuman animal world, we begin to see its outlines.

There are three varieties of nonhuman land animals: wild beasts, domesticated animals and “creeping things of the earth” (רֶ֛מֶש – creeping, moving, swarming, crawling).

This last category of animals, swarming, crawling things, appears to be the smaller animals that move about the earth, quickly, without legs or with barely perceptible legs, perhaps in large groups.

But then “smaller” may be a matter of perspective. Seen from a vantage point, even large animals appear to swarm (Psalms 104:20, Isaiah 26:6). Even human beings may appear to swarm: “You have made (hu)mankind like the fish of the sea, Like creeping things that have no ruler.” (וַתַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֖ם כִּדְגֵ֣י הַיָּ֑ם כְּרֶ֖מֶשׂ לֹא־מֹשֵׁ֥ל בּֽוֹ׃) ~ Habakkuk 1:14

That verse from Habakkuk points to the inherent problem in creation: swarming things are hard to rule. This comparison provides a clue to the nature of swarming things but also hints at the future of God’s creation when it draws a parallel between swarming things “that have no ruler” and human beings.

Of the three nonhuman varieties of land animals, wild beasts, domesticated animals and swarming things, only domestic animals offer the potential for a harmonious and reciprocal relationship with human beings. Wild beasts are by definition independent and ungovernable, so God’s chosen representative can do little more than avoid them, living and letting live. And in fact, this category of animals is not mentioned in God’s instruction that the human will represent God’s rule on earth.

But swarming things are included in the instruction. Fish of the sea and birds of the air can swarm as well. And here is where the verse from Habbakuk provides insight into the future of God’s creation as do the parallels between the human story and animals’ story.

Thanks to Habbakuk, we know that the biblical perception of swarming things is that they are ungovernable. Similarly we know the wild beasts are ungovernable since they were omitted from the animal categories in God’s instruction. These swarming things, theoretically under human rule, parallel humans under God’s rule. Yet humans are set to rule swarming things as God is set to rule humans.

Beasts of the field, fish of the sea, birds of the air and creeping things, symbols of unruliness, reappear throughout the Hebrew Bible. In this verse from Hosea, the prophet speaks of a time when Israel will return to God who will establish a בְּרִית֙, a “covenant” with these unruly beings on behalf of the Israelites, paralleling the restoration of a covenant relationship between God and the Israelites. There will be peace in the land as it was intended:

וְכָרַתִּ֨י לָהֶ֤ם בְּרִית֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא עִם־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְעִם־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וְקֶ֨שֶׁת וְחֶ֤רֶב וּמִלְחָמָה֙ אֶשְׁבּ֣וֹר מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְהִשְׁכַּבְתִּ֖ים לָבֶֽטַח׃ 

In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety. ~ Hosea 2:20

We Are What We Eat

Finally God addresses food, assigning different fare to humans and to other creatures. To humans, God gives “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit.” To “all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life,” God gives all the green plants. Overflowing abundance, enough for all living creatures, to each an assigned food.

So the humans as well as the nonhuman animals are to fill this earth where food is abundantly available to all. Human food consists of agricultural products, seed-bearing plants and fruit trees. Nonhuman land animals graze, eating green plants, herbs and grasses.

Common to these different meals is that there is plenty for all, nonhuman animals no less than their human counterparts. God provides food without discrimination, for each living being according to its kind, a birthright. It’s hard not to point out this lesson of the Torah: humans are not given the right to destroy or take away the portion assigned to nonhuman animals.

But even though nonhuman animals have their own birthright, there is another dimension to this story of relationship. Humans are to rule this sprawling creation that swarms: bird flocks, fish schools, and all the living things that cluster and crawl about the earth. These living beings not only represent overflowing abundance but an element in creation that humans cannot fully govern.

And as we learn in the rest of the text in the developing relationship between God and humanity, then between God and the Israelites, humans too can be ungovernable, sometimes acting like wild beasts and sometimes like swarming things. Only when they consciously choose do they expand on the compassionate part of their animal nature, acting according to the teachings provided them. Without that mindfulness, their predatory instincts might easily engulf their lives. Humans are no more innately “good” than other living beings.

A Different Perspective on Things

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃ 

The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”

וַיִּצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה כָּל־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיָּבֵא֙ אֶל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם לִרְא֖וֹת מַה־יִּקְרָא־ל֑וֹ וְכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִקְרָא־ל֧וֹ הָֽאָדָ֛ם נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה ה֥וּא שְׁמֽוֹ׃ 

And the LORD God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. 

וַיִּקְרָ֨א הָֽאָדָ֜ם שֵׁמ֗וֹת לְכָל־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּלְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּלְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּלְאָדָ֕ם לֹֽא־מָצָ֥א עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃ 

And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found. ~ Gen. 2:18-20

In this version of the creation story, the rulership motif recedes from view along with the swarming things. Instead we see parallel stories of intimacy as God “forms” the nonhuman animals like an artist working with clay, then brings them to Adam to name them. God does this just after commenting “It is not good for Adam to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”

For a moment in time, it seems possible a nonhuman animal might become Adam’s helper. Naming suggests an intimacy between human and nonhuman animals that wasn’t highlighted in the first story where Adam was to subdue and rule creation as G-d’s representative.

And what to make of the odd phrase, עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ, ezer k’negdo, translated “fitting helper”? Ezer, meaning helper, seems clear. But k’negdo literally means “as in front of/against/face-to-face.” Feminist myth-makers might have a lot of fun with neged meaning “against,” suggesting a partner who stands against or up to, the other as an equal.

