How Animals Teach Us to be Human A rabbi interprets animals according to Jewish law.

From Aesop to Solomon

Through his oft-repeated fables, the Greek moralist Aesop left us a wealth of enduring and endearing lessons; the perennial fragrance of his values permeates our culture. From the fox we learn the psychology of sour grapes.  From the ant and the grasshopper we learn the benefits of industry and the cost of fecklessness. From the mouse and the lion we learn the rewards of kindness and gratitude.

But four centuries before Aesop ever set quill to parchment, King Solomon had already expounded upon the wisdom of the animal kingdom. “Go, sluggard, and learn from the ant,” he commands in his famous proverb.[1] “The locusts have no ruler, but still they go forth as an army. The spider you can hold in your hand, yet she dwells in the palace of the king.”[2]

Of Solomon the prophet says, “He spoke also of beasts and of fowl, of creeping things and of fishes.” [3] Like Adam, who named the animals in his Garden by contemplating their nature and describing the essence of their being, Solomon understood that everything in creation has a purpose and, consequently, a lesson to teach.[4]

Cultural bias and personal predisposition shape the way we think of animals, whether as companions or as servants, whether as guardians to protect our homes or as comestibles to adorn our tables. However, the theological tradition of Solomon transcends those predilections, making it clear not only that animals have much to teach us but that we are duty-bound to learn from them. In some sense, animals may possess a more instinctive humanity than we do.

Four centuries before Aesop ever set quill to parchment, King Solomon had already expounded upon the wisdom of the animal kingdom. “Go, sluggard, and learn from the ant,” he commands in his famous proverb.

The most obvious benefit emerges when we recognize the desirable qualities demonstrated by the animals that share our world.  Just as Solomon instructed us to learn diligence from the ant, the Talmud adjures us to learn modesty from the cat, chastity from the dove, and courtship from the rooster.[5] Judah ben Teima said, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion in the service of heaven.” [6]

Poetically, we can seek inspiration by construing the nature of animals as allegory and metaphor. Biologically, we can identify the traits humans and animals have in common as well as the qualities that make human beings more than mere animals. Philosophically, we can recognize how to harness our animal inclinations to carry us forward on the path of our own humanity. Theologically, we can learn to appreciate how the design of creation directs us to resist the pull of our animal nature while aspiring to elevate ourselves toward becoming more than human.

The world is our classroom, and all its inhabitants are our teachers. If we choose to take instruction and learn the lessons of social and moral refinement, there is no limit to the wisdom we can discover.

 

 

Are we not men?

Many secular biologists view human beings as nothing more than highly developed animals. One can argue convincingly that superior intellect alone does not make humans intrinsically different from other mammals or, indeed, from animals.

The Talmudic literature anticipates that very presumption when it describes the levels of creation in ascending order: mineral, vegetable, animal, human. What is noteworthy is the sages’ terminology. They identify the lowest order of inorganic matter as mute, and the highest stage—human—as speaker.

This requires some explanation, since we know that animals do use language. Dolphins and chimpanzees have fairly sophisticated lingual systems for communicating information and, to some degree, feelings. Even bees have their own “language” for communicating the location of pollen sources to the hive.

But this is not what the sages meant when they described human beings as speakers. They referred not to the verbal exchange of information but of ideas.

We find the first allusion to this in the scriptural record that “Adam knew his wife.”[7]  This is not mere religious euphemism. It tells us that Adam and Eve achieved the ultimate intimacy that comes from truly knowing one another and consummating their profound psycho-spiritual rapport in the form of physical merging.

In other words, the defining quality of humanity is the capacity to know others, to form relationships based not merely on survival or mutual gratification but on common ideals and a shared sense of purpose. It is language that makes this possible. But it is also the innate ability to place abstract values above quantifiable self-interest.

This is the essence of free will. And although animals may appear to make choices, they are guided by pre-programmed and conditioned instincts that are not truly a function of choice.

Which leads to the inevitable question: are humans any different?

