The Bonds of Compassion that Exists within Nature

 

Empathy is one of those fascinating qualities that human beings share with the animal world. What exactly is empathy? It’s the psychological capacity to relate to another person’s psychological frame of being. Empathy creates a psychological bridge between one sentient being and another. One of my early teachers taught me as a Kabbalistic insight that the Hebrew word regesh (“feeling”) is an anagram for gesher (“bridge”), for feelings are the bridge that connect one person to another.

Such qualities are not uniquely human. We share this quality with much of the animal world. A couple of weeks ago, a Connecticut photographer has captured a thrilling encounter between a baby baboon and a 350lb lioness in a game park in Botswana. According to the witnesses, the lioness killed a baboon’s mother. Suddenly, the infant baboon was looking into the eyes of a roaring predator.

Instead of gobbling the young baby baboon for a midday Happy-meal, it gently began to play with it; to stop its crying, the lioness began to nurse the small helpless creature. Such stories are far from being unique. In the annals of Roman legends, a she-wolf sucked the baby  twins Remus and Romulus, the founder of Rome.

Charles Darwin was one of the earliest observers of this shared type of social behavior:

  • Man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, emotions, intuitions and sensations – similar passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity…they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas and reason, though in very different degrees.
  • Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” [1]

One animal behaviorist writes:

  • In a different environmental setting, at the town of Tezpur, India, a troop of about a hundred rhesus monkeys brought traffic to a halt after a baby monkey was hit by a car. The monkeys encircled the injured infant, whose hind legs were crushed and who lay in the road unable to move, and blocked all traffic. A government official reported that the monkeys were angry, and a local shopkeeper said: “It was very emotional … Some of them massaged its legs. Finally, they left the scene carrying the injured baby with them.” In another incident, baboons in Saudi Arabia waited for three days on the side of a road to take revenge on a driver who had killed a member of their troop. The baboons lay in waiting and ambushed the driver after one baboon screamed when the driver passed by them. The angry baboons threw stones at the car and broke its windshield. Captive Diana monkeys have been observed engaging.[2]

Vivisectionists invariably never give names to animals before conducting their experiments  upon them. Such behavior is routine as it is deliberate. By denying animals a name, in effect, they are also denying them an identity. Beyond that, they are also denying them any kind of moral standing as sentient creatures.

Empathy is only one of the remarkable characteristics we share with the animal world. The emotional lives of animals are complex. Stories such as the examples mentioned above are legion. Every pet owner can easily attest to this reality.

Shakespeare’s famous quote from Shylock in his famous play, The Merchant of Venice, might just as easily be applied to the animal world as well:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.[3]

Undoubtedly, we share more qualities with the animal world than many people are willing to acknowledge. The complex matrix of deep emotions that we see in many animals are evident in how they show glee and playfulness when playing, the feelings of grief, when bereaving, depression over the loss of a mate, child, or other friend.  Human beings can learn much from the “dumb” animals they claim to be “inferior.”” The Torah has numerous precepts governing our relationship with these magnificent creatures,[4] which rabbinical tradition elaborates upon.[5]

The Book of Proverbs probably says it best: Decent-minded people are good to their animals; the “good-hearted” bad people kick and abuse them (Prov. 12:10).

And the rest is commentary  . . . .



[1] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, p. 515.

[2] Marc Bekoff, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.103.

[3] The Merchant Of Venice Act 3, scene 1, 58–68.

[4] Lev. 19:19; 22:24; Deut. 22:10,23:25/

[5] Maimonides, MT Sechirut, 13:3; Shulḥan ‘Arukh, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 338; Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Yoreh De’ah, 16).

BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect

Over the years I have noticed that when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, most Jews readily chant the first paragraph of the Shema with enthusiasm. The first paragraph reads:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

The recitation of the second and third paragraph of the Shema  generally fails to inspire the same kind of enthusiasm. Here is the passage in question:

“If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them. For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you. “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates, so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers he would give them” (Deut. 11:13-21).

Simply put, actions matter. Actions have consequences. Moderns might feel uncomfortable with the carrot-and-stick approach of Deuteronomy, but its message is still compelling.

Our scientific age is certainly far more sophisticated than anything the ancients might have imagined, yet the meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema conveys an idea that is surprisingly modern and contemporary.

An ecological appreciation of the world reveals that all lifeforms are interconnected. The old paradigm of Newtonian and Cartesian physics conceived of the world through the metaphor of the clock. The universe was once seen as  a set of simple systems resembling a well-tuned ticking pendulum. These systems, if disturbed, may malfunction if their behavior is veers from normalcy. Their movements seemed predictable and manageable in its very nature.

Now we have discovered that there are in a manner of speaking, clocks within clocks–exponentiated. The inner workings of our world are so  exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that even the smallest disturbance produces large and ever-growing changes in their behavior that are difficult to fully calculate.

The meteorologist Ed Lorenz observed while studying  the earth’s weather systems that the smallest variation in the input to his equations produced exponentiatingly large deviations in the behavior of his solutions.  He referred to this cascade of changes as the “butterfly effect.”  Thus, a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in the African jungle today will generate consequences for the storm systems affecting Boston within three weeks. Since our knowledge about African butterflies is limited, detailed long-term weather forecasting will prove to be difficult to anticipate–but the effects are nevertheless in a perpetual state of causality. (By the way, this same kind movement can also be applied with respect to economics, as seen this past year’s gyrations of the stock market.)

Actions matter–and what applies to the realm of natural events especially applies to the moral events we as individuals make. With the recent BP oil spill disaster, we can see an ecological impact that effects not just the Gulf region, but ultimately the lifeforms of the entire planet! Continue reading “BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect”

Are Animals Endowed with a Soul?

The just man knows the soul of his beast, but the heart of the wicked is merciless.

Proverbs 12:10

The author of Proverbs stresses an important ethical lesson: a humane person considers the needs of his animals and acts kindly towards them.[1] The world of Creation is full of sentient beings, which also experience many of the joys and blessings that people commonly enjoy: like humankind, these creatures also experience pain. Suffering is a common language that links humanity with other species of animal life.

Therefore, Jewish ethics take sharp issue with French philosopher Rene Descartes (ca. 1596–1650), who compares animals to machines that service people, stating that their suffering “means nothing more than the creaking of a wheel.”[2] In physiological terms, according to Descartes, what human beings and animals share is that their bodies function by the laws of mechanics. One might respond: How then do human beings differ from animals? Descartes argues that the Creator endows human beings with a divine soul and a moral conscience—qualities that are lacking in animals.

In addition, unlike animals, human beings possess the ability to conceptualize and verbalize ideas. Most importantly, only human beings are capable of conscious and rational thought since they are uniquely endowed with the ability to be self-reflective. Only a human being is capable of exclaiming, “Cogito ergo sum.” Continue reading “Are Animals Endowed with a Soul?”

“Monkeying” Around with Evolution & Thoughts on Global Warming

Debating Evolution in Israel

The United States is not the only place where creationists attempt to redesign the science curriculum in textbooks. Israel’s chief scientist in Israel’s ministry of education, Gavriel Avital, “sparked a furor” by questioning the reliability of evolution and global warming, leading to calls for his dismissal, according to Haaretz (Feb. 21, 2010).

Avital asserts, “If textbooks state explicitly that human beings’ origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don’t believe the evolutionary account is correct,” he was quoted as saying. “There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula.”

Of course all thus sounds quite familiar to those of us who are debating the merits and demerits of the Intelligent Design theories in this country. Frankly, I personally see nothing wrong with raising the issues that science confronts today. For those who argue that Intelligent Design is bogus science, wouldn’t it be interesting for students to at least participate in a scientific debate  and understand why it is bogus science? If science is to be relevant to students, then it should take on the issues that confront its accepted wisdom.

I wonder: how many students really understand why the geocentric view of the solar system is scientifically incorrect? Physicists have long argued whether light functions more like a wave or like a particle? The history of science is fascinating. Why shouldn’t students see how scientific views of universe evolves?

Now, with respect to the Anthropic Principle, this is a theory in modern physics that does have very interesting theological and philosophical implications. Why should this theory be banned from discussion? Are we so insecure in our beliefs that we are afraid to entertain the great questions that have puzzled many of the world’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and thinkers since the time of Aristotle? What ever happened to the love of learning? Continue reading ““Monkeying” Around with Evolution & Thoughts on Global Warming”

Behind the Theology of Ecology

For several decades now, many theological and secular ecological  thinkers tend  to blame the ecological woes of the planet on the Bible.  Unfortunately, such a perspective comes from well-meaning people who seldom study the biblical teachings about ecology. By the same token, most ecological advocates are woefully unaware of what the Jewish and Christian traditions actually teach concerning the primacy of biblical stewardship.

Without belaboring the issue, here is one of my favorite midrashic teachings on the subject.

When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My world. For if you do spoil her, there will be nobody to repair her after you.[1]

This Midrashic interpretation highlights the importance of stewardship, not only for the Garden of Eden, but for our taking care of the earth, God’s garden. By taking care of the primordial garden, Adam learns to recognize that all of life is God’s unique design, endowed with spirit, consciousness, and intelligence. Adam’s respect for Creation makes him realize that the human species is a part of the great web of life, which he must nurture for the world to be self-sustaining and productive. Indeed, the degradation of the environment damages the original balance that Adam and his progeny must maintain. Through toil, Adam would realize how all of Creation depends on the Divine as the source of life for its sustenance and continued existence.

Understanding the implications of Adam’s stewardship is vital for our contemporary society.  The science of ecology has shown how ecosystems of the world are delicately balanced; should human beings ruin them through abusive acts (ecocide), future generations will have to endure the consequences. Through work and stewardship, humankind comes to emulate God’s own work and creativity as Imitatio Dei (imitation of God). It was the divine intent from the beginning for humankind to elevate and ennoble itself by means of work, and in so doing, elevate Creation to the realm of the spirit, leading all Creation in song and joyous exaltation of the Divine. Note that God intended to make Adam not a “master” over the Garden of Eden, but rather, its caretaker and steward. Once Adam forgets that he is only a steward of the garden, the boundaries established by the Creator became unclear and ultimately violated.


[1] Eccles. Rabbah 7:20.

The Ethical Problems of Hunting

The rabbis never hunted except with nets or with traps because it still allowed for kosher slaughter, but with regard to the bow and the arrow, or a gun, these methods of hunting rendered an animal a “nevalah” and therefore is not a Kosher manner of slaughter.

Wild animals considered acceptable for food and thus apparently hunted included the hart, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep (all listed in Deut. 14:5). Along with hunting, fishing (Isa. 19:8) and trapping birds with nets[1] are mentioned.

The Sages of antiquity have long taken a negative view of hunting. The 19th century German Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine once observed that Jews have historically identified more with the hunted, than the hunter. Hein’s thought is quite accurate.

Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) observed that hunting was as “a sort of prelude to and representation of the wars and dangers that have to be encountered against the enemy.” Western history with its obsession with violence certainly bears this out.  Another 1st century Jewish intellectual, Flavius Josephus, tells us that Herod the Great enjoyed hunting on horseback and he adds that Herod was one of the most violent men ever to have ruled Judea.[2]

One famous Responsa dating back in the 18th century, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, was asked whether hunting with a rifle was permitted or not.  In his reply, Landau notes that the only hunters mentioned in the Tanakh are Nimrod and Esau—neither of whom happened to be Israelites. Hunting was never a common occupation among our people. Hunting for sport engenders cruelty within the human breast. In short, hunting for sport or for adventure,  is certainly forbidden; however,  if it is for other constructive reasons (e.g., clothing etc.,) it is then permitted. It goes without saying that if an animal poses a serious public health danger, e.g., a rabid dog, hunting such an animal is indeed necessary. Beyond that, Landau notes that anyone who recklessly exposes himself to danger violates the biblical precept of not endangering one’s health.[3]

Some years ago, when I was touring Mexico, some of the natives asked me if I would like to attend a bullfight. I politely turned the request down, but the invitation did remind me about  a wonderful story I read about Albert Schweitzer, who once wrote in his diary about an invitation he received while he was visiting Barcelona. Schweitzer recalls, “In bright dresses, and fluttering head scarves, all the young women were going in one direction: the arena. They were going to witness how enraged bulls would split open the bellies of poor mules with their horns, and then how they themselves to the jubilation of the crowds were tortured to death. The director of the large music society whose guest I was, addressed me, saying, You must come! You must see it at least once; otherwise you won’t know what Spain is! . . . The man was a deeply pious artist with whom I was seriously conversing just this morning concerning Christianity.”

Perhaps Gandhi was partially correct when he said one can measure the humanity of a civilization by the way they treat its animals. After reading Schweitzer’s passage, something suddenly dawned upon me:  Wasn’t Spain the same country that tortured and persecuted millions of people all over the European and American world when they zealously enforced their infamous Inquisition?  Our Sages stated it eloquently centuries ago:   Human beings are shaped by behavior( adam ni’fal ki’fee pi’u’la’tov).  This observation still holds true even today. How we treat animals in our society does indicate something important about our behavior as a civilized species and our attitude about sentient lifeforms–along with our ethical responsibilities and duties.


[1] See also Amos 3:5; Prov. 6:5; Pss. 91:3; 124:7.

[2] Wars of the Jews, 1.21.13.

[3] Noda B’Yehuda Vol. 2.,  Responsa 10.

Is vegetarianism the ultimate ideal for humankind?

With all the commotion being made about laboratory created meat, the new technological development raises interesting ethical questions whether the slaughtering of animals ought to even be continued, since artificial meat is available. Should the practice of kosher slaughter be continued? Obviously, none of us can expect to know the future. Time will tell whether such a meat alternative is even considered healthy for human consumption. That being said, if the technology can truly replicate meat in a safe and healthy way, we may live to see the day when animals will once again live peacefully with humankind. This idea is hardly original; its roots go back to the time of Philo of Alexandria, the early Midrashic literature, if not earlier.

On the practical side, everyone in the kashrut industry has long known that the biggest problem with kashrut is most typically the meat! Eliminate the problem with meat, religious Jews can eat their food with less anxiety and angst!

Some rabbinic thinkers in the last two hundred years or so have expressed some important thoughts about the rational behind vegetarianism, which exists  in Jewish thought and tradition. Marcus Kalisch, a British rabbinic scholar (1825-1888), writes about the vegetarian diet of Adam:

The lifeless creation was produced for the living beings; vegetation was destined for men and animals; no being “with a living soul” was originally intended as the food for another living creature; man was assigned to eat the seed-giving plants, and grain, and the fruit of trees; to the animals were left the grass and the herbs (vv. 29-30). Although man was permitted the dominion over the beasts of the field, the fishes of the water, and the birds of the air, he was not allowed to extend that dominion to the destruction of life; he was the master, not the tyrant, of the animal kingdom — he might use, but not annihilate it . . .

. . . Every living being has a right to exist, and to enjoy its existence; God had blessed the animals with fruitfulness; man was not allowed to counteract that blessing by killing them for his sport or his appetite. God created the world for peace and concord, no being should rage against another; the sin of man brought warfare among the living creatures; the cries of agony rent the air; man and beast raged among themselves, and against each other; the state of innocence was succeeded by the age of passion and violence; and it was only after the fall of man that animal food was permitted to him (9:3).[1]

Less than a century later, R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935) expressed a similar perspective, envisioning a time when human beings will once again live in a state of peace with the animal world, and will not need to subsist on them for sustenance: “The thrust of the idealism that continues to develop will not remain forever in its confinement. Just as the democratic aspiration will emerge into the world through the general intellectual and moral perfection, “when man will no longer teach his brother to know the Lord, for they will all know Me, small and great alike” (Jer. 31:34), so will the hidden yearning to act justly toward animals emerge at the proper time.“[2]


Notes:

[1] Marcus M. Kalisch, A Historical and Critical Commentary on the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Brown, Green and Dyer, 1858), 78.

[2] Abraham Isaac Kook,  “Talele Orot”, Tahkemoni, Vol. I, (Bern, 1910, 21), cited from Ben Zion Bokser’s, Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 23.


What is the kosher status of laboratory “grown” meat?

Technology continues to dazzle the halachic imagination in ways that our ancestors could not have ever imagined. Researchers in the Netherlands managed to create soggy pork and are looking into ways of improving its texture so that it might be an edible alternative to eating real meat. To date, nobody has yet to taste the meat to see how it fares, but assuming that it is tasty, rabbis will have to determine whether it is fit for kosher consumption or not.

