A World Going Ape

It’s easy to snickeringly dismiss the recent disclosure that the late hotelier Leona Helmsley not only left $12 million to her dog but nearly all of the rest of her estate – an estimated $5-8 billion (yes, billion) – to dogdom. No correlation, after all, has ever been evident between wealth and sanity.

More significant by far was another recent bit of animal news, the Spanish parliament’s June 25 vote in support of extending the right to life and freedom to apes.

That would be great apes – orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. (Pity the poor lesser apes and common monkeys, not to mention all the non-simians, whose rights for now remain unaddressed by Spanish lawmakers.)

The vote was the culmination of a push by an entity called the Great Ape Project, which for years has advocated on behalf of having apes accepted as closer to human than animal. The DNA of apes and humans, the group points out, is very similar. Indeed it is, although there are some 40 million differences among the two species’ respective nucleotides. The group further contends that “Human blood and Chimpanzee [sic] blood… can be exchanged through transfusion.” Don’t try that at home – or anywhere else for that matter; each species’ antigens would likely prove fatal to the other.

But leave aside the scientific rationale, real or imagined, for equating Cheeta with Tarzan. That apes resemble humans is self-evident. Just looking at a man and an ape would lead us to expect human and ape DNA to have much more in common that either species’ genetic material would with that of a lizard, dog or azalea. My car has much in common with a jet plane, too (a metal body, an assortment of gauges, rubber wheels, an internal combustion engine, seats, fuel…); much as I wish, though, it cannot fly.

And neither can apes. Not literally nor by means of developing machines like those manufactured through the astounding imagination, creativity and intelligence exclusive to the human race. More important still, the human capacity to conceive of abstract concepts like time, space, war, peace, love, hate – for that matter “intelligence” itself – sets us apart qualitatively from the rest of the “animal kingdom” despite the physical similarities we share.

Most important of all, only humans can conceive of right and wrong. Or, to distill those concepts to their essence, of G-d. To be sure, we are not always mindful of our responsibilities as Divine creations. But most of us know, deeply and innately, that those duties exist, and the better among us endeavor to shoulder them.

Not so, apes. As University of London Professor of Genetics Steve Jones put it: “Rights and responsibilities go together and I’ve yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana.”

More to the point, no one has seen a chimp morally conflicted over the prospect of committing the crime.

There are those, though, who discredit the very idea of any transcendental moral imperative, and who deny that there is any metaphysical Source for the same (or any similar spiritual dimension to human beings). They consider conscience a mere delusionary adaptation bequeathed by random evolution, and reject the idea of any essential difference between humans and animals. People, for example, like Professor Peter Singer, the Princeton University Professor of Bioethics, who has suggested that the life of a healthy pig or dog should command resources before that of a severely disabled human baby, and who has promoted acceptance of cross-species intimate congress. As it happens, Professor Singer is one of the Great Ape Project’s founders; he was surely heartened by the Spanish parliament’s vote.

That vote has no force of law at present – and, in any event, it has been several centuries since anyone has entertained the notion that as goes Spain, so goes the world. But we would be shortsighted to dismiss the recent development. Because it dovetails diabolically with larger societal changes taking place all around us. Unborn human life is terminated for reasons of convenience, patients in extremis are considered unworthy of care, any and all means of behavior are endorsed as nothing more than “personal lifestyles.” We are, the thinking goes, mere physical creatures, not different in any meaningful way from the rest of the animal world.

Which conclusion might well liberate us even further. Why should we consider any insect our inferior, any personal behavior objectionable, any act – even murder – wrong? Without affirmation of the singularity of the human soul, society itself is rendered – in the word’s deepest sense – soulless.

Please note well: Jewish religious tradition forbids causing animals unnecessary pain. The first man and woman – indeed all of humanity until Noah – were even forbidden to eat meat. But Adam was nevertheless commanded to “rule over” the animal world and, in postdiluvian times, Judaism expressly permits not only the “enslavement” of animals but even their killing for human consumption.

That commandment and that permission bespeak a clear and timely truth: Humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, elevated by their souls and the responsibilities that attend them.

To pretend otherwise is to welcome a world where Leona Helmsley’s will is unremarkable and Peter Singer’s way upright.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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7 Responses

  1. ASC says:

    Why does the slippery slope always seem to slip away from the direction Rabbi Shafran decides? Perhaps the Great Ape folks have overstepped philosophically (not in their goals, I’d add), but isn’t there also a slippery slope when we treat all creatures as mere human property, when nature is viewed as mere expediency for human ends? When humans ignore the obvious pain of a fellow creature — creatures with complex social communities, creatures who suckle their young and protect them from danger — might not that lead to a general coarsening of our attitudes toward human life as well?

    Besides, just whom is he arguing against? Leona Helmsley is a target of ridicule because she gave her fortune to dogdom – it’s not as if there was a fervent “Amen” when the news was announced. That being said, the ASPCA and similar groups are slavering over the possibilities of Helmsley’s money, not because they degrade human life, but because they are right that humans often treat their animals cruelly and organizations like theirs have an important role to play.

    The irony here is that Agriprocessors more than suggests that the slippery slope is actually slick with the blood of slaughtered cows. The owners’ indifference to animal life seems indistinguishable from their indifference to their workers’ rights and well-being. It would be an interesting bit of halachic sociology to ask if what Shafran calls the “affirmation of the singularity of the human soul” extends in the mind of Agriprocessors Chabad owners to their non-Jewish workers and if they resist making the distinctions, heard in their teachings, between Jewish and non-Jewish souls.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    If the apes had any ability to get their act together, they would not be needing human advocates now after these many years.

  3. Benzion Chinn (www.izgad.blogspot.com) says:

    “No so, apes.”

    Not so, apes.

  4. Naftali Zvi says:

    ” Why should we consider any insect our inferior…”

    Rabbi Shafran is reminding us of the well known Midrash in parshas Tazria – “If you are worthy, you are at the head of the entire Creation; if you are unworthy, even the gnat has preceeded you.”

    What we see from all this is that we are either at one pole or the other. There is no neutral.

  5. Toby Katz says:

    The evil at the heart of the seemingly nonsensical formula equating apes with humans is that it equates humans with apes.

    Rabbi Shafran is so very right to worry about what humanity is capable of when it loses sight of the difference between human beings and animals.

  6. The Contarian says:

    It is a pity that the Nazis did not declare that the True Jews to be apes and killed 6 million simians instead of our kedoshim.

    I do not think my father’s entire family who died al Kidush Hashem would have been insulted.

  7. Sue Per Frumm says:

    Rabbi Shafran should be rejoicing. This enactment simply kashers
    those Jews who are descended from apes, as is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an!

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