A Story of Relationship: Biblical Anthropomorphism

I love mythology. Like religion, it speaks in the language of “as if.” It is the human story, telling us who we are, where we fit in, our purpose. And our ability to create stories and engage others in them is our unique human capability, the one thing that sets us apart from all other animals. Over and over again, I find that myths, ancient intuited wisdom, embody fundamental truths.

Science arrives at these truths through a different process and presents the results of the process differently from story. We could say that science and story are like different means of locomotion, all taking you to the same place, but in different ways. We risk losing the opportunity for deeper understanding and even our own humanity if we embrace one and ignore or diminish the significance of the other.

Today, some mathematicians think the universe may be conscious. Is this what the ancients intuited when they spoke of Elohim (Biblical Hebrew translated “God” — or literally “gods”) — or any of the many other names used by spiritual seekers over the centuries to refer to an essential unity of all being?

The ancients also intuited that creation is a process that involves organization and creates greater complexity as it continues to unfold: “The elaborate universe we observe today – dazzling in its richness, diversity and complexity – didn’t spring into being ready-made. Rather, it emerged gradually, over billions of years, through a long succession of self-organising and self-complexifying processes.” In the biblical story, each stage of God’s process of creation involves separating or differentiating (הבדל). God separates night from day, dry land from water. As God separates and organizes, the world becomes increasingly complex and diverse.

But what about the biblical text’s assertion that creation occurred in six days with a seventh day for rest? Science tells us creation “emerged gradually, over billions of years.”

When we approach the text as a story, we recognize that creating in six days and resting on the seventh is a narrative technique. The number seven recurs throughout the biblical text. Stories are structured with seven narrative units, certain words appear seven times in a narrative sequence, holidays and life cycle events like circumcision are presented in seven-plus-one formulations. Seven days serves a narrative purpose. That becomes even more clear when we look at the deeper structure of the first creation story, Gen. 1:1-2:4a:

Day 1: Light, separated light from dark (Gen. 1:3-5)

Day 4: Two great lights, one dominates day, one night (Gen. 1:15-19

Day 2: Expanse, sky, separates waters above from waters below (Gen. 1:6-8)

Day 5: Birds, fish emerge from waters below – fish fill the seas, birds the sky (Gen. 1:20-23)

Day 3: Dry land, earth, emerges when waters are gathered into seas (Gen. 1:9-11)

Day 6: Land animals, including humans (Gen. 1:24-31)

Day 7: God rests and blesses the 7th day (Gen. 2:1-4a)

There is a lot that could be said here about creation including that it is clearly visualized as a process of organizing, separating, and increasing complexity. But the main point is the careful organization of the narrative itself, the story. Three environments created on Days 1-3. Those environments filled on Days 4-6. Then a day of rest to regenerate and appreciate the results of six days of creative activity.

I’ll leave the extended meaning of this to your own creative imagination. My point is that stories convey truth and meaning differently than science. As story, the biblical text conveys its meaning through literary devices like structure, carefully chosen vocabulary, imagery, allusion, simile.

And this brings me to anthropomorphisms in the Hebrew Bible. Anthropomorphisms describe non-human entities in human terms. They are like similes in that they compare one thing to another. Unlike similes, anthropomorphisms don’t explicitly announce that they are comparing one thing to another. They simply and directly assign human qualities to non-human entities.

Recognizing human qualities, qualities we ourselves possess, in “the other,” whoever that other may be, is what allows relationship. How can there be a relationship where there is absolutely no commonality? If a being is wholly other from us, or appears to us as wholly other, we cannot relate to that being.

The biblical story tells us again and again in a variety of ways that God is wholly other from God’s creation, that God is beyond our comprehension — but paradoxically that we can have a relationship with God. One of the ways this story affirms the latter is through anthropomorphisms.

The biblical story also uses anthropomorphisms to tell us that we are like our fellow creatures in significant ways. A snake that stands upright, strategizes, manipulates and speaks is so much more than “mere folklore,” to be dismissed. So is a talking donkey that “sees” better than a seer and has a sense of justice. These are stories bearing important truths, the truth of relationship.

Finally, the biblical story speaks of the land with anthropomorphisms. Acting as God’s agent, the land “vomits” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It can be called to witness in a trial. It nurtures and it punishes. In this way, we are drawn into a relationship not only to God, not only to our fellow creatures, but to the land and air and water that offer habitats for us all, as Gen. 1:1-2:4a tells us.

We all know that God doesn’t literally and physically walk in the garden in the heat of the day. We also know that snakes don’t speak in Hebrew or any other human language and that land doesn’t “vomit” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It doesn’t act as a witness in a trial. The biblical “Author,” whether it was God or a human being or a group of human beings knew those things as well as we do.

But the Hebrew Bible brings us an eternal truth, one that science is beginning to tell us through its own process: there is an essential unity behind the diversity of creation. Our beautiful diversity combined with our unity of being, our commonality, is what allows relationship, the kind of relationship that happens when you recognize some part of yourself in the other.

Anthropomorphisms are a shorthand way of recognizing commonality in the midst of a vast diversity of being. It is the combination of diversity and shared traits that makes a space in which human beings can be in a relationship with God, with nonhuman animals, with the heavens and the earth, with everything that is. Even in a profusion of diversity, there is the potential to glimpse ourselves in the other.

What a profound idea that is! Where might we be in our history on this planet if the primary objective of our lives, our reason for being, were to cultivate an awareness of our relationship to everything that is, to nurture it, and to serve those relationships lovingly.

Walking Between the Raindrops

Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to share in services and Torah discussion on Zoom with a group from my synagogue. In the same spirit as the blessing, “Blessed are you O Lord our God Who has not made me a woman,“ I would like to say, “Blessed are you O Lord our God Who has not made me Orthodox.” Just as the first is a Jewish man’s expression of joy in being obligated to all the commandments, including those which are time-bound (a woman is not obligated to those) — the second is an expression of joy that I could share in a Shabbat morning service via an electronic device.

Our Torah discussion crystallized some thoughts I have about a set of themes that seem to compete in the Torah. The first set of themes is set forth in the Garden story and recurs periodically in the text. The second set is captured in the story of Cain and Abel and presented most completely in Vayikra, from which we read yesterday.

The Garden story in the Torah describes a world in which an “Equality of Being” reigns. All living creatures share the Garden. All are vegan, and each is assigned food from the earth according to its nature. There is no death. A serpent is remarkably similar to the human beings in its hairlessness and ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them (which Prof. Yuval Noah Harari describes as the distinctive characteristic of Sapiens). Every part of creation has its purpose in relation to the rest, and all live together in harmony.

