A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism, Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by archpriest Alexander A.Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem). Below the sixteenth article: “Animals And Soulmates”.
Jerusalem is full of pregnant cats, some are so lucky to have a permanent residence near one, two or more restaurants and coffee-shops, while others sniff around as good street NFA pets where they might get some nice bones or grains.
It is a real mitzvah (a good deed) to feed homeless animals. It is nice to see pieces of bread spread along the ways, in the corners of some streets – inside the Old City – but also in many other places, in all cities actually. Spontaneous groups or individuals do gather for informal catering systems everywhere in the country. This allows the pigeons, other birds or dogs to get even fresh meat, water or grains. The good deed may apparently not be based on a real reference to the life-giving Mitzvot.
Recently, the Municipality of Jerusalem decided to vote a special amount of money in order to develop the distribution of food to the cats in the city. This is not really new. It would have been absurd some forty years ago: there were very few pet animals in the streets, definitely just a few dogs here and there, mostly in the Arab areas and some cats. Both animals are not very appreciated in the Scripture. Cats are absent from the Bible and only the dark tiger “shunra/שונרא (comp. Arabic “sinnawr= cat”) is mentioned in the Mishnah (Hullin 53a).
In the Old City, the Christian spirit might firstly involve that it is just normal to feed animals. Then, it somehow traces back to Jesus’ remark: “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them… not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.” (Matthew 6:25-34). With regards to the Jewish part, it is normal to be kind with animals and the commandment that prohibits to tear a limb of a living animal shows a high respect of the life of all animals (Noachide Commandments).
There can be a lot of personal fondness or emotional frustration, loneliness involved in such behaviors that lead crowds of people to be far too kind toward animals and quite suspicious toward their human brothers and sisters, if any….
Over the decades, it is really possible to check that animals had spread in all the levels of society, both Arab and Jewish, Palestinian-oriented and Israeli. While encountering with individuals and groups of all backgrounds, I discovered in listening to some of these small groups how the Shoah’s backgrounds were present in terms of absence of care, lack of humanity or just be given simple basic food. It is still very current to meet with now elderly persons who sit in the public gardens and distribute crumbs to the sparrows and the pigeons, the beautiful Jerusalem doves. They will explain how these local species are precious for the survival of the Holy City and every town in Israel. They would start accounting their own stories, broken down into terrible and constant facing with persecution, attacks, terror, deportation, extermination. It should be noted that the Shoah survivors have new companions who care for the local animals – it is quite unknown – the people who survived the Gulags, deportation, humiliation in the former communist countries. Or, on the other hand, the fugitives who cross through the Fertile Crescent and find some comfort with cats, dogs, birds…
This is also why plants and animals are seen as signs of Divine Presence and magnificence, at times funny or weird. People can shout at you if you pick up a nice flower or a branch… It aches in silence, in a manner that resembles the sadistic impulse to remove a limb from a living animal.
On the other hand, there is indeed a “beast slavery”, sordid and vile, in particular when it comes to raise the production of some ducks, roosters, cows, cattle or even ostriches that are bred in narrow spaces and die in order to feed the humans, make money and develop speedy consumption.
It is somehow normal that former Soviet migrants, in particular in the South Negev, develop large connecting groups of assistance in order to save the local street cats. Cats are numerous in Beersheva, Arad, Ashdod. The South is still in some odd “zone of pioneers”. It grows, it is the future of the country, but life can be wild. Thus, a lot of Russian-speaking women – mostly from the periphery of Interior Russia, i.e. Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine – check every corner and gather the kittens, their mothers, the elderly felines… or fallen birds. They raise money in order to operates those that were bitten, lost sight or some leg. Israeli groups would heal some special eagles whenever it is possible to get to them in the wilderness.
Still, at the top of the present show we note the wide development of these high and longhair puddles or greyhounds and more and more huskies.
Local animals are more donkeys and camels. Camels show for short tours for children and reckless grownups. Camels are sweet and cute: they store liters of water to quench their thirst. Sadly, camels disappear from the big Middle-Eastern cities. On the other hand, they trek along the age-long routes that continue to cross the desert of Sinai through the South of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the whole of the Arab peninsula.