I kind of like the idea, though, of “face-to-face,” which fits well with the flow of imagery and meaning as the story unfolds. Approaching the text literally for a moment, this earth being, Adam, needs a partner s/he can look in the face as a being that stands upright on two legs. None of the nonhuman animals God brings to Adam fulfills this requirement.

The remaining possibility, which God chooses, is to separate this androgynous earth creature into two upright beings, man (אִ֔ישׁ – Ish) and woman (אִשָּׁ֔ה – Isha). These two upright beings, both human, can meet face-to-face.

The Serpent’s Story: An Almost Was. . .

The “face-to-face” translation works well as we come to a turning point in the animals’ story in these first three chapters of Genesis, the story of the serpent.

In a complete reversal of its place as the most arum (עָר֔וּם) of creatures and therefore most likely to be a human partner before the woman took that role, the serpent is doomed to crawl on the ground and eat dirt:

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים ׀ אֶֽל־הַנָּחָשׁ֮ כִּ֣י עָשִׂ֣יתָ זֹּאת֒ אָר֤וּר אַתָּה֙ מִכָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה וּמִכֹּ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה עַל־גְּחֹנְךָ֣ תֵלֵ֔ךְ וְעָפָ֥ר תֹּאכַ֖ל כָּל־יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 

Then the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you did this, More cursed shall you be Than all cattle And all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl And dirt shall you eat All the days of your life. ~ Gen. 3:14

Throughout the story leading up to that decree, the serpent is subtly cast, through skillful use of the Hebrew word arum (עָר֔וּם) as a potential equal to the humans among wild beasts. This portrayal reveals something about our human nature from the perspective of the biblical author/s.

To understand the parallel, we need to understand the Hebrew word, arum. Translated in the verse that follows, Gen. 3:1, as “shrewd,” it is translated in other sections of the Hebrew Bible as “prudent.” In Gen. 3:10-11, in reference to the humans, it is translated “naked.”

וְהַנָּחָשׁ֙ הָיָ֣ה עָר֔וּם מִכֹּל֙ חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה אַ֚ף כִּֽי־אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹ֣א תֹֽאכְל֔וּ מִכֹּ֖ל עֵ֥ץ הַגָּֽן׃ 

Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?”  ~ Gen. 3:1

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־קֹלְךָ֥ שָׁמַ֖עְתִּי בַּגָּ֑ן וָאִירָ֛א כִּֽי־עֵירֹ֥ם אָנֹ֖כִי וָאֵחָבֵֽא׃ 

He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מִ֚י הִגִּ֣יד לְךָ֔ כִּ֥י עֵירֹ֖ם אָ֑תָּה הֲמִן־הָעֵ֗ץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר צִוִּיתִ֛יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י אֲכָל־מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אָכָֽלְתָּ׃ 

Then He asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” ~ Gen. 3:10-11

So let’s imagine for a moment that we reverse translations — using “shrewd” or “prudent” for the humans and “naked” for the snake. Or use the same variety of translations for each since surely a native speaker would have heard that variety of meanings.

The serpent might as well be naked like the humans and unlike the other wild beasts, who all feature furry or hairy skins. Indeed, hairiness distinguishes animals or an animal nature. Isaac mistakes Jacob for his hairy brother, Esau, a “man of the outdoors,” when Jacob disguises himself with a hairy animal skin. The serpent and the first humans are alike in their hairlessness.

Similarly, the humans might just as well be shrewd or prudent after they eat from the tree. They, like the serpent, now know good from bad. Arum tells us that both humans and the serpent are capable of planning, strategizing, scheming and manipulating. This beautiful and nuanced story gives us a range of meaningful possibilities with its artistry.

The layered meaning becomes even more pronounced as we see the same reversal take place for the humans as for the serpent. Just as the serpent is to “crawl on its belly” and eat dirt, making face-to-face partnership with the human impossible, the humans are demoted from their role as God’s representative.

  • God reminds the humans that they are animals like their nonhuman fellow animals by assigning them nonhuman animal food, grasses of the field, as their agricultural products falter.
  • And God reminds them that they, like nonhuman animals, are from the earth and, like the serpent, will return to it.
  • Finally God clothes them in a hairy mantle so they are more like the other animals in appearance as well:

וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃ 

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; 

By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground— For from it you were taken. For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.

בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃ 

וַיִּקְרָ֧א הָֽאָדָ֛ם שֵׁ֥ם אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ חַוָּ֑ה כִּ֛י הִ֥וא הָֽיְתָ֖ה אֵ֥ם כָּל־חָֽי׃ 

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.

וַיַּעַשׂ֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְאָדָ֧ם וּלְאִשְׁתּ֛וֹ כָּתְנ֥וֹת ע֖וֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵֽׁם׃ 

And the LORD God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.  ~ Gen. 18-21

Some Thoughts About the Sixth Day

As the shrewd serpent entices the humans, s/he tells them they will achieve godlike status:

כִּ֚י יֹדֵ֣עַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כִּ֗י בְּיוֹם֙ אֲכָלְכֶ֣ם מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְנִפְקְח֖וּ עֵֽינֵיכֶ֑ם וִהְיִיתֶם֙ כֵּֽאלֹהִ֔ים יֹדְעֵ֖י ט֥וֹב וָרָֽע׃ 

but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” ~ Gen. 3:1-4

Perhaps this story comes to tell us not how godlike we are but how animal-like. Our godliness is potentiality, but our animal nature is a reality. We are intimately and inextricably connected to our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters. We all share the same earth. We are all of the same substance. We share essential characteristics.

