Friday, October 4, 2013

Humans Gone Ape? Affirming our Essential Humanity and a Beauty Named Naama Beresheet

This work by Jonas Malmo, Sweden 2010,  is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

“Look at what they are doing to each other!” say some people , referring to Arabs or Muslims or both as a collective “they”, when they see the images or hear of the horror that is being perpetrated in Syria. This came up in a discussion about a Jewish teaching that people had descended to the level of Apes. The horrible murder and mayhem in Kenya led one participant to comment that  people like the Al-Shabab murderers are indeed apes, followed by the problematic comment about Syria. While people certainly do horrific, evil deeds, influenced by evil thoughts and speech, I think it is wrong to dehumanize them. Beasts kill for food, following their natural instincts without malice or evil intent; humans, on the other hand, make choices and carry out evil plans. It is the humanity of every human community, rather than the evil choices made by  some of their members,  that we should recognise. 

One important concept  about the nature of prejudice is the process of “essentialising”. This involves taking a negative characteristic or perspective about a member or several members of a group and reducing the group as a whole to that one characteristic and nothing else (1).  I heard of a chilling anecdote from Kenya  that one of the murderers responded to a 4 year old child’s assertion that he was a “very bad man” by offering him a Mars bar and telling the child that “we are not monsters” (2).  This interaction suggests to me that the killer, despite his evil side, is, in one sense, a person like me, rather than a demon. He wants to be perceived as a “good person”; he must think that he is making a “tough” decision that seems entirely justified in his twisted understanding of religion and morality.

I wish to explore the theme of essential humanity through the complicated case of a woman named Naama. This woman’s story carries a redemptive message about the enduring human spirit, regardless of ancestry or even after going through a “demonic” phase.

Naama’s birth is the result of an unwanted pregnancy. Her father Lemech, a descendant of the murderer Cain, married two women (3). One wife, Ada, was married for the purpose of child bearing; having served her purpose, she was   to spend the rest of her life “like a widow”, ignored by Lemech. The other wife, Tzila, whose name means “shade” because she was always in Lemechs “shadow”, was for sex. She was given a contraceptive drink and was “adorned like a prostitute” (4). Thwarting Lemech’s intentions, God ensures that Tzila becomes pregnant (5) and gives birth to a son named Tuval Cain and a daughter Naama. 

Unsurprisingly, Lemech’s two wives were jealous of each other and quarrelled.  Lemech finds it unbearable and cries out, “How are my sins worse than those of all people? that I have no quiet in my home, not when eating, not when drinking, not when going to sleep or waking up, did I kill a man(6)? Or choke little children to deserve this?! (7).

Tuval Cain and his sister Naama (8), raised in this household, are the world’s first iron workers (9) and arms manufacturers (10). Lemech  is unconcerned by the moral cost of creating weapons because he argues, much like gun control opponents do today, that he is not responsible for bringing the sword and murder into the world. He argues (11) that “the sword is not the only way to murder; in fact killing without it by repeatedly inflicting a barrage of wounds and bruises is a much worse death” (12). 

Naama, whose name means pleasant, was exceptionally beautiful (13). Men strayed after her (14), including the “sons of God”, meaning the children of the judges, who saw “the daughters of men, that they were good and they took all women as they pleased” (15).  Even demons fell for her. She is also thought to be the mother of Ashmadai, the king of demons (16). The commentary written by these ancient men is crying out for a feminist critique. Not attempting to offer it myself, I am instead considering this from the perspective of the religious mindset of scholars from between 500-2000 years ago, that describes this woman as one who would seem to be beyond redemption. This, however, is not the case.

Naama lived in a time where the human population became so degenerate that they were described as having their faces changed to those of apes, people became Centaurs, (17) half men, but also “like horses and mules without understanding”(18). Yet, our sages tell us that she was pleasing in the “end of her actions”; the angels sought to stray after her but she ran away from them (19).  She eventually (20) married the righteous Noah (21) and is therefore the mother of us all.

The key point for me here is that, despite the fact that we can behave in ways that might best be described an inhuman, nothing, not ancestry, family influence, personal choice, character or even horrific evil deeds, schemes and thoughts, like those of Al Shaabab, can ever erase the essential humanity of us all.

Also, there has been much discussion on facebook about a Muslim tradition or Hadith regarding Jewish people who sinned and were turned into apes. This can easily be misconstrued by non-Muslims and Muslims themselves as dehumanising. I am afraid this might feed anti-Jewish bigotry for some Muslims as well as generalised hatred of Muslims by some Jews. Yet, for me as a Jew, I find it fascinating that the idea of ‘humans gone ape’ is clearly articulated in my own tradition for a very similar reason. 