At first, it seems that there are no vultures… maybe safer! They swallow corpses as people can see their swirling flight to capture the bodies on the top of the Mazdean/Zoroastrian towers of death in Mumbai. Vultures and eagles are confounding in the Middle-East and they sound a bit the same in daily and scientific speech: “eyt/עיט” whilst the psalm praises the power of the eagle: “the Lord revives the days as the nesher-נשר/eagle” (Psalm 13:5). This kind of eagle is so speedy and ever young that it gave its name to the renowned Nesher cab company based in Jerusalem, founded in 1934.
The Jewish tradition has always praised the people who took care of creatures: Jews should remember that they are a nation of shepherds and flock care-takers. David was the last and forgotten son gone somewhere to graze the lambs and ewes… Thus, he was the right one to reign as a king. Rebekkah (rivka/רבקה = ewe) is the model of the nice girl who gave waters to Eliezer’s camels.
Still, the youth will pass loitering through the narrow streets of the Old City at sunset, taking their sparrows or robins for a walk when it gets cooler… Parrots can also be on their way, on the shoulders of some Arab young man. Goldfishes (they are green in Russian) are present in many homes. Others prefer monkeys or snakes. There are beautiful reptiles in the Middle-East, some can be so long, dangerous. They are a full part of the local fairy tales and the Biblical accounts.
The Jewish ethics towards animals are definitely clear in this verse: “The righteous respects the life (nefesh\נפש) of his beasts” (Proverbs 12:10). Still, the Talmud accounts how some famous Sages could be rude with their beasts, e.g. Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi who is blamed for not having shown compassion towards a calf. Curiously, it may be more humane to respect a calf that will be slaughtered than to quote insightful verses of the Mishnah.
It is a duty to give food to domestic animals before the master of a house, a family or a company of humans have lunch, supper or some nosh. Domestic animals are not able to find their food the way wild beast do. So they have to be served with respect.
This question of taking good care of animals is at the heart of the Book of Bemidbar-במדבר/Numbers 22:2-25:9. This Gan Eden-Paradise-like atmosphere of wonderful deers and gazelles combining charming swiftness and tenderness, love and perfect beauty plus wisdom is fundamental in the process of a correct reflection.
To begin with, a nasty deal that tried to commit an idolatrous God-fearing magician called Balaam with Balak, son of Zippor. The Moabites were alarmed that the people who had left Egypt had completely defeated the Amorites and were heading towards Moab. Thus, the best way was to consult an expert in divine affairs and to curse the Israelites so that they would either perish or be done before even trying to fight Balak.
At that time, there was a sort of wide range of gods and goddesses, deities who could either put a spell, a curse or a blessing on our brothers/sisters, parentage, tribe but imperatively on our enemies. This is our major life activity: how can we curse others without harming ourselves (too much)? Balak just behaved accordingly: he sent the elders of Moab to contact a good professional “magush\מגוש – magician”. Because these elders were themselves versed in “qsamim beyadam\קסמים בידם – diviners, charmers having divination at hand”. “He began to make divinations by throwing arrows and sundry objects” as said in Eycha Rabba 1 which states that a charmer makes use of carved or chipped objects (qessem\קסם).
We use the word “qassam/קסם” in Modern Hebrew to say that a person is “cute”, which implies that s/he is chipped up or cut down. This is also linked to the present use of the word “icon” as we love to have “cult characters” at the present. As a usual paradox in the Jewish tradition, it is also said: “He who makes himself a carver, i.e. a skilful worker in the words of the Law shall finally become a leader through them” (Sanhedrin 9, 6).
It is evident that persuasion plays that game of “carving fascination” in our daily life.
This consists in hexing, exercising witchcraft and at this stage there is a strong connection between Balak’s attitude and our ways of living and acting in the present. Let’s go on and consider the way we parade all the time with our egos; when millions of teens and “immature” adults change and enhance their trade mark look on the net. Specific sites allow them selling their images and features, contact abilities. It apparently allows overcoming multi-faceted damned patterns of boring lonely connectedness.
