Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 26 - What do animals feel and think?

by Rabbi David Seidenberg 

What do animals feel and think? Who are they?

That’s too broad a question by many degrees, but the difference between asking “who are they?” and “what are they?” is the gulf between civilizations, between epochs, between a world in which humans dominate and destroy, and a world in which humans collaborate with other species in the great project of the universe, Life. 

Since Descartes, the idea that the other animals (besides human beings) are not subjects has reigned in science. It became forbidden to say animals have feelings, consciousness, thinking, to the point that rationalists compared the cries of animals to the sounds a broken machine might make. But all that has changed over the past two decades. fMRI scans of other animals’ brains and human brains, for example, show unequivocally that animals have feelings and consciousness.*

It turns out that the question of “who?” versus “what?” is also the line between how different rabbis understand the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sending away the nesting bird. The Torah descibes the mitzvah like this: “When a bird’s nest is met before you in the way, in the tree or on the ground, chicks or eggs, and the mother is crouching over [them], you will not take the mother on top of the children. Sending, you must send the mother, and the children you may take…” (Deut 22:6-7). 

There’s a well-known machloket (argument) between Maimonides and almost everyone else about what this mitzvah means. Most later commentators say its purpose is to teach us not to be cruel, so that we won’t be cruel to each other. But Maimonides says the reason is that in this case “animals feel very great pain”. He adds: 
[T[here [is] no difference regarding this pain between humanity and the other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in humanity. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:48, p.599 in Pines translation, cf. 1:75, 2:1). 
To the greatest rationalist in the history Jewish thought, animals were subjects. But something went awry in the generations after Maimonides, and the forest was lost for the trees. That’s reflected not just in this famous machloket, but also in how a later midrash on shiluach hakein was interpreted. The midrash comes from Devarim Rabbah (6:5): 
“Sending you must send”—Said Rabbi Elazar: there would be no need to say so, except that the Holy One says, “Since she is engaged with glorifying the world and establishing the world / ho’il v’nitaskah bikh’vodo shel olam v’tikuno shel olam, it’s worthwhile for her to be saved.
If the bird is engaged with a mitzvah, and we must not stop her from being able to carry it out, even if we may delay it. 

But its interpreters didn’t believe a bird could be a moral subject, so they concluded that the midrash couldn’t have meant. They changed the verb in which the bird is active, “nit’askah / she is engaged”, dropping the letter Heh at the end, so that it became “nit’asek / he is engaged”—meaning the person sending the bird away. To them the midrash meant something like this: “The person taking the eggs is building up the human world by taking from the natural world. To show that his purpose is truly for the greater good, for the glory of the world, he should not selfishly take the mother as well.” It’s an interpretation that actually doesn’t make much sense, but it made more sense to them than the idea that a bird was doing a mitzvah.

But today, we need to know, and learn, and recognize, that we are not the only species engaged in tikkun olam. We are not the only species fulfilling mitzvot, nor are we the only species that is thinking and feeling and hoping. 

If animals are subject, would that mean human beings can’t use the other animals? No! All animals necessarily use other creatures to survive. In a thriving ecosystem, every species takes what it lacks from other species, and is used by other species, in order to “give life through them to the soul of all Life”. But in every inter-species interaction, there must be a gift given, an implicit promise and covenant, that the way one species uses another will help everyone. In a word, if one subject is used by another, they must used well.

This gives us a way to reconcile Maimonides with the rest of Jewish thought. Forget about the rabbis who think animals aren’t subjects. Nachmanides, who also disagreed with Maimonides, who also thinks the mitzvah teaches us not to be cruel, says it means more than that: the point of the mitzvah is to prevent species from becoming extinct. We learn not to be cruel so that we won’t be so cruel as to cause extinctions. 

In this way, we also respect the mother-principle of all Life, which is the third reason Nachmanides gives for the mitzvah. In Kabbalah, this principle is called Binah or Mother, and she is the matrix from which all life evolved and is sustained, the principle which continues to move life to evolve. 

In this way, not only is each animal and each species a subject, but the principle of Life itself is a subject, a “who”, to whom we address ourselves, in humble submission.

* See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,, July 7, 2012. See also Kabbalah and Ecology, pp.21-24.

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