Earth Etude for Elul 26: What do animals feel and think? Who are they?

by Rabbi David Seidenberg

~ That’s too broad a question by many degrees, but the difference between asking “who are they?” and “what are they?” is the gulf between civilizations, between epochs, between a world in which humans dominate and destroy, and a world in which humans collaborate with other species in the great project of the universe–Life.

Since Descartes, the idea that the other animals (besides human beings) are not subjects has reigned in science. It became forbidden to say that animals have feelings, consciousness, thinking, despite the fact that this contradicts our everyday experience of animals. In its worst version, so-called rationalism saw the cries of animals as equivalent to the sounds that a broken machine might make. But all that has changed over the past two decades. fMRI* imaging of other animal brains and human brains when given similar stimuli, for example, makes it impossible to deny that animals have feelings and consciousness. (See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, July 7, 2012, which states that the presence of consciousness in other animals is “unequivocal”. See also Kabbalah and Ecology, pp.21-24.)

It turns out that the question of “who?” versus “what?” is also the difference between how different rabbis read a particular mitzvah and a particular midrash about the mitzvah. The mitzvah is shiluach hakein, sending away the nesting bird: “When a bird’s nest is met before you in the way, in the tree or on the ground, chicks or eggs, and the mother is crouching over [them], you will not take the mother on top of the children. Sending, you must send the mother, and the children you may take…” (Deut 22:6-7).

There’s a pretty well-known machloket (argument) between Maimonides and almost everyone else about what this mitzvah means. The majority say the purpose of the mitzvah is to teach us not to be cruel, so that we won’t be cruel to each other. But Maimonides says that the reason for the mitzvah is that in this case “animals feel very great pain”. And he adds:

[There is no difference regarding this pain between humanity and the other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in humanity” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:48, cf. 1:75, 2:1)].

To the greatest rationalist in the history Jewish thought, animals were subjects. But something went awry in the generations after Maimonides, when the forest was lost for the trees. That’s reflected not just in this famous machloket, but also in the interpretation of a midrash on shiluach hakein that is more obscure. The midrash comes from Sifre Bemidbar:

“Sending you must send”—Said Rabbi Elazar: there would be no need to say this, except that the Holy One says, “Since she is engaged with building up the world and establishing the world / ho’il v’nitaskah b’vinyano shel olam v’tikuno shel olam, it’s worthy for her to be saved.

The bird is engaged with a mitzvah, and we must not stop her from being able to carry it out, even if we may delay it.

What’s crazy about it is this: after the time of Maimonides, our rationalist rabbis decided that a bird couldn’t be a moral subject. They concluded that the midrash couldn’t possibly have meant what it said. So they changed that one verb in which the bird is active, “nit’askah / she is engaged”, dropping the letter “Heh” at the end so that it became “nit’asek / he is engaged”—meaning the person sending the bird away. To them the midrash meant something like this: “That person taking the eggs is building up the human world by taking from the natural world. To show that his purpose is truly for the greater good, for building the world, he should not just selfishly take the mother as well.” It’s an interpretation that actually doesn’t make much sense, but it made more sense to them than the idea that the bird was doing a mitzvah.

But today, we need to know, and learn, and recognize, that we are not the only species engaged in tikkun olam. We are not the only species fulfilling mitzvot, nor are we the only species that is thinking and feeling and hoping.

What this doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that because animals are subjects, human beings can’t use them. All animals necessarily use other creatures to survive, and in a thriving ecosystem every single species participates in taking what it lacks from other species, and being taken by other species, in order to “give life through them to the soul of all Life”. But in every interaction between species, there must be a gift given, an implicit promise and covenant, that the way each species uses the others will help everyone thrive. In a word, that if one subject is used by another, they must used well.

And this is the way to reconcile Maimonides to the rest of Jewish thought. Forget about the brain-addled and brainwashed rabbis who think that animals aren’t subjects. Nachmanides, who also disagrees with Maimonides, who also thinks the the mitzvah teaches us not to be cruel, says that the point of the mitzvah is to prevent species from becoming extinct. We learn not to be cruel so that we won’t be so cruel as to cause extinctions.

In this way, we also respect the mother-principle of all Life, which is the the reason Nachmanides gives for the mitzvah. In Kabbalah, this principle is called Binah or Mother, and she is the matrix from which all life evolved and is sustained, and the principle which still move life to evolve.

In this way, not only is each animal and each species a subject, but the principle of Life itself is a subject, a “who”, to whom we address ourselves, in humble submission.

*Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is creator of and the
author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human
World. He has ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and from
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. His research focuses on rabbinic,
medieval and modern Jewish texts and intellectual history, including
Kabbalah, Hasidut, and Maimonides, with a focus on issues of human
rights and ecology, tikkun olam, astronomy and dance. He is also an avid

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