This equality of being and harmony in the Garden story and the more “cosmic” creation story that precedes it in Gen. 1 points to a contemporary scientific view: all of creation has the same point of origin as the stars, we all come from the same material as the stars . . . and we will return in some distant time to that. Between those two points, creation is an ongoing process of diversifying structures. The beauty and grandeur of this idea has moved me since I was a young child looking out of my bedroom window in Massachusetts to a night sky filled with stars. I sometimes imagine Abraham must have experienced something similar in Gen. 15:5 when God “took him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’”

But there is another story in the Torah, one that we first encounter in the story of Cain and Abel. This story reaches its apogee in Leviticus. It is a story of a “Hierarchy of Being,” one that requires value judgments and involves transactional relationships. In this story, God favors Abel’s meat sacrifice over Cain’s sacrifice of agricultural products. God chooses Abraham to follow a path God directs and chooses the Israelites to receive the Torah. When human beings in general, then Israelites in particular, sin, and their lives are due in payment, an animal substitutes for them. This indicates a judgment on the value of a human life against a non-human life. In this story, there is an “economy of creation,” and animal sacrifice is the currency.

Although I’m more comfortable with and moved by one story than the other, although I aspire to act “as if” the first story, the story of an equality of being, were fully operational in our world, I understand the necessity of the other. I also know that either story unrestrained by the other doesn’t have a good ending. In the first case, when equality of being dominates, creation commits suicide, apoptosis, as it deprives itself of what it requires to live. In the second case, individual greed murders creation.

The literary artistry of the Torah story, which the rabbis elaborated in how they chose what to canonize and how to organize it, always amazes me. In a chiastic structure, a basic biblical structuring element, the key elements, those that tell the story, are the beginning and end (which usually represent a reversal or restoration or fulfillment) — and the center, the turning point. Consider that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) begins with the powerful story of the creation of a universe in Gen. 1-3 and ends with a return to a potential recreation of that universe with II Chronicles. In the center is Leviticus, and in the center of Leviticus the Yom Kippur sacrifice.

So it seems the teaching is that we need both stories, we need to remain in a tension between them, and that is the space from which we are to make life decisions every moment of every day. That is, the Torah offers us the paradox of both stories, and we are to choose not one of them but both, and live and act in the world between them. That is the meaning of being human, that we create stories and live by them, most vitally in the paradoxes between them.

Guidance? Yes, there is plenty of instruction. In fact, that is the meaning of the word “Torah.” But the conscious choice is ours to make as we weave our way between aspiration and reality, universalism and particularism, transaction and gifting, hierarchy and equality of being, justice and compassion, death for one and life for another.

Evolving Consciousness? I Don’t See It – Yet

I had an interesting conversation the other day. It included something of a debate about who we are as human beings and the question, are we evolving or devolving? It seems to me the answer is yes — and no, depending on your perspective.

In terms of information about the world, technology, and our ability to shape the world, there is no question in my mind that we are evolving — except in those ways we aren’t, that aren’t necessary to our survival or useful to us in our current world. I will venture a guess that any hunter-gatherer has a much more “evolved” sense of their surroundings and of how other animals behave, or are likely to behave, than we do for all our technological advancement. But that’s how evolution works. Species develop those abilities that lead to higher rates of survival for their species. And as a recent experiment with silver foxes showed, those changes in behavior often result in accompanying physical changes. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763232/)

But does the same thing happen with consciousness? Do human beings evidence an evolving consciousness? At this moment in time, I believe the answer to that question is emphatically no. The same science of evolution that leads me to say we are indeed evolving in our ability to shape the world and that some physical changes accompany that — like smaller stomachs, smaller jaws, and bigger brains — also leads me to conclude that our consciousness is not evolving.

One set of facts is sufficient to make that point irrefutable in my mind, and those facts center on nonhuman animals. In an article titled, “This Is How Many Animals We Eat Each Year,” The World Economic Forum reports (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-many-animals-we-eat-each-year/ ) these figures:

  • 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year – a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production.
  • Nearly 1.5 billion pigs are killed to feed the growing appetite for pork, bacon, ham and sausages – a number that has tripled in the last 50 years.
  • Half a billion sheep are taken to the abattoir every year. The number of goats slaughtered overtook the number of cows eaten during the 1990s, although the figure for cattle excludes the dairy industry.
  • When it comes to seafood, the number of individual fish and shellfish is almost impossible to calculate. One hundred and fifty million tonnes of seafood were produced for human consumption in 2016 – nearly half from aquaculture (for example trout or shrimp farms) rather than caught in fisheries.

Oddly, the article leaves out the number of cows slaughtered worldwide each year for consumption. A Well Fed World (https://awellfedworld.org/factory-farms/ ) fills in this information:

  • Globally, the death toll <of land animals> exceeds 70 billion.
  • The number of aquatic animals killed for food is in the trillions.

The first bullet point from the Well Fed World article tells us that about 18 billion cows are slaughtered yearly (since the We Forum article indicates that 52 billion other land animals are killed yearly). The second bullet translates 150 million tons of “seafood” to trillions of sea animals. The article also points out that “In the last 50 years the number of people on the planet has doubled. But the amount of meat we eat has tripled.” 

Just for a perspective on those numbers, the current population of the earth, every man, woman, child and infant, is 7.8 billion. In a meat-eating period of my life when I had a farm, I once had half a cow prepared for my freezer. In an entire year, we weren’t able to finish that meat. These numbers reflect almost three cows per person per year (including infants in that count), and almost seven other land animals per person per year. And let’s say “trillions” means maybe three trillion . . . Almost 130 whole sea animals per person per year. These quantities have little to do with meeting nutritional requirements or feeding the planet.

Despite health and environmental information that suggests we should be going the opposite direction, we choose to eat more meat. Add to that the fact that 30-40% of our food, including meat, is wasted — and we have a picture that demonstrates to me that we are slaughtering animals and eating them either gluttonously or mindlessly or a combination of the two. Evolving consciousness?

I like to hope that most human beings would not want to be part of this carnage if they were directly engaged with it. Indeed, the fact that the breeding and slaughter happens out of sight is strategic. Industry means for it to be mindless, and this suggests industry also believes most people would not want to be confronted with how we treat these living beings. Why else would it prosecute those who attempt to document what happens on factory farms?

But still . . . we are part of it, and we rationalize it in countless ways. “Some are guilty. All are responsible.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Evolving Consciousness

So I’d like to take a closer look at this idea that consciousness is evolving.

THE BIBLICAL FLOOD STORY

Originally God expected that humans would be vegan. What happened? The second Torah story is one of fratricide followed by other stories of violence and lawlessness until finally God declares:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Gen. 6:13)

So the earth is filled with violence and lawlessness, and God puts an “end to all flesh” with the Flood. In its aftermath, does God express the hope that human consciousness might evolve when God grants humans the permission to eat other animals?

Yes, while some interpreters this step as a concession to human nature, others regard it as a way to channel the violent impulses that led to the Flood. Rabbi  Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) says about the permission to eat meat, “If people were denied the right to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh.” In this way, the permission to eat meat becomes an aid to improve human behavior, perhaps even human consciousness. Rav Kook calls it a “transitional tax” until humanity arrives at a “brighter era.” Did that work?

THE RATIONALIST ARGUMENT

Stephen Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now, says it did. According to Pinker, we are demonstrably less violent today than at any time in the history of the world. He presents facts and figures, which I can’t and don’t dispute. In order to make his case, though, he limits his view to one instance of violence to life, intra-human.