Each animal also has unique characteristics. Even within species, animals differ from each other. Yuval Noah Harari suggests the unique capability of human beings is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. Perhaps I will interpret those words to say we have the capability of envisioning the potentiality of godliness, of “Interbeing” and therefore have a responsibility to make it happen.

But we have no characteristics that establish our innate superiority to other animals. “In God’s image” can refer to a role God gave us, to rule as God’s representatives on earth. But that doesn’t mean our fellow travelers are forgotten or are lesser beings.

The story in the first three chapters of Genesis tells us repeatedly that all life is blessed and that this is a world of plenty, not scarcity. In this world of abundance, each creature has its birthright.

Despite the serpent’s grandiose idea of its own and the humans’ divinity and superiority, both it and the the humans are, after all, animals. They are fellow creatures within this amazing, abundant and often unruly creation where everything is interconnected and the actions of one affect the rest.

Ruling as God’s representatives is a status that can be revoked as well as given. This is a theme that will recur throughout the Torah story. Our work as gardeners bears fruit only as long as we are mindful of our place and role in this beautiful world.

And now, because everything is interconnected, the animals’ story moves forward with our own human story.

Preface to The Animals’ Story in the Torah

In The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein coins the word, “Interbeing,” a knowledge “that my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency—our very existence is relational . . . that purpose, consciousness, and intelligence are innate properties of matter and the universe.”

This story of Interbeing is one I once knew — but on January 20, 2017, I woke up depressed, and I wondered how the world, how I, had strayed so far from that knowledge of Interbeing. Instinctively I turned toward projects I hoped might reawaken my consciousness of myself in that story. I hoped to expand the circle of my own often limited awareness and compassion.

I reinvested in my exploration of veganism, creating beautiful food from what the earth gives us so abundantly. I went to work on a farm, spending hours with my hands in the earth helping to grow the food I prepared at home. And I started another journey through the Torah with a different lens, relationships. I called this project “Torah Ecology.”

After a time, I focused more sharply on a particular set of relationships, that between human and nonhuman animals. The story I found in the Torah convinced me that its foundation story is the story that Charles Eisenstein describes in one simple but rich word, Interbeing.

Today, 2500 years after the time many scholars believe the text was redacted into the form we have it today, science tells us the same story.

These additional readings helped me in my journey: Charles Eisenstein’s, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Nathan Lents’ Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World and The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion―Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, Barbara J. King’s Personalities on Our Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, Franz van de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, and from Sierra Club’s March/April 2019 issue, this feature story: “Does A Bear Think In the Woods?” There are other books I look forward to reading, including more from Frans van de Waal and several from Mark Bekoff.

Like the Torah, these books point directly or indirectly to the fact that nonhuman animals have consciousness, intelligence, a sense of fairness and justice and empathy. They plan and cooperate. They also experience fear and jealousy and act aggressively toward those who threaten them. Human beings are firmly in the animal kingdom. As Yuval Noah Harari points out, we had a mediocre position in the food chain until a time in human evolution when we didn’t.

These facts raise obvious questions. Is there a moral argument for taking the life of other living beings because they differ from us? Do human beings possess unique characteristics that allow them to claim superiority over other animals, providing a rationale for sacrificing them in payment for our own sins? Surely the Torah doesn’t give us the right to commercialize life as we have today, breeding animals by the billions each year only to kill and eat them, destroying the planet as we do it. Surely the Torah points to an awareness that these are our fellow creatures, other beings who share our beautiful, living planet with us. 

In any discussion of meat eating, many will quickly point to repeated references throughout the biblical text that put forward the sanctity and supreme value of human life. Or will point to the explicit permission to eat other living beings in Gen. 9:3:

כָּל־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוּא־חַ֔י לָכֶ֥ם יִהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָ֑ה כְּיֶ֣רֶק עֵ֔שֶׂב נָתַ֥תִּי לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־כֹּֽל׃ 

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.

And what do we do with Leviticus, a book with animal sacrifice at its heart? My project stalled for a time here as I studied it through the lens of the human-nonhuman animal relationship. How can I say the fundamental Torah story is that of Interbeing when the violence of one being toward another is at its literal center? (Leviticus is the central book and the Yom Kippur sacrifice is at its center). How does animal sacrifice connect with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” or Martin Buber’s idea of “I-Thou” relationships? As I worked through my project, I had to confront those questions. In what follows, I will incorporate my thoughts with regard to them.

But the aspirational story of the Torah, the story brimming with potentiality, is the one I would like to tell here. It is the story I needed to reengage with in these times when we are so mired in the realities of a suffering earth. Those realities were all-too-familiar in the biblical world as well, and they helped me understand how a story of separation and violence was threaded through the aspirational story, how love, compassion and deadly politics mingle.

The Animals’ Story in the Torah highlights both the beautiful potential and the painful and horrifying reality of our human relationships with the perceived “other.” The Torah story is about our profound and inextricable connection to all being and consciousness, about our search to expand our circle of awareness and compassion — but also about our struggle with a reality in which we humans are all too likely to forget the connection that is the foundation of everything and to devalue “the other.”

The Torah’s story of aspiration and potentiality strengthened and inspired generations of people, Jewish and non-Jewish. At the same time, we continue to struggle with the devastating impact of a reality in which difference or otherness isn’t blessed but devalued, a world where both conscious and unconscious violence is a constant.

