Monday, August 09, 2004

Letters on Monkey Business II


Rabbi Avi Shafran

New York this week resembled the Planet of the Apes.

First, reports of a respected rabbinic figure's use of a monkey metaphor caused an uproar in some circles. And then a disabled man's macaque nipped a little boy in a supermarket, eliciting howls not only from the victim but from an animal rights group as well.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter is a renowned scholar and decisor of Jewish religious law who holds major positions at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. During a lecture addressing whether the reading at a Jewish wedding ceremony of the marriage document known as a ketubah may be performed by a woman, it seems Rabbi Schachter innocently invoked what turned out to be an incendiary traditional expression.

Distinguishing between a ritual act that requires an actual actor and one that does not, he observed that it would seem that the ketubah could certainly be read by a woman because there is no actual requirement for its reading in the first place; it could just as well be read, as he put it, "by a monkey." (Later, in an apparent concession to monkeys' inability to vocalize, he changed the metaphor to a parrot.) Halachic literature uses precisely that example - "the mere act of a monkey" - to refer to religious acts that are not actual requirements but rather simply need, in whatever way, to happen.

Nonetheless, umbrage ensued in some corners. The editor of the New York Jewish Week characterized the rabbi's remark as "seem[ing] to compare women to animals," and quoted an unnamed "Modern Orthodox rabbi" as calling it "vulgar and embarrassing."

In retrospect, Rabbi Schachter might well have avoided controversy by using a "tape recorder" or "computer" as his example of a non-human actor that could nevertheless effect the reading of a ketubah. But he opted instead with the colloquialism, and so is suffering (or, at least, is assailed) for his cultural incorrectness.

The other monkey business in the local news also evoked ire; this, from a spokesperson for PETA, the organization that supports granting to animals rights that society currently offers only to human beings. PETA's spokesperson was indignant over the fact that the man in the wheelchair dared bring his monkey into a public place. This, despite the fact that the trained animal assistant helps the disabled man manage everyday tasks and is by all accounts legal, healthy and well cared-for, and that the bitten boy, according to the monkey owner, provoked the attack.

Not to make a mountain out of a monkey, but it's hard to shake the suspicion that something else underlay PETA's pique. The group, after all, is well known for things like its "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit, which likens factory animal farming to the systematic annihilation of six million Jews. Might PETA's objection to the man with the monkey be strongly informed by a larger irritation, over the fact that animals are employed (PETA would likely say "enslaved") to do the bidding of men in the first place?

The irritation is illustrative; it is born of a certain fundamental approach to life, one that regards all living things, men, moles and manatees alike, as equals, with equal claim to everything around them.

That may be an enticingly egalitarian view, but it is profoundly diametrical to Judaism's. While the Torah considers men and women to be the custodians of their world, and forbids wasteful destruction and the unnecessary infliction of pain on animals, it also makes clear that there is a distinct dichotomy of species: the human, and the rest. And that the role of the rest is to serve the needs of the human, whose role in turn is to serve, each in his or her own way, the Divine.

Which brings us back to the first monkey, the rabbi's. One wonders how much of the anger at his words derived not from the simian simile alone but from the fact that the scholar went on to conclude that a woman should in fact not read the ketubah at a wedding; that, while the roles Jewish law assigns to women are as important as men's, they may not be as public.

If those who protested the rabbi's words were in fact more upset with his conclusion - if their paramount concern was some feminist coup, not a sincere desire to discern the position of Jewish religious law - then the two monkey tales may have more in common than their primate protagonists.

Because they then both speak to the very same question: are we humans just here, or are we charged with a special mandate, including, at times, specialized roles?

Are we, in other words, mere parts of a biosphere, or, as Rabbi Schachter clearly believes, sublime servants of God?


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