Yet as Harari points out, the greatest crime in history is what human animals have done to nonhuman animals: “Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history. The march of human progress is strewn with dead animals.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question

So violence has decreased only if you limit your focus to intra-human violence, that is, violence within the “community” of human animals. 

And these arguments work only to the extent one can say nonhuman animals are lesser beings than human animals. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe the Torah says it or at least doesn’t say only that. 

DEPERSONALIZING & MECHANIZING MURDER

There is another dimension to this issue in a post-Holocaust era. The Holocaust is noteworthy for bringing to our consciousness an idea that we can depersonalize and mechanize murder. Something formerly unthinkable actually happened, and now it is part of our human psyche as something that exists in the realm of the possible. This event alone speaks against an evolution of consciousness. While the 20th century may not have topped other centuries in absolute numbers of violent events and lives lost, it made a reality of a horrifying concept, the industrialization of murder.

In a powerful video, Alex Hershaft (https://www.jewishveg.org/hershaft-philadelphia) expands the window on the issue of human violence as he points to the unmistakable similarity between how millions of human beings were treated under the Nazis and how we interact with 70 billion land animals and trillions of sea animals a year today.  

This commercialization of life, the industrialization of murder (murder: “an act of deliberate killing of another being”), is particularly troubling in view of the increasing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates what ancient wisdom intuited, that nonhuman animals are a population of “sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question). As the Torah repeatedly points out, God breathes the breath of life into both nonhuman and human animals, provides both with food appropriate to their needs, and gives the same first commandment to both, “p’ru u’r’vu,” be fruitful and multiply.

The unfathomable numbers of animals we breed just to murder in factory farms every year, 70 BILLION, is a powerful reminder to me that violence has not decreased, and it only took widening our anthropocentric perspective a bit to see it. For me, our factory farm culture negates the rationalist Pinker argument.

A decrease in human-generated violence? This doesn’t seem to me to be what happened. We are not evolving, just directing our greed and violence down another path. In fact, from this perspective, human violence may be on the increase. Has there ever been a century in which more living beings were killed to satisfy the desires of some?

Is there hope?

But are we capable of an “evolving consciousness?” Meaning, should we hope that human beings will change with regard to their attitude to other living beings? And again, my opinion is no. At least I don’t see it at this moment in the history of human evolution.

There are many drives that are part of our DNA, but two that stand out to me are the drive toward cooperation, even compassion, and the drive toward competition and beating out the competition — a drive toward community and problem solving — and a drive toward tribalism and warfare. Rabbinic tradition frames these drives as a “yetzer ha-ra” and a “yetzer ha-tov,” a good inclination and an “evil” inclination. Both these drives are basic to the survival of a species, and we share them with other members of the animal kingdom. If these drives are basic to survival, why would they change? 

If these drives are unchanging, don’t “evolve” into something else, that suggests to me our consciousness is not evolving and won’t. We are, quite simply, human beings, and it is either naïveté or hubris to think we will become other than human beings. Is this nihilism? Is there no hope? I believe there is room for hope, and that, too, is rooted in an evolutionary story.

Yes, human beings share certain drives with the rest of the animal world. But they, like other animals, also have a distinctive characteristic. Yuval Noah Harari designates as the unique characteristic of the human animal, our ability to create fictions and persuade other to believe them. It is this ability that allows us, alone among animals, to cooperate flexibly in large groups. He demonstrates the point by comparing us to our closest relative, the chimpanzee: “Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.” (https://ideas.ted.com/why-humans-run-the-world/

Yankee Stadium and Wall Street are what Harari calls “fictions.” I like to call them stories. Stories are what allow us to cooperate and shape our world in the ways we do, ways no other animal can imagine into existence. Only stories can help us balance and direct our evolutionary drives, use our unique ability as human beings to co-create a better world.

An aspect of the Jewish story that has been particularly meaningful to me is a long tradition, beginning in the Torah, of accepting the human being as a human being, nothing more or less, recognizing what is unique about human begins, and using that uniqueness, our ability to create pretense in the ways Harari describes, to shape a less violent world. This dance between evolutionary realities and human possibility is in evidence in both midrash aggadah (story traditions) and midrash halachah (legal traditions).

So stories are important in shaping our lives. There are individual stories and communal stories, and no story is more valid, credible, or true than another — although each story must stand the test of time and experience. Did a story, over time, improve the world for all living beings? Did it reduce violence for all living beings? Because it is those stories that have the potential to change our consciousness, to demonstrate the reality of an evolving human consciousness.

The Power of A Story

I began my current journey in biblical studies six years ago on a walk with my violence-averse husband. A dead and partially mutilated rabbit ended our stroll around the neighborhood with his exclamation of dismay. I asked why “these kinds of things,” which include National Geographic specials that involve one animal hunting and killing another, disturb him so much, glibly announcing, “It’s just the plan of nature.” He responded, “It’s a stupid plan.”

My husband’s comment surprised me, but then I started thinking. In a universe of infinite possibilities, why couldn’t things be different? What if living life didn’t require taking life?  Going a step further, what if there were, in fact, no death?

I’m not the first to wonder, what if? That thought long ago occurred to others. This is the world imagined into being in the first three chapters of Genesis. All animals, human and non-human, were vegan, and there was no death.

Recently on another walk as I was spinning out my newest thought process for my patient husband, I reminded him that this all began from his comment six years ago. This time he added, ”Yes, I wonder why all animals couldn’t have just grazed?” Which caused me to speculate that then there would have been no population control. P’ru u’r’vu (be fruitful and multiply), a command given to all living beings, would have become a planetary death sentence.

So Genesis 1-3 imagines the beautiful world, a world of unrestrained creativity, abundance and no death, a world that crashes into another story of human drives in a world of limited resources and death, the remaining 184 chapters of Torah.

This collision should cause us to sit up and take notice. As Joseph Campbell once said, “Life lives on life. This is the sense of the symbol of the Ouroboros, the serpent biting its tail. Everything that lives lives on the death of something else. Your own body will be food for something else. Anyone who denies this, anyone who holds back, is out of order. Death is an act of giving.”

Isn’t this Economy of Being the problem that Thanos, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy), set out to solve? Too much stress on limited resources? And like the God of the Bible, Thanos sets in motion a plan to randomly reduce the population. Unlike God’s plan in the Bible, Thanos’ plan applies only to humanity (or at least the story deals only with humanity) — and was applied directly, not through the workings of nature. But the initiating challenge and its resolution were effectively the same. “Be fruitful and multiply“ requires a counterbalancing mechanism.

In the Marvel Comics universe, Thanos was not a completely unsympathetic character. He suffered when he saw the results among humans of unrestrained evolutionary success. He thought he had a plan to “fix” that. Randomly eliminating half the population would allow the other half to live comfortably, without suffering. A painful job, but someone had to do it.

Of course, it was satisfying when Thanos was finally vanquished, and those who had been eliminated were returned to life — but this ending begged the question: what provides the counterbalance to the creative urge, the urge of a species to expand to the point of wiping out other planetary resources? Where is the Economy of Being?