Studying Torah through the lens of our human relationship to nonhuman animals helped me rediscover the story of Interbeing. That story of our fundamental interconnection and the transcendent value of each life, of all life, is what I would like to share in The Animals’ Story in the Torah.

Balancing our evolutionary and biological realities

I haven’t written as much on the Torah portions after two years of working pretty steadily at them. With my focus on the relationship between human beings and other animals, it was inevitable that I would have to struggle with the “meaning” of animal sacrifice.

What was sacrifice supposed to accomplish? How did people feel as they prepared an animal for sacrifice? As they experienced sacrifice as a non-priest? Saw the sight of a terrified animal slaughtered, dissected and burned? There is no way to construe a sacrifice as anything other than a violent act — yet it is presented as drawing close to G-d.” How can I reconcile these things?

Some source-critical examination (a technique I don’t usually favor) helped me some with this problem but in the process caused me even greater difficulty. So did an article I read recently about Passover and the Levites, which inspired a post I have not yet finished.

But I have also turned to looking at the problem through a different lens, the lens of evolutionary biology, and amazingly, it is beginning to give me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah and rabbinic tradition. I will write a post about this eventually too.

For now, I just want to mention some books that have been very important to me in this journey: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Barbara King’s Personalities on our Plate, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus.

Most recently I’m reading Not So Different: Finding Human Nature In Animals, by Nathan H. Lents. Just to give you a sense of the topics covered, the chapter headings are: Why do we play? Animal systems of justice, Moral animals, Sexual politics, Do animals fall in love?, The agony of grief, Jealous beasts: the darker side of love, Darker still (envy, greed and power), Afraid of the dark, The richness of animal communication.

This isn’t an esoteric pursuit for me. I don’t believe we evolve beyond our basic evolutionary and biological realities. I don’t believe we are “saved” from who we are through faith except to the extent that it encourages a constant practice rooted in balancing these evolutionary drives. And although I read and appreciated Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, I don’t think it deals (or to be fair, intended to deal) with the reality of who we are as human beings and the sustainability of a culture that sets as its highest value the harmonious well-being of all life. Yes, we may have a lower rate of violence progressively through history, at least superficially and temporarily, we may be more educated and have a lower rate of poverty. All indicators may, statistically speaking, be better, but I think I could make an argument it’s not as a result of human nature evolving, and therefore I don’t trust its sustainability.

Human nature is what it is — and every religious culture and many non-religious cultures seek and present us with ways to deal with the reality of human nature and guide us toward something more than the cycle of prey and predator, something more than acting mindlessly or on instinct. These considerations seem particularly relevant today when the world is gripped — in mythic terms — by the darker side of our nature.

Every culture, every ideology, every religion demonstrates that in particular conditions, groups will arise that generate “other” hatred and violence and display and encourage an utter lack of empathy. I believe that attachment to one’s group and what goes along with that — asserting superiority over other groups, feeling and acting dismissively toward the needs of other groups, and ultimately violence toward other groups, including non-human animals — is rooted in our evolution and biology. But so is cooperation and empathy — among both humans and non-human animals. Not So Different helped connect me to the science behind what I perceive and gives me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah.

I hope I have time in my life to study how each religion offers opportunities to work with the reality of who we are as human beings and shapes and educates us to maintain a world-sustaining balance. The chances are good, though, that I will only have time to explore this issue in the kind of depth I would like in the framework of my chosen religion, Judaism. I may not even get past the Bible with that. In fact, I may not even get past the first five books, the Torah.

But no matter how far I’m able to follow this line of study, one thing is clear to me: the darkness that many of us feel in the world today with right wing populism ascendant is the result of giving precedence and unfettered freedom to a biological drive toward greed and an us-them mentality. It is the failure to balance that survival-centered drive with other biological realities like group cooperation and empathy that ultimately leads to violence. This is not a problem of the “right” or the “left,” though, or of any particular religion or culture. It is an imbalance that can occur within any human being and within any society or religion or ideology.

The antidote to violence and hatred in the world is cooperation and empathy, taught and nurtured through daily experience and practice. And what my religion teaches me is a mindful practice that takes us on a path between the extremes, between the drive for self-preservation and the drive toward cooperation and empathy. There is a way we can strive not toward perfection but toward a balance based on realities of human nature the Torah intuited and science now proves.

Where do we fit?

I’m interested these days in the relationship between human beings and other animals, how we fit into the fabric of nature, how we managed to get from a mediocre position in the food chain to top spot, and what we have done with that position.

Today I was thinking about two traits that seem to me distinctively human and wondered if I could disprove that theory or if they are indeed defining traits: greed and wastefulness. I found this very interesting article on wolverines that suggests greed, at least, is not limited to human beings: “Wolverines Give Insight Into The Evolution of Greed.”

I can find nothing about wastefulness among other animals, although there’s plenty about the appalling 30-40% waste in the human world. I imagine this either means that no one has researched this particular issue — or that there’s nothing to research, that is, animals don’t typically waste. If anyone finds an article or a report on some research, I’d appreciate knowing about it. You can email me at leslie@vegetatingwithleslie.org or share to my Facebook page. 

On the theme of more desirable traits, Sierra Club featured this beautiful article in their March / April 2019 issue: “Does A Bear Think In The Woods?”

A side note: in the past five years, there have been more than 190,000 publications about various aspects of animal intelligence.

