Why Our Nearest Living Relatives Are Chimps And Bonobos – OpEd


On September 2, 2003 there was a once-in-a-generation discovery of a tiny human-like skull encased in 6-meter (19.7-foot) deep sediment in Liang Bua, a large cave in the highlands of the Indonesian island of Flores. Initial dating of carbon in the sediment determined the remains to be 18,000 years old. The date was revised in 2016, estimating instead that the hobbit was 50,000 to 60,000 years old. The discovery challenged the idea that pre-humans evolved in a neat line from primitive to complex and underscored just how much remained unknown about the pre-human story.

The subsequent discovery of two other small-bodied and small-brained hominins that lived relatively recently — Homo naledi in South Africa and Homo luzonensis in the Philippines — and the much larger Homo Denisovans in North East Asia has led to an acceptance among paleoanthropologists that there were many diverse species of pre-humans, including several that coexisted with our own species, Homo sapiens. They all died out about 35-60,000 years ago: only Modern Humans survived. This is why our nearest LIVING relatives are Chimps and Bonobos. 

Humans are very dangerous species. So the Torah tells us: ” Adonai regretted making humans on earth, and God’s heart was pained.” (Genesis 6:6) Why did God regret creating humankind? Because “They are flesh…”Rabbenu Bahya (13-14th c.) noted: Humans are unworthy that God’s spirit should reside in them, since they are only flesh like all the other creatures, and their soul is drawn to the flesh rather than to God’s spirit.”

I think Rabbi Bahya’s view is extreme. After all it was God who decided to create human being as a combination of Divine and animal? When God said: “Let us make mankind” (Genesis 1:26) God was talking to nature in general and primates in particular. So the pain and regret God feels is not due to God’s negative attitude to humanity. But God’s sadness and disappointment that humans have not yet lived up to their Divine potential. 

Regret (“va-yinakhem”) also is related to the word for consolation (“nakhamah”). Midrash Genesis Rabbah 27:4 presents several portraits of God. 

Rabbi Judah has God saying: “It was My mistake that I created him below, as a terrestrial being; had I created him in the higher realms, he would not have rebelled against Me.” 

Rabbi Nehemiah suggests that God is “…consoled, knowing that he created humans in the lower realms, with limited powers. For had humans been of the upper realms, they would have caused all to rebel.”

Rabbi Aivu proposes that God “…regrets creating humans with a yetzer ha-ra, an evil/untamed inclination, for had God not so created humans, they would not have rebelled against God.” 

But Rabbi Levi has a more positive take on consolation. He conjectures that God is “…consoled in making humans as God did, for (eventually) humans will be set in the earth,” i.e.,humans are mortal and subject to burial. Every generation, no matter how evil will die out, so that there is always hope that future generations will get it right.

I say, “Although God knew giving humans moral free will would mean they would do great evil, when it occurs it still hurts God deeply and causes temporary regret. We also learn from this that God responds to human actions and cares deeply for all humans.”

“For 2 years, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel debated whether God should have created humankind. Shammai’s school said it would have been better if people had not been created; Hillel’s school held the opposite view. Finally, they voted and the majority decided that Shammai’s school was right and it would have been better had people not been created, but since they were, each person is responsible for examining their own past and future deeds” (Talmud, Masekhet Eruvin 13b).

Reading the Bible is not like exercise. You do not need to think about the exercise while you are doing it, in order to benefit from doing it. You do need to think about the Bible while you are reading it, because you are supposed to learn from reading, thinking about; and then discussing with others the lessons to be learned from Bible study. Other people with different life experiences will give you other insights into the Biblical text, even if you disagree with their perspective. 

A commentary, especially one that offers more than one understanding of each verse, will give everyone, even your teacher, a deeper insight into why the Bible has been a great source of inspiration for so many different people over the course of more than 3,000  years. In Jewish tradition, the best commentary is called Mikra’ot Gedolot, which is a large (gedolot) collection of (mikra’ot) scriptural interpretations from many different rabbinic sages over the last 2,000 years. 

The various understandings usually fall into four general perspectives, all of which are correct, from the Jewish point of view. For example, the famous narrative of Cain and Able (Genesis 4:1-18). What lessons should be derived from this narrative? 

The four traditional Jewish methods of glossing scripture; each one providing us with different insights and different lessons are: p’shat/plain text meaning concerns crime, punishment and repentance. The derash/didactic meaning concerns the need to deal with rejection. The remez/metaphor meaning concerns the two impulses of human nature. The sohd/hidden depth meaning concerns the nature of religion. 

Read the whole narrative to yourself and derive as many spiritual lessons as you can from it on your own. Then read it again and again after you have read each of the following paragraphs.

The p’shaht/plain text lessons: Cain murders Able due to jealousy, so envy and jealousy are evil. We are our brother’s keeper. God exiles Cain to give him an opportunity to repent and live a more productive life.  Cain establishes a town named after his son. Thus he repents and builds for the future. 

The derash/didactic lessons: We are not told why God favored Able and not Cain. It isn’t important because throughout life we will have to deal with failure and rejection. Often we succeed in love, in business, in sports, etc. and sometimes we fail or are rejected. Cain deals with rejection by scapegoating and killing his rival. 

Cain takes his rejection as a personal insult. Cain should try another offering, or another time, or another way. He doesn’t. He blames Able because God didn’t favor Cain’s offering. He can’t stand losing. How have you reacted to rejection in the past? How would you want to react in the future?

The remez/metaphor lessons: 4:7 is the key. Sin crouches at the doorway. We always have a choice. Rivalry and competition can lead to excelling or to destroying. The “evil” impulse (yetzer) isn’t inherently evil, but if untamed by a moral code (Torah) it easily leads us to do evil. Sex with love and marriage is good. Sex without love and marriage isn’t good. Extramarital sex or forced sex is evil. 

The biology is simply the Yetzer or the yetzer haRah (the evil/wild impulse). The yetzer HaTov (the good/tamed impulse) is our moral learned response that makes us into creatures in the Image of God. God sometimes doesn’t favor us in order to challenge us to grow stronger in taming our wild infantile urges. Our narrative is all about the dual nature of human nature. What aspects of self control do you need to grow stronger?

The sohd/hidden depth: God does not ask Cain or Able to worship or to bring an offering. Able does it on his own and seems to prosper, so Cain decides to do it too. 

Religions are human responses to our awareness of the Divine, but our particular forms of worship are not as important as our responses to other human beings. To be jealous of another person’s religious worship is a great sin that leads to even worse sins. 

The only way religions should compete is through seeing which religion produces the highest percentage of people who in their everyday life are kind, responsible, loving, and charitable to all human beings. All religions can help people secure God’s favor as long as people live up to the best teachings of their own religion. No religion guarantees success to those who use God as a weapon. 

To read a holy text in such a way as to support evil acts on others is to follow the religion of Cain instead of Able. Let all ‘holier than you’ fundamentalists take note of this Bible lesson.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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