The “good guys,” those who vanquished Thanos and brought back the missing half of humanity, didn’t answer that question. So who were the good guys? Thanos, who took responsibility and acted even if we don’t like the action? Or the Guardians, who did something we like better but didn’t address the problem?

Both stories, one from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one from the Torah, address the same issue. Living beings drive toward their own evolutionary success. But unrestrained success is ultimately destructive. Both stories recognize the need for a counterbalancing force, a limiting factor, and in both stories that limiting factor involves death. Both stories have an issue of justice in their background as one randomizes death (Marvel), and the other universalizes it (Torah). In neither case do living beings live or die based on merit.

Only one of the stories places the responsibility for the problem and its solution on living beings themselves: the Torah story. Human beings and a fellow creature, a serpent, interact destructively in a way that brings death to the world. Forced to recognize their responsibility, they are also required to participate in a solution. Consider the power of this story that over the millennia has insisted on engaging living beings, primarily humans, in maintaining an Economy of Being. We have often fulfilled that responsibility poorly if at all.

The Torah story with its nuance leaves us at the heart of the dilemma. It doesn’t give us a single answer. There is more than one “creation” story, more than one attempt to create a world without violence and suffering. Finally multiple voices and stories are woven together, acting as a vehicle of acculturation. A subset of humanity, the Israelites, receives a body of laws, hopefully producing better outcomes for all life on the planet than when human animals simply follow their unrestrained evolutionary urges. And the story continues.

“Us-Themism”

I imagine some of us would call the creative urge, the drive to “be fruitful and multiply” in all its variations, a ”good” impulse — and those things that limit that drive, including a predatory impulse, “bad.” And yet, in evolutionary terms, both are necessary and therefore, objectively speaking, neither good nor bad.

In Jewish tradition, these drives and impulses are recognized as yetzer ha tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good inclination and the evil inclination. The good inclination isn’t good in and of itself, nor is the evil inclination evil. We might think of the good inclination as an altruistic impulse which, when taken to an extreme, results in the death of an organism. Similarly the evil inclination is responsible for creating, building, developing, but in the extreme, results in greed, predation, suffering and even death to others.

This makes things more complicated for us. How do we know when to give and when to take, when to cooperate and when to compete? When to focus on “us” and when to be wary of “them?” The answers are rarely clear-cut, and those stories sustain us best that are nuanced enough to replicate the complexity of our lives.

Torah stories like the Flood story teach that since these drives are in the makeup of the human animal, our goal should not be to repress or sublimate these urges, to “cure” ourselves of them, but to keep them in balance. In this way, Jewish law is also a story, a means to acculturate us to become the best human beings we can be.

Like many in my generation, I imagine, I grew up disdaining the tribal mentality, an Us/Them worldview. After all, we are all human. And beyond that, we are all creatures animated by the breath of God — or at least are in the same boat on this planet and will either float together or die together.

But now we know, as Jewish traditions intuited, this Us/Them mentality that expresses itself so consistently throughout history is a necessary evolutionary trait, one of those variations on the drive that limits the suffering and evil that would result from unrestrained p’ru u’r’vu, fruitfulness and multiplication.

Science tells us that “the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic . . . from massive barbarity to pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet, I don’t think our goal should be to “cure” us of all Us/Them dichotomizing (separate of it being impossible, unless you have no amygdala).”

So according to science, Us/Them-ing is an evolutionary trait with a specific purpose, perhaps even multiple purposes. One that stands out is that when resources are limited, an “Us” group is more likely to succeed when “They” are minimized, utilized, or eliminated. Returning a nonhuman animal to the wild that has lived with humans makes clear the danger in modifying the instinct to be wary of “Them.” So we need to respect that instinct in ourselves and other living beings.

But are we doomed to forever look with suspicion on the Other or to minimize their being in relation to our own? Even to commit violence against them? The world’s religions have all said “no.” And here is the role of the powerful story, the story that acculturates us, shapes a worldview, that drives us with greater force than our evolutionary instincts.

It is our stories that give us the capability of modifying our relationships with others. Yuval Noah Harari tells us that the distinctive trait of Sapiens that pushed us to the top of the food chain is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This ability, in turn, allows us to cooperate flexibly in large groups. Harari names as fictions religions, corporations, banks and nations among others — basically anything that shapes our world. I like to call these fictions stories. Our stories are not only our downfall but our potential salvation.

Finding Our Story

Just when we need a good story, we live in times when the stories we knew are crumbling, are no longer effective. This applies to our religious stories as well as our cultural and national stories. Millennials are leaving institutional religious life in droves. Dictatorships are replacing democracies. The institutions and value systems we shared and loved, that grew out of our stories, are shredded before us.

Discovering meaning in old stories or finding and creating new stories, though, is even more difficult when we disdain everything that isn’t “fact” or “science.” I have some sympathy with Kellyanne Conway’s comment about alternate facts. I think what she might have meant, or at least should have said, was “alternate stories“ — because it is our stories that give meaning to facts. Myth gives meaning to history, to human experience.

Here’s how one writer says it: “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story. Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association. It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.” ~ The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry (Sierra Club Books, 1988, p. 123 )

When we minimize the power of our stories, when we fail to find and choose a story in which to stand, we leave the field open to others who appreciate the power of stories and use them to their advantage, planting their stories, which then have a chance to put down roots and flourish. We leave the field to those whose stories rationalize building massive vertical chicken farms or to industrial animal agriculture operations, to those whose stories center around financial success as the greatest value, to those whose stories feature victimization and blame, to Nazis and white supremacists, to ISIS.

If stories give facts their meaning, if stories are the one thing more powerful than evolutionary drives like our natural instinct to be wary of “the other,” even to devalue, minimize, commercialize, or prey on the other, then presenting unadorned facts to a person driven by a powerful story with which we disagree is unlikely to have any effect at all. It’s like speaking in completely different languages.

In When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, authors Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy point out that until very recently, scientists have refused to speak in terms of animal emotions for fear of being accused of anthropomorphizing and consequently discredited. In this way, a story was generated that supports a giant and brutal animal agriculture industry and contradicts what is obvious to any casual observer.

The story that animals don’t experience emotions and intelligence like humans, also contradicts what we once knew before we placed ourselves so solidly in the story of science, a one-sided science that minimizes the value of, or even rejects, the information brought to us through the humanities.

A course from Yale University, offered through Coursera, Journey of the Universe, says it this way: “The Journey course . . . is based on a new integration that is emerging from the dialogue of the sciences and humanities. Journey tells the story of evolution as an epic narrative, rather than as a series of facts separated by scientific disciplines.”

A parallel process of reshaping the scientific narrative is happening with regard to animals and animal studies. When Elephants Weep is just one of a large number of studies and books coming out in recent years. These scientists and observers are looking more closely at what we share with our fellow living beings on the planet. They are presenting an alternative to the story of minimization.

This new scientific story and this new narrative of the human-nonhuman animal relationship parallels the Torah story, which describes both human and nonhuman animals as flesh animated by the breath of God.

Like their human animal counterparts, nonhuman animals are intelligent, can strategize, have feelings and are held morally accountable. Human animals, like their nonhuman animal counterparts, are driven by evolutionary instincts including cooperation — but also “Us-Themism.”

