by Kate Rigby
© all rights reserved
1. And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be
fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
2. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every
beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that
moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into
your hand are they delivered.
3. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as
the green herb have I given you all things.
4. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall
ye not eat.
Over the past decades following the publication of Lynn White’s landmark essay on “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,”2 many theologians and biblical scholars have been challenged to rethink their religious traditions along ecophilosophical lines.3 In this spirit, I was invited by Rabbi Shimon Cowan to participate in a forum in Melbourne on Jewish and Christian perspectives on humanity’s relationship with animals and, by extension, the more-than-human natural world in general. The point of departure for our discussion was the seventh and last ‘Noahide’ law: the law that was given to Noah following the Flood, according to which humanity was given permission to eat meat, as well as plants, but with the proviso that we abstain from consuming living flesh, and specifically, blood (Genesis 9:3-4). In Rabbi Cowan’s view, the Noahide laws, which comprise also injunctions against idolatry, blasphemy, forbidden sexual relations, murder, theft and lawlessness, are presented in the Torah as binding, not only upon Jews, but upon all the descendents of Noah, that is, all humanity, and as such represent a promising basis for dialogue between Jews and non-Jews.4 My own contribution to this discussion, which appears here in revised form, comes from the perspective of someone who, not unlike the German romantic philosopher Schelling,5 seeks among the embers of the Judaeo-Christian tradition sparks that might one day be kindled into a new religion of the earth: one that would be at once profoundly humane and genuinely ecological.
The issues raised by the somewhat cryptic seventh Noahide law against ‘eating the limb of a living animal’ are complex and potentially emotive. While it could simply be read as an injunction to ensure that any animals that we consume are properly dead, and, as orthodox Jews believe, properly bled, before we eat them, Genesis 9: 3-4 has also been seen to raise wider questions, of both an ethical and a religious nature, regarding the relationship between ‘man’ and ‘beasts’, and, by extension, between humans and Creation as a whole. Rethinking our relations with animals and the rest of the natural world is bound to arouse some impassioned responses, not least because it is ultimately as much about ‘us’ as it is about ‘them’. At issue here is not only how we ought to treat our fellow creatures—a highly significant question in its own right—but also how we understand ourselves: what it is, or might mean, to be human. What is at stake here, then, is not only animal welfare, but also human identity: our own identity as human.
Before I return to the task of reinterpreting the seventh Noahide law, let me tell a little story in order to illuminate some of the wider ethical and metaphysical questions that frame my reading. A few years ago I found myself watching yet another wildlife documentary. This one concerned the not untroubled life of tigers in a wildlife reserve in India. Right in the middle of this reserve there is a small village. Presumably the village predates the creation of the reserve, and presumably the villagers have always had to live with the proximity of potentially dangerous beasts, such as the tigers. The difference is that now the men of the village are employed as rangers in the park. Their primary function in that capacity is to defend and protect the animals from encroachments, above all from poachers, for whom the animals mean no more than what their parts will bring in on the black market. Now, one scene from that documentary has haunted my mind ever since: It was the moment when one of the rangers, riding an elephant, came across a female tiger badly injured in a fight with a male tiger who had endeavoured to attack her cubs. The rangers had recently discovered the body of the cubs’ father, the formerly dominant male in the area, killed by what would now be the new dominant male. As they had anticipated, the usurper had then sought to hunt down and destroy his erstwhile rival’s offspring and father his own in their stead. This, it seems, is the way it is in the world of the tiger, and some other members of the cat family (including the diminutive domesticated variety). What are we to make of this? Is this evidence of ‘evil’ in Creation, part of the corruption that some believe crept into the natural world following the Fall? Or is this simply an evolutionary adaptation, a survival strategy that has proven itself as useful for this particular species over time?