1)    Hall, S. ed. (1997) Representation, Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London, Sage. p.245
3)    Genesis 4:19
4)    Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23
5)     Pesikta Zutra, Rashi, Rabbenu Bchaya
6)     Genesis 4:23
7)    Rabbi Yossi Kara, cited in Bchor Shor, An alternative interpretation (Radak) is that he is so enraged by this that he threatens to kill them, boasting of his capacity to do this as if he had already (Ibn Ezra and Radak) “killed a man” and could do the same to his wives if they continue to displease him. Ibn Ezra and Radak, support their view by citing the common usage of the past tense to refer to future events
8)    Midrash Hanealam (literally, the hidden midrash, cited first in the new Zohar 19b, and in Kasher, M. M., in Torah Shlaima (1992), Jerusalem. Beit Torah Shlaima) The text only tells us about Tuval Cain’s occupation but the unusual phrase “and the sister of Tuval Cain” was Naama, is taken to mean that she was like him with the same level of expertise.
9)    Genesis 4:22
10)    Rashi and Ramban. The word Tuval in the name Tuval Cain means spice, which is taken to mean that he extends Cain. Whereas Cain killed with his bare hands, Tuval Cain and his sister enabled killing with greater efficiency and ease (Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23)
11)    This is based on yet another interpretation of the phrase “did I kill a man?” in Genesis 4:23,
12)     Ramban, Rabbenu Bchaya
13)    Midrash Rabba
14)     Zohar Chadash Part 1, 55
15)    Genesis 6:2, commentary discusses whether this was consensual as the “sons of God”, according to one commentary, refers to the descendants of Cain who were exceptionally attractive, “beautiful and tall”, leading women to abandon their husbands (Midrash cited in Torah Shlaima); or it might have involved rape, particularly by the sons of the judges, an alternative meaning to the phrase “sons of God”, who grabbed women and raped them in the market place. Their example was followed by ordinary men as well (Sifre/Sifre Zuta). According to one commentary, the verse Genesis 6:4 “the fallen were on the earth”  refers to the Hebrew word for a miscarried foetus, a נפל (Nefel),  and suggests that many of the women who became pregnant were given a type of drink that caused them to miscarry because of their shame, and the earth was filled with aborted foetuses (Tzror Hamor- cited in Meam Loez).    
16)    Midrash Hanealam ibid
17)    Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23  
18)     Torah Shlaima citing מו"ע  (not sure who this is).
19)    Midrash Agada, cited in Torah Shlaima  
20)     I am taking the liberty here of compiling a composite image here that includes many different perspectives. I am not suggesting that the original commentators saw it as one narrative, they clearly did not.
21)     Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23

1 comment:

  1. An interesting discussion: Firstly the story of the Jewish tribe being tuned into apes is from the Qur’an which frequently references earlier sources and stories and uses the as parables to emphasise a point. The actual verse from Surah 2 verse 65 is variously translated as “Be ye apes despised” or “Be ye as apes despised”. It would be interesting to compare this to the Midrash and Torah stories.
    I prefer the second version because it is more consistent with the story it relates to. The story is about a Jewish tribe who broke the Sabbath. If we understand that apes do not have the spiritual relationship with God that humans have, it makes sense that God would describe them as being like apes rather than turning them into apes.
    This brings me to the horrors that humans inflict upon each other. We are not the only primate that does this. Apes also wage war against and kill their own kind and they demonstrate quite sophisticated planning when they do. By the same token apes can be altruistic and show co-operation and kindness. If we act like apes anyway the key difference has to be the relationship we have with God. We know that committing atrocities against our fellow human beings is wrong whereas apes do not.
    Those committing the atrocities in Syria and Kenya are so far removed from any relationship with God that they have lost their essential humanity. They are like apes carrying out the most despicable of crimes and they are doing so in the name of no religion.
    Lemech’s argument that killing by the sword is perhaps not as bad as killing by “repeatedly inflicting a barrage of wounds and bruises” has a modern version. The biologist JBS Haldane defended the use of chemical weapons in the following words: “If it is right for me to fight my enemy with a sword, it is right for me to fight him with mustard gas; if the one is wrong, so is the other.” In fact Haldane regarded chemical weapons as more humane than bullets shrapnel and the bayonet. A German pioneer of chemical weapons, Fritz-Haber also considered them “a higher form of killing”. It still doesn’t justify their use or any other form of killing for that matter.