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Humans have much to learn from their dogs and cats

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By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California– R. Yochanan observed, “If the Torah had not been given we could have learnt modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, fidelity from the dove, and good manners from the cock which first coaxes and then mates.”– BT Eruvin 100b

“Had the Torah never been given,” say the Sages, “humanity could have learned its values from the animal world.” Jewish tradition has long recognized the importance of animals as companions to humankind. According to the early chapters of Genesis, Adam named all the animals (Gen. 2:19). The act of naming—whether it be our children after they come into this world, or whether it be naming a pet, or even the “pet” name we give to our significant Other, says something intensely personal about our identities and existential predicament. In our aloneness, we crave for somebody or something to help us get in touch with the feelings that make us feel human. The melodic sound of cat’s meowing at our presence, or the exciting barking of a dog that senses our presence—these simple pleasures remind us that someone really cares about us, even when the whole world seems as though it has turned against us.

 

An animal’s capacity to show love teaches us on a visceral level that animals have moral standing in our tradition. Whenever I hear a Jewish intellectual or a rabbi claim that animals do not possess a soul, I like to remind the person of the biblical verse, “The just man knows the soul of his beast, but the heart of the wicked is merciless” (Prov. 12:10).

 

The author of Proverbs stresses an important ethical lesson: a humane person considers the needs of his animals and acts kindly towards them. The world of Creation is full of sentient beings, which also experience many of the joys and blessings that people commonly enjoy: like humankind, these creatures also experience pain. Suffering is a common language that links humanity with other species of animal life.

 

Therefore, Jewish ethics take sharp issue with French philosopher Rene Descartes (ca. 1596–1650), who compares animals to machines that service people, stating that their suffering “means nothing more than the creaking of a wheel.” In physiological terms, according to Descartes, what human beings and animals share are that their bodies function by the laws of mechanics. One might respond: How then do human beings differ from animals? Descartes argues that the Creator endows human beings with a divine soul and a moral conscience. “These qualities,” he argued, “are lacking in animals.” In addition, unlike animals, human beings possess the ability to conceptualize and verbalize ideas. Most importantly, only human beings are capable of conscious and rational thought since they are uniquely endowed with the ability to be self-reflective. Only a human being is capable of exclaiming, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore, I am.”).

 

However, humanity is not just defined by its cognitive processes. Perhaps a greater quality than our capacity to think is our capacity to feel empathy and sympathy toward those who are suffering. However, do not delude yourself into thinking this quality is limited to only human beings. Animals often show an emotional intelligence that dwarfs our own as an intelligent species.

 

Consider the following comparison.

 

Where would we be without friends? Leo Buscaglia once said, “A single rose can be my garden… a single friend, my world.” Yet, how many times have we seen friends become estranged? One of the uniquely human characteristics that many of us know, is the painful experience when a friend becomes an enemy. Often when we see the people we know succeed in life, there is a jealous or envious part of our psyche that wishes them ill. It’s not a thought or a feeling we would ever admit, but we live in an age of envy. If I cannot be successful, then I hope you will not be successful either—just ask Martha Stewart.

 

And then there are children . . . Oscar Wilde once said, “Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” How many times have we seen children turn against an aged parent, steal a parent’s money and income with no remorse whatsoever? Fair-weather friends are another good example. Someone once defined friendship as “a ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.”

 

But there is one friend who will never abandon you. There is one friend who will never act treacherously or betray you for another master.

 

Who am I referring to?

 

I am referring to your dog or cat. Whether in good times or bad times, whether sickness or in health, your dog will love you. Cats also possess some of these characteristics. I recall how one cat nearly starved herself to death because her mate had suddenly died. The veterinarian had to put her on a special diet to regain the seven pounds she had lost.

 

A dog’s memory baffles me at times. Dogs seem so much more sentient than most human beings I know. There are countless stories from all over the world about how a dog visits its master’s grave, even though both master and dog are separated by an ocean of time. One story I found on the Internet speaks about a dog named Greyfriars Bobby, who visited his master’s grave for fourteen years.

 

A similar story appeared in the Huffington Post (Nov. 22, 2011). Somewhere in China, a man named Lao Pan died. He had no family, but he did have a loyal dog. After dying at age 68, Lao Pan’s dog stayed by his master’s graveside; it refused to eat for seven days. The townspeople finally brought food and water to the animal, and some are planning to build a kennel for the dog to sleep in.

 

It’s a pity Rabbi Yochanan forgot to include, “Man would have learned loyalty from the dog . . .”

 

Emanuel Lévinas felt that the human face obliges us to respond in an ethical manner. Martin Buber and more recently, the philosopher Jacques Derrida took umbrage with Lévinas. They contend that the face of a faithful pet also commands an ethical response from us, as human beings and as God’s stewards of Creation. When the eyes of our pet look at us, how can we not reciprocate with love?

 

Perhaps we can rephrase the old Yiddish saying, “God could not be everywhere, so He created mothers,” to, “God could not be everywhere, and so He created pets to share our lives with a companion who will love us for who we are—warts and all.” The psychologist Carl G. Jung urges us to look for the purposeful coincidences of life, which he terms as, “synchronicity.” “God” and “dog” share the same letters in their name. We can learn a lesson how to become more God-like by observing the faithful behavior of our pet dog. Despite our technological prowess, we can learn many positive lessons from the animal world–even in a post-Sinai world.

 

 

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