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.