The new Disney movie "Earth" was a topic of conversation this Shabbat when friends joined us for lunch. I gave my review of the breathtakingly-photographed film, (disorganized; no cohesive theme or story, but worth the time), and noted that I couldn't bear to watch (no pun intended) attacks by lions on their elephant prey, or wolves chasing down baby caribou, or other scenes where the natural order involved stalking, striking and munching. The food chain is a violent thing--the occupation of the majority of earthly beasts is to find and devour other living creatures.
And then we come to man. What separates us from the hungry lion or the pursuant wolf? Is it that we're omnivores, not dependent on a single species for our sustenance? We can eat plants, whose only stalking is the emergence of their stems from seed we've sown, tended and harvested. We can eat animals' offerings--the biblical milk and honey, eggs, and their derivatives. And finally, we can slaughter animals, a concession, according to Torah sources, by God to Noah and his descendants, necessary for humans to understand their superiority to and stewardship over creatures not endowed with moral choices.
The Torah restricts man's consumption of animals. Only those that can be domesticated (ruminants with split hooves), fish with fins and scales, and certain birds are allowed for food; means of animal slaughter require humility, and imposing an instant, painless death. We are to remove as much blood from the meat as possible, a recognition of its life-giving symbolism. And we are to recognize God before and after consuming it, understanding our place and privilege in the broader scheme.
The reasons for such boundaries were evident when viewing "Earth" on a theater screen; the grandeur and excess of color and detail in this world--from which we can learn rules of behavior--reinforces our insignificance. But then I read an Associated Press story about estimates of Iraqi deaths since 2003 by Iraq Body Count (91,358) and separate AP research (110,600), both figures far lower than commonly cited. Though these better-substantiated totals at least show less loss of life, they are still disturbing--nearly all were victims of Muslim violence, like car bombings and Shiite sectarian attacks by death squads roaming the streets: "...33 percent were abducted and killed execution-style, with nearly a third of those showing signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes or burns." (American air strikes were involved in less than 4% of the casualties, the first report said.)
As humans, we have moral choices. We have speech with which to communicate. We need not kill each other for food. And yet, the moral choices we make lead to violence far greater than the pouncing of a panther on its next meal. Perhaps it's sophomoric to make such a comparison--our ability to reason leads to complexities for which individuals voluntarily fight and die, and to evil by which individuals brutalize but manage to rationalize it. The Torah commands not to murder, but doesn't say not to kill; self-defense and accidentally causing death each have their statutes and consequences.
Perhaps this simply suggests we can use our humanity for good or ill, hardly a surprise. And yet, the horror of what humans concoct far exceeds the malice-less attack of an animal acting on instinct with the goal of its own survival. I had to cover my eyes as "Earth's" protagonists captured their victims; I have to cover my human sensitivities to read the daily newspaper.