 

A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…

I read an article today in The Conversation that started me thinking. It talked about a demonstrable psychological link between those who believe in “creationism” and those who believe in conspiracy theories. The article reports that “The new study takes the role of conspiratorial thought in creationism a step further. It suggests that creationism itself could be seen as a belief system involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things.”

Yet rejecting the teleological idea of “the purposeful creation of all things” is hardly “a step further.” Koheleth (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes) begins:

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile! (Ecc. 1:2)

He proceeds to observe the workings of nature and to test out each thing a person might do with his or her life and decides all is purposeless and futile. Koheleth goes so far (Ecc. 3:18-21) as to counter what I see as a bedrock biblical belief, the sanctity and uniqueness of human life in relation to other animals with whom we share the planet:

אָמַ֤רְתִּֽי אֲנִי֙ בְּלִבִּ֔י עַל־דִּבְרַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם לְבָרָ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְלִרְא֕וֹת שְׁהֶם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה הֵ֖מָּה לָהֶֽם׃

So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts.

כִּי֩ מִקְרֶ֨ה בְֽנֵי־הָאָדָ֜ם וּמִקְרֶ֣ה הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וּמִקְרֶ֤ה אֶחָד֙ לָהֶ֔ם כְּמ֥וֹת זֶה֙ כֵּ֣ן מ֣וֹת זֶ֔ה וְר֥וּחַ אֶחָ֖ד לַכֹּ֑ל וּמוֹתַ֨ר הָאָדָ֤ם מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אָ֔יִן כִּ֥י הַכֹּ֖ל הָֽבֶל׃

For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same life breath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.

הַכֹּ֥ל הוֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֑ד הַכֹּל֙ הָיָ֣ה מִן־הֶֽעָפָ֔ר וְהַכֹּ֖ל שָׁ֥ב אֶל־הֶעָפָֽר׃

Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.

מִ֣י יוֹדֵ֗עַ ר֚וּחַ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם הָעֹלָ֥ה הִ֖יא לְמָ֑עְלָה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה הַיֹּרֶ֥דֶת הִ֖יא לְמַ֥טָּה לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Who knows if a man’s life breath does rise upward and if a beast’s breath does sink down into the earth?

Yet the book concludes with:

ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:

כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃
[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]

that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all humankind. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

After an entire book devoted to demonstrating the utter purposelessness of life, Koheleth exhorts us to revere G-d and observe His commandments. What does this mean?

It means that in the final analysis, all a person can do is make choices, and one of those choices is how will you live your life? On the basis of what belief, what worldview? Yet there is no objective basis for making this choice and no argument to be made to support your choice.

As I wrote in a post a couple of days ago, this is basically my own position. Admittedly this is not a comfortable place to be in relation to my life. I’ve often admired and even envied people like my grandmother who had a deep and very specific religious faith and sense of purpose.

But it’s the only place I can be. Once I say with Steven Hawkings that there is no G-d, or with Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we come from the same material as the stars, and it is an incredible series of coincidences and accidents that resulted in human life, or with Yuval Noah Harari that our human genius is creating fictions that we persuade others to believe and that it’s all fiction, or with Charles Eisenstein that it’s all stories . . . it’s a short step to say we cannot demonstrate that any system of belief or morality is objectively superior to any other. And it is one more short step to say there is no intrinsic purpose to anything. But that’s not the end of the world. It might even be the beginning of one.

Yes, we are left with stark basic choices: will we continue to live knowing there is no objective evidence for purpose in it? And if yes, how will we live? Read the message behind Koheleth’s words: “Revere G-d and observe his commandments!” Recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. And it turns out, it’s more than sufficient.

Job discovers the same truth: the comforters with their reasoned arguments and judgments are no comfort. Experiencing the unimaginable vastness and beauty of creation in a profound moment of connection is the only thing that touches his pain and heals him.

As I read the article from The Conversation, I thought two things: I understood a little better, perhaps had a little more compassion for, a group of people that I have had great difficulty understanding: anti-science, climate-denying, religious literalists. Existentialism is a scary branch of the tree to sit on. It’s actually not even a branch. It’s more like floating alone in space utterly disconnected and without knowledge of how you got there or where you’re going. Consciousness in this place can be terrifying. I understand how attractive the alternative of certainty is, how attractive it is to imagine that the joy and the suffering we experience in life has purpose and meaning and we know, with utter certainty, what that is.

I also understood a little better the source of my own faith which is both faith and, I think, science. I believe everything is interconnected. Science tells us that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. It tells us we came from the same substance as the stars. It tells us that we are connected to our planet and that our actions affect the planet.

It is also a belief expressed in the Bible, a text I grew up reading sitting in my Dad’s lap and continue to read today as I approach the eighth decade of my life. The Bible reminds us in every page of our connection to each other, to other animals, and to the planet. When we fail in our responsibility in the social realm, all of creation rises against us.

As I view the world through the prism of that observation and belief, I choose a set of practices and experiences that reinforce it and repeatedly demonstrate its truth. I experience connection and nurture the experience. The experience is self-affirming. It provides me with certainty and encourages me to open the circle of connection wider and wider, to resist or seek to overcome experiences of disconnection.

Here, on the other hand, is an image that contrasts so sharply with that experience of connection. Instead it expresses isolation, loneliness and anger in the midst of a sea of connection between people on the right and the left, throughout a divided nation, and among nations.

