September 16, 1999
Let’s Hear It for the Ram
Joel Grishaver receives Covenant Award for national service
"Hey Marlene, have you heard the shofar yet?" the young rabbi inquired. Of course I had, but it was wonderful to be asked. The sight of two men wearing fringes and yarmulkes walking around Malibu blowing ancient shepherd's horns filled me with a bizarre delight. Not one-quarter mile from the set of "Baywatch," we began a conversation about that morning's Torah portion, the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The sparing of Abraham's son is regarded by the rabbis as the first act of moral grandeur separating Jews from the heathens that surrounded them. Here we were: A woman (me) and two Chabadniks debating the meaning of Judaism's fundamental text! Perhaps the millennium is at hand.
But the whimsy of the moment soon wafted away. What they shared with me had extraordinary currency and, in fact, had been on my mind all week. Was Abraham, the first Jew, justified in bringing his son Isaac to the sacrificial pyre, regardless that he claimed to hear the voice of God?
"The answer is in the donkey," the rabbi told me. "The Torah says that before Abraham ties up Isaac, he restrains his donkey. Why the donkey?"
So I knew what the rabbi was saying: All of nature was appalled by the offering of Isaac; even the lowly donkey that carried the sacrificial wood had to be restrained, or it would bolt in fury as Abraham's son was being slaughtered.
But what about the ram caught in the thicket? Was it right to substitute the ram for the son? My very own prayer book had suggested as much that very morning.
"The hero of the Akedah is the ram," one commentator said. "The innocent ram who gave up his life."
This question -- about the relative value of animals and humans, and who among us is expendable -- is the core of the most incendiary philosophical work of our time: the ideas of Peter Singer. The Australian thinker, whom the New Yorker calls the most influential philosopher alive today, this month has taken up a tenured faculty position at Princeton. His views defending abortion, euthanasia and animal rights are so extreme that his appointment led to the biggest protests (especially from the physically disabled) seen on the New Jersey campus since the arrival of the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, some 50 years ago.
The truth is that I agree with Singer on almost everything. If I have a hard time defending late-term abortions once the fetus is viable, I can understand why Singer insists that we're talking only about degrees of consciousness. When he argues in favor of the "infanticide" of a deformed or hemophiliac child, it's not because he's a child-killer, but to make the larger point that unnecessary suffering must be avoided. When he supports Jack Kevorkian's attempts to help people die (though Singer personally has a team of home health-care workers for his own aged mother, who has Alzheimer's), because he knows that once full life is over, it's a living hell.
But what drives me bonkers about Singer is his view on animals. Here, when we part company, it's because I am a Jew. (He's Jewish too, but says it didn't take.) Judaism says it's better to be a human than an animal; that creativity and utility are our obligation, and that when there's a choice between man and animal, choose the man. Moreover, Judaism holds (through Martin Buber) that the relationship with God begins with the spoken word and is defined by the human ability to engage in dialogue with a creator. And, as Heschel has written, Jews do not worship nature and do not find all life equal. There is an order and priority in the universe: a boy and a ram are not equal.
Singer's work, especially the book "Animal Liberation," directly challenges all this.
He holds no truck with the greater sanctity of human life.
As Michael Specter reports in a lengthy New Yorker profile, Singer believes that a person who would hold out greater concern for people than animals is a "speciest," and the harm done to animals is equal to "the centuries of tyranny by white humans over blacks humans." For him, the substitution of a ram for a child in the Akedah was no great step for mankind.
Well, I'll make this clear. I am no member of PETA and if I had a good mink I would wear one. I just bought a new purse that is not only leather, but leather-lined! I like it that rats get a chance to try out new vaccines before they're inoculated on me. And when your father holds a knife over your head, you'll substitute anything quick. If that makes me a speciest, well, OK.
What a strange era we are living in. At the Passover seder, we spill drops of blood for the harm caused innocent Egyptians. Now here, if Singer has his way, next year we'll be reading the Binding of Isaac, happy that the boy went free, but grieving for the ram.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press.) Join Marlene Adler Marks on Sunday, Sept. 26, at 11 a.m., when her Conversations series resumes at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her topic: "Jewish Women and Hollywood."
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.