A Time for Apes and God: Commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa 5783

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


When a few Jewish researchers exposed the resident apes at the Chimpanzee Human Communication Institute to a few ritual objects that epitomize the Passover seder, one chimp examined the maror and, in a chimpanzee dialect of American Sign Language, signed “BITTER CRY FOOD.”* Amidst the chimpanzee community that Washoe, Loulis, Tatu, Dar, and Moja forged—with the assistance of CHCI’s human staff—in Central Washington University, Passover was far from a central research subject of any of the scientists studying intraspecies and cross-species communication. Nonetheless, this singular scene has long challenged my understanding of the uniqueness of the human condition. Washoe and her compatriots recognized that special foods can cause strong reactions among us and even are deserving of names not so different than the ones humans come up with in their religious cultures.

For whom religion exactly is intended is a question that has long divided those who embrace the idea of God and those who reject the idea. Atheists may argue that religion was entirely invented by humans to justify the distribution of power in their lives. So goes the argument summarized by Selina O’Grady in the very title of her book And Man Created God. Jewish tradition tends to point us back to Genesis 1:27, where we are taught humanity was created “בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים” (betzelem Elohim, “in the image of God”).

When reading the description of Shabbat that appears in this week’s torah portion, Ki Tissa, the 19th century chasidic master Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (1823–1900) was struck by a linguistic discrepancy he found in the Torah. Rabbi Tzadok compares the moment when the voice of God in Exodus 31:16 speaks of “הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת” (hashabbat, literally “the Shabbat”) and God’s word in Leviticus 19:30, referencing “שַׁבְּתֹתַ֣י” (shabbetotai, literally “My Shabbatot”—shabbatot being the plural of shabbat). In other words, for to whom does Shabbat belong? Is it public property as the sabbath that anyone can latch onto, or is the sabbath God’s private entity that God has generously gifted to the Jewish people? Rabbi Tzadok’s words conjure this provocative question in his Peri Tzaddik (Ki Tissa 5), and his ruminations lead us in the direction of accepting Shabbat as something we share with God. But Rabbi Tzadok qualifies that we must wrap our heads around the limitations of our joint partnership with God. What it means for God to share something is not identical to the way in which humans share any joint property.

Rabbi Tzadok turns our attention to a mystifying if not otherworldly legend in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 58a)—the tale of when one Rabbi Bena’ah went out to take some measurements around the graves of a few of our spiritual forebears:


רַבִּי בְּנָאָה הֲוָה קָא מְצַיֵּין מְעָרָתָא כִּי מְטָא לִמְעָרְתָּא דְאַבְרָהָם אַשְׁכְּחֵיהּ לֶאֱלִיעֶזֶר עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם דְּקָאֵי קַמֵּי בָּבָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאי קָא עָבֵיד אַבְרָהָם אֲמַר לֵיהּ גָּאנֵי בְּכַנְפַהּ דְּשָׂרָה וְקָא מְעַיְּינָא לֵיהּ בְּרֵישֵׁיהּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ זִיל אֵימָא לֵיהּ בְּנָאָה קָאֵי אַבָּבָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ לֵיעוּל מִידָּע יְדִיעַ דְּיֵצֶר בְּהַאי עָלְמָא לֵיכָּא עָיֵיל עַיֵּין וּנְפַק כִּי מְטָא לִמְעָרְתָּא דְּאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה נִסְתַּכַּלְתָּ בִּדְמוּת דְּיוֹקְנִי בִּדְיוֹקְנִי עַצְמָהּ אַל תִּסְתַּכֵּל הָא בָּעֵינָא לְצַיּוֹנֵי מְעָרְתָּא כְּמִדַּת הַחִיצוֹנָה כָּךְ מִדַּת הַפְּנִימִית וּלְמַאן דְּאָמַר שְׁנֵי בָתִּים זוֹ לְמַעְלָה מִזּוֹ כְּמִדַּת עֶלְיוֹנָה כָּךְ מִדַּת הַתַּחְתּוֹנָה אָמַר רַבִּי בְּנָאָה נִסְתַּכַּלְתִּי בִּשְׁנֵי עֲקֵיבָיו וְדוֹמִים לִשְׁנֵי גַּלְגַּלֵּי חַמָּה הַכֹּל בִּפְנֵי שָׂרָה כְּקוֹף בִּפְנֵי אָדָם שָׂרָה בִּפְנֵי חַוָּה כְּקוֹף בִּפְנֵי אָדָם חַוָּה בִּפְנֵי אָדָם כְּקוֹף בִּפְנֵי אָדָם אָדָם בִּפְנֵי שְׁכִינָה כְּקוֹף בִּפְנֵי אָדָם

