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Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Last updated: 2004-09-10

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

What is it that defines a human being? The laughing animal? The talking animal? Are humans just more sophisticated animals with bigger brains? 

The philosopher Peter Singer argues we are all of the same stuff and therefore morally there is no distinction between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans. But it seems to me that humans are capable of far greater cruelty and in more sophisticated ways and degrees than animals.

This past week, in the pain and incredulity at the suffering inflicted by humans on humans once again, I have been thinking about those words of the book of Psalms that are so relevant during the Days of Awe, ‘What is man that You should consider him?’ What indeed. We just about recover from one example of human beings behaving worse than animals when the boundaries of disgust are stretched once again by the behaviour of men and women that make us ashamed to be humans let alone Muslims or Christians or whatever.

Greek philosophy raised the issue of a ‘Considered life.’ Man and animal eat drink, procreate, defecate, and feel pain and pleasure. A human is supposed to ‘think’ and reflect on his life and act in conformity to standards and morals of whichever kind he or she is either trained or acquires through philosophical reflection.  If a human does not reflect then he or she is no different to a naked ape (to use Desmond Morris’s nice epithet).  But what happens when reflection leads to fanaticism and fanaticism leads to bestiality? Yet ‘Where the heart wants to go the mind is sure to follow.’ We humans seem capable of arguing to justify anything. Indeed it was said of that British philosopher Bertrand Russell ‘the higher the brow the lower the loins.’ Thinking, reflecting is not enough.

After all it was Arafat, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who launched the idea in our generation of killing blameless innocents in the name of a ‘just cause.’ And were the Monks of the Inquisition animals? Yet they were prepared to burn innocent children to death in the name of their cause! And Islam is the religious cause in the name of which unspeakable horror is perpetrated on babies and children in Beslan.

This is why we need to have a relationship with God that transcends logic. And yet if it is left uncontrolled it spirals into chaos and that is why we need the discipline of Torah and a written constitution to check and balance.

There is a fascinating debate in the Talmud and then taken up in a commentary on the Mishna by Rabbi Israel Lifshitz (Tifferet Yisrael.1782-1860) based on the statement in Ezekiel that the flesh of the non-Jews is like that of asses. One rabbinic opinion said that only the Children of God could be called humans, Adam. The context in Chapter 22 makes it abundantly clear that Ezekiel was talking about those idolaters who had no values or morals. Indeed  this is why the Bible is so aggressive towards the Canaanite tribes, because their 'religion' was one which permitted whatever one wanted to do. ‘Might was right’ and there were no limitations or restrictions. To use a modern idiom ‘If you felt like doing it, it must be right.’ The proof that derogatory attitudes only applied to such people was that so long as one kept the seven basic Noah laws which included not being cruel to man or beast, one would be treated to equal civil rights in a Jewish community regardless of background.

But some Medieval rabbis did indeed argue that non-Jews at the time were showing such bestial cruelty that the very term ’Adam,’ Human, could not apply to them and only to those who had taken upon themselves the full moral and spiritual responsibility of a Jewish way of life. A case of 'You hate us? We'll call you names back!' Traces of this attitude remain in some quarters where the terms ‘Yok’ or ‘Shikse’ are used to describe non-Jews, implying they are inferior. ‘Shicker is a Goy,’ Non Jews are drunkards, is a refrain that originated of Eastern European peasants but I still hear it used. Non-Jews are drunk, drugged, sexually corrupt decadents. We know that generalizations are stupid and all these epithets can be applied to plenty of our own. And let us not forget before we feel outraged that there are far more Christians and Muslims in this modern world of ours who still honestly think we Jews are condemned to Hell as corrupt allies of the Devil and that we are inferior untermenschen.

Rabbi Lifshitz argues that so many non-Jews have benefited the world in so many different ways that it is inconceivable that the Almighty does not hold them dear and close. Amusingly he lists Drake (sic) for bringing the potato to Europe to feed the poor amongst the benefactors of mankind along with Jenner, Guttenberg and Reuchlin (Commentary on Avot 3.18).

In other words a human being is not to be judged by his or her physical make up or even by religious affiliation but by actions. So you never should judge a person by his clothes (they can be borrowed from UN peace keepers or NATO suppliers). As the philosopher Wittgenstein once observed ‘If you want to know if a man I religious do not ask him, observe him.’

The Beslan murderers were not human. And yet Singer is right. We must treat them, those we capture, as if they were.

When faced with the awesome wickedness or just the intellectual myopia of others what can we do? We must adhere to our moral and religious values and examine ourselves. Self-examination is important all the time but specifically this time of the year. I believe it is not enough. We need the beautiful, figurative imagery of our prayers that there is Someone observing us and judging us. We need to realize there is a Supreme Court. We remember that Abraham thought he knew that God wanted him to kill his son but discovered he was wrong. We need the blast of the Shofar to stop us in our tracks.

If we cannot change the world, let us at least try to ensure that we ourselves can say before God that we have behaved like the children of Adam.

Have a creative year, Shanna Tova