Saturday, August 13, 2011


"Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Genesis 1:26

These days, it seems like everyone has something bad to say about religion. It is said to be the ground of ignorance – the opiate of the masses. It is alleged to be the source of fanaticism and extremism. It is blamed for much of the divisiveness that has engulfed our societies. And it is charged with breeding a mentality that focuses upon the non-existent heavens and becomes apathetic about the most profound problems of our world.

Personally, I find many of those criticisms to be overblown. Sure, we can point out various shortcomings with the religious mentality, but we also could do the same for all other walks of life – the business world, the realm of government, even the domain of academia. Something tells me that if we didn’t have religion, humanity would not magically be transformed into a race of Einsteins and Edisons. Take away religion, and what is more likely to rise in its place: a passionate love for mathematics and metaphysics, or a greater willingness to drink, smoke, lie and cheat? Forgive me for being cynical, but I doubt it’s the former.

Generally speaking, then, I view myself as a fan of religion, rather than one of its critics. But this is not to say I buy into all of it hook, line and sinker. And among my greatest complaints is the way religion tends to elevate human beings into the realm of the divine (creating God in our image, despite our claims to having been made in the image of God) and devalue the worth of the so-called “lower” animals.

These last few weeks, the “lower” animals have been on my mind more than usual. On August 3rd, my daughter Rebecca returned home from a month in Malaysia, where she worked with lots of orangutans and a few chimpanzees. When she played the videos and slide show of her experience for the rest of the family, it was clear how much she adored each of these animals and how individually she viewed their personalities. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the way she talked about the apes and the way that people tend to describe these “beasts” – as stupid, ugly, and dangerous.

No, I’m not blaming all this species-chauvinism on religion. What is sad, though, is how much religion has compounded the problem, at least in the western world. We in the west have no “sacred cows.” In fact, people here commonly eat cows, pigs, and other mammals, not to mention chicken, duck and fish. Moreover, our religious bodies continue to support the killing of animals for food, even though vegetarianism is clearly preferable for the environment and may even be better for our own health as individuals.

In Judaism, we used to sacrifice animals to God at the Holy Temple. That practice stopped, but the tradition states that it ceased only because the Temple was destroyed. Presumably, if the Jews are ever able to rebuild the Temple, we would be privileged with the honor of once again placing animals on the altar and burning them to death – as a message of thanks to the omni-benevolent Lord.

I find it ironic that atheists these days commonly attempt to appropriate the term “humanism” for their philosophy. Because honestly, what can be more humanistic than traditional western religion? It has created a God who is human-like. It has directed the attention of this God on human beings and the planet Earth, which clearly seems to be the center of the religious universe. (“Heaven” is, of course, outside of this universe.) And it teaches that human beings have dominion over the Earth and all its other creatures.

Spinoza’s philosophy was often sharply opposed to the teachings of traditional, organized religion. But he was never more traditional than when he wrote, in the Ethics (Part IV, Appendix, XXVI): “Besides men, we know of no particular thing in nature in whose mind we may rejoice, and whom we can associate with ourselves in friendship or any sort of fellowship; therefore, whatsoever there be in nature besides man, a regard for our advantage does not call on us to preserve, but to preserve or destroy according to its various capabilities, and to adopt to our use as best we may.”

As Rebecca Spiro can attest, Spinoza was wrong. My daughter would have seen evidence of that fact not only during her trip to Malaysia, but shortly after she returned.

Last weekend, everything seemed normal around the Spiro house. We were celebrating a birthday – my mother’s 90th to be precise. We were all happy and healthy – my mom, my kids, my dogs, everyone. As the week wore on, however, Carly, the younger of our two bichon frises, began to show signs of being sick. On Wednesday, she had no appetite, and we’re talking about a dog with a voracious appetite. On Thursday morning, it was clear that something was very wrong with Carly -- her appetite had not returned, and she was clearly in pain, though we had no idea where the pain was coming from. My wife took her to the vet, the vet did some tests, and it became clear that Carly had a tumor that was affecting her spleen, among other symptoms. The prognosis was poor, though the vet said that she might have a chance if he were allowed to remove the tumor. We gave Carly that chance. By 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, Carly was gone.

Later that evening, we had a service in the backyard. My older daughter Hannah, the aspiring rabbi, read some passages from the Torah while fighting off tears. Hannah pointed out that she could not read any of the traditional Hebrew prayers that you would read if a human had died – God forbid that we would ever treat a “mere animal” with that much respect, it just wouldn’t be “kosher” (that is reserved for killing animals, not honoring them). But while Hannah followed the Jewish tradition in what she would not read, she followed the family tradition in crying when she did read. My mother said a few words, as did I, as did my wife. We talked about Carly’s personality – her gentleness, her affection, her warmth, her hyperactivity. Some would call her neurotic, but we adored her as much for her nervous energy as for her perpetual licking, cuddling and smiling.

Then, when everyone else had finished saying their words, it had come time for Rebecca to speak. She hadn’t said anything for some time. (Perhaps an hour or two later, Hannah pointed out that Rebecca seemed more depressed about Carly’s passing than the rest of the family combined, which is saying a lot, since we had all been bawling. Hannah made that statement when Rebecca was out of the house – not coincidentally, she was taking care of a neighbor’s cat across the street.)

I looked at Rebecca, waiting for her to say something, anything, to pay respect to our beloved pet. Finally, she spoke, quietly but clearly. A short sentence – and then she would be finished. But it perfectly described what we all had been feeling, if perhaps not as viscerally as Rebecca.

“She was one of my best friends.”

Carly Simon Spiro: July 12, 2000 -- August 11, 2011. RIP.

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