How are You Different from an Animal, and Why Should You Care?:A Halakhic-Biological Taxonomy

How are You Different from an Animal, and Why Should You Care?:

A Halakhic-Biological Taxonomy

BY: Jonathan Ziring

When we think about Judaism and nature, many questions come to mind. Some are practical halakhic questions – questions about mitsvot ha-teluyyot ba-Arets (commandments that are contingent on the land of Israel) such as pe’ah (the obligation to set aside the corner of the field for the poor), shemittah (the sabbatical year), terumah (tithes), etc. Others may be theological in the broadest sense, such as to what extent should we attempt to master our surroundings and to what extent should we allow ourselves to be reliant on nature, perhaps thus being more directly dependant on God?  Perhaps we think about the responsibility to recognize the greatness of Creation and enjoy it.[i] However, a basic question that is often ignored is: to what extent are we, as human beings and as Jews, part of nature and to what extent are we above it?  If we were to construct a Torah-based taxonomy of the world, what would that look like?  How would that system impact how we view the world around us?

It seems that there are three basic philosophical camps concerning the status of a Jew in relation to nature within the canon of Jewish thought.  Each opinion carries with it some difficulties, and we may have strong intuitive notions of which perspective must be correct.  However, if we want to fully understand the range of opinions in our tradition, we must be honest about the views that have been presented, even if some of them may run against our most deeply held convictions.  One camp claims that all men are equally unique, in a class of their own that is distinct from the animal and plant world;  man is sui generis and cannot be categorized in the same system as the rest of nature.  The position at the other extreme claims that mankind, Jews included, is an integral part of the broader world, and, although man has numerous aspects that make him unique within the animal kingdom, there is still a part of him that belongs in a more universal taxonomy. The third camp claims that the class of mankind must be internally divided, arguing that, just as humans are fundamentally different from animals, Jews belong to a different class than Gentiles.  Each perspective has broad implications for the way in which we view the world.

Let us begin with the first and second opinions, namely, the view that man is unique and the opinion that man belongs in the spectrum with the rest of Creation.  R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out that the main thrust of the Jewish philosophic tradition has assumed that man is qualitatively different than any other creature.  As he describes this view, “The world of man […] is incongruous with that of the animal and plant, notwithstanding the fact that all three groups of organic life are governed alike by kindred rigid natural processes and structural developmental patterns […] he is not a particular kind of animal.  He is rather a singular being.”[ii] He points out that this perspective was central within Greek thought, and that it was assumed by most of the medieval Jewish thinkers to be the biblical view as well.[iii] Although the specific reasons given for human uniqueness are different for the Greeks than for many religious thinkers, the common denominator is that man stands above all other creations.[iv] R. Soloveitchik, on the other hand, argues that the biblical perspective is in fact the second option – that, while man clearly has many unique elements, he is fundamentally on the same spectrum as not only the animal world, but the plant world as well – a perspective that in many ways mirrors the perspectives developed in light of Darwin’s theory of evolution.[v]

The difference between these views is stark and their implications great.  To date, I know of no better analysis of the significance of this debate than Alex Ozar’s “A Preliminary Taxonomy of Rabbinic Anthropologies,” published in Kol Hamevaser last year.[vi] Ozar argues that the position that man is sui generis tends to view man as primarily a soul, and the body becomes deemphasized.  Along with this, physicality becomes something that must be fought and overcome.  He points out that this view has its benefits and accords well with some of our more spiritual tendencies, as religion is often more focused on the next world and on spiritual pursuits than on worldly ones.  However, this perspective brings with it many dangers, such as the possibility of rejecting anything that cannot be immediately categorized into easily defined spiritual boxes.  As he writes:

“Certainly it is hard to explain why we should we [sic] care about aesthetics and the like.  If physical stuff has no value, why should it matter if it is shaped nicely? What makes the beauty and grandeur of nature worth appreciating? Aren’t the Grand Canyon, the elegantly soaring eagle, and the pristine sunset just so much distraction on our way to the world to come? Also unclear is why we should care about other people and our relationships with them. Unless you can help me get to the next world, why should I waste my time on you? “Surely there are answers to these questions, and probably even good ones, but they remain as questions that demand answering.  A ‘man as soul’ anthropology significantly militates against a serious valuation of human life and everything that goes along with it.”[vii]

On the other hand, the view that he characterizes as belonging to R. Soloveitchik promotes a positive view of this world and more easily allows for a broad understanding of what is considered avodat Hashem, service of God.  If one places man on a continuum with the rest of nature, it becomes easier to embrace physicality and strive to sanctify and perfect it, rather than reject it.