According to the European news,  Rib Steak“You could take the meat from one animal and create the volume of meat previously provided by a million animals.” Meat produced in a laboratory could reduce greenhouse gas (a.k.a.,  “flatulence” and believe you me, the French, British, and Swedes are real experts on this problem!) emissions associated with real animals. Those clever little Europeans–they are always worrying about air pollution and global warming!

Ever since the days of watching Star Trek, I always wondered what would be the status of replicator generated food? Would the laws of kashrut even apply? Obviously, I am reasonably certain the majority of Haredi rabbis would look for a thousand reasons why they should prohibit such food.

That being the case, I went to the classical texts of Jewish law to see for myself what the interpretive possibilities might be. There is one story from the Talmud that reminds me about this case.  We read that “R. Hanina and R. Oshaia spent every Sabbath eve in studying the ‘Book of Creation’ by means of which they created a third-grown calf (the time when a calf’s meat is considered to be at its tastiest–Rashi) and ate it.”

Unfortunately, the Talmud does not inform us whether the two rabbis mixed the meat with milk, or whether they even ritually slaughtered it; all it says is that they merely ate it–without ritual slaughter, because the laws of kashrut did not apply to the esoteric sciences that produced the animal in the first place!  One could argue that the esoteric method of the Sages is analogous to the new esoteric technology of science. Continue reading “What is the kosher status of laboratory “grown” meat?”

Appreciating the Ecological Principles of Leviticus

Leviticus always gets a bad rap when it comes to the students of the Bible. Granted, it’s not as interesting as the opening chapters of Genesis, but Leviticus possesses a rich tapestry of symbolism that most Protestant theologians tend to completely overlook. The slaughter of animals has no context outside the realm of holiness—especially as mirrored through the practice of the Jewish dietary laws. According to the anthropologist Mary Douglas, the laws of cultic purity serve to help impose God’s order and control in the world of creation. On some level, the dietary laws remind us about the sanctity of all life which demands from us humane treatment.

Unclean is not a term of psychological horror and disgust, it is a technical term for the cult, as commentators have often pointed out. To import feelings into the translation falsifies, and creates more puzzles. The technique of delayed completion postpones the meanings until chapter 17. At that point Leviticus commands the people not to eat blood, not to eat an animal that has died an unconsecrated death, that is, an animal that has died of itself, or an animal torn by beasts, presumably with its blood still in it (Lev 17:8-16; see also Deut 14:21). The dietary laws thus support the law against unconsecrated killing. The Leviticus writer’s reverential attitude to life, animal and human, explains the animal corpse pollution rules. ‘Thou shalt not stand upon [profit from] another’s blood’ (Lev. 19:16). The case of the animal’s blood and the case of the human’s blood are parallel. Ritual impurity imposes God’s order on his creation.[1]

The fact is the Levitical laws protect the vast number of animals, limiting the permitted species to just a few species. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas writes in the introduction of her classic study on the dietary laws of Leviticus:

The religion of Leviticus turns out to be not very different from that of the prophets which demanded humble and contrite hearts, or from the psalmists’ love of the house of God. The main new feature of this interpretation is the attitude to animal life. In this new perspective, Leviticus has to be read in line with Psalm 145:8-9: the God of Israel has compassion for all that he made. His love for his animal creation lies behind his laws against eating and touching their corpses. The flocks and herds of the people of Israel are brought under the covenant that God made with their owners, and the other animals benefit from the promises he made in Genesis after the flood, that he would guarantee the regularity of the seasons and the fertility of the ground. The more closely the text is studied, the more clearly Leviticus reveals itself as a modern religion, legislating for justice between persons and persons, between God and his people, and between people and animals.[2]

The Bible frequently is accused of endorsing a theology of “dominion” and is blamed for all the ecological woes of our time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leviticus teaches us that we cannot act toward creation with indifference. Jewish exegetical history has a very strong pro-ecological attitude that contemporary scholars ought to seriously study before criticizing a religious tradition they know so little about.


[1] Leviticus as Literature (New York: Oxford UP, 2000), p. 151.

[2]Ibid., pp. 1-2.