It occurs to me that humans‘ unique characteristic, that which differentiates us from nonhuman animals, is our ability, as Harari points out, to create stories. Potentially those stories could help us overcome or at least redirect our tendency to violence. Not always, perhaps not even often, but it might. This is God’s theory after the Flood when God permits meat-eating.

Our stories shape our lives and give them meaning. The Torah provides a story for those who would eat our fellow creatures . . . but also a story for those who would not. It provides a story in which animal sacrifice is at the center of an Economy of Being — and Jewish history and experience provides another that replaces sacrifice with prayer.

Our society provides a story for those who breed and fatten billions of living beings each year for slaughter. We are in a process of rediscovering the story of our interconnection, even interbeing, and conscious choice. It is a long, slow and difficult journey of rediscovery, but it is imperative. To save ourselves, we need to find and choose and share that story that is stronger than our evolutionary drives.

“Imagine Peace” by johnmaschak is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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.

 

All the world is a narrow bridge…and the main thing is not to be afraid

Tuesday evening the wind picked up in the wetlands where I live. As it grew dark, I heard it whistling around our home, shaking the windows. The back door was frozen shut. A lot of things come to mind on nights like this, but before there was time for my imagination to go to work, the coyote who live out in those wetlands started their shrilly jubilant yelping and howling when they caught some poor creature for dinner.

The sound of the coyote always terrifies me. As a person with an imagination that works overtime on picturing catastrophe, I can’t get the image out of my head of my little 12 pound dog accidentally slipping out the door to the wetlands. He must also picture catastrophe because his head always pops up when the coyote cry, and often he will retreat to a safe and snuggly corner of our home.

I try to counter the terrible things that go through my head by picturing coyote pups waiting for their mom and dad to come home with food for them. They need to eat too, I tell myself. But I wish things were as the first three chapters of Genesis describe them. I wish all creatures were vegan and that we lived in safe and loving harmony with each other.

In these moments I also think of the Torah portion Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41). The Israelites are poised outside the Land of Israel. Spies go ahead and return with their report, some describing it as a land of milk and honey, others describing it as a terrifying home of giants, all in terms that make clear that the Israelites, like their fellow creatures on the planet, can as well be prey as predator:

“ . . . the evil report of the spies is framed in terms of food: “The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof…” (Num. 13:32). The people pick up that motif and view themselves as “animal food” for predators: “And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey…’” (Num. 14:3) Joshua and Caleb reverse that theme, turning it on the current inhabitants of the land, when they say, “…neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us…’

“Finally G-d picks up the theme, returning to the idea of the Israelites as animal food: “…your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness.” (Num. 14:29) … and “…your little ones, that ye said would be a prey, them will I bring in…” (Num. 14:31), and then, “But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness” (Num. 14:32) and “…until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness (Num. 14:33).”

This acute awareness, that one can be prey as easily as predator, probably shapes a different perspective on things. Certainly part of one’s worldview would be a constant and profound sense of vulnerability. That is an environment and a worldview that doesn’t so much inspire as demand faith. And that turns out to be the message of that portion as G-d exercises some tough love with the Israelites, denying those who falter the opportunity to enter the Land, telling them their worst fears are self-fulfilling: as prey, they will become carcasses.

Ironically entering the Land is a first step in a journey toward greater security and away from vulnerability, a first step in the Israelites’ separation from the wilderness where they are both predator and prey and toward civilization.

Today we are far down that path. Most of us have never worked on a farm much less lived in the wilderness. We are little connected to the sources of the food that sustains us. And it’s worth considering that as our sense of vulnerability decreases, as we are more alienated from our natural world and our food sources, faith is no longer a demand or requirement for forging ahead in a dangerous world but a choice. And because the easier choice is not to think about it too much — just as it’s easier not to think too much about life and death and our vulnerability in the economy of nature — we are perhaps less likely to experience the kind of profound faith described in the Torah.

Conversely, I know from my own experience of depression that engaging with one’s own survival, that is with food (planting it, growing it, harvesting it and cooking it), is a strong antidote to depression. Yet any full time independent farmer knows the fear that accompanies a season when the crop fails from too much or too little rain or pests destroy it or fires ravage the land. In the hunter-gatherer life that preceded the agricultural revolution, perhaps symbolized by the wilderness, life was less dependable, sudden fears in the night closer, and faith an imperative to moving forward.

So back to the coyote who live behind me. I do work on a farm, and I’m very much aware of the sources of my food — all of it. I’m aware of how much work is involved in it. But I am not dependent on the farm to support myself or my family, and my engagement in this work is physically taxing but still a luxury. That has a different effect on my worldview than if my life and the lives of my family members were dependent on it.

Maybe the coyote are my reminder that under the veneer of culture and technology, there are more basic and primitive realities for all of us. That we too are vulnerable to becoming prey as much as we are predators. But for an accident of birth and through no merit of my own, I could have been a coyote in that wetland behind me — or the meal that caused such terrifying jubilation Tuesday evening. These are realities that for a human being drive not only fear but faith and a profound sense of gratitude.

These are also realities to consider when I make decisions about what I eat. To enter life as a human being is an unearned gift, just as it was an unearned gift to enter the Land of Israel. Our gift of humanity requires faith, humility, gratitude — and compassion.

If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we? – Pam Ahern, Edgar’s Mission

Torah Ecology: Re’eh 2018 (Deuteronomy.11.26-16.17)

This portion, Re’eh, includes what I believe is a pivotal statement with regard to animal sacrifice and the relationship between humans and other animals. It is a significant next step in the biblical Story of the Animals:

Deut. 12:15-16
15
רַק֩ בְּכָל־אַוַּ֨ת נַפְשְׁךָ֜ תִּזְבַּ֣ח ׀ וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ בָשָׂ֗ר כְּבִרְכַּ֨ת יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֖ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ הַטָּמֵ֤א וְהַטָּהוֹר֙ יֹאכְלֶ֔נּוּ כַּצְּבִ֖י וְכָאַיָּֽל
But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has granted you. The unclean and the clean alike may partake of it, as of the gazelle and the deer.

16
רַ֥ק הַדָּ֖ם לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֑לוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
But you must not partake of the blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.

This modification of instruction is repeated in the portion:

Deut. 12:20-24
20
כִּֽי־יַרְחִיב֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֥יךָ אֶֽת־גְּבֽוּלְךָ֮ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ֒ וְאָמַרְתָּ֙ אֹכְלָ֣ה בָשָׂ֔ר כִּֽי־תְאַוֶּ֥ה נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לֶאֱכֹ֣ל בָּשָׂ֑ר בְּכָל־אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשְׁךָ֖ תֹּאכַ֥ל בָּשָֽׂר׃
When the LORD enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish.

21
כִּֽי־יִרְחַ֨ק מִמְּךָ֜ הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִבְחַ֜ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ֮ לָשׂ֣וּם שְׁמ֣וֹ שָׁם֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֞ מִבְּקָרְךָ֣ וּמִצֹּֽאנְךָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן יְהוָה֙ לְךָ֔ כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוִּיתִ֑ךָ וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֙ בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
If the place where the LORD has chosen to establish His name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the LORD gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements.