There are those who say that human beings have only the illusion of choice, that we are no more than the sum of our genetic makeup, neural functioning, and learned behaviors. We do not really choose; we merely react according to subconscious factors that add up on either side of the cost-benefit decision tree to incline us one way or the other.

Although animals may appear to make choices, they are guided by pre-programmed and conditioned instincts that are not truly a function of choice. Which leads to the inevitable question: are humans any different?

It is difficult to square this, however, with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Why should my self-actualization impulses ever trump my basic comfort and survival reflexes?  Why should Abraham Lincoln have waded out into the muck to save the piglets?[8]  Why should Martin Niemöller have subjected himself to the horrors of Dachau rather than remain silent before Nazi atrocities that he had no power to change? Why should a lone college student have faced down a column of tanks on Tiananmen Square?

Would any animal have made such a decision?

To take one example from the wild, canines have an acute awareness of their place in and their responsibility to the social group.  Since the survival of individual dogs depends on the survival of the pack, it is natural for a dog to place the well-being of another before its own—especially when protecting a pup, even a human one.

What is more, studies have shown that dog brains produce dopamine in response to signs of approval and affection. And although we commonly mistake affection for love, it seems likely that our dogs do not really love us—they are merely “love-junkies.”

Many humans are no different. But that too is a matter of choice.

 

 

The hierarchy of the mind

Of the three levels of life—human, animal, and vegetation—each exists not only in and of itself but also as part of the next ascending level. Vegetation is defined primarily by two functions:  absorption of nutrition and reproduction. These are present in animals and humans as the digestive and reproductive systems. Animals differ from plant life primarily by the cardiovascular and alimentary systems, which animate them and allow them freedom of movement. These are found in humans as well.

What makes human beings unique is the intellectual ability to conceptualize and to express abstract concepts in language.  According to Jewish philosophy, this capacity is reflected in the unique physiognomy of human beings.

Animals typically ambulate on all fours. Even simians, which are capable of standing erect, commonly use their arms to assist in movement, especially over distances or at higher speeds.

We find, therefore, that the head, heart, and reproductive organs of animals align along a horizontal plain. Symbolically, this suggests that the intellectual, animative, and reproductive functions of an animal are all equal in their importance to the purpose of an animal’s existence.[9]

But human beings stand upright, which reflects a distinct hierarchy of attributes. Of primary importance is the mind, residing in the head that rests atop the body. Action and direction are one step down the ladder, and reproduction below them. All of these are subject to a sense of purpose, a higher vision, an intellectual and—ideally—moral imperative that harnesses the lower impulses of the body into service of the consciousness and conscience.

Few of us devote much effort toward erecting filters to protect the integrity of our minds. When it comes to cultivating sensitivity for what we ingest from the world in which we live, animals can teach us a great deal as well.

This is particularly evident in the contrivances modern man has designed to make his life easier, safer, and more productive. Currency, with symbolic rather than intrinsic value, provides greater economic efficiency than barter. A legal system creates security and increases productivity. Civil and national borders create a sense of community and identity.

Of course, all of these can and do become distorted into destructiveness. But that happens when human society allows base impulse to usurp power over intellect and when human beings permit selfishness and self-gratification to overrule their higher instincts.

So what is it that determines which inclinations prevail and which succumb? That is the ultimate question of free will. And the answer most often traces its way back to environment.

As little children we absorb the values and behaviors of our parents.  As we grow up we are subject to the impressions etched into our psyche by our friends and teachers, by our neighbors and colleagues, by the news media and the entertainment industry. It is frightening, really, to ponder how few of our attitudes and ideas may actually be our own, and how many we have simply acquired through absorption.

There are aspects of our environment over which we have no control, such as the homes and societies in which we are raised.  Over some aspects we have limited control, depending on employment opportunities and financial freedom. But with respect to the quality of the people with whom we associate, as well as the intellectual and sensory input to which we expose ourselves—over those we have almost total control. And yet, so few of us devote much effort toward erecting filters to protect the integrity of our minds.

When it comes to cultivating sensitivity for what we ingest from the world in which we live, animals can teach us a great deal as well.