Overall, I agree with Ozar’s assessment.  What I would like to focus on is the view he did not deal with, the notion that Jews and non-Jews fit differently into this taxonomical system.  This view is perhaps best presented by R. Yehudah ha-Levi in his famous work, the Kuzari.  Many medieval thinkers, R. Yehudah ha-Levi among them, assumed a four-part taxonomy of the world based on the Greek tradition.  They divided the world into domem (the inanimate), tsomeah (plant life; lit., “growing”), hai (animal life; lit., “living”), and adam (mankind).  However, R. Yehudah ha-Levi seems to add a fifth category to this hierarchy: Yisrael, the Jews.  According to the Kuzari, Jews are as different biologically from non-Jews as a cat is from a rock.  As he puts it, non- Jews are men, Jews are angelic.[viii] This tradition is found through many Kabbalistic writings as well.  In particular, this view is found throughout the Tanya, the Kabbalistic work by the first Rebbe of Lubavitch,[ix] as well as in works of Ramhal (R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzato)[x] and many others.  Often, writers of these works seem to force this view into texts whose simple meanings imply the opposite.  For example, the Mishnah in Avot states: “Beloved is mMan who was created in the image [of God] […] More beloved is Israel who were called the sons of the Omnipresent.”[xi] The simplest read of this statement is that all people are equally human, but Jews have an additional quality of being the sons of God.  We know this to be true in normal human relationships as well – though we may grant our family special status, we do not think they are superior to other people.  Yet, Midrash Shemuel argues that the former statement in the Mishnah refers only to Jews, as only they were created in the divine image.[xii]

Of course, those who believe that Jews and non-Jews are equally human will militate against such notions.  To return to our last example from Avot, Rashi understands the Mishnah’s claim that people are created in the divine image as referring to all human beings.[xiii] Tif’eret Yisrael, a commentary on the Mishnah, uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss the lofty status that righteous Gentiles can achieve, pointing out that the Mishnah’s source text here is from the Creation story, at which point in time there was no distinction between Jews and non-Jews.  To further emphasize his belief that non-Jews are, in fact, great manifestations of the divine image, he waxes elegantly about how great non-Jews who keep the seven Noahide laws can become, achieving the status of ger toshav,[xiv] or even hasidei ummot ha-olam, the righteous among the nations of the world.  What emerges from his discussion is a strong notion of the greatness of humanity, both Jews and non-Jews.  Many rationalist Jewish philosophers stress this same point, such as Rambam, who is famous for asserting that Aristotle reached great levels of insight and even approached the status of a prophet.[xv] Me’iri in many instances blurs the lines between Jews and righteous Gentiles, going as far as to claim that as long as a human being is righteous, he can supersede the natural order, and have the statement “ein mazzal le-Yisrael,”[xvi] the constellations do not affect Jews (meaning that their lives are not predestined, but rather are affected by Divine Providence on account of their actions), apply to him as well.  Me’iri writes:

“For inasmuch as the conclusion is prepared to be good or evil, every person possessed of religion will remove himself from preparation for evil by restricting himself with the restrictions of his ethical qualities, and that is what the sages of blessed memory refer to when they say ‘Israel is not subject to the stars,’ which is to say everyone restricted by religious ways, for his restrictions will free him from what might have been decreed for him by simple causation. One restricted by the ways of religion, whether Jew or gentile, is not given over to the arbitrariness of the astrological signs.”[xvii]

This position is the complete opposite of the view advocated in the Kuzari, allowing for almost total equality between Jews and non-Jews.

