Thursday, December 4, 2008

Are Human Beings Different From Animals?

In Tennessee, there is a charity called The Elephant Sanctuary. Elephants that are treated badly or are unwanted by circuses around the country may find themselves a home at the sanctuary. They have 2,700 acres of property to frolic on and they have people from all over the world pouring money into this charity to help out these elephants who have no where safe to live after "retiring" from the circus or whatever their previous owner was. You can see live video from the sanctuary and read profiles of each of the human-like named elephants currently residing there here.

I'm going to venture something harsh sounding here. Wouldn't it be a better use of society's resources if these elephants were painlessly put to sleep when they "retire"? Then all of these millions of dollars a year from all over the world could be directed to helping human beings! Think of what a difference such resources could be to those being killed in Darfur or for housing for the poor. I certainly wouldn't expect the general population of the world to help out Chabad in Mumbai or Partners in Torah. But people could at least use their resources to do something to really help human beings that are suffering, like's project to distribute human powered micro-irrigation pumps to small-time poor African farmers.

I think the root of the problem is not merely a matter of how people allocate their resources. I think it comes down to a basic confusion as to the difference between human beings and animals. It is honestly not clear to people that animals are any less worthy of help or support than other human beings are.

But why is it that there is such a confusion about the difference between what a human being is and what an animal is? I think it comes down to the fact that the secular world has begun to view the world in the mistaken way that Shlomo Hamelech summed up this way in Koheles 3:19: "כִּי מִקְרֶה בְנֵי-הָאָדָם וּמִקְרֶה הַבְּהֵמָה, וּמִקְרֶה אֶחָד לָהֶם--כְּמוֹת זֶה כֵּן מוֹת זֶה, וְרוּחַ אֶחָד לַכֹּל; וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן, כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל." "That which happens to man happens to animals. There is one end to both. As is one, so is the other. Everything is of one spirit, and any advantage of man over animals is nil because everything is vanity."

At the beginning of the sefer, Shlomo Hamelech clarifies man's superiority over animals is an illusion. In Koheles 1:3, he specifies, "מַה-יִּתְרוֹן, לָאָדָם: בְּכָל-עֲמָלוֹ--שֶׁיַּעֲמֹל, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ," "What advantage is there to man with all of his toil under the sun!" The meforshim clarify that this means the vanity that Koheles refers to is man's labor under the sun, beneath and without the light of Torah. That is vanity. Therefore, we can also understand the type of vanity that Shlomo Hamelech is referring to in 3:19. He's teachings us that there is no real difference between man and animals in the world of "under the sun," in the case of physical life without the light of the Torah. However, with a life infused with Torah, when physical life is a dira b'tachtonim, a dwelling place for the Divine, then there is a universe of a difference between man and animals.

In today's day and age where humans are made more animal-like (think Darwinism and the determinism implied be genetic pre-dispositions), it is little wonder that animals are humanized, and the line between them is blurred. Rav Klonymous Kalmish Shapiro, the Piaczena Rebbe, wrote about a related topic in a piece in Mevo Hashearim that I referenced here. He pointed out there that people are able to believe in a lack of free will because of their confusion between animals and people. When people are merely glorified versions of animals in their eyes, there's no reason why we shouldn't think that we lack free will just as the animals lack free will.

People feel very good about themselves for seeing the "humanity" in animals. But what they are really doing by having this attitude is dehumanizing humans. When there is little difference between mankind and animals, very little is expected from human beings, since the expectations for ourselves as people are influenced by our perception that we are little more than animals. This can be very liberating for those who are sub-consciously looking for an escape from the responsibility of true, elevated humanity.

May we all merit to see the true value of humanity and our lofty potential for spirituality when we connect to the world of "above the sun"!

-Dixie Yid

(Picture of Barbara [and other elephants like Sissy, Winkie and Tarra] courtesy of The Elephant Sanctuary)

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Alice said...

Perhaps there are enough resources to take care of people AND animals.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that treating animals kindly is justifiable even from a human-centered perspective, as it reinforces the value of kindness in general.

Also, it is not widely known, but there is some question in our tradition as to whether humans truly have free will. See for example Midrash Tanhuma, Parshas Vayeshev, on the pasuk VeYosef Hurad Mitzraima. The Sages there conclude that all the free-will decisions that humans get blamed for are in truth G-d's doing. The Leshem Sh'vo VeAchlamah picks up on this theme at length. (Sefer HaDeah, Chelek 2, Drush 4, Anaf 18, Siman 3.

Alice said...

Rabbi Arush also mentions in Garden of Emuna that we have 'seeming freewill' in a sense. I do not actually understand that concept.

I would also add that I'm curious how reincarnation fits into all of this.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Let's say a person has $3,000 a year they can give to charity. Even if they have $2,000 they want to give to help human beings and $1,000.00 the person wants to give to the elephants, that's still $1,000 that is unnecessarily helping the elephants and is not going to people who still desperately need it. Even if it's not *all* of one's charity dollars, it still seems like a waste of resources, relative to what it could be accomplishing with other people in need.


