Don’t Animalize Me!

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Pig Wedding

Crazy just got kicked up a notch. Wacky just bought a whole new wardrobe. Just when I thought the world we live in was at its maximum level of insanity, Weird went to the plastic surgeon, and got a whole new look. A couple of week’s ago, a pig and piglet got dressed up in a beautiful tailor-made pink gown, and a tailor-made tux, and had a wedding ceremony.

The kallah, Huang Pu-Pu, and the chasan, Shu Fu-ko (the truth is, it might be the other way around, I’m not super familiar with Chinese pig names), were married in a lavish ceremony in Taiwan, with the blessings of a Catholic priest. You have to wonder what the ceremony looked like.

Two pigs up on the altar, their owners trying to keep them still as they attempt to slink off to knock down a trash can and eat leftover hors d’oeuvres. The priest stands behind them and intones, “Dearly beloved, we are assembled here today to witness the union of Huang Pu-Pu and Shu Fu-ko, as lawful wedded husband and wife. Shu Fu-ko, do you agree to take this lovely Huang Pu-Pu as your wife, do you agree to love her through times of bountiful slops, and times of desperate scavenging, through health, and illness, till at the slaughterhouse do you part?”

In front of 400 guests, the lucky smelly couple took portraits, ate a wedding cake, and sealed their marriage with a kiss. The particular breed of pig that got married, musk pigs, named for the musky odor they emit, can grow to 180 pounds, eating anything they find. Keeping these odorous pigs as pets has become all the rage in Taiwan as the country prepares to ring in the new lunar year, which will be the “Year of the Pig.”

I wonder if the pigs looked their best while doing the waltz, the tango, or the salsa? I wonder if the people took turns dancing with the bride and groom? I wonder if the best man and the bridesmaids got down on all four to ensure that the pigs didn’t feel out of place? Sometimes, fact is stranger than fiction! It is almost like the anthropomorphic animals leading human lives that we read about in fables have jumped out of lore and into reality!

What bothers me about this? Why do I look at this piece of information with a queasy feeling? It’s not the fact that pigs are getting married.

For all I care, let them buy a house in the suburbs, pay the mortgage, have a litter or two, get divorced, and fight over custody of the kids.

What bothers me is the way humans equate themselves with animals.

I will never forget walking into the upscale Park Avenue apartment of some distant cousins of mine. They were both very successful yuppies, and the apartment was understated and well appointed. But in middle of the couch was a blue chintzy cushion that proclaimed, “The cat rules this house!” I wondered if this was a joke or a fact. We seem to be forgetting the fine line between beast and human, between animal and human. As a matter of fact, I just looked on to find another word for human, and the first synonym was animal!!!

The problem with this state of affairs is that it ignores the massive difference between us and animals. We have a neshama, a soul that is created in the image of G-d, and they don’t. We have free will, and they don’t. Animals run on instincts, not on feelings. The Sages describe the animal as having not a neshama, but rather a nefesh bahamis, an animal spirit. This spirit follows its natural urges without circumspection.
Have you ever seen a lion torn by his carnivorous lifestyle, and consider becoming a vegetarian? Have you seen any animal driven to create a monument to their greatness, building something impressive but not functional? Sure, dogs have dragged owners out of blazes, and other pets have protected their owners from all sorts of harm, but that is part of their instinct, not something they came to through a tough decision making process.

As a matter of fact, someone who simply follows his urges, be they for overeating, inappropriate intimacy, wasting time, or anything else is considered to be using his nefesh habahmis. One of our goals in Judaism is to move from the natural level of following the animal spirit in each of us, to the sublime level of following our neshama, our divine soul.

We see this in the fact that on Pesach the Jews brought an offering made of barley meal- animal food, while on Shavuot they brought an offering of wheat flour, human food. When G-d took us out of Egypt in Pesach, we were an undeveloped nation, still accustomed to following its natural compulsions as we had under the influence of the Egyptians. Therefore, the sacrifice for that festival is of animal meal, it represents the nefesh habahamis, the animal spirit. Shavuot is when we got the Torah after spending 49 days working and refining ourselves to be worthy to receive the Torah, hence we sacrifice human food, which represents the neshama, the soul that is uniquely human.

The risk we run with equating humans and animals is that it usually doesn’t serve to elevate our expectations of animals, but rather to lower the expectations we have of humans. Even with all the equality and respect given to animals today, no one thought of prosecuting the white tiger that attacked Roy Horn on stage in front of thousands! There has never been a lawsuit against a predatory animal for eating an endangered species. That is because we understand that an animal is just an animal.

On the other hand, the more we see ourselves like animals, the less we expect out of people. We frequently hear the phrase, “it’s natural,” usually referring to some sin. That attitude indicates that humans, like animals, have natural instincts, it’s normal for us to follow them, and that shouldn’t be held against us. However, we then miss the point that the whole purpose of being human if to not act natural all the time, to not always follow the animal nefesh, but to overcome our natural tendencies to sinful behavior, and to exercise our neshama.

Some social scientists today, undoubtedly the ones who consider humans to be just a slightly more developed animal, question whether we have free will at all, or if we are just acting on instinct bred in us through the millennia! This is a great crime, as it takes the one thing that makes humans unique and special, and dashes it to the ground. So let us try to keep perspective of the incredible gift of being human, of having free will, and of being able to choose greatness and leave an indelible mark on our world. Let’s use our creative energy towards those.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.