In my opinion, to view the young male tiger’s behaviour as ‘evil’ is to lose sight of the profound alterity, or otherness, of the tiger. Such a judgement imposes upon the tiger a set of categories, which presumably are foreign to its species being. More generally, I would argue that the natural world in itself is ultimately beyond good and evil. Or, at least, I do not believe that we, as human, are in a position to know definitively what might constitute the inherent goodness or evilness in the natural world beyond the value judgements that we, as human, are wont to impose upon it. What we are nonetheless able to discern with some measure of accuracy—an imperfect measure, to be sure—are those factors which tend to benefit the survival and potential flourishing of particular species, and indeed whole ecosystems, and those factors which tend to endanger them. This is important to the extent that we view the survival and potential flourishing of the natural world—of which, after all, we are a part and upon which our own life is dependent—as desirable and, indeed, good. From that perspective, we must acknowledge that the genetic competition between rival male tigers has apparently served this species well, especially perhaps where their survival base is relatively narrow, but that over-hunting by humans and the destruction of those natural habitats shared by tigers and their prey has had a very negative impact on their chances of survival in the future. In the light of this evolutionary and ecological perspective, what appears to be ‘evil’, or at least highly undesirable, is not so much the violent aggression of the male tiger, but rather the violent aggression of human beings against tigers and the destruction of their habitat.
Nonetheless, to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the female tiger, grievously wounded in the defence of her young, by saying, ‘oh well, that’s evolution, that’s just how it is with tigers’, also seems to me to be an inadequate response. For to thus turn away from the suffering caused by the genetic rivalry of the male tigers is to deny our own ethical sensibilities, our own capacity to empathise—a capacity grounded in a sense of continuity or connectedness with the female tiger, regardless of her profound otherness from ourselves. Now, what particularly moved me, watching this documentary, was not only the plight of the mother, but also the response of the ranger. He remained seated, motionless, on his elephant. He did not intervene in any way. For his job is to give the tigers and other creatures in the reserve space to be, in their own way. In this, he is required to respect their alterity. And yet, sitting there on high, physically as well as mentally at one remove from the feline fray, the ranger wept. Cynics might suggest that his tears were staged. This was, after all, prime time TV. However that might be, this response, in its very ambivalence, and regardless of its authenticity, seems to me exemplary of the kind of environmental ethics towards which I believe we need to be working: one which is respectful of the alterity of other species, yet coupled simultaneously with a recognition of our continuity with what Val Plumwood terms our ‘earth others’.6
Watching the Indian ranger weep, up there on his elephant, I was led to reflect, once again, on the wondrous strangeness of human beings. Certainly, I know of no other species whose members are able or probably even inclined to consciously devote their lives to the well-being of other species, indeed to the protection of other species from other members of their own species. The devotion of a dog to its human companion suggests itself as a possible exception, and there are recorded instances of individual animals bonding with individuals from other species. However, I would argue that this is of a rather different order from the human capacity to actively care about the good of other creatures who are unknown to us individually. This is the case, for example, with those valiant animal liberationists and environmental activists who are prepared to risk fines, imprisonment, or even worse, in the defence of battery chickens, endangered whales, or the entire biotic community of an old-growth forest or river system. On the other hand, I know of no other species that is able or apparently even inclined to commit such acts of systematic cruelty and abuse as those which humans all too often perpetrate not only upon other species, but also upon our own kind. The cat apparently playing with its prey before it finally dispatches it hardly compares with the death factories of the Nazi extermination camps. Pondering this, I am tempted to hazard an anthropological generalisation here: with the evolutionary emergence of the human species, a whole new potentiality, both for radical good and radical evil (whatever that is taken to be) appears to have entered the world. This, perhaps, is what it means to be ‘fallen’: largely lacking in strong instinctual restraints on our behaviour, both for good and for ill, and burdened with the necessity of setting such limits consciously, and of knowing, generally, when we have overstepped them. To have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would imply, then, not only the ability to make ethical judgements, and exercise a degree of ethical choice, but also a capacity for certain forms of behavioural excess , both for good and for ill. On the positive side, one aspect of human behaviour that seems to me particularly excessive in this sense is our capacity to put the good of others before our own. Now, the female tiger, it should be noted, was also doing this in protecting her cubs from the new dominant male. This kind of maternal self-sacrifice is common in the animal kingdom. Nor is it unheard of for animals to seek to assist others of their own species to whom they are not closely related, and occasionally even of other species, whom they perceive to be in some kind of need. We