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.
Of course, the temptation still beckons to us, now more than ever. What, for example, is the debate on gay marriage about if not this? Gays have their instinct, so acting in accordance with the instinct must be ordained as right and good. Therefore society should recognize gay relationships as equal in standing and dignity to heterosexual ones.
Hirsch is a towering figure in Jewish thought and arguably more relevant today to understanding culture than he was in his lifetime. (See my recent First Things essay on him.) He was Darwin’s contemporary and wrote his Torah commentary soon after The Descent of Man was published. Hirsch clearly had Darwin’s equation of man and animal in mind when he wrote,
The contrast with animals is the touchstone and the rock by which, and on which, the morality of men proves itself or splits asunder. It was animal wisdom which lured the first human beings from their duty. Today it is the same animal wisdom which serves as midwife to every sin. The history of the first lapse is the history of all straying from the right path.
Animal rights isn’t about protecting cute furry things. As Hirsch also wrote (on Numbers 25:3), regarding the idol Baal Peor, it is “the kind of Darwinism that revels in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of its divine nobility, learning to consider itself just a ‘higher’ class of animal.” It is nothing less than the voice of the Serpent in the Garden.