It is at the core of the rising pattern of moral and mental, social and societal confusion that develops as a foggy shape of unknown nature – no name but still detectable since most ancient times: the prime of idolatry that seizes souls and limbs by ever-reinvigorated charms.
Balaam was a diviner. He did not believer in the One God. But he listened to God’s voice and refused to be paid in order to curse the Israelites. This is meaningful because of the above quotation from Talmud Sanhedrin 9, 6: a carver instructed in the word of the Law will become a leader, at least a true man of God. At this point, Balak sent more distinguished dignitaries who would highly reward Balaam. Again, there is a heart-to-heart talk between God and Balaam who confesses the Lord and refused to be given house, silver and gold.
Then God put a sort of test (not to say a counter-charm). “You may go with these men. But whatever I command you, that you shall do, said the Lord” (Numbers 22:20). There is a subtle move to which we are pretty much accustomed as “individual souls”. God told Balaam to do what He will tell him to do. Is Balaam the wicked diviner described throughout the Tradition?
Faith in the One God never relies – God forbid! – on splitting or conflicting twisting textual irrelevant interpretations. This concerns all beliefs, but in particular the dramatic history that affected the relationships between Judaism and Christendom.
The problem with Balaam is to know whether he was vainglorious (Rashi). Or, maybe he “could and shall not disobey God’s will”(Bible and Targum Onkelos).
Balaam had a she-donkey. Interestingly, God grew angry when He saw that Balaam was joining Balak’s emissaries. He placed two defenders: His angel standing in the way with a sword and the she-donkey/aton – אתון. It may make sense, especially according to the Semitic traditions, that the root is somehow linked to “atnan\אתנן = the pay of a whore, a prostitute”. Lowliness can give better advices and suggestions that by nature would firstly be rejected as nonsense or nil.
Now, would you trust your favorite pet and take him/her as your counsellor? Pets can bite some foreigners in between, but would your domestic animal really tell you the truth of who you are indeed?
On the one hand, Balaam had the angel of God and he was beating the poor she-donkey that stubbornly did not want to move. Then the Lord opened the “aton’s” mouth: She said: “Why have you beaten me three times?” Balaam admitted the donkey had always served him correctly. The Lord unveiled Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel; thus he bowed down with his nostrils to the ground (“Vayikod vayishtachu le’apav\ויקד וישתחו לאפיו”, Numbers 22:31).
The fascinating part of the episode is the revolving attitude of the faithful diviner. He did know God and listened to Him. He was ordered to go with God’s enemies in order to curse Israel. And thus, God protected him as his best friend the aton/she-donkey did. “Aton\אתון” is a special word. In Daniel 3:11 it is stated: “Who ever will not fall down and worship (the statue of gold) shall be thrown into a fiery burning furnace (lego-atun nura\לגא-אתון נורא)”. In this prophetic verse against idolatry, the word symbolically refers to God’s anger before He reveals the gates of redemption.
Numerous quotations link Balaam, as a negative personality, to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It may be far more interesting to open other ways. Balaam is the pagan diviner that recognized the living God and bowed totally down (Ps. 95:6). God and the she-donkey switched Balaam’s tongue from cursing to blessing to such an extent that till now, when entering a synagogue, one of the first verses read in the Jewish Morning prayer says: “How fair are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings Israel!” (Numbers 24:5).
The she-donkey did the work that led the “prophet” to switch from idolatry to faith. All generations have missed this donkey that reversed and contradicted the diviner. Instead animals are either “pet idols” or beasts to be slaughtered for the comfort of fattened-up consumers. In the crib and on the icons the beef and the donkey are represented according the deutero-canonical texts of the Gospel along as the text of Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows his owner, And the donkey his master’s crib; But Israel doesn’t know, My people don’t consider / יָדַע שׁוֹר קֹנֵהוּ, וַחֲמוֹר אֵבוּס בְּעָלָיו; יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע, עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן“.