cannot assume that human beings have a monopoly on agape (compassion), especially where the welfare of other members of the same species is at stake. And yet, no other species appears to be capable of quite the same degree of loving kindness, not only towards our own kin, our own kind, but also towards creatures that are profoundly other than ourselves. It is then perhaps above all our biophilia , our compassionate love for our earth others, human and otherwise, our readiness to respond in word and deed, mind and body, to their call, which is exemplary of what is, potentially, most radically good in humanity. Moreover, if G-d, as many monotheists would claim, is the ultimate source and locus of absolute love, and if we, as human, are indeed made in the image of this loving G-d, then is it not perhaps in our biophilia, our compassionate love of G-d’s good Creation, that we are most ‘godly’?7
Unfortunately, I will have to leave this question unanswered. For it presupposes knowledge of the existence and nature of G-d which I at least would not want to claim definitively; a knowledge that I believe is ultimately foreclosed to us as humans (which is not to say that I think any other species necessarily knows any better!). I would nonetheless like to return to the question which underlies the prohibition on eating the limb of a living animal (and which is probably no more susceptible of a final answer): the question, that is, of the position and role of humanity in the natural world. Now, it is worth recalling here that religious traditions vary considerably on this point. Within the spiritual universe of traditional Aboriginal culture, for example, it would appear that the continuity, rather than the difference, of the human and non-human is foregrounded and celebrated in various ways, including the establishment of ancestral links to particular animals and as well as to places demarcated by particular features of the natural environment. In this cultural context, human beings do indeed have a special role to play, but one that is understood as a predominantly sustaining one. Practical actions are undertaken to ‘quieten’ the country and keep it ‘open’, in the perceived best interests of the whole biotic community, past, present and future, human and non-human alike. Equally importantly, ritual actions too are engaged in to ‘sing up’ the land, to maintain its spiritual integrity.8 The polytheistic religions of many agricultural cultures also acknowledge the continuity of humans and non-human nature. Natural phenomena are linked to anthropomorphic deities, and some deities, such as the Greek god Pan, combine human and animal features. The task of human beings here is to make out as best as possible amidst the competing claims of various deities, manifesting themselves not least in the often unpredictable behaviour of the elements, by seeking to propitiate the right divine agency at the right time in the right way. For Buddhists, as for Hindus, humans form but one part of a spectrum of being, differentiated by degree, rather than by kind: even though we might seek ultimately to liberate ourselves from the wheel of life, we are nonetheless called to act compassionately towards all living creatures, human and otherwise, for all creatures, potentially, are our kin.
The monotheistic religions, by contrast, tend to emphasise the radical discontinuity of humanity in relation to the rest of natural world. The prohibition on eating the limb of a living animal could itself be seen as an instance of the monotheistic insistence on human apartness. For while most predators do strive to kill their prey before consuming it, we go further than any other species in separating slaughter from consumption, not least by cooking most, if not all, of the flesh we eat. Not eating the limb of a living animal is perhaps connected with a desire to differentiate human predation from that of other carnivorous and omnivorous animals. Under the monotheistic dispensation, moreover, the natural world as a whole is understood as the ‘Creation’ of a transcendent G-d, who is ‘Himself’ radically discontinuous with the entire realm of being, human and otherwise, even though ‘He’ is its source and sustainer. G-d may chose to enter into Creation as a divine spirit, an individual messiah, or even, in some traditions, as an incarnate deity; but Creation itself is not divine. While Being is thus strictly non-identical with G-d, human beings are nonetheless held to be capable of a privileged kind of connection with the Creator: for we alone are said to be made in the image of G-d, and we thus enjoy an exulted position within ‘His’ Creation. Following Genesis, this has generally been interpreted as a position of rightful dominion, especially perhaps within the tradition of Western Christianity. Increasingly, however, ecologically oriented Jews, Christians and Moslems, are reinterpreting our role in terms of stewardship, rather than domination. Care, clearly, is preferable to conquest as a model for governing our relations to the natural world. But might there not be other possibilities as well? One alternative is that presented in the mystical tradition of Jewish thought. According to this tradition of belief, we are called upon neither to dominate nor to preserve the natural world, but rather to ‘elevate’ it and thereby reconnect it with G-d, from whom it too had fallen away with the corruption of humanity.9 One way in which we can achieve this elevation is through bodily incorporation: that is, eating. To do so, however, our consumption must itself be purified. For it is said that not all eating is elevating for that which is eaten, and not everything in the natural world, nor even in the edible animal, is capable of being thus elevated. Our eating must be graced by godliness if it is to serve this redemptive purpose; and we must beware that which would overwhelm our good intentions, both in our own nature and in the nature of the flesh that we consume.