 

 

Shall we prey?

Conventional wisdom tells us that we are what we eat. There is no question that we maintain a healthier body with a nutritionally balanced diet than we do with a diet of fat and carbs and sugar. But there is a spiritually balanced diet as well, which promotes not only a healthy body but a healthy soul.

Among the animals that are permitted for Jewish consumption, mammals have two identifiable signs: they must possess split hooves and chew their cud.[10] Fish also must display two signs to be kosher:  fins and scales.[11] And regarding poultry, Jewish dietary law prohibits eating any bird of prey.[12]

What are we to understand from these restrictions?

A hoof, in contrast to a paw, identifies a non-predatory animal. The symbolism is obvious: as creatures who aspire to bring peace into the world, we do not want to ingest and absorb the character of creatures which, by their nature, prey upon other creatures.

Of course, this immediately raises an apparent contradiction: if Jewish law is designed to protect us from the effects of predatory nature, why does it allow us to prey on animals at all? Should not the laws of kosher consumption limit us to vegetarianism?

The split hoof symbolizes that there are always two paths that lie before us. It is up to us whether we steer ourselves to follow the path of good or the path of evil, the way of ego or the way of service, the road of self-indulgence or the road of altruistic idealism.

However, even vegetarians prey upon death. Plants are living organisms themselves, even if they lack consciousness and a nervous system. There is no way for any animal life to survive except upon by feeding upon the living.

But there is a distinction between the sustenance we require to live and the manner in which we sustain ourselves. Jewish law prohibits causing pain of any kind to any living being.[13] This extends to the process of slaughtering meat: the taking of life is permitted as long as it is for positive use and performed in a humane manner. Hunting for sport is forbidden. And the treatment of animals in industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses often violates the proscription of Jewish law.[14]

The entire world functions through natural symbiosis. Give and take, rise and fall, life and death. To benefit from other living beings sometimes requires taking life from them; this is part of the natural order. But to take life violently or indiscriminately, to kill because it is one’s nature to do so, that is a function solely of the animal world and is therefore in direct opposition to the upward-directed calling of human beings.

This explains the symbolism of the hoof, but not the cloven hoof. What is it about the hoof of an ox, a goat, or a sheep that is qualitatively different from the hoof of a horse, a donkey, or a zebra?

We return once again to the idea of free choice, one of the most foundational principles in Jewish tradition and philosophy. As we have already observed, the notions of biological imperative and universal predeterminism posit that there is only one way for us to go, one path for us to travel, that we are slaves to the nature that drives us toward our fate.

The split hoof symbolizes that there are always two paths that lie before us. It is up to us whether we steer ourselves to follow the path of good or the path of evil, the way of ego or the way of service, the road of self-indulgence or the road of altruistic idealism.  With every step we take, we arrive at a new fork in the road; our potential path splits under our feet, forcing us to choose whether we will go one way or the other.

If we merely follow our instincts and our impulses, we really are nothing more than animals that speak and walk upright. But if we grapple with the subtle complexities of right and wrong, if we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone to engage new challenges and contemplate new ideas, if we make our decisions by considering not what is best for us as individuals but what is best for the society in which we live—then, and only then, are we truly human.

 

 

Food for thought

This leads naturally to the second criterion of kosher mammals: only if a mammal chews its cud is it permitted for consumption.

What is the elevated quality of a ruminant?  Consider that the word rumination refers not only to the alimentary system of certain animals but also to the very human processes of reflection, introspection, and evaluation.

Unlike predatory animals driven by the relentless craving for food, ruminants experience a constant sense of contentment. In human terms, this translates into deliberation in both judgment and action. We should cultivate a sense of satisfaction with our material circumstances even as we ponder the direction of our lives and the reason for our existence.

For an animal, life may not be easy but it is certainly straightforward. Flight from predators, reproduction, and the search for food, shelter from the elements—these are the programmed responses of an animal. For a human, however, life is not necessarily difficult but it is often extremely complicated. Moral confusion, competing priorities, divided loyalties, and the longing for purpose and emotional fulfillment can turn life into a psychological obstacle course, if not a minefield.

