"In return for my love, they accuse me, but I am all prayer." (Psalm 109:4)
My parents, of blessed memory, were progressive social activists with a universal outlook, and they associated this universal outlook with being Jewish. This is a major reason why I was drawn to the universal vision of the Torah – a vision which includes all creatures. I therefore developed close ties with individuals and groups concerned about the mistreatment of animals in our modern society; however, there are some animal rights activists who reject my approach, and "in return for my love, they accuse me." The following situation can serve as an example: I am in a building with my beloved pet dog and the other human being in the building is one of these activists. Suddenly, a life-threatening danger arises, and I only have the ability to save one life. In this situation, I would choose to save the activist. However, in return for my act of love, this animal rights activist would accuse me of being a human chauvinist – a "speciesist."
If you think that no animal rights activist would accuse me in this way, then let me cite the words of Dr. Steven Best, a noted animal rights activist and lecturer. In a collection of his essays which appear on the web, he writes:
"As I am running from the burning house for my very life, hurtling down the stairs toward the front door, hearing the bark of a dog in the room to my left and a human cry from the room to my right, as the ceiling falls around me, smoke gathers in choking clouds, and I realize I can only save one life, what should I do? If the dog is my dog and the human is a total stranger to me, I will in every case save my dog. To me, this is obvious, axiomatic, de rigueur, and uncontroversial, something that even most speciesists and certainly "animal lovers" would do. But apparently for many it is shocking, irresponsible, horrifying, and scandalous. I will save my dog and not the human because the dog is family, an intimate member of my most inner circle of relations, whereas the human is a complete stranger."
I have a different response, for I would always choose to save a human being - including Dr. Best - over my pet dog. This is because Jewish tradition teaches me that the human being is not a "complete stranger"; moreover, he is family – a member of my human family, as the Torah teaches that all human beings are the descendants of Adam and Eve. Yet in return for my love, Dr. Best would accuse me of being a speciesist, as he writes, "the speciesist will, no matter what, favor the human over the dog." In the circles of Dr. Best, calling someone a "speciesist" is an insult. I, however, am not insulted, for if my saving Dr. Best over my pet dog makes me a speciesist, then I wear that title with pride!
Jewish tradition encourages the asking of questions in order to better understand the Divine teachings, and in this spirit, I ask: If the Compassionate One created all forms of life, then are not all creatures part of my extended family? If so, why would I choose to save a human being before my pet dog? Is it only because the human being is a closer relative? The beginning of a deeper answer can be found in the following teaching of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
"Guided by the Torah, we have discovered the position of the human being within creation. He is to be neither god nor slave of the earthly world but a brother and fellow worker. However, because of the nature and scope of his service, he holds the rank of the firstborn; he is to be the administrator of the earth, and it is his task to attend to everything on it and further it in accordance with the Divine will. (The Nineteen Letters – Letter 5)
Rabbi Hirsch also reminds us that our love for all creation begins with the human being who is created in the Divine image with the capacity to emulate the universal Divine love. In an essay on the mandate, "Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Hashem" (Leviticus 19:18), Rabbi Hirsch writes that the Loving One is conveying to us the following message:
"I am Hashem, the personification of love, Who has chosen the human being to be the instrument of this love. Do you, O human being, not see how this love is the finest flower of this mission? How do you raise yourself above the stone and the plant and the animal? Is it not through devoting yourself of your own free will to the welfare of the world around you? And this is just what love effects. Your whole activity belongs to God's world; first, then, belong to it with the source of your activity, with your heart. Carry in it love for God's world, above all for your fellow-human, the first and worthiest recipient of your beneficent activity. Carry love in your heart; it is this which makes you a human being and an Israelite." (Horeb - Toroth 16)
Although we human beings have a bond with all creatures, we have a special closeness to the children of Adam and Eve - our brothers and sisters who are created in the Divine image with the capacity and responsibility to further the welfare of the entire world.
Yes, I pray that we merit to live once again in the Garden of Eden where there will not arise life-threatening situations which would endanger any form of life. Now, however, we live in an imperfect world, and in such a world, I would save an animal rights activist before an animal. According to the philosophy of some animal rights activists, this choice makes me a sinner; thus, "In return for my love, they accuse me, but I am all prayer."
And what will I pray? I will pray that those animal rights activists whose philosophy causes them to reject my love will learn to understand and appreciate the Divine source of this love. I will then find favor with them, and as a result, we will be in a better position to strengthen each other in performing the unique Divine service of the human being in this world. I will therefore have them in mind when I chant the following traditional Shabbos prayer:
"Our Molder, Molder of all creation, I beseech Your luminous countenance that You privilege me and my household to find favor and good understanding - in Your eyes and in the eyes of all the descendants of Adam and Eve, and in the eyes of all who see us – that we may perform Your service!" (Ribon Kol Ha-Olamim – a prayer which many chant after the welcoming of the Shabbos angels)
On Shabbos, we express our yearning for the future "Shabbos" of human history – the messianic age of shalom for human beings and all creatures. In this spirit, I will also chant the following words from the Shabbos afternoon service:
"You will save both human being and animal, O Compassionate One" (Psalm 36:7).
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Teaching:
It is written: "And God said: 'Let us make the human being in our image and after our likeness.' " (Genesis 1:26) Who was the Creator speaking to when He said, "Let 'us' make the human being"? The Vilna Gaon states that the Creator was addressing all the creatures that preceded the human being, bidding each to contribute a portion of its characteristics to the human being. For example, the human being's inner strength is traced to the lion, his swiftness to the deer, his agility to the eagle, his cunning to the fox, his capacity for growth to the flora - all of which are unified within the human being.
The Vilna Gaon's teaching leads to the following insight: Since the human being reflects the unity of the Divine creation, the human being has the unique ability to identify with all aspects of creation. The Creator therefore chose the human being to be the steward over the Divine estate, as it is written: "The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it." (Genesis 2:15)