My purpose in writing The Animals’ Story in the Torah is to discover a story the text tells that varies from the single one so many of us learned or heard about “what the Bible says.” The story I want to focus on in my writing is the one that reminds us that as humans, we are part of all creation, most closely related to nonhuman animals. We share our habitat and the spiritual round table with other beings, as Yuval Noah Harari says of hunter-gatherers in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity. It is a state of being we too often forget today.
I grew up in a world in which a majority of people in the United States didn’t live on farms. Meat eating was taken for granted. In the consciousness of most of us, the meat on our plates wasn’t connected to the living, breathing fellow creature whose flesh it was. There was a growing disconnect between the food we eat, any kind of food, and its source. Increasingly a prayer before or after eating was perfunctory at best or non-existent.
This disconnect in the minds of many of us between what we eat and its source is more than a function of living in a secular world. It is also more than our alienation from the natural world, a place where, as Yuval Noah Harari suggests, humans and non-human animals once “communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing <our> shared habitat.”
There is yet another backdrop to our casual approach to eating a fellow creature: centuries of acculturation to a worldview in which human beings are the crown of creation, living beings superior to all others. Many of us learned and insist that the Bible asserts that human superiority. Adam is created on the sixth day, just before God rests on the Sabbath. Alone among living beings, humans are created “in the image” of God and set to rule over the rest of creation.
If we only know this “single story,” we miss other possibilities. We miss that nonhuman animals are also created on the sixth day, just like their human fellow travelers in creation. And we miss numerous textual clues that serve as reminders to human beings that they, too, are animals, their position in creation is conditional, and non-human animals like their human counterparts, are moral beings.
Yes, there is a statement that human beings are set to “rule over” nonhuman animals. But there is also the story of the repeated failure of human beings in general, and the Israelites in particular, to become the rulers God appointed them to be. Swarming about the earth, they are as ungovernable as all other beings. As God, finally, cannot rule human beings who “swarm” about the earth, human beings cannot rule nonhuman animals, the wild beasts and those that swarm.
Human rule is conditional. Almost as soon as humans are appointed to rule, they are demoted, eating food assigned to nonhuman land animals and wearing skins, emblems of their animal nature. Parallel to the human demotion, the snake, once so similar to the humans in its hairlessness and strategic powers, is also demoted. In this way, the Torah tells us that both human and nonhuman animals are intelligent, moral beings, who are therefore morally responsible and accountable for their actions.
As for morality, God extends moral responsibility to nonhuman animals, even to the earth itself in the Garden of Eden story and the story of Cain and Abel. In this way, the Torah casts doubt on this idea that humans are unique because they are moral beings.
So perhaps the argument for human superiority in creation isn’t that humans are “in the image” of God and set to rule over creation — and isn’t that they are unique in creation as moral beings. And even if we were to agree that the Torah tells us humans are unique in their capacity for moral reasoning, uniqueness cannot be a claim to superiority since each species has its unique characteristics. God appreciates this when God assigns food to the different species according to their needs.
If each species is unique in creation, then instead of superiority in creation, we need rather to consider the responsibility associated with unique characteristics. Each species is responsible to use its unique characteristics to extend creation . . . פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ – p’ru u’r’vu u’milu et ha-Aretz, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (or the seas),” as God commands all living creatures, in the waters, in the heavens and on land.
Prof. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens comments that the unique capability of humans is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This capability allows flexible cooperation in large groups. Perhaps, then, our unique human responsibility is to tell our stories, those stories that inspire the kind of cooperation that will extend and enrich creation. What better example have we than the Torah story that in one way or another has persuaded so many to create and nurture life.
The Torah’s story of a God who ordains that human beings, “in the image” of God, should “rule” creation, isn’t the only story — nor is the story of human moral consciousness. In exploring another story, an alternate story in the Torah, we discover our profound kinship with our fellow beings on the planet. While we as well as other species have unique characteristics, we share the fundamentals of our being. We are all body and soul, animated by the breath of God, and we are all engaged in the ongoing work of creation, each לְמִינֵ֔הוּ – l’minehu, “according to its kind.”
What science says . . .
Like the Torah, modern science casts doubt on the idea that human uniqueness centers on moral consciousness. In a series of experiments with primates and other mammals, Frans de Waal demonstrates that non-human animals share with us the foundation of morality like a sense of fairness, reciprocity, empathy, cooperation and caring about the well-being of others. Other researchers demonstrate that non-human animals may, like humans, be “scolded” or ostracized by their community if their actions are outside norms of communal behavior. What do these behaviors indicate other than systems of morality that sometimes extend beyond the boundaries of community?
We could say that these observable representations of moral judgment are motivated by an evolutionary drive, namely survival of a species, but we could as well say that of humans. There is no objective proof that human morality has a different source or motivation than nonhuman morality.
And so science, like the Torah, tells us that all living beings are body and soul, animated by the breath that makes us one. While our roles in creation may differ based on our unique characteristics, “each according to its kind,” we share not only our aggressive behaviors and a desire to live. In our time, science finally echoes ancient wisdom as it points to nonhuman animal intelligence, moral consciousness, empathy, a sense of fairness, and compassion.
There is a story of hierarchy in the Torah. But there is another story, and that is the story of what Charles Eisenstein, in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, calls “Interbeing.” The presence of both these stories in the Torah and in life presents us with moral dilemmas, with the necessity and complexities of making choices. Insisting on a single story, a hierarchical story, relieves us of some of that complexity and responsibility — but it also deprives us of a profound and beautiful experience of connection and meaning.
I grew up with both the story of hierarchy and the story of Interbeing. Somewhere along the way, the story of Interbeing receded for me as it does in the modern world for most of us, I suspect. My priorities were defined for me, and choices were easier. If there is no question that human life is more valuable than other life, it is easier to first rationalize meat-eating, then altogether disconnect the food on one’s plate from its source as part of a living, breathing, fellow being. Modern “animal agriculture” and our food delivery system makes that even easier. No moral dilemmas when one sits to eat a meal.
Exploring veganism during these past few years reawakened me to the story of Interbeing and the moral complexities that accompany it in the “real” world, not just in the human – nonhuman animal relationship but in every area of life. At the same time, my journey also revives my sense of connection and meaningfulness.