By striking a balance between circumspection and confidence as we choose between the paths that lie before us, we avoid impulsivity on the one hand and indecision on the other. And when we discipline our decision-making with deliberate contemplation and probe beneath the shallow conviction that all problems have simple solutions, we will choose wisely and rightly far more often than not.

For an animal, life may not be easy but it is certainly straightforward. Flight from predators, reproduction, and the search for food, shelter from the elements—these are the programmed responses of an animal.

For a human, however, life is not necessarily difficult but it is often extremely complicated. Moral confusion, competing priorities, divided loyalties, and the longing for purpose and emotional fulfillment can turn life into a psychological obstacle course, if not a minefield.

Superficial ideological divisions of national or political identity incline us toward a simplistic us versus them view of our world.  It is so very easy to divide society up into good guys and bad guys, allies and enemies, liberals and conservatives, believers and non-believers.  Far more difficult is trying to understand why others think differently from the way we do by engaging philosophical antagonists in civil discussion and reasoned debate. Tragically, too many of us do not want to upset our comfortable but precarious worldviews by entertaining such ruminations, even in the privacy of our own minds.

But if we do not, we are missing out on what it means to be human.

In the same way that Jewish dietary law warns us against absorbing the ruthless aggression of predators, so too does that law warn us to not become internally docile. Our humanity calls upon us to chew over moral and ethical questions again and again while never trusting ourselves to be too certain or too satisfied that we are the sole custodians of Truth.

 

 

Beneath the surface

Now let us examine the world of undersea life. Here we find a different, but closely related symbolism in the Torah requirement that kosher fish have both fins and scales.

Sea creatures use fins to determine direction; this suggests that human beings should have a sense of purpose and ultimate destination. It also suggests the need for continuous course correction, since we rarely find a straight or clear path leading us to where we want to go. In this, the symbolism of the fin parallels that of the cloven hoof.

Scales are the armor to provide insulation and protection from a potentially harmful environment. As human beings, we must insulate ourselves as well from corrosive ideas, distorted values, and the cultural pressure to conform to prevailing ideological fads and trends. In this, the symbolism of scales parallels the process of rumination that teaches us to be thoughtful and reflective, to always question whether our ideas and values are truly our own or whether we have merely absorbed them from our environment.

Both animals and human beings can be products of their environments. A mistreated pet may show signs of neurosis or distemper. An animal may turn unnaturally brazen when its food supply becomes depleted or its natural habitat encroached upon. An animal trained to kill in battle or conditioned to save lives in times of disaster may discard its innate survival instincts.

But animals cannot choose their own environments. True, they can search for food, seek shelter from the elements, and flee from danger. But these, again, are instinctive programmed responses, not true choices. Animals merely respond. Only human beings actually choose.

… the symbolism of scales parallels the process of rumination that teaches us to be thoughtful and reflective, to always question whether our ideas and values are truly our own or whether we have merely absorbed them from our environment.

As humans, we can choose our environment or choose to change our environment. We can use technology in a way that either respects or savages the natural world. But if we choose to act carelessly, we should not be surprised if we end up turning our environment against us.

This can be true physically, as we have witnessed when toxic substances poison our communities and when exploitation and mismanagement destroy natural resources. But it can be true metaphysically as well.

 

 

On the hoof

In the Talmud, Rabbi Johanan muses, “Better the claws of the earlier generations than the bowels of our own generations.”[15] 

According to history, it was the Babylonians that destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem and the Romans who destroyed the Second. According to Jewish theology, however, both Temples were destroyed by divine edict; the foreign armies that razed the holy structures were merely agents empowered and dispatched by Providence to carry out the heavenly decree.

