Darwin and the Donkey

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 15, 2022 / 16 Tamuz 5782

Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs is dedicated to the memory of David Weiss-Halivni and poses some challenging questions about the worth of humans and animals.

Reading Time: Three and a half minutes

David Weiss-Halivni

For the past few weeks, I have wanted to offer a few words in memory of David Weiss-Halivni, who died at the end of June. He was both a Holocaust survivor as well as one of the most important Talmudic scholars of all time and taught at JTS for many years. His great innovation was to be the first scholar who discerned and separated out the historical layers, or seam- lines, of a Talmudic argument. His deep learning allowed him to see the historical evolution of a blat gemara, of a page of Talmud. A colleague, Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, explained this key innovation with the following story.

“During a class I took in Rabbinical School with Rabbi Weiss-Halivni, he wanted to give us some insight into how we could tell that a text had been added to a Talmudic passage by a later generation scholar. We were on the 5th floor. He took us to the window and he pointed to a Columbia building across the street where we could see that some Roman numerals had been restored. It was easy to tell where the new work had been done because the color of the paint was slightly different than the original. Rabbi Halivni said: “If you know how to look at a Talmudic text the evidence of something that has been spliced in will be as clear as the work on that building across the street.”

Being able to see past the obvious, received traditions, or even the beliefs of the day takes a special mind and soul. Most of us can’t make that leap, or do so only infrequently. He was a giant and the sort of scholar who only appears a few times in a millenia. For that reason, his is a name that every educated Jew should be familiar with.

What is most impressive is that seeing how the Talmud evolved didn’t weaken his faith. “Our work in life is to make room for God’s presence in all our endeavors,” the Forward quoted him as saying.

Darwin and the Donkey

A friend and congregant recently shared with me a section from Charles Darwin’s “The Decent of Man” about imagination. Darwin was another of those rare minds who could see what remained invisible to others. Within the book are two snippets that caught my attention. The first passage states that “the dream is an involuntary art of poetry.” The second notes that “dogs, cats, horses, and probably all the higher animals, even birds, have vivid dreams” and that therefore, “we must admit that they possess some power of imagination.”

Animals, in other words, possess a rich inner life.

That may seem obvious to many of us today, but it wasn’t in Darwin’s time, and certainly not even in more recent decades. Rather, people have a strong desire to create as large a gap as possible between the lives of animals and human uniqueness. To this day, there are people who chafe at the notion that we share lineage with more “primitive species.” When we think about social justice, few are the people who include animals in their calculus of what is good, and fewer still who would abandon otherwise just policies because they would harm non-human species. Would we give up wind power in favor of nuclear power to save the lives of birds for instance? Would we voluntarily adopt a one-child policy so that humans don’t continue to encroach on the land of indigenous animals?

This short-sighted human bias toward the superiority of our species extends back at least to this week’s Torah portion of Balak, in which Bilaam’s donkey stops in its tracks and talks to him, as it is aware of an angel to which Bilaam was blind.

A talking donkey? It is easy enough to imagine that this story, so different from the rest of the Bible, is a mere fable. Yet if we take Darwin and the Bible seriously, we must acknowledge that animals perceive important aspects of reality that we cannot readily see. We can entertain the notion that Bilaam the prophet, to his credit, had sufficient sensitivity to allow himself to be schooled by a “beast.” We can begin to detect the seam-lines that we have built into the narrative of human ascendancy that allows us to focus on very small-minded issues of equity while remaining morally obtuse to the more-than-human world.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you believe humans are superior to animals? If so, in what ways do you believe they are inferior to us?
  2. Are there ways you believe that animals are superior to humans? If so, in what ways do you believe we are inferior to them?
  3. If you were a vastly more intelligent alien being visiting earth and you were asked to judge between human needs and animal needs, what sorts of concerns might you take into consideration?
  4. The modern theory of Intersectionality argues that there can be no justice for anyone until there is justice for everyone. Should this argument be extended to include the non-human realm? Why or why not?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week