This is a basic assumption of today’s experts. And their assumption is not wrong, at least not on its face. We have bodies that are not so different from apes. The building block of our existence is the same as it is for all living things in this world.
Mankind is dominant, goes the theory, because Nature (or perhaps Chance) gifted us with opposable thumbs, larger brains, the ability to sweat, adaptibility, etc. Because of these physical traits, mankind became the ultimate apex predator. But apex or no, we remain firmly within the animal kingdom.
Therefore, there are those who believe that the most pure forms of humanity are obviously those which are closer to nature. The primitive, the indigenous, the natives. They are the true people, untainted by the idea that we can somehow be more than mere animals. To combat the incursions of Western Civilization, we battle for the acceptance of Mother Nature by reinforcing the importance of our desires at every turn. To be real animals, we need to reject what people tell us to think, and instead focus on whatever we really – deep down – desire. If we are true to ourselves, then we can live our best lives, one with our own natures, true to the way Mother Nature made us. Any act we wish to engage in, is, for no other reason except that we desire it, sacrosanct. Abortion, pedophilia, mutilation, suicide… the sewer is the limit.
We can go one better by willfully rejecting the silly trappings of Western Civilization. The best way to show that we are close to nature is to fill our speech with references to natural acts: fornication, defecation, and what prudes like me might refer to as “private” parts. This approach makes foul language a virtue because, if we must have language at all, it should reinforce our fundamentally animal natures. Emotion is “true,” so we are to be commended for expressing our emotions in the rawest ways possible.
This approach is, of course, pure tosh, but it is very popular tosh nonetheless. What fascinates me is that I think the Torah basically agrees: man, as he was created, is indeed merely another animal. G-d made man, and “the Human became a living being.” The words for “living being,” nefesh chaya, is precisely the same word pair used for describing other animals G-d made: “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures,” (Gen 1:20) “all the living creatures of every kind that creep,” (Gen: 1:21) and “God said, “Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature,” (Gen: 1:24). In every case, the phrase is identical to the one describing man at our inception!
It is helpful that the Torah has much more than Creation within it. The same verse that contains the creation of man also says that we acquired a nishmas chaim, a “living soul.” But this soul does not – by itself – mean that we are qualitatively different than any other animal. It merely suggests that we have the potential to be more than other animals. Still, that potential only practically exists if we can recognize it. If we can see each person as being created in G-d’s image, endowed with a divine spark we call a “soul,” then it is the belief in a connection to G-d that can open the door in our minds, helping us to understand that while we are indeed animals, we are able to be so very much more than pur physical bodies and sum of our urges and desires.
Language remains a key part of this. All living things can communicate in some form or another. But the spoken and written tongues – whether nuanced or forceful – can be so much more sophisticated and beautiful than mere communication. That is, if we use it for higher purpose, instead of constantly referring to rutting and defecation and body parts. When we speak gently, when we subdue our natures for the sake of higher purposes, we prove that we are more than animals.
What happens when we rise above our nature? We can come to understand things that our animal natures cannot. We come to understand that all possessions are transitory, and that what really matters are the choices we make, and the impact those choices leave in the world around us, both now and long after our bodies have dissolved.
We can see ourselves not only living in the moment, but instead living as a vital but frail link in a chain between our ancestors, and our descendants. The chain is alive only for us, and everything that comes in the future depends on what we do in our present. What you do today will help shape what you leave behind.
And when we can see ourselves that way, then we are far away from animalism. We learn to restrain ourselves and our natures, never declaring that we are right merely because we are mighty. We do not push, as an animal does, to the limit of our power. We seek to treat others with respect even though, in any natural pecking order, hierarchy is a constant battle. We consciously limit ourselves in order to build others up, whether they be loved ones or complete strangers: “Love the stranger.”
Those of us who seek a connection with G-d, and see G-d in each person, aim to be holy.
We start as animals. But we should always try to be better.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]