22
אַ֗ךְ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵאָכֵ֤ל אֶֽת־הַצְּבִי֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַיָּ֔ל כֵּ֖ן תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ הַטָּמֵא֙ וְהַטָּה֔וֹר יַחְדָּ֖ו יֹאכְלֶֽנּוּ׃
Eat it, however, as the gazelle and the deer are eaten: the unclean may eat it together with the clean.

23
רַ֣ק חֲזַ֗ק לְבִלְתִּי֙ אֲכֹ֣ל הַדָּ֔ם כִּ֥י הַדָּ֖ם ה֣וּא הַנָּ֑פֶשׁ וְלֹא־תֹאכַ֥ל הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ עִם־הַבָּשָֽׂר׃
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh.

24
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
You must not partake of it; you must pour it out on the ground like water:

25
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ לְמַ֨עַן יִיטַ֤ב לְךָ֙ וּלְבָנֶ֣יךָ אַחֲרֶ֔יךָ כִּֽי־תַעֲשֶׂ֥ה הַיָּשָׁ֖ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
you must not partake of it, in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD.

In the JPS Torah Commentary to Deuteronomy, commentator Jeffrey H. Tigay describes the content of these passages in this way: “The need to permit secular slaughter eliminated the sacral dimension of meat meals.” This desacralization accords with the general content in Deuteronomy, which in limiting “sacrificial worship to a single place would inevitably remove a sacral dimension from the life of most Israelites.”

Tigay notes that this trend in Deuteronomy has sometimes been termed “secularization,” but he suggests the book is in fact profoundly religious in “seeking unceasingly to teach love and reverence for G-d to every Israelite and to encourage rituals which have that effect. Deuteronomy’s aim is to spiritualize religion by freeing it from excessive dependence on sacrifice and priesthood.” (p. xvii)

These comments were antithetical to my own first thoughts from my contemporary perspective. Initially I intended to write about how the desacralization of meat-eating is another (and major) step in a journey toward thoughtless consumption of animals as food.  This commentary, however, suggests how it might represent not a de-evolution but an evolution in consciousness.

What Is Sacred?
Tigay’s “desacralization” with reference to these excerpts refers not to holiness but to purity, two different biblical taxa. G-d is both holy and pure. Human beings are capable of holiness, associated with ethical commandments. In their natural state, they are impure, subject as they are to death, birth, menstruation, seminal emissions and organic decay represented in leprosy. Impurity is, however, a temporary state which can be changed through purification rituals for the purpose of approaching G-d.

Accordingly, these passages allow Israelites to share and eat non-sacrificial meat in the company of those who are in a state of impurity (without specifying whether this might include non-Israelites). Similarly, the meat is not sacred since it did not pass through the required rituals associated with presentation on the altar in Jerusalem. The blood prohibition, incumbent upon both Israelites and non-Israelites, remains in effect.

Context
These verses occur following a summary of the introductory chapters of Deuteronomy, climaxing in a ceremony at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim where participants are instructed to choose the path of life over death. Deut. 12, the chapter that contains these verses, begins the core of Deuteronomy, which continues through chapter 26. Specifically, Deut. 12 focuses on the place of worship and details “three basic rules: Canaanite places of worship must be destroyed; Israel may perform sacrificial worship at only one place, chosen by G-d; and non-sacrificial slaughter is permitted to those living at a distance from the chosen place.” (JPS Commentary to Deuteronomy,p. 117).

Deut. 12 concludes with an explanation, of sorts, for the harsh destruction the Israelites bring to the inhabitants of the Land and their altars: the Canaanites who preceded them performed “for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.” This juxtaposition, the focus on food, in particular animal flesh, and the explanation that concludes the chapter, highlights the relationship between Moloch worship, which lured the Israelites, and biblical animal sacrifice. (See postscript note in my post, Eternal Life).

Paradigm shift
It is hard to imagine that I have read and re-read this text as many times as I have and missed the searing implications of the direct and sometimes not-so-direct references to Moloch worship and the extent to which that particular cultural interaction, exacerbated by the guilt of participation (according to the text), shaped Israelite religion.

For a long time I’ve tried to engage with the text at a deep enough level to understand the human motivation behind animal sacrifice. What could possibly make taking an innocent, terrified and probably bleating or otherwise crying animal, slaughtering it and pouring its blood on the altar a religiously or emotionally significant act for people? And it seems stumbling upon descriptions of Moloch worship among the Israelites might be the key for which I searched.

With Moloch worship in the background, animal sacrifice was a step forward in consciousness. This paradigm shift is the focus of Akedat Yitzhak, the Sacrifice of Isaac story in Genesis. Here in Deuteronomy, it leads to another paradigm shift, allowing desacralized meat eating for the Israelites as a way to reduce dependence on the sacrificial cult.

Moloch worship might put not only animal sacrifice in a somewhat more positive light but might also explain the intense and repeated exaltation of human life. There are clear statements that set human life above all other life. In addition to those, in the course of my posts, I theorized that “pure” animals, animals fit to consume, are animals that don’t kill humans for food. I wondered why animals were also sentenced to death in the Flood story and suspected they participated in the generalized violence on earth by killing humans. Legal restitution for animal lives is monetary — for human life, blood. The adamant stance on the sanctity of human life is a vehement rejection of a cultural norm, child sacrifice.

The Passages: A Comparison

The instruction in Deut. 12:15-16 that allows desacralized meat eating is repeated in extended form in Deut. 12:20-24. Both versions of the revised instruction, though, include the same three elements:

  • References to desire
  • The changed instruction to go ahead and satisfy the desire, not delay gratification in order to sacrifice
  • The retained instruction not to eat the blood

In the first (more terse) statement, Deut. 12:15 says, “whenever you desire…” Deut. 12:20 and 21 amplify the theme with “for you have the urge…” and “…to your heart’s content.” This license is uncharacteristic in a text that is otherwise absorbed with restraining human impulse and regulating human behavior. Also uncharacteristic in a text that vehemently separates Israelites from surrounding cultures that might undermine their national task are the statements about “clean” and “unclean” eating together without specifying that should be only Israelites. Deut. 20 may attempt a clarification with “in your settlements” but not necessarily. Who’s to say that only Israelites live in a settlement?

The overall effect of the repetition of references to immediate gratification and an environment of impurity is to suggest gluttony — but only to an extent, since blood is prohibited to the “clean” and the “unclean” alike, encouraging some restraint. As a Noachide law, this prohibition extends to the world at large. This juxtaposition of satisfying desire and refraining from eating the blood accords with an ambivalent attitude to meat consumption I have noted on other occasions:

  • When meat eating is first allowed in Gen. 9:2-5 it is immediately ringed with prohibitions (see my post on Noach).
  • When the Israelites cry for the “fleshpots” of Egypt in Numbers 11:19-20, G-d rains an absurd amount of quail on them following irritated, even sarcastic commentary about their gluttony: “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.“

On the other hand, as is so often the case, perhaps allusions to gluttony are simply biblical realism, a recognition of human characteristics and the requirements of the current environment. Biblical law looks not toward the perfection of humanity but its improvement.