Of course people should be kind to humans. And yes, of course that reinforces the mida of kindness in general. And the opposite is also true, that cruelty to animals leads to or stems from a mida of cruelty within the person that will not remain limited to animals, but will extend to the way he treats humans as well. But if you'll see what I wrote, that was not what I was talking about. I suggested that it would be a better use of resources to painlessly put these elephants to sleep. In such a case, we would have no cruelty to animals and no waste of resources.

As to the limitation of free will, see also the Mei Hashiloach who frequently writes about this, and who says that free will is only as superficial as a garlic peel (k'klipas hashum). However, I have limited myself in writing about this topic because it is easily misunderstood. You should not forget that Hashem Himself in the Torah asserts the existance of free will for human beings (think "U'vacharta vachaim."). On the level of human reality, free will unequivocally exists, as the Piaczesna Rebbe referred to in the piece I quoted in the main piece.


What is your question about reincernation/free will?

-Dixie Yid

Alice said...

Some Jewish thinkers believe that your soul can come back as just about anything. I've also heard rabbis say that your soul divides and parts of it come back in other creatures, or plants, or any natural being for that matter.

Therefore, IF that elephant has a spark of a soul that was once a human I can see an argument being made that it should be treated not as a human, but with respect and dignity- potentially the kind of respect and dignity that the animal rescue people are providing.

Do you think people should have pets? Aren't those dollars going towards something less important than a human life? They clearly are. What about buying a car that's nicer than what you really need? What about getting a good haircut over a so-so one that costs less? What about the price of a fur hat and a fancy silk coat? Are those needed?

The free will question becomes complicated because some say the big difference between a human and an animal is that we have free will and animals act on instinct. But some Jewish thinkers argue that we don't have free will in the sense that we commonly think we do. If that is the case, then we are much closer to animals than some people may have thought. Thus one could argue, we should see animals as being worthy of some of the respect and kind treatment requisite for humans.

I'm not a scholar or well educated in Torah. I'm just sharing in a clunky way what I've learned.

I think your question is an interesting one.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Alice, that's an interesting angle, as to treating animals differently because they could be partial reincarnations of human beings. However, there's a difference between respectfully and "humanely" putting an animal "to sleep" and caring for it for 10-20 years on a 2700 acre elephant resort! Humane treatment? Yes. No cruelty? Agreed. Pouring charity dollars into such a huge project? I can't see the justification.

On one level, you're right that it's not ideal to waste money on things for one's self either. But there's a big difference. Within reason, I think it would be unreasonable to say that people should only have what they absolutely need. However, what I am talking about it *charity dollars,* tzedakah. This is money that people aren't spending on themselves anyway. So why should it go to elephants when they are people who need it more!?

You asked me what I think of having pets. In truth, it does seem wasteful to me. I watch and listen to the amount of time and money (in the thousands) some co-workers that I have had spend talking about, going to vet visits for, and taking care of their pets. It does seem so wasteful to me personally. It would seem better to spend all of that time, engergy, money, and emotional energy on relationships with other people. But I also feel that "different strokes for different folks" and "to each their own." And as Israelis say, "al ta'am v'reiach, ain l'hitvakiach," which roughly translated means "there's no accounting for taste." :-)

-Dixie Yid

Shorty said...

As someone who has been the animal rights activist - I too went through the 'humanizing of animals' phase. Back then, I was more of the "educator", I didn't have money to spend on charities, but I was vegetarian and would "promote" the animal friendly lifestyle. I am older now, and now I can afford to give money to charities. I admit, i choose "human" charities over the animal ones. Why? Precisely for the reasons you mention.

Yes, we love the animals, they look at us with those big eyes of theirs. They are so basic, so instinctual and in some way we feel there is something inherently "pure" about these characteristics of animals.

Personally, I think that we should be spending monetary resources on human charities, and continue to educate in the "animal friendly" way. Animal refuges would not be necessary if the consumer would simply not pay for Circus' to begin with. Or buy a dalmation because that movie was just so darn cute.

As an aside, when my cat passed, I had one last option. An operation on her heart, or put her to sleep. My vet looked at me and said "as much as i appreciate your continued presence as a customer, this is not the time to spend your money, it is time to let her go".

We embrace our "animal friends" because our human family has become so distant. Our animal friends appear to accept and love unconditionally. Its time humans remember to do the same with their human family.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


I very much appreciate the way you expressed that. IY"H, I will turn that into its own post I think.

As a young teenager, one of the pearls of wisdom that I came up with was the following idea:

If we define a moral being as one who does little harm to others, then animals would be more moral than human beings, since they never harm for pleasure. and even the harm that they do inflict upon others is limited to much smaller numbers of others than human harm, which can be on a very wide scale. And by the same token, plants are even more moral creatures than both animals and humans because they almost never harm anyone (weeds & poisonous plants aside).

Aaahhh, the "wisdom" of youth...

-Dixie Yid

Gandalin said...

We know from Bereishis that the animals have a nefesh chaya. They don't have a neshomo. But the animal nefesh can be associated with a neshomo, and people on the earth have had or will have lives as animals, and animals have had or will have lives as people. Everything and everyone should be respected as to his or her proper place and proper role. I think you are right about the fact that the elevation of the animal nefesh to the level of the human neshomo is indeed a ploy that secular materialism uses to debase the human being. On the other hand, I don't think there is anything wrong with taking care of the elephants. They aren't taking anything away from anybody. There is plenty for everyone in this world.