Now, I must confess to feeling a little ambivalent about this interpretation of the Noahide law. Although I am very sympathetic to the view that eating is on some level a spiritual as well as a physical transaction, I am wary of the notion that meat eating should be seen as part of a wider human project of divinely ordained transformation, or rectification, of an imperfect natural order. There are parallels to this notion within Christianity as well, both heretical and orthodox. The version that has been most influential historically in the Christian West might be termed the ‘recovery project’.10 The idea here is that Man lost his rightful dominion over Creation as a result of the Fall: Creation ‘fell’ that is, from our dominion. However, we can regain this lost dominion, thereby also restoring the original goodness of prelapsarian Nature, through the enhancement of our scientific knowledge of the natural world and the application of that knowledge in technological advancements and hard work. The recovery of the Garden, and the restoration of Creation to G-d, was to be achieved, in other words, by the thoroughgoing humanisation of nature. This idea seems to have emerged in Western Europe in the seventeenth century, and in the following centuries it provided a powerful rationale for the colonisation of new lands, and other peoples, and for the development and expansion of industrial production. Now, I take it that this is not what is meant by ‘elevation’ in the Kabbalistic tradition to which I referred earlier. However, it seems to me that there will always be a certain danger of hubris in conceiving of our role in these terms. This is the hubris of believing, not only in the inherent superiority of our species, that we are, or should be, in some sense ‘above’ the rest, but also that we therefore know best how nature might be ‘rectified’ or ‘improved’.
I am myself not at all sure that the natural world is ‘fallen’ or that our non-human earth others require us in order to be brought closer to G-d. Let me nonetheless take up these metaphors of fallenness and elevation in order to attempt an ecophilosophical reinterpretation of the Noahide law. If nature fell as a result of the corruption brought into the world through humanity, then, I would argue, it did so as a result of the destructive excesses of human beings: fallen nature, in other words, is not so much natural nature, nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, but rather, nature as it has been enslaved, exploited and abused by us. This is not to assume an originary perfection: nature is not a static entity, but a dynamically evolving pattern-in-process, in which there has always been conflict and competition as well as harmonious interdependence. However, no other species on earth has developed the kinds of intellectual, technological and social capacities that modern humans in particular have deployed in the domination of other species and the exploitation of nature’s bounty. If we are indeed called upon to ‘elevate’ Creation in the wake of this Fall, then perhaps we should start by seeking to redress the ecological damage that we have caused in our flawed bid for dominion. In my view, such a project of earth repair should have a spiritual as well as a practical or material dimension. To that end I would suggest that we might reconceptualise our task of elevation and restoration in terms of acts of loving kindness and songs of praise. Perhaps, there might be more than one tradition, one way of ‘singing up’ a bruised and broken land.
As mentioned previously, the prohibition on eating the limb of a living animal is primarily concerned with what cannot be elevated, at least by us mere mortals. This too, I think, is open to reinterpretation. I have for example read in an article by the American Jewish feminist, Judith Plaskow, of some Jewish communities in the United States for whom the ‘unclean’, that which cannot be elevated through human consumption, has come to include the meat of animals that have been kept, transported or slaughtered cruelly, or that have been fed fodder containing chemical residues or antibiotics.11 This provides a model of responsible meat consumption, which meat-eating non-Jews too would do well to follow. It seems to me, however, that the prohibition on eating the limb of a living animal might also be open to yet another interpretation. If the limb of the living animal connotes its life force, its animal vitality, then, yes, I agree we should not seek to appropriate this in consuming an animal’s flesh. Not, however, because it might endanger us—physiologically speaking, the iron and protein in meat products do in fact give us strength, enhancing our own bodily vitality—but rather, out of respect for its alterity or ‘wildness’; a ‘wildness’ that inheres in all living beings, including ourselves. This is not an argument about whether or not we should eat the flesh of (other) animals, whether domesticated or wild, but rather about the way we conceive of our relationship with our earth others more generally. What I am suggesting with reference to the Noahide law, is that if consumption as ‘elevation’ is understood to involve incorporation into the human sphere, into the sphere of human culture and civilisation, then not eating the limb of a living animal might be read, metaphorically, as an injunction to leave a space for what is wild; for that which cannot be thus elevated without ceasing thereby to be wild. In arguing thus, I am conscious of departing significantly from the theological framework established by most Jewish and Christian traditions, as I am assuming the possibility of a connection with the divine that does not pass through the human: the possibility, that is, that wild nature already participates in the divine in its own way, and that we are called upon to respect this wild mode of relationship with what some of us call G-d. And yet, recalling the story of Job, perhaps this notion is not entirely foreign to the religions of the Book after all: for here, speaking out of the whirlwind, G-d reminds Job that He causes it to rain, not only on His peoples’ farmland (and then sometimes not at all), but also on the wilderness where no man dwells (38.26), prizing as the “chief of his ways” the mighty mountain-dwelling behemoth (40.15-24), and pointing to the fearsome scaly leviathan as “a king of all the children of pride” (41.1-34).
