Kingdom of Priests

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Our family watched Jaws together the other evening — which, in case you’re wondering, I regard as responsible parenting since our kids are basically too young to be genuinely scared by the film. The whole rest of the next day, two-year-old Saul was chattering about the “shark teeth.” “Shark teeth get the blooood,” he called me up (with Mom’s help) several times at the office to remind me. Anyway, there was some sentiment among the kids that the shark was the villain, that it was “bad.” I explained that this was not really the case. Overcoming the threat posed by the shark was the objective of the protagonists. But there’s no such thing as a “bad” animal. Sharks and all other animals do exactly whatever nature and nature’s God have set them the task of doing.
I wrote yesterday about Wesley Smith’s terrific new book, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy, on the movement and philosophy behind animal rights. His title is taken from a famous aphorism of Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA. Smith sets out the dangers posed by the ideology of animalism — equating humans and animals — as clearly and definitively as any contemporary writer has done. But don’t think this is a new issue.
It is as old as the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his Torah commentary about the assurance of the Serpent to Eve that if she and Adam eat the forbidden fruit, they needn’t worry about the consequences. “For God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). It’s an enigmatic verse, obviously. Hirsch explains that the Serpent sought to tempt Eve with “animal wisdom.” An animal has no instinct to do evil. Whatever it wants to do, is what it’s supposed to do. It does not experience moral conflicts. In that sense, its relationship to good and evil is like God’s.
“Animals are really ‘like God, knowing good and evil,'” writes Hirsch. “They have innate instinct, and this instinct is the Voice of God, the Will of God for them…Animals do no wrong, and they have only their one nature that they are to follow.” It was with this vision of herself — as an animal whose every desire is ordained as right both by God and by nature — that the Serpent sought to win over Eve.

If the intelligent-design side in the evolution debate doesn’t receive the support you might expect from people who should be allies, that may be because they haven’t grasped why the whole thing matters so urgently. I got an email recently from a journalist whom I’d queried on the subject. “All told, I’m on the ID side of the debate,” he wrote, “but it isn’t a pressing interest for me.”

Anyone who similarly doesn’t quite “get it” should read my friend and colleague Wesley J. Smith’s new and important book on the animal-rights movement, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy. If you follow conservative journalism, you’ve likely heard about the book from the contentious deliberation it has received in National Review and on NR‘s website. This started with a review by speechwriter Matthew Scully, similarly a friend and a gifted polemicist. Scully is the vegetarian and champion of animals who, for the 2008 Republican convention, wrote the best speech ever given by that great white hunter, Governor Palin.
As a reviewer for Wesley Smith’s book, Matthew Scully was a surprising choice. Scully’s own book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, received a wounding review in The Weekly Standard some years back from none other than Wesley Smith and it comes in for criticism again in Smith’s book. I can’t understand NR‘s decision to match these two valued friends of the magazine against each other. Matthew wrote, I am sorry to say, a distorting and unfair review of Wesley’s book, to which NR then let Wesley reply, generating additional discussion on the website but less illumination than the subject deserves.
So let’s highlight Smith’s contribution to public understanding of why the Darwin debate matters. His recounting of terrorist and other heinous acts by animal-rights extremists (even grave-robbing!), his exploration of the wicked views of “personhood” theorist Peter Singer, author of A Darwinian Left and the manifesto Animal Liberation — these tell us about the leading edge of what you might call the animalist view, equating humans with animals.

Don’t miss my essay over at First Things on the mission of the Jews to the world. This, I think, the key idea that the Jewish community needs to absorb at this very unusual cultural moment, for the time is so, so right. Non-Jews are waiting for us to fulfill the roll God gave us in the Torah. Please tell me what you think by commenting here, there, or both.


You will often hear Jews say, with pride, that Judaism rejects a missionary or evangelizing stance. This is true in the narrow sense that Jews do not pursue converts to Judaism, but it is deeply misleading in another. The German Orthodox rabbi, polemicist, and scriptural expositor Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), a towering figure in modern Jewish thought, taught insistently that God brought the “Abrahamitic nation” onto the stage of history for “the salvation of the world through Judaism.” As he wrote in his Torah commentary, this was to be accomplished “by example and admonition,” with the Jews as “God’s messengers on earth” (on Genesis 12:1, 11:8, 18:17-19). In Orthodox Judaism today, Hirsch remains a household name. But the most important aspect of his legacy, which deserves urgent practical consideration by the Jewish community, is insufficiently appreciated.
 A range of Orthodox communities claim Hirsch’s mantle. One often hears the “Hirschean worldview” invoked. Modern Orthodox thinkers cite his philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz (“Torah with the Way of the World”) as giving a Torah imprimatur to secular education. Hirsch’s pioneering study of the roots of Hebrew words is also well regarded. But Hirsch’s thought extends far beyond his contributions as an educational theorist and etymologist. He illuminated a cultural crisis of which he saw only the beginnings. That crisis, in Hirsch’s own term, is that of the Western world “sunk in materialism” (on Exodus 6:3).

Read the rest at First Things.