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Posted on June 7, 2002 (5760) By Rabbi Yaakov Menken | Series: | Level:

“And G-d said, ‘let us create Man in our form, in our likeness, and they shall rule over the fishes of the sea, and the birds of Heaven, and the animals, and over all the earth, and over all creeping things that creep on the earth… And G-d formed man, dust from the earth, and He breathed into his nostrils the Soul of Life, and Man became a living being.” [1:26, 2:7]

The Torah teaches us that we, as human beings, are entirely unlike any other creature on the planet. We are created in the likeness of G-d, with a Soul of Life uniquely close to our Creator — in a Kabbalistic sense, a “part” of G-d’s Essence. He breathed into Man a unique soul, rendering every human being precious.

This fundamental truth applies to every human life, and at every moment. What we might perceive as the “quality” of life pales before the radiance inherent in the very existence of that life, regardless of illness or disability. Indeed, with regards to the disabled, Jewish sources teach that a person comes into the world in order to have the opportunity to grow closer to G-d — and a severely limited person obviously requires less improvement! A father once brought his daughter, who was profoundly mentally disabled, to Rabbi Avraham Y. Karelitz (the Chazon Ish) for a blessing — and the Chazon Ish rose to his feet when she entered the room, in respect for her holy and uplifted soul.

Obviously there are uniquely Jewish values expressed here, but nonetheless many of us believe that the precious nature of life is something understood by everyone. We go about under the impression that we live in a modern, sophisticated society well-equipped to differentiate between right and wrong. To me, this is hardly so clear.

“Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Who wrote this? A raving lunatic, an Adolf Hitler? No, not at all — a professor at a modern school. And not just any school, but one of the leading lights of our so-called sophisticated era, Princeton University (for what it’s worth, my alma mater). And not just any professor, but one in the field of bioethics [sic], seated in an endowed chair at the new Center for Human Values [sic]. Princeton has given him an outstanding position from which to promote his belief that “a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to live as others.”

Of course, some say that discussion and debate are required in order for learning to happen. Professor Singer himself told the Associated Press that “I think it’s a good thing to stimulate people to think,” while Princeton President Howard Shapiro said that “some of the controversy arises from the fact that he works on difficult and provocative topics, and in many cases challenges long-established ways of thinking — or not thinking — about them.” In their opinion, nothing should be beyond the pale of discussion, although Shapiro would surely deny that anyone should act upon Singer’s views.

Both Shapiro and Singer are Jewish; let them hear the words of a Jewish scholar. Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, the late Dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, once outlined how something like euthanasia, once regarded as clearly immoral, became an act which people were willing to seriously consider implementing in practice. It did not start, he said, with doctors in hospitals, or with a vote in the legislature. Rather, certain academics said, “let’s discuss it. Let’s think about it. Let’s challenge long-established ways of thinking about it.” His words should ring ominously in our ears.

What is the root of all this? Where does it come from? Let us return to our Torah reading. Both the Meshech Chochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, and Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, note that unlike the Creation of the birds or animals, G-d precedes the Creation of Man by announcing what He is about to do: “let us create Man in our form, in our likeness.” They explained that this is because Man is to rule over the creatures of the world, as is explained in the verse. Man is the apex of Creation, and all the world exists for our benefit. Therefore, G-d announced His intentions.

This, too, is challenged by Peter Singer — and apparently this came first. In 1975, Singer wrote “Animal Liberation,” which he apparently considers his most important work, again according to the AP. In it, “he argues that the life of a person is not necessarily more valuable than that of an animal. The 1975 book led to the founding of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and turned Singer into the philosophical father of the animal rights movement.” And at some point, this led Peter Singer to the conclusion that, because animals are self-aware while babies are not, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

The Talmud warns that “one who is merciful towards the cruel, will eventually be cruel towards the merciful.” Putting down that which is uplifted begins by affording equal status to that which is inferior. Singer did not suddenly decide that human life was without value — he started by saying that animal life was equal!

Of course, the prohibition against cruelty to animals is one of the Commandments of the Torah, and a vegetarian diet is healthy and beneficial. But when one decides that we have no _right_ to eat animals, that their lives are no less valuable than our own — well, then it can lead a person to the obvious corollary. If animal life is equivalent to human life, then it follows that the value of human life is merely the equivalent of that of animal life. And, of course, horses who break their legs at races are routinely “put down.”

People deceive themselves, when they imagine that morality is something that can be improved upon in our “enlightened era.” “Blessed be our G-d, Who Created us for His Glory, and separated us out from those who err, and gave us the Torah of Truth.” Thank G-d we have a moral compass. Now, more than ever.

And let us, at least, remember that every human being was created in the Image of G-d. Even as we hope and pray that no one will act upon Singer’s beliefs, let us spend every day, as we encounter every person, acting upon our own.