This question is not just one of theory, but one of practice. Many halakhic decisors have utilized a possible distinction between the nature of Jews and non-Jews as the basis of practical legal decisions.  For example, the position of the Tanya that the Jewish soul is fundamentally different from the Gentile soul is utilized by Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli to justify reprisal raids against non-Jews, specifically the raids carried out in the city of Kibiah in 1953.[xviii] He begins by arguing that war is permitted because of assumed universal consent among warring parties, a justification based on social contract. However, he must explain how this leads to the possibility of permitting what would otherwise be murder.  In order to do that, he claims that people own their bodies and souls and therefore can choose to accept a system which allows their lives to be forfeited in certain circumstances.  Having done this, he goes on to develop the argument that non-Jews have total ownership of their bodies and souls, for their souls belong to the physical world, a world in which human dominion is absolute and God’s is nil.  As he puts it,

“The souls of the nations of the world find their root in the physical world in which it is possible for human beings to extend ownership, as ‘the world is given over to man.’  This is not the case with the Jewish soul, which is literally part of the God above.  Thus, with regards to it, there are different parameters and with regards to it, it makes sense to use Rambam’s expression that the soul is the property of God.  What comes out from all of this is that non-Jews can consent to remove the prohibition of bloodshed…”[xix]

R. Yisraeli argues that non-Jews have the right to forfeit their lives, both body and soul, without any legal interferences.  This reasoning leads him to claim that war is justified generally because of a sort of international social contract, and since people, especially non-Jews,  own their bodies,[xx] they have the right to accept war as legitimate and thereby permit the implicit killing involved.  Thus, as war is part of international diplomacy, carrying out any war, even reprisal raids, is permitted as a function of the people’s acceptance of this system.[xxi]

R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook takes this metaphysical distinction and claims that postmortem organ donations are problematic because of nibbul ha-met, desecration of the dead, but only because human bodies are sacred.[xxii] Therefore, he argues that Jews, whose bodies are sacred, are prohibited from donating organs postmortem, but non-Jews, whose bodies are not sacred, are permitted to do so.  R. Kook therefore encourages Jews who need organs that can be used after a person has died to seek out such organs from non-Jewish donors.  He presents the basis for his argument in two ways.  The first does not posit a fundamental distinction between the humanity of Jews and non-Jews.  Rather, he claims that the right to prevent nibbul ha-met is a “privilege of being holy,” an argument that does not undermine the humanity of non-Jews, though it does posit that Jews have special qualities.  However, he closes his argument with a second, far more extreme claim.  He writes, “The prohibition of degrading the dead stems from the tselem E-lohim, the divine image, that is in man, which is especially poignant with regard to Jews because of the holiness of the Torah.” R. Kook argues that the fact that Jews have the Torah actually gives them more tselem E-lohim, more of a Divine image, than non-Jews.  As R. Kook concludes, Jews therefore may not donate their organs after death, because that would require tampering with their partially divine bodies, “and who has the right to permit [tampering with] the divine part?”[xxiii]

Perhaps the most startling formulation is that of Hatam Sofer.[xxiv] He wonders how it is possible that we derive medical information about Jews from experiments performed on non-Jews.  He claims that the physical structure of the bodies of non-Jews who eat impure food and commit other sins as well could possibly be similar to the structure of Jewish bodies.  He assumes a priori that, from a biological standpoint, Jews and non-Jews must be different.[xxv]

What becomes clear is that this is not just an abstract philosophical question.  It is not just a question about metaphysical speculation, an abstract question of how we set up a Torah-based taxonomical system.  If we choose to understand that Jews and non-Jews have different places in the natural order, then that has very serious halakhic and practical consequences.  And a choice it is.  As we have shown, there are sources in our tradition to support any one of the perspectives we have raised.  But sometimes we have no choice but to rely on our deepest moral convictions, and assess whether we believe that the Torah really intended we take certain positions.  We must analyze the positions, spell out their logical conclusions, and ask whether we can accept them.  Thus, when we analyze the most basic question about the relationship between Judaism and nature, the question of where we place human beings generally, we must also ask where we should place Jews, and what ramifications that placement would have.  If we conclude that human beings are removed from nature, then we must be comfortable with a world where our interaction with the physical is limited and viewed negatively.  If we conclude that there are natural differences between Jews and non-Jews, then it is possible to maintain that we can take advantage of their organs and perhaps even permit bloody wars of vengeance.  Such a conclusion also opens the possibility of rejecting all of medical knowledge.