Rabbi Bena’ah was making markings in a cave. When he arrived at the cave of [our ancestor] Abraham, he found Eli’ezer the servant of Avraham [who had been alluded to without a name but appears in Genesis 24] standing at the entry [of the cave].

He [Rabbi Bena’ah] said to him [Eli’ezer], “What is Avraham doing?”

He [Eli’ezer] said to him [Rabbi Bena’ah], “He [Avraham] is lying in the wingspan of [Avraham’s wife,] Sarah, and she is eyeing his head.”

He [Rabbi Bena’ah] said to him [Eli’ezer], “Say to him, Bena’ah is standing at the entrance.”

He [Eli’ezer] said to him [Rabbi Bena’ah], “Let that [Bena’ah] enter knowing full well that there is no [evil] inclination in this world!”

He [Rabbi Bena’ah] entered, eyed [the site], and exited. When he arrived at the cave of the Primordial [Human] Adam, a heavenly voice emerged and said, “You looked at the likeness of My visage! Do not look at My visage itself!”

[But there was a reply:] “Oh, [all] I want [is] to measure the cave!”

[The voice retorted:] “Whatever are the measurements on the outside are the measurements on the inside, and it is just like whoever said that when two houses are [stacked] one on top of the other, the measurement above is like the measurement below.”

Rabbi Bena’ah said, “I looked at the two heels [of this spiritual ancestor,] and they are similar to two solar wheels. All [of creation], compared to Sarah, is like how an ape compares to a human [or Adam]. Sarah, compared to Eve, is like how an ape compares to a human [or Adam]. Eve, compared to Adam, is like a ape compares to a human [or Adam]. Adam [or a human], compared to the Presence [of God], is like how an ape compares to a human [or Adam].”


In other words, we are certainly lesser than God—and our distance from Godliness has increased with time. Still, according to the Divine voice, glimpsing one of God’s first (relatively) faithful human creations came so close to looking at God’s self that it is clear from the rabbinic imagination that Adam was a near replica of God.

Although science would never verify whether Rabbi Bena’ah’s encounter with Eli’ezer truly happened, scientific research supports an idea that Rabbi Bena’ah may not have meant to imply to us: Just as Adam and God were rendered deeply similar, humans and apes are in fact deeply similar. When researchers have sequenced the genome of chimpanzees, the results have revealed that over 98% of humans’ DNA can be found among chimpanzees. If DNA were the entirety of our ingredients and if math alone could make these determinations, then, had Adam been, for example, a 98%-faithful replica of God, then a chimpanzee who is 98% identical to Adam is still more than 96% a perfect duplicate of God. Of course, we are more than just DNA. We are shaped by nature and nurture—by the circumstances into which we are born and all that we experience. Whereas we might bear traditions that are absent in the lives of chimpanzees, could the rabbinic mind have stated that just as humans were made in God’s image, chimpanzees were made in humanity’s image?

For Rabbi Tzadok, it was clear that, when God shared Shabbat with us, we simply could never have the larger share; the way that we divide ownership is only an imitation of how God divides ownership. The divine actions we perform constitute our own imitations of God—and we imitate God with a human accