Hierarchies and the meaning of “in the image…”

Part of what I want to understand as I read the Torah is how it rationalizes hierarchical relationships when its creation accounts share such an extraordinarily inspirational non-hierarchical vision, a vision in which no creature kills another for food and all of creation lives in harmony. I can’t help but think, or maybe I mean hope, that somehow I will discover that the Torah values all life equally, that the vision of the the first chapters of Genesis are meant to guide us, that sacrifice is just…a situational anomaly, something destined to end. Certainly not part of the plan of a compassionate G-d.

I thought I was making some small progress in that direction when I read Noach two weeks ago. The vocabulary suggested to me that animals, like humans, are both basar and nefesh, substance or meat as well as living beings sustained by the breath of G-d. Animals, like humans, are held morally accountable. Humans were violent before the flood — but animals were not guiltless. Both were implicated in unlawful bloodshed, humans directly and other animals by implication. All basar, flesh, is therefore punished. This theory would provide a moral foundation for G-d’s decision to annihilate kol basar, all flesh.

In the new world, humans are permitted meat-eating with the limitation that they remove the blood — and meat-eating among animals is assumed with the limitation that the animal they kill is not human. Hierarchical, yes. But animals still have a role in the story, self-determination.

Then I remembered that only human beings are “in the image” of G-d, although I’m not entirely certain what that means from the perspective of the Torah. And then came Lech Lecha, which confirms the permanent position of other animals on a lower level of the hierarchy the Torah sets out. They are no longer significant to the forward movement of the story, no longer self-determining.

Animals are not the only ones whose value is diminished. Vayera brings us a series of stories in which all individual personalities, all needs, all emotions, recede in significance and value in relation to the purpose G-d intends to carry out through Abraham and Abraham’s devotion to it.

I have read Genesis many times during my life from different situations and perspectives from sitting on our Massachusetts front porch as a five-year-old child browsing my Dad’s illustrated pulpit Bible to a post-graduate academic environment to my current reading in an Illinois living room in an age of factory farms and environmental devastation.

I was particularly struck this year in reading Vayera by the vast silence surrounding the uniqueness and value of life trajectories other than Abraham’s: Sarah’s silence as she is misrepresented to Abimelech and taken into his harem, Hagar’s silence as she is sent away into the wilderness with her child, Yitzchak’s silence as he is bound on the altar and his father raises a knife to kill him, the ram’s silence as Abraham seizes him where he is caught in a thicket and binds him on the altar and slaughters him.

I was struck by the fact that G-d ceases to speak directly to Abraham during those terrible moments on Mt. Moriah and instead, in the two communications that follow the near homicide, speaks through a messenger. Following that horrific moment, even if we grant that a human sacrifice was never intended but was, instead, a test as the text says, wouldn’t we expect more intimacy and compassion instead of less when Abraham demonstrates that he is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? After Abraham … silently … went through such an ordeal?

And far from inspired, I am repelled by the idea that any person would be so committed to anything that they would be prepared to set aside all compassion, all sense of connection, in order to fulfill that commitment, whatever is required.

I try to imagine myself in that home, the wife of this man, whose forward-driving impulse, his faith, leaves those around him buried in the pain, terror and silence of their lives and situations. Even if G-d knew Ishmael would not die and would become a great nation — and even if G-d knew Yitzhak would not die but would carry forward Abraham’s line into the future, Abraham didn’t know and was willing to sacrifice them.

And then there is the terror of the lamb, the horror of its actual death on the altar, its bleating that touches no soul, that we can’t hear through the text. We exalt this single-mindedness of purpose, this unwavering commitment to an ideal no matter what is required as a virtue, a demonstration of faith. Yet I’m very certain if that person stood before us today we would say he is an ideologue…or a terrorist.

As hard as I try, I can’t find a rationale for this kind of hierarchization of life other than to say, life in some situations is harsh and unforgiving, creating a constant awareness of life and death and forcing impossible decisions. As I think of the decisions life forces on us sometimes and in some situations, I am reminded of the movie, Sophie’s Choice, a story of a person whose life was also profoundly changed by a decision she had to make, a terrible dilemma that had no “right” answer. And she had to bear the burden of that terrible decision in every moment that remained of her life.

And when I arrive at this moment in which I can find no answers, I think of this statement and am filled with gratitude that through no merit of my own, I live in a moment and a place in the history of the world that I am not called upon to make impossible choices:

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

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