There is no proof they were present when the Child of Bethlehem came into the world, He Who is the Lamb of God. In Isaiah 53:7: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers…”. The Eastern-Orthodox priest removes the bread portion called “Lamb” that will be consecrated as the Body of the Lord. It somehow links Holy Mysteries, Divine Presence and identity recognized and revealed as “achieving human nature bringing it to divine and human essence and eschaton” and, still, including the reality of “animal creatures”.
Saint Maximos the Confessor expressed that redemption will be extent to all creatures and the full union between God and the human beings, furthermore shown in the divine incarnation. This involves that the Light from High does illuminates the universal reconciliation where animals and plants are included. The Eastern Christian traditions have been sealed with this reality of faith, in particular in the manner icons present “stylized forms of plants and animals with, at times, astonishing colors (green ravens, blue goats, yellow pigs, etc.)” (1). Interestingly, the Byelorussian painter Marc Chagall did get a strong inspiration via the local Byzantine style of the icons and the way his Jewish-Yiddish heritage brought him to the strong insights that animal and human realms are deeply interwoven in the process of the divine revelation. It is definitely present in the Byzantine and the Hassid ways of reflecting on existence.
I always bless the animals. This can raise some disputes: the Arab women are very glad, while the Greek ones look at this with much suspicion. Animals can be cured; in return they help healing family discomfort and they do assist the disabled or hooligans who try to find the right way, love the animals and being cared in response.
Animals disappeared from the South wilderness in Israel. King Solomon is taught to be humbled by a small ant that was sheltered on his hand (Proverbs 6:6). Saint Gerasimos remains the model of the saint who lived with them in peace and some real communion… Saint Seraphim of Sarov had his bear.
The Orthodox theologian Jean-Claude Larchet described his visit to Father Paissos as follows: the geronda brought a glass of water for him and his interpreter as he used to do for all his visitors and gave them some lukums. Then, he took one rachat lukum from the box and gave it to a group of ants who were working around and said “They work a lot. They need to take some force!” After a while, having discussed a serious matter, the saint came to a little ant that hardly could carry a big twig. He took it with its load and put it in front of its nest “it’s too heavy for it, it needs a help!”He took the ant and its burden and laid it in front of its nest (1).
“We have reached the stage of being led by people without any self-respect, leaders who attempt to save themselves at the expense of the sins, omissions and errors made by those under them, who acted under their leadership. This is unlike the faithful shepherd that the Jewish people had, who, when the people died as a result of their sins, died with them, even though there was no sin on his part”, wrote, in 1986, Rav Y. Leibowitz (Yoke of heaven, p. 148). It was courageous. Curiously, he then wrote a sort of Jewish and somehow Christian-like statement about Moses.
It is worth reflecting on the words of the well-known rabbi, a man who loved to use arguments and paradoxes. Our societies go through a long process of evolving to new minds, cultures, morals and behaviors while having to cope with the heritages granted by centuries of revelation. We go through times of ruthlessness, lawlessness. It has always been the case over the continents.
In 2019, the commemoration of the birth and the death of Moses on Adar 7 after the Jewish tradition falls, for the first Adar month of this leap year, on the same Julian calendar date as the celebration of the three hierarchs Basileos the Great, Gregorios the Theologian and John Chrysostomos in the Orthodox Church.
These Hierarchs taught the Church how to look ahead of faith and history in the true Light of the Revealed. We ought them the richness of the Divine Liturgies and the manifold phrases rooted in the treasure of the Living Word. Thus, are we ready to make a sacrifice and walk up as bulls onto the altar (Psalm 51:21) in order to witness to the fulfillment of true humanness and united creation?
“The person who loves God cannot help loving every man as himself, even though he is grieved by the passions of those who are not yet purified. But when they amend their lives, his delight is indescribable and knows no bounds.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love 1.13).
(1) In French: Jean-Claude Larchet, Les animaux dans la spiritualité orthodoxe, Editions des Syrtes, Octobre 2018, p. 19. Cf. The description of the book online on “orthodoxie.com in French and in English.