Jewish World Review July 19, 2002 / 10 Menachem-Av 5762

Spiritual animals?

By Dr. Abraham Twerski, M.D. | Yesterday we sat on the floor and fasted as we mourned the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the centers of our once thriving Jewish lives. We reflected on the genocides, pogroms, inquisitions and attempted annihilations of our people. In fact, we did something deeper. We contemplated how far we are from G-d and how we can repair that distance. We thought about why we are not yet worthy to have the Temple rebuilt, in our days. Tisha B'Av was a day of spiritual contemplation and personal growth.

Can animals do this? Can they reflect on the meaning of their lives and how to improve themselves? Can they reflect upon their past actions or the actions of their ancestors? Can they deny their biologic drives and refrain from eating while contemplating the purpose of life and of history? When man does this he is acting in a way that animals cannot. He is acting with his spirit-and is therefore activating his spirituality.

Why then do biologists insist on classifying man as homo sapiens; homo referring to the general group of hominoids, among which are monkeys, apes, orangutans, and chimpanzees, and sapiens (intellect) being the distinctive feature that separates man from the animals? Perhaps it is my ego at work that makes me reject this classification, according to which I am a "gorilla with intellect." Indeed, I believe that other forms of life have intellect, but are not as wise as man. But the biologic appellation distinguishes man from animal only quantitatively i.e., we have more intellect than animals, but does not provide a qualitative distinction.

I believe that more than just a greater degree of intelligence distinguishes man from animals. He has thoughts, emotions and behaviors which are uniquely human-which constitute, in their totality, his spirit. We generally assume that animals do not create poetry, write music, create artistic masterpieces, and that animals have not transmitted the history of ancient events to their offspring over many generations. While this is only an assumption, it is a reasonable one that an overwhelming number of people hold to be valid.

True, under some circumstances an animal may delay gratification of a biologic drive. For example, if a hungry jackal looking for food comes across a carcass which happens to be in the possession of a tiger, he will not approach it. However, this is not because he consciously suppresses his appetite, rather it is because the fear of being killed by the tiger overrides the hunger. This is not an instance of freely choosing to fast. This is merely a greater biologic drive, that of survival, overcoming a lesser drive, that of hunger.

Some psychologists would have us believe that human behavior is on the same plane, and that man's freedom of will, is but an illusion. They argue that man has a number of drives, some of which are in conflict with others, and that human behavior is merely the result of the struggle among various drives for dominance. They claim that man's consciousness of what he is doing causes him to think that he is choosing, but that this is nothing more than an illusion. His choices are being made by his internal drives.

These psychologists may be in concert with those biologists who consider man as merely another variety of animal, and according to this it is virtually meaningless to speak about spirituality. In practice, however, mankind does not subscribe to this theory about himself. Our elaborate system of positive and negative sanctions is based on the assumption that man is not at the mercy of his impulses, and that he indeed has the freedom to choose and to determine much of his behavior.

Freedom is one of man's preeminent values. Patrick Henry spoke for all humanity when he said, "Give me liberty or give me death," as did the founding fathers when they asserted that man has an inalienable right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Tyranny and terrorism are intolerable, and they are equally despicable when motivated by internal drives as when they are driven by despotism. Slavery is abhorrent, not only because it is often cruel, but more so because it is dehumanizing. Man is a free creature, and to take away his freedom, and his responsibility for his free acts, is to rob him of his humanity.

If someone avoids gratifying a biologic drive only out of a fear of consequences, he is still not behaving on a true spiritual level, because animals too are deterred by a fear of punishment. Whether the punishment is death or corporeal pain or imprisonment or social condemnation, is immaterial. The person who avoids stealing because of the fear of being apprehended and punished, or who avoids an illicit sexual relation because of the fear of contracting disease or being condemned by society or family is really no different than the hungry jackal who avoids the carcass that is in the possession of the tiger.

Man functions in his unique human capacity when he chooses to deny an urge even when there is no possibility of any unpleasant consequences. When his decision to deny a biologic drive is based only on his principles of right and wrong, man rises to a supra-animal level. This is when man makes a free moral choice, something that is uniquely human, and which is beyond the capacity of even the most intelligent animal.

A person may be an intellectual genius, capable of the most sophisticated abstract thinking. He may be the world's greatest scientist and be the ultimate in sapiens , but if he is incapable of making a free moral choice by overcoming his instincts, he is lacking a fundamental feature of humanness.

The making of a free moral choice is evident in the disease of addiction. Whereas there have been various types of slavery in world history, a modern form is the slavery of addiction. Whatever form the addiction may take- alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling or food, it totally dominates the individual. Everything in life becomes subordinate to complying with the demands of the addiction. I have heard this from many recovering people: "It has been ten years since I drank. I may drink today, but if I do, it will be because I choose to do so. When I was in my addiction, I had no choice".

A lack of self-esteem can be found to have been present in most addicts prior to the onset of the addiction. As the addiction progresses and deprives the person of the capacity to make a free moral choice in regard to his addiction, his self concept is further depressed, since the person feels himself to be lacking in the very capacity that defines his humanity. Achieving self-esteem, then, is crucial in maintaining sobriety.

Making a free moral choice is a major component of the spirit, and exercising this capacity makes us spiritual. Even a person who does not have a religious orientation can conceptualize himself as possessing the capacity to make free will choices-and is thus capable of being spiritual.


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Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit. He has recently launched a new 12 step program for self esteem development Send your comments by clicking here.

© 2002, Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.