The instruction not to eat the blood, given once in the first set of verses, Deut. 12:16, is repeated and elaborated three times in the second set, Deut. 12:23, 24 and 25. The latter section provides reinforcement for the instruction, its basis (“…the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh”) and connects it to the ongoing wellbeing of the people (“…in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD”). This returns us to a more prominent theme of the biblical narrative, recognition of the sanctity of all life and the connection between action that recognizes that principle and continued life and wellbeing of the people.

Conclusion

Deuteronomy’s move to desacralize meat eating, thereby reducing dependence on the priestly cult in Jerusalem and the sacrificial ritual, could be viewed, then, as a step forward in consciousness with an accompanying recognition of the reality of the environment. The Israelites as sheep herders (and former semi-nomads) depended on animal flesh as part of their diet — and human beings can tend toward gluttony.

Deut. 12 offers a modification of the original instruction that required sacrificing a portion before eating meat. The new instruction supports the view of scripture that all life is “sacred,” that is, comes from G-d who breathes in the breath of life (nefesh), animating flesh (basar) but that human life is superior (b’tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d”). At the same time, it takes into account a current existential status (living in the Land sometimes at considerable distance from Jerusalem) and needing, sometimes even coveting, meat.

Additional evolutionary possibilities this paradigm shift suggests is that the Israelites will not be tempted to view animals as divine beings but as creatures with the breath of life like themselves (ref. Golden Calf). And without the possibility of running to an altar to sacrifice an animal in their place for sin, they may begin to build a larger sense of responsibility within themselves.

If the Torah represents a step forward in consciousness in its vehement assertion of the superiority of human life in a context where child sacrifice is the norm . . . and Deuteronomy represents another step forward in consciousness as it attempts to wean the Israelites from a dependence on a sacrificial cult and the idea that human beings can transfer their sins to another living being who pays in their place, is it not possible we are required to continue our evolution of consciousness in our own changed circumstances?

Most of us have options other than killing animals that will allow us to live healthy lives — and our wanton use of animals, our commoditization of them, has had negative effects on our own health and a devastating impact on the environment we share with animals. As the Israelites were urged toward a deeper consciousness of their own responsibility in creation, perhaps we are as well.

Torah invites us to not only constantly reimagine it but to reimagine it in this specific case: as Torah shows within itself an evolution of consciousness with regard to the relationship between the Israelites and animals in a changed situation, so we are required to do the same in our contemporary environment.

The Meaning of Life

My grandson loaned me his copy of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m struggling to understand it — not because the words don’t make any sense or because of complicated calculations but because of the vastness of time and space and possibility it describes.

In fact, the book is simply and beautifully written, and I understand the words as I’m reading them . . . I just can’t grasp the immensity. It’s the same incomprehension I had as a five-year-old kid when my Dad and I talked about infinity. I insisted space had to have an edge or an end, and my Dad asked me what would come after that? Or what number comes after the highest number in the world? What came before the universe?

And yet, this moves me: the universe had a beginning. We are made of the same substance as it: “Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the Big Bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago…stardust brought to life…” We are part of everything, and everything is part of us. It is so awesome and immense that it literally brings tears to my eyes.

It is miraculous that we are here, a fortuitous series of events, a “Goldilocks moment,” with not too much and not too little. One could regard it all as accidental . . . Yet there are universal physical laws. Ponder that for a moment. In the context of infinity, isn’t one possibility that there could have been no universal laws? And conversely that the Goldilocks moment was not completely serendipitous?

The thought occurs to me that in the context of such incomprehensible vastness and awesomeness, it is as crazy to say there is no G-d as some think it is to say there is. Are we an accidental occurrence, an infinitely small speck of chemical dust in time and space so vast it’s impossible to comprehend? Is our joy and suffering utterly meaningless? Or was there a reason for the series of events and reactions that brought us into being?

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together And all the divine beings shouted for joy? Who closed the sea behind doors When it gushed forth out of the womb, When I clothed it in clouds, Swaddled it in dense clouds, When I made breakers My limit for it, And set up its bar and doors, And said, “You may come so far and no farther; Here your surging waves will stop”? Have you ever commanded the day to break, Assigned the dawn its place . . . “ (Job 38:4-12)

As I read this little book about astrophysics and contemplate these things, it is impossible not to be humbled. It is impossible not to appreciate the contemplations of our ancestors on the planet, those who produced great bodies of spiritual teachings. These teachings are stories told to remind us of the miraculousness of our being, to tell us life has meaning. It is an audacious claim. This is the story I choose to live within during the infinitely tiny part of a second I have in incomprehensible vastness.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…” (Deut. 30:19)

Eternal Life

Five years ago when I started my blog, I wrote:

“As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich.  The great gift we have as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving, in our own lives.  The challenge is to remain fully aware, making conscious choices on each step of our journey.”

Food interests me because it tastes good, it can be a source of vibrant health, and it is a creative activity. On the philosophical side, it interests me because it brings us face-to-face with the central paradox of life, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “life feeds on life.” For this reason, what we eat becomes the proving ground for finding a balance between taking and giving in our lives.

In the course of blogging, I have explored issues of life and death, how they play out in the “food chain,” and the basis for decisions we make about what to eat on a daily basis. Following an experience and conversation with my husband, which I reported in “Our Brain: All  It’s Cracked Up To Be?”, I increasingly focused my attention on the relationship between humans and other life on the planet. I searched for a meaningful argument or rationale in support of an assumption that has shaped the world view of the majority of the globe’s citizens for thousands of years, that human life is superior to other life on the planet. Such a rationale would provide support for taking the lives of other living creatures either to eat or to sacrifice in our place to “pay” for our own wrongdoing.

Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens tells us the distinctive feature of humankind is the ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This allows flexible cooperation in large groups, which in turn allows human beings to dominate over other life. But the fact of domination doesn’t provide the moral basis for which I searched, nor does Harari suggest that it should.

The Torah asserts the supreme value of human life, although in a nuanced way that simultaneously asserts the value of all life and suggests that without adherence to a code of behaviors, human beings are not in a superior position to other animals but are, like them, “prey.” Both humans and other animals are “basar,” flesh, and both humans and other animals are “nefesh,” that is, living beings, blessed with the life that G-d breathes into lifeless flesh (otherwise, a carcass). Only humans, though, are “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of G-d, a biblical concept I’m still working to understand better.

My own studies have not yet yielded satisfying objective evidence for statements of superiority. All are culturally shaped, anthropocentric statements of belief or, in Harari’s terms, fictions we have been persuaded to believe. Harari goes further, pointing out that there is no objective evidence underpinning any moral system — that all moral systems are, like our monetary system, fictions we create and persuade others to believe. Regardless of the foundation of an idea, though, onnce it becomes pervasive in a culture, it becomes an assumption, difficult to deconstruct. There are consequences in life that result from those assumptions, and sometimes it becomes a critical task to deconstruct those assumptions.

