Clothing the Naked Ape

Parashat B’reisheet, Gen. 1:1-6:8

by Rabbi Paul L. Saal

Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, Bloomfield, CT

In 2002 PETA initiated its “Holocaust on a Plate”, an advertising campaign intended to draw attention to the plight of animals raised in factory farms for the purpose of satisfying America and Europe’s insatiable appetite for meat. The campaign was tasteless and insensitive, and perceived by most to accomplish more in the way of whitewashing the particularity of the Holocaust, the targeting of one race for annihilation, than it did to raise awareness of the plight of animals. What was even more horrendous was that the leadership of PETA, which is largely Jewish, defended their indiscretions despite the ire and indignation of the Jewish community. This, of course, could be the introduction to a homily on a number of topics such as, Antisemitism, Jewish Assimilation, The Complicity of Jewish Intelligentsia in Antisemitism, or Is Another Holocaust Possible. But none of these is the issue that I wish to address here. My reason for mentioning the PETA campaign is to raise the idea that polarizing zealotry and ill-conceived approaches to concerns for the animal population has often distracted religious Jews and Christians from their ignorance of the first commandment in the Bible.

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:24-26 NIV)

Here the Divine injunctions for humanity to proliferate and to subdue the still chaotic creation cannot be separated from the pronouncement that humankind is to do so as the image bearers of the Creator in this world. Therefore how we understand and treat our “dominion” over creation and creature is directly related to how we imagine our Creator and ourselves.

In pagan cultures the pantheons of gods were understood to be selfish, cruel, and capricious, existing only to serve their own enormous appetites. Humankind was to live in fear of such gods, offering sacrifices to appease them. The scandal of the ancient world was that Israel claimed to be ruled over by a God who was the one and only Creator who cared for all of creation, and maintained loving and purposeful relationship with Israel. He was a benevolent king who served the best interests of His creation, subduing chaos and holding calamity in abeyance so long as his servants remained under His protective care. This becomes even more evident in the incarnation of Yeshua who took on the mantle of a servant king, reminiscent of the Divine purpose for humanity, which was created in God’s image.

The second divine command to humankind is to till the ground (2:15). The Hebrew word used here is l’avdah, which literally means to serve or worship. Humans were intended to image God as both kings and as servants of the creation. If Israel and by extension the Church is to be obedient to the commands and ordinances of Torah, they must image God as kings and priests, sovereigns and servants, harbingers of a renewed humanity, dedicated to God’s original purposes. Worship is our ritual performance of the primordial intention for triangulated service between God, humanity, and creation. Theologian Jon Levenson refers to this dual role as “an aristocracy of humility.” But what does this mean if those who claim to be dedicated to God ravage His creation with no regard for either Creator or creature?

In 2001 a plague of foot-and-mouth disease started in a British slaughterhouse and spread throughout Europe. Newspapers and news networks carried images of hundreds of thousands, and then millions of cattle being shot, thrown in burning pyres and bulldozed into unmarked graves. The horrifying fact though is that foot-and-mouth disease is fatal to neither animal nor human. It is a form of influenza, which is treatable with veterinary care and preventable by vaccination. Millions of these animals were not affected, but were killed rather because their trade value had been diminished and trade policies required it.

Across the country animals for market are raised in factory farms. They are held in seclusion in dark, stainless steel chambers, where they are better and more efficiently fattened for their time of slaughter.  From birth they never see the light of day, or play or run free as God created them to do. Apparently the only god that is being served by the meat industry is that of consumerism.  And yet where is the voice of outrage from the religious community?

Though insensitive and ill-conceived it is not difficult to understand how the folks at PETA were awakened to the imagery of the Holocaust. What is more difficult to understand is why those of us who claim to be God’s people seemingly care little to exhibit His mercy for His most vulnerable creatures. All too often, as a response to the “dominion” we have been given, we claimed the right to do what we wish, because we can.  The prophetic passages though evoke imagery of a time when all will be made right and justified on earth and Isaiah states that lion and the calf will lie down together. Are we to believe that when the entire world is in harmony only humankind will be the feared predators? Shouldn’t we who claim to be harbingers of a new humanity begin now to work toward this prophetic reality? Are we willing to subordinate some of our own desires in the process?

In every act of kindness we hold in our hands the mercy of our Creator, whose purposes are in life and death, whose love does not stop at us but rather surrounds us, bestowing dignity and beauty and hope on every creature that lives and suffers and perishes. Perhaps the animals’ role among us is to awaken humility, to open our hearts to that most impractical of hopes in which all creation speaks as one. For them as for us, if there is any hope at all then it is the same hope, and the same love, and the same God who shall “wipe every tear from their eyes; and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Stephanie Escalnate