I, as many, enjoy the adventures of the crew of the Enterprise as they explore the far reaches of the universe. The uniqueness of various species they encounter, their societies, challenges and goals are captivating. The interaction, the crossing of sabers, between Captain Kirk and his Cohen first officer Mr. Spock (think about it), are comical and yet are as well a study in, how can I describe it – “interpersonal” relationships?
I seem to recall that one of their journeys, depicted in a full length movie, concerned the frantic call for help from a whale from our time that somehow, in the future, precipitated the possible destruction of the earth and human society. The whale’s distress call from the past had finally reached a far corner of the universe and was upsetting the eternal apple cart.
This involved the crew of the Enterprise in time travel visiting our time and specifically Sea World to free this whale from its captivity. Who would have thought this fantasy, this sci-fi story, would play out in real life giving further credence to the observation that truth is stranger than fiction.
Recently, at the behest of PETA, the ACLU brought a case to the U.S. District Court in California claiming that Tilikum, Kstina, Corky, Karastka and Ulisis were being kept against their will in literal slavery by, who would have guessed it, Sea World. Yes, Sea world! They’re at it again. Won’t Sea World ever mend its sinister ways? These folks, these five Orcas, according to PETA, are in involuntary servitude, in violation of the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, forced, against their will to perform at the direction of their slave masters at Sea World. Justice must be served.
Unfortunately a narrow minded Judge, Jeffery Miller, had difficulty understanding how human rights could be attributed to whales, albeit they are fellow mammals. Frankly, I have difficulty envisioning the impaneling of a jury of their peers. The courtroom would be immense, not to mention the need to create a watery environment for the necessary needs of both jury and plaintiffs. Cynically Judge Miller viewed the case of asserting the Orcas’ putative personhood as being but the first waive of such future cases brought on behalf of other “enslaved” animals. The Judge expressed grave difficulty in accepting the assurance of PETA that this was not the case. “Call me hysterical,” said the Judge, “but that’s one of the first places I went on my thinking about this case.” As Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago, quoted in an editorial in the New York Times in 1999, stated, “there would be nothing left of human society if we treated animals not as property but as independent holders of rights.” I’m quite sure the good professor at that time a mere thirteen years ago, could never have envisioned a court case asserting the rights of Orcas to be liberated from their servitude.
While at first brush the Orca episode seems quite humorous, it really brings into full clarity a horrible distortion on the part of a growing number of Americans, of the relationship of humanity with the rest of G‑d’s creation.
For we read in Genesis, “And G‑d blessed them; and G‑d said unto them: Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) This passage from the very first chapter of the Bible encapsulates G‑d’s sense of the relationship of humankind with the rest of creation.
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, the 19th century champion of German Orthodoxy, in his work “The Nineteen Letters” expands on this relationship: “...he (humankind) is to be the administrator of the earth, and it is his task to attend to everything on it and further it in accordance with G‑d’s Will. It is only from G‑d, the source of all power, that he has received the right to appropriate the world for his own use; and with this privilege comes also the duty to take only what the Giver has permitted and to use it according to His Will.”
Unlike other creatures on our planet, the human being was created in the image of G‑d. Endowed with unique qualities and abilities unlike any other species on earth, nevertheless the human being must share this planet with all of G‑d’s creations. We, unlike any other living creature, enjoy dominion over all, guided and directed by the Creator of all. We have the right to subdue all of creation, again, directed by the Creator of all.
Those who proudly wear the mantle of environmentalists, those who fight the battle for the protection of various species which appear to be in the throws of possible extinction, tragically are, unaware or are unwilling to recognize the unique role of humanity on this planet. The world was created for the benefit of humankind. And while humankind has the responsibility to administer, that administration must always be cognizant of the preeminence of humanity. The distortion of this Biblical truth pronounced and shared with us in the very beginning of the Torah can result in the absurdity of claiming human rights for Orcas in a court of law.
Yet there are far graver realities. In California, for example, the issue of the needs of people for drinking water and irrigation vs. the altering of water supply affecting nature is an ongoing battle. Already environmentalists have affected the agricultural industry the livelihood of thousands who depend on it, by curtailing the use of water to protect, in one case, a unique fish that found a welcome habitat in the man made irrigation system. The result – our government no longer permits water to be used to nourish orchards, literally destroying a livelihood for thousands of individuals. Human beings are left to suffer in poverty so as not to disturb another living creature’s habitat.
While studies over a period of years have resulted in a clear finding that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada stretching southward across the United States does not pose an environmental risk and will result in jobs by the thousands for Americans in need of employment, as well as provide an economic boost for our society in a time when such a boost is desperately needed, our government has bowed to the outcries of the “tree huggers” who still maintain, based upon their distorted understanding of the relationship of humankind with the rest of creation, that the pipeline must not be built, as in their estimation, it does represent a potential danger to the environment.
While it is true that one could argue that corralling large mammals in a very confined space for our enjoyment may not be appropriate, to claim their personhood is simply absurd. Our future on planet earth does depend upon a balance between humanity and the world about us. Once again our Jewish tradition provides a means by which to establish that balance. Considering the vast amount of mitzvos contained in the Torah regarding humanity’s interplay with the animal and vegetative worlds is the means to establish a touchstone by which to deal with this real and important issue.
There are moments like the Orca case when I’m motivated to take out my communicator and say, “Scotty beam me up. I need a break. I want to go where no man has gone.” What a vacation that would be!