To leave a space for what is wild, respecting the possibility of a wild relationship with deity, requires that we also honour what is wild in us: that which cannot be fully rationalised or even fully spoken, but which includes our own animal vitality, our own bodily needs and frailties, our own mortality. Returning to the question of kinship and alterity, I believe that one of our greatest challenges is to develop an appreciation of the wondrous strangeness of being human, while simultaneously honouring what we share with animals—or, as I prefer to put it, otheranimals: our own, peculiarly human, animality. For it is arguably the very denial, disavowal and negativisation of our own animality which has fuelled our destructive attitudes and actions towards the non-human natural world. To undo this denial does not mean surrendering ourselves blindly to unbridled appetites and urges, many of which might in any case be as much socially engendered as instinctive, especially where such impulses would lead us into a betrayal of our capacity to act with compassion towards the other, human or otherwise. What it does mean, however, is accepting that there is more to us than that which is conventionally considered specifically human; more, indeed, than we can ever rationally know or intentionally control, and that this more, which we share with other animals, already participates in the divine in its own way. If we can, once more, truly reconcile ourselves with this, our own animality, leaving a space for what is wild in us, while nonetheless still holding fast to that capacity for a mode of radical goodness which is perhaps peculiarly human, then we might have a better chance of achieving a greater solidarity with our earth others: a solidarity, however, within which differences, as well as continuities, might be respected.12
Kate Rigby is Senior Lecturer in German and Comparative Literature and Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University. Her new book on European Romanticism, Topographies of the Sacred , has just been published by the University Press of Virginia. Kate is President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (Australia- NewZealand).
2. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (10 March 1967), 1203-7; reprinted in Roger S. Gottlieb (ed.), This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment , New York and London: Routledge 1996, 184-93.
3. There is by now a very substantial literature on Christianity and ecology, as well as a small, but growing body of work on Judaism and ecology. See Kate Rigby, “Making Connections: Towards a Spirituality of Immanence,” 1999. A Social Ecology Journal (2000), 209-24, “The Politics of Pilgrimage: An Australian Perspective on the Rehallowing of Britain,” in PAN , No. 1 (2000), 23-30, and “The Goddess Returns: Ecofeminist Reconfigurations of Gender, Nature and the Sacred,” in F. Devlin-Glass & L. McCredden, Feminist Poetics of the Sacred. Creative Suspicions , New York: OUP, 2001, 23-44.
4. Shimon Cowan, “Foundations of the Noahide Laws,” Journal of Judaism and Civilization Vol. 2, 5759 (1999), 74-90. In this article, Rabbi Cowan explains that, within Jewish thought, Gen. 9: 3-4 is regarded as providing the last of seven laws specified within the Torah (the Jewish Bible, comprising the first five books of The First Testament), which apply to all of humanity, rather than the Jews only. Because this group of laws is completed in the injunction to Noah and his descendents not to eat the limb of a living animal, all seven have become known as the “Noahide laws.”
5. F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854) was a profoundly ecological thinker, whose work has been vastly, and unjustly, overshadowed by his one-time friend and later adversary, G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797; rev. 1803) (trans. E. E. Harris and Peter Heath, Cambridge: CUP, 1988) reconnects mind and matter by positing human consciousness as an emergent property of nature, understood as a dynamic, self-generative unity-in-diversity. See Rigby, Topographies of the Sacred. The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism , Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004, pp.38-45.
6. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature , London: Routledge 1994. For Plumwood, our ‘earth others’ include not only animals and plants, but also ‘inanimate’ entities such as mountains or rivers, and collective entities such as forests.
7. My reference to ‘G-d’ rather than the more familiar ‘God’ follows the Jewish convention, one that is now also being adopted by some Christian biblical scholars and theologians, of omitting vowels from the written form of the name of the deity, in keeping with the ban on graven images.
12. I am grateful to my co-editors of PAN ( Philosophy Activism Nature ), Sharron Pfueller and Freya Mathews, for their incisive comments on an earlier draft of this article. Any remaining errors and infelicities are entirely my own.