Charles Eisenstein deals with this kind of deconstruction, or paradigm shift, in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, where Harari’s “fictions” becomes “stories.” He points out that we live in the story of Separation, only one story among many possibilities, and offers what he calls the story of Interbeing, a potentially radical paradigm shift that could make what seems miraculous in the world of Separation real and natural in the world of Interbeing. The justification or “truth”-basis of this story is inside each of us, our awareness of it a gift. It remains to us to choose the story that is true for us and live it with humility.

Choosing to live from within a paradigm that differs radically from the world in which we live is awesomely difficult, as Eisenstein points out. He says, “Belief is a social phenomenon. With rare exceptions . . . we cannot hold our beliefs without reinforcement from people around us. Beliefs that deviate substantially from the general social consensus are especially hard to maintain, requiring usually some kind of sanctuary such as a cult, in which the deviant belief receives constant affirmation, and interaction with the rest of society is limited. But the same might be said for various spiritual groups, intentional communities . . . They provide a kind of incubator for the fragile, nascent beliefs of the new story to develop. There they can grow a bed of roots to sustain them from the onslaughts of the inclement climate of belief outside.“

The Torah tells us this story, the story of *a paradigm shift in consciousness, revealed, I believe, in the first three chapters of Genesis, eventually setting a group, the Israelites, on a different course that requires incubation from the surrounding culture. And even with incubation, entering a new story is incredibly difficult and dangerous and, some might even say, unsuccessful in significant ways. Yet in one important respect, the Israelites’ effort to enter a new story succeeds: their new story gives birth to three religious civilizations, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all deeply concerned with issues of life and death, the meaning and value of our time on earth, and conscious choice.

I believe, like both Harari and Eisenstein, that we have arrived at a time when our operating paradigms are severely challenged. Memes like “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” “democracy” or “socialism” or “capitalism” or “communism,” “Judaism,” “Christianity” or “Islam,” “liberalism” or “conservatism,” “Democrat,” “Progressive” or “Republican,” will not serve us in our time. These memes poorly represent the diversity of potential meanings and possibilities within each.

I remember years ago, someone to whom I was close demanded to know if I believe in G-d. I was hard pressed to respond to that question because that word, too, is a meme. I put a dash in the word to remind myself that it is completely inadequate to communicate anything meaningful about the reality behind it. Eisenstein quotes a beautiful phrase from Lao Tzu: “A name that can be named is not the true name.”

I think the Torah offers what Eisenstein calls the Interbeing Story, presented as vision in Gen 1-3, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, a world in which we recognize ourselves in “the other,” whoever the other is, and cherish the life in that other, whether fellow humans, other animals, trees, soil or water.

Harari reflects a similar consciousness when he describes animism: “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.” All shared the spiritual round table.

Something like animism is the story of Genesis, chapters 1-3, where beings communicate with one another directly, negotiating the rules governing their shared habitat.

Eisenstein puts it this way: “The silence, the stillness, the soil, the water, the body, the eyes, the voice, the song, birth, death, pain, loss. Observe one thing that unifies all the places I listed in which we can find truth: in all of them, what is really happening is that truth is finding us. It comes as a gift. That is what is right about both the Scientific Method and the religious teaching of an absolute truth outside human creation. Both embody humility. This same state of humility is where we can source the truth to anchor our stories.”

A Hasidic saying puts it this way: when every Jew celebrates Shabbat in all it details three times in a row, Messiah will come. A paradigm shift for some is a paradigm shift for all, and suddenly what seems miraculous or impossible will be natural, a gift beyond our ability to imagine in the world of Separation.

Yet even if we are successful (this time) and enter a story that binds us with each other, with all creation and with transcendence, challenges will remain. Imagine humanity begins to live out the story of Interbeing, and everything changes. What if we develop the technology to solve, for example, our underlying existential challenge, the fact that we die? Russian scientists already 3D printed a thyroid with living tissue. It’s not hard to imagine a time when we can replace each body part that fails, in essence, a time when eternal life is possible.

But even this achievement won’t relieve us from the central paradox of life. Can we procreate limitlessly if no one dies? If our technology has not yet arrived at the point that we can utilize the resources of infinity, how do we make decisions about who lives and who dies, who gives birth and to how many? Who decides and on what basis?

The dilemmas that always confronted human beings will still be present: how do we decide issues of life and death, the balance between eating and nourishing, taking and giving, enriching and destroying? How do we deal with the central paradox of life, embedded in the food cycle, that sustaining life requires taking life?

These questions of life and death and the place of Homo Sapiens in the wider context of being are as challenging today as they were centuries ago, and they will be as challenging tomorrow even if the questions are framed differently. Our answers cannot come from memes or be captured in single words. We cannot make the decisions we need to make as a society by placing one person’s set of beliefs over another’s. That is a feature of the world of Separation, and that world has driven us to the brink of self-destruction.

It also doesn’t mean we need to put aside our different beliefs or customs or moral codes, all the things that make us different. Outlawing burqas or other forms of religious dress is a superficial “remedy” and will prove an ineffective way to “defeat” the story of Separation. As Eisenstein points out, the idea of defeating another story comes from the world of Separation. Banning burqas or other markers of difference mobilizes against the very things that serve as  portals to the story of Interbeing.

We need to go to a deeper place, a place where we embrace difference, recognize with humility the gifts each life, from a prince to a frog to a mushroom, brings to the spiritual round table, the truth each embodies, and negotiate ways to share our habitat while we enrich it. Only in that space can we make difficult decisions about life and death, taking and giving, meaning and value.

* * * * *

*NOTE: It is difficult to understand a vision of a more beautiful world that includes animal sacrifice or an injunction to kill everything that breathes in a conquered town (a command delivered by the prophet Samuel) without confronting the reality of the backdrop to these practices and how it threatened the Israelites’ nascent vision. The Torah story represents a next step in a paradigm shift from a world that accepts child sacrifice to a world that vehemently rejects it but allows animal sacrifice while yet retaining a vision of a better world.

The most intense encounter with the profound difference between the story that opens for the Israelites and the story that prevails in their surrounding culture — a story that lures many Israelites — resides in a detailed glimpse of Moloch worship:

Plutarch writes in De Superstitione 171: “… but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.”

Rashi comments on Jeremiah 7:31: “Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”

John Milton in Paradise Lost writes:
“First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim Idol. Him the AMMONITE
Worshipt in RABBA and her watry Plain,
In ARGOB and in BASAN, to the stream
Of utmost ARNON. Nor content with such
Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart
Of SOLOMON he led by fraud to build
His Temple right against the Temple of God
On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove
The pleasant Vally of HINNOM, TOPHET thence
And black GEHENNA call’d, the Type of Hell.”

(These examples were provided in the Wikipedia article on Moloch).

According to the biblical story, the Israelites received a gift, a story of what Eisenstein calls Interbeing. The Sabbath actualizes the story of Gen 1-3. On the Sabbath, not only Israelites but slaves and animals rest from labor. The Sabbath is a “palace in time” that offers an opportunity to experience Interbeing, a vision of the world gifted to the Israelites.