Until this point, I have mostly presented these positions objectively, without presenting my own opinion on the issue.  However, while in most cases I would be able to leave my view out of an article, due to the sensitivity of the topic I cannot do so in this case. When a perspective challenges our deepest moral convictions, it is justifiable to embrace another opinion with equally strong basis in our tradition. The third view we have discussed is at best racist, and, as we have shown, at worst potentially much more harmful than that.  Derakheha darkhei no’am – the ways of the Torah are pleasant, and such a perspective is anything but that. My understanding is by no means canonical, and I have therefore tried my best to at least present all the views and spell out their implications. This way, whatever view you choose to adopt – however you choose to place yourself in the world as a human being and as a Jew – the implications of that choice will be clear. Realize what it as stake, and choose carefully – I would hope your intuitions agree with mine, but if they do not, at least you know the intellectual consequences of disagreeing.

Jonathan Ziring is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Associate Editor for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] See, for example, the Yerushalmi to Kiddushin 4:12.

[ii] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2005), p. 3.

[iii] Admittedly, many thinkers felt that people who did not take advantage of their intellectual faculties would not be considered human beings and would remain mere animals.  Rambam, in Guide of the Perplexed III:51, writes that those who do not have religion have the same status as dumb creatures and do not reach the status of human beings.  However, we will not focus on the implications of such views.

[iv] Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed III:8.

[v] R. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, pp. 3-64.

[vi] Alex Ozar, “A Preliminary Taxonomy of Rabbinic Anthropologies,” Kol Hamevaser 3,4 (February 2010), pp. 20-22.

[vii] Ibid., p. 21.

[viii] Kuzari I:103.

[ix] See Tanya, section two, and the quote below.

[x] Quoted in a lecture by R. Hanan Balk entitled, “The Concept of the Chosen People: Do Jews Possess A Soul That Is Superior to That of Non-Jews?,” available at:

[xi] Avot 3:18 (translation mine).

[xii] Midrash Shemuel to ibid. A discussion of this move can be found in the lecture mentioned in n. 10 above.

[xiii] Rashi to Avot 3:14.

[xiv] The definition of this category is discussed in Avodah Zarah 64b.

[xv] Ya’akov Shilat (ed. and trans.), Iggerot ha-Rambam, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Ma’aliyot, 1988), p. 553.

[xvi] Me’iri, Beit ha-Behirah to Shabbat 156a.

[xvii] Me’iri, Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, p. 637.  These passages were pointed out by Moshe Halbertal in his article, “‘Ones Possessed of Religion’: Religious Tolerance in the Teachings of the Me’iri,” Edah Journal 1:1 (2000): n.p. (translations are his).

[xviii] Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, “Takrit Kiviyah le-Or ha-Halakhah,” Ha-Torah ve-ha-Medinah 5-6 (1953-1954), p. .

[xix] Ibid., sections 21-22 (translation mine).

[xx] As for Jews, he claims that they are partial owners of their bodies, but are also owned by God.  The implication is that his argument might fail with regards to Jews, as they should not have the right to choose whether or not to forfeit their lives  R. Yisraeli’s claim that Jews have a partnership in their soul with God is disputed by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin in Mishpat Shylock, le-Or ha-Halakhah (Tel Aviv: Zioni Publishing, 1957), pp. 318-335.

[xxi] He assumes the system has in fact been accepted.

[xxii] R. Avraham Yitshak ha-Kohen Kook, Da’at Mishpat Kohen 199, quoted as well in Responsa Tsits Eliezer 4:14.

[xxiii] Ibid. (translation and emphasis mine).

[xxiv] R. Moshe Sofer, Hiddushei ha-Shas, Avodah Zarah 31b, s.v. “Aidi.”

[xxv] Though one might have assumed that Hatam Sofer is claiming that non-Jews are more removed from Jews than animals are from people, as we in fact do derive medical knowledge from experimentation on animals. However, presumably Hatam Sofer would have rejected the validity of such research as well, negating this inference.