The image shows so clearly that this choice for science-denial and creationism doesn’t present an easy or comfortable path either. What are the sources of strength that might carry this person through personal suffering?

And here I return to Koheleth’s final message: recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. Continually stretch the boundaries of compassion. The truth reveals itself and provides its own evidence.

And so after all, I can see that my belief is evidence-based. To the extent that I experience connection to my world, to family, friends, community, other animals, the planet and even, possibly, beyond, not only does scientific observation support me in that, my life just works better. It is more fulfilling, more beautiful, and I experience purpose. In other words, the experience of faith through connection is true because it works at the simplest levels: I have only to put my hands in the soil, prepare a meal from real foods, or walk with my dog in the snow, an experience of connection because we both love being outdoors, we are both happy, and it’s better together.

“At the end of the world, turn left.” Sof ha-olam smola.  Just be sure you have a friend of any species with you.

The day is short, and the work is much . . .

Yuval Noah Harari says there is no objective evidence to support any moral system much less one system over another. He also says the unique feature of human beings, Sapiens, is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. And it’s all fiction. I agree with these thoughts, and it keeps me humble.

But I also believe there is purpose in our lives on this planet, as contradictory as that may seem, and it is and has always been to expand the circle of our compassion even as we tend to our own survival needs. That also keeps me humble. It’s hard and constant work. 

My belief in this purpose is what keeps me connected to my religion of choice. The primary purpose of every religion is to provide a framework to guide us toward that objective, expanding our circle of compassion, restraining our less generous instincts and standing against the less generous trends of the society in which we live.

In some ways those less generous instincts are grounded in a perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other” whom we need to defeat or around whom we at least need to be cautious and suspicious. That’s probably a necessary evolutionary characteristic — but we are at our best as humans when we find a balance between self-survival and other- awareness and empathy. Every religion “knows” this.

So I decided to do my work of expanding my circle of compassion, which requires removing some boundaries of perception, by  rethinking my relationship with other animals on the planet. I grew up in a time and culture when meat-eating was taken for granted, and a mental boundary was put in place early on between what was on my plate and where it came from. I find that as I remove those boundaries and blinders, it makes me more aware of other ways I need to widen the circle of compassion and try to see things through the eyes of others. 

Peeking under the curtain to see “the other,” reducing the mental boundaries between myself and “them,” is a task I will never complete and one at which I frequently fail. And often it’s just too painful to lift the curtain. But it’s also a task and purpose I want to remind myself to work on every day.

I think the major obstacle to experiencing and living our lives to the full is our perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other.” Each time we remove a boundary and experience a moment of connection, we realize our potential, meaning and purpose. The interesting thing is, we give that moment to the “other” at the same time.

“The day is short, the work is much, and the laborers are slothful. It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, however, neither are you free from doing all you can to complete it.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:2)

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. 

Torah Ecology: Beshallach 2018 (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16)

Beshallach focuses on food and water, essentials for life, and how these necessities shape and define relationships. Last year I explored these themes and how structural elements in the story reveal them. This year I will examine the Animals’ Story subtext, how it adds density to the themes and illuminates the relationship between human beings and other animals.

Following are the animal references in the portion:

Ex. 14:9 – “…the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.”

Ex. 14:23 – “The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen.”

Ex.15:1b – “Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 15:20b – “And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 16:3 – “The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.'”

Ex. 16:8 – “‘Since it is the Lord,’ Moses continued, ‘who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the Lord has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the Lord!'”

Ex. 16:11 – “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the Lord am your G-d.'”

Ex. 16:13 – “In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp.”

Ex. 16:20 – “But they paid no attention to Moses; some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank. And Moses was angry with them.”

Ex. 17:3 – “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

As we have seen in these portions, the fate of the animals follows that of their humans and augments the main narrative.

There was a time when I had to memorize the song in chapter 15. It’s cadence and imagery always stayed with me, especially the refrain, סוּס  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (soos v’rochvo ramah va-yam) – “The horse and its driver He hurled into the sea.” And thus the Egyptians’ horses suffer the same fate as their drivers although they bore no guilt for the sins of their society.

In Ex. 16:3, 8 and 11, we hear about the barely concealed grumblings of the hungry Israelites, longing for the “fleshpots” (סִיר הַבָּשָׂר – seer ha-basar) of Egypt. There are two interesting points here:

  1. Is it likely the Israelites as slaves in Egypt would have been “sitting by” the fleshpots, eating their fill?
  2. In Ex. 12:32, when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to go, he finally tells them to take their flocks and herds. In 12:38, we learn, “Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” What was the purpose of the livestock if not to provide milk and meat? Nahum Sarna suggests (JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 86) “livestock is the most valuable possession of the pastoralist, who can seldom be induced to part with an animal. Besides, the people had probably already suffered losses for lack of adequate pasturage.” Maybe. But they seem to sacrifice a lot of animals without those same worries.

Two thoughts occur to me as alternatives to Sarna’s explanation for the Israelite complaint when they were surrounded by their own herds. The first is, the fact that they are not killing their animals for food offers a parallel similar to the horses being hurled into the sea along with their riders: the Israelite herds, like the Israelites themselves, are saved from death. The animals’ story corresponds to their humans’ story.

My second thought is related to the word “flesh” (basar – בָּשָׂר). It refers to a dead carcass. It is the word used in the Flood story when G-d says He will destroy “all flesh.” In the Flood story, there is a negative connotation to the word as humans and animals are referred to as merely basar, carcasses, not nefesh, that part of creatures animated by the breath of G-d. Here it is associated with Israelite gluttony and their distrust and ingratitude. The fleshpots were Egypt. Now, on the path to freedom, it is time for something else.