The sages teach that the First Temple was destroyed because the Jews became complacent in their attitude toward basic moral values. Even as the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery, and idolatry became increasingly prevalent throughout Jewish society, the average man on the street went about his life without concern for the corruption of his neighbors.[16]  Only after the destruction of the Temple and their exile to Babylon did the Jews reflect upon their spiritual shortcomings and repent. Seventy years later, the Almighty permitted them to return to their land and rebuild their Temple.[17]

The Jews did not return to their old sins during the Second Temple era; they found new ones. Outwardly, Jewish society appeared to thrive and Torah observance seemed devout. But there was an undercurrent of infighting and factionalism, a culture of senseless hatred that eventually ripped the Jewish community apart.[18]  The Second Temple was destroyed as the First had been, and the Jews were scattered to the corners of the globe.  Nearly 2000 years later, the exile continues.[19]

To look at those generations from the outside, it appears that the Jews of the First Temple were far more corrupt than the Jews of the Second. In the First, there was overt violence and spiritual corruption, disregard for the most basic tenets of their faith.  But Rabbi Johanan explains that their claws, the external manifestation of their violence and corruption, turned to their advantage. There was no denying those sins, even as they committed them.  And once they experienced the painful consequences of divine retribution, repentance was inevitable.

Like the fish, we have to protect ourselves from harmful environments and steer ourselves toward purposeful goals.  Like mammals, we have to contemplate the reason for our existence, control our violent impulses, and always chart a well-considered course forward as we choose between what gratifies our lower nature and what elevates us to a higher plain. Like birds, we have to soar heavenward without seeking to prey on the weak and vulnerable.

Not so the generations of the Second Temple. Those people looked virtuous in their everyday conduct, hiding their internal moral corruption even from themselves. And in the aftermath of destruction and exile, still they remained intransigent, refusing to learn the lessons of their past, refusing to make the changes necessary to keep from descending deeper and deeper into spiritual and moral darkness.

This is Rabbi Johanan’s message: the illusion of virtue is far more dangerous than open vice.[20]  To paraphrase Aristophanes: the drunk can become sober, the ignorant can become educated, and the wicked can repent; but the stupidity of self-deception goes on forever.

It is the duty and mission of human beings, created as we are in the image of God, to be as kosher in our external behavior as the food that we take inside our systems. Like the fish, we have to protect ourselves from harmful environments and steer ourselves toward purposeful goals.  Like mammals, we have to contemplate the reason for our existence, control our violent impulses, and always chart a well-considered course forward as we choose between what gratifies our lower nature and what elevates us to a higher plain. Like birds, we have to soar heavenward without seeking to prey on the weak and vulnerable.

Animals have to struggle to survive. But only human beings struggle to find their destiny. It was for this we were created, to fight against ignorance in order to become wise, to grapple with evil in order to become good.

There is no expectation that we will always choose right or choose well. But if we commit ourselves to make the best choices we can, if we demand from ourselves to understand both paths that lie before us before we choose one over the other, if we reconsider our past choices so that we can correct our mistakes and not repeat them, then we will have done all we can to ensure that we are not merely articulate animals, but that we are truly, fully, and genuinely human.

[1] Proverbs 6:6

[2] Ibid. 30:27-28

[3] 1 Kings 4:33

[4] Genesis 2:19-20; Proverbs 30; Ethics of Fathers 4:3.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 100b

[6] Ethics of Fathers 5:23

[7] Genesis 4:1

[8] Assuming that the famous story is true and not apocryphal.

[9] Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, Exodus 23:19.

[10] Deuteronomy 14:6

[11] Ibid. v. 9

[12] Ib. v. 11ff.

[13] Exodus 23:5; B.T. Baba Metzia 32b

[14] The kosher meat industry has itself undergone significant changes in recent decades; the shackle-and-chain method of preparing animals for slaughter that was once considered proper has been largely discontinued in favor of more humane methods.

[15] T.B. Yoma 9b

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ezra 1

[18] Yoma 9b

[19] Although the Jews have returned to their land in the form of the modern state of Israel, their precarious political and security conditions, their lack of access to the Temple Mount, and the absence of a Torah-guided government are all manifestations of their continuing exile.

[20] Rabbi Aharon Feldman, The Juggler and the King, Chapter 20, Feldheim Publishers, 1990; based on the teachings of Rabbi Elyahu of Vilna.

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