The negative association to basar is amplified in the verses about the quail, Ex. 13:16 and 20. Gluttony and distrust results in environmental distress, maggots and a stench.

In Numbers 11, there is a similar story about Israelite complaints at Taberah and their nostalgia for the food in Egypt. In this story, the negative association between basar, “flesh”-eating and gluttony and ingratitude is even more explicit: “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?'”

Finally, in Ex. 17:3, the themes come together in these words: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” From the vantage point of the complaining Israelites, the livestock may end up dying — not as food but rather from thirst. The fate of the livestock is bound up with how the Israelites perceive their own fate, brought out of Egypt to be killed from lack of food and water.

Yet the animals, like the Israelites, are destined for another future. G-d brought the Israelites and their livestock out of Egypt to save them, and water will come. As the Egyptians’ animals went down into the sea with the Egyptians and their chariots, the Israelites’ animals are going up to the Land of Israel with their humans, fed and watered by the hand of G-d.

Animals in the Bible

One of the things I have noticed and commented about as I have read the Torah story about animals is that they progressively lose stature in relation to human beings: “Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways…” This is the animals’ story in Genesis — a loss of status in creation.

As I try to understand how we came to use, kill, eat, even abuse animals so thoughtlessly, one answer as I read the text is that we regard ourselves superior to them. Better to kill and sacrifice an animal as payment for a sin we commit than a human being. But how did we arrive at this idea? Was it more than mere anthropocentrism?

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.”

Conversely, “farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

This thought and the contrast Harari presents fascinate me from several directions. Possibly the first chapters of Genesis do more than merely preserve elements of a folkloristic past, subdued because it was rejected. Perhaps these chapters are not only visionary but preserve the memory of a transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society and with it the memory of a time when humans didn’t see themselves superior to other living beings. This thought helps me begin to understand how a text that brings us the extraordinary vision of Genesis 1-3 also presents us with a system of sacrificing animals in our stead and eating them.

Once humans make the full transition to a world in which “plants and animals are no longer equal members of a spiritual round table” but are mere property, “commodities,” as I call them, it is an easy step to succumb to another evolutionary trait Harari identifies, our sense of us vs. them: “Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.“ — or in the present conversation, “they” (animals) are not human and so have less value.

Granted, the Torah never presents the idea that animals are commodities explicitly or comprehensively. It is clear in various stories I have discussed in the course of my study that veganism is a preferred, if unrealistic, ideal. Torah vocabulary signifies profound similarity between humans and other creatures while leaving the difference somewhat vague: both animals and humans are “basar” (flesh, meat, carcass, material substance) and “nefesh” (soul, flesh animated by the breath of G-d). Only humans are Tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d,” but it’s not entirely clear to me what that means or how it differs from nefesh. Rabbinic interpretation tells us it refers to moral discernment, and I’m comfortable with that for the most part — yet it’s a precarious difference. Any moment in which human beings fail to exercise moral discernment is a moment in which they are fully animal and in no way superior to other creatures.

Why is it important how we came to the view that humans are superior to animals and the environment and on what basis? Because that worldview led in contemporary times to our crimes against other life on the planet and our environment. Only by seeing other life and the planet as commodities can we breed animals solely for the purpose of short lives of suffering so we can kill them to satisfy our appetites. Only by seeing the environment as a commodity can we take from it whatever we want without thought for its well-being — unless we simply exclude this activity from view and consciousness, as manufacturers strategically do. Ultimately, though, that separation from the reality of factory farms and environmental destruction doesn’t relieve us of either responsibility or consequences.

The possibility that the biblical text presents as vision a memory of an animistic world view suggests so many possibilities to me in terms of how we heal our world today. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I like the idea of animism, that other life is included at “the spiritual round table,” that we communicate with each other directly and negotiate the rules of our shared habitat.
  • I appreciate a biblical text that includes another world view, namely animism, alongside the one presented in most of its following pages. It gives that other worldview priority of position in its first three chapters (although with a nuanced reference to domesticating animals).

Taking from those models, perhaps we can begin to deconstruct our us-them mentality and our superiority complexes. We can, as in the first chapters of the biblical text, learn from others, including from other creatures on the planet and from our environment as we let them speak to us. We can learn from the wisdom of ancient traditions, no view perfect but each with a glimpse of “truth.”

No creature left behind

For some reason today, I thought about Zlateh the Goat, a beautiful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Of this book, including the story of Zlateh, the New York Times says, “beautiful stories for children, written by a master.” But they are not just for children. This is a powerful story of love and compassion and communication at the most profound level between species, different animals, human and goat.

Zlateh the Goat struggles with the challenges of reality as does another child’s story, “Carp in the Bathtub” by Barbara Cohen, a story in which two young children “learn some very grownup lessons when they try to save the fish their mother bought to make into gefilte fish” for the Passover Seder.  One writer calls the story “an early lesson in mortality and heartbreak.” The kidnapped fish ultimately ends up where it is destined to be, fulfilling its purpose on the Seder table. The children’s father teaches them a lesson about the purpose of each life on earth, and the youngsters receive a “real” pet, a cat, after Passover.

Many of us, myself included, experienced the lessons of both books consciously or unconsciously at some time in our lives. We learned that animals are living beings with souls and compassion and an ability to communicate — and we learned that in our culture, they have a purpose, which is to entertain us or to end up on our plates or in our clothing.

But as we get older and explore the realities of life and death on factory farms and question the messages of culture, some of us wonder: Can any creature possibly be born with its purpose to be systematically slaughtered after a short, constricted and unnatural life separated from its home, family, friends and natural habitat? The answer of “Carp in the Bathtub” isn’t sufficient for our world today just as the message of kashrut is only the beginning of an answer left for us to update for this moment in which we live.

One lesson the Torah teaches is that but for the grace of G-d and not our own merits, we too could be prey. Perhaps it’s time to remember and reimagine our place in creation along the lines of the first chapters of Genesis.

Torah Ecology: Noach (Gen 6:9 – 11:32)

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you.” (צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ) – Deut. 16:20

Religions begin with looking at the world and seeing a problem, then imagining solutions. For the Torah and later Judaism, that problem is injustice. Since injustice is a problem in relationship, the solution the Torah imagines is a body of laws to guide first humanity, then a subset of humanity, the Israelites, in establishing right relationships.

The justice issue informs the overarching thematic structure of the Torah, set out in Genesis 1-9: creation, moral failure, roll-back of creation, a new creation. When morality fails and relationships are out of balance, catastrophe follows. When justice fails, worlds return to pre-creation emptiness and void. All of creation interconnects and depends on each part, and each part connects to and depends on others. Moral failures in any area of life affect everything.

My primary purpose in Torah Ecology is to explore what the Torah envisions as correct relationships. From my study so far, I believe the parameters are much wider than the human realm, embracing other creatures and the whole earth.

Ethical consciousness and responsibility pervade all of creation, human beings, non-human animals, the earth itself. Not only human beings but non-human animals fail to fulfill G-d’s plan for creation, and both are morally accountable. The earth is G-d’s instrument in ensuring justice. From this week’s portion:

“The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When G-d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar) had corrupted its ways on earth, G-d said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar), for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:11-13).

Our assumption is that G-d intends to wipe out humanity because of its “lawlessness,” because it “corrupted” its ways, but the text doesn’t say humanity — it says “all flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar). The word signifies the substance or flesh of a being, most often without life in it, a carcass suitable for food or for sacrifice on the altar. It refers to any kind of creature.

The word בָּשָׂר – basar, meaning flesh, contrasts with נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh, often translated “soul” — yet Gen. 12:5 reports that “Abram left Haran with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) – persons that they had acquired in Haran…”  The story of Noah and the flood suggests that נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) has an even more comprehensive meaning than “persons,” that like basar, it doesn’t only refer to human beings. Perhaps a better translation, then, is living being, substance given life by the breath of G-d.

Along these lines, Gen. 1:29-30 reads, “G-d said, “See I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land (חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ – hayyat ha-aretz), to all the birds of the sky (עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם – of ha-shamayim), and to everything that creeps on earth (רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – romes al ha-aretz), in which there is the breath of life (אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – asher bo nefesh hayyah), [I give] all the green plants for food.”

In Gen. 2:20, we learn of a further division of land animals into domesticated and wild: “And the man gave names to all the cattle (בְּהֵמָה – behemah) and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts (חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה – hayyat ha-sadeh)…”

Once again, in Gen. 2:19, all creatures are living beings: “…and whatever the man called each living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – nefesh hayyah), that would be its name.” All creatures are livings beings (נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh) brought to life with the breath of G-d. Ha-Adam, humanity, is but one genus in the family of living beings.

The word ”flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar), then, in this context means all creatures were lawless and corrupted their ways on earth. The text emphasizes this point in the phrase, “The earth became corrupt before G-d” (וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ – va-tishaket ha-aretz). It also implies that all living beings were already dead, that the breath of life wasn’t within them. They were not נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh. They were “basar,” carcasses, devoid of the breath of life.

Certainly this theme isn’t presented in a one-to-one correspondence, life vs. lifeless flesh. The creatures who enter the ark are “all flesh in which there is the breath of life” (מִכָּל-הַבָּשָׂר, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים – mi-lol ha-basar asher bo ruach hayyim) – Gen. 7:17. But it is the ongoing and repeated association of flesh with the beings on earth before the flood that focuses attention on the material and therefore transient aspect of life on earth, dependent on the breath of G-d for life.

More than that, skillful and repeated use of flesh, בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – living being, points to the equality of all creation in this respect: all creatures, not only humans, depend on G-d for life, and their life is the breath of G-d. At the same time, all creatures, including humans, without the breath of life from G-d are merely meat, dead carcasses.

The emphasis on the equality of all being on earth finds another expression in Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – lol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” An alternate translation of “existence” is “substance,” again a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and otherwise. And those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17.

What Noach describes is a world in which all living beings became lawless and corrupt and all, therefore, suffered the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the tiny remnant, human and non-human, who still have G-d’s breath of life in them, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (all living beings), floating on the vast, dark water in a tiny ark.

The story of the flood reverses the imagery of the creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that creation narrative as creation rolls back. But it is the reference to corruption in the flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer.

The key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the flood narrative, according to Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary. These further comments are telling: “The universal corruption is further defined as hamas. This term parallels “no justice” in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of “falsehood,” “deceit,” or “bloodshed.” It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”

This helps us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood. A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that returned the world to watery emptiness and void. In the new creation, while G-d gives humans and animals permission to continue their practice of eating meat, restrictions surround the practice and they are warned of their accountability.

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, G-d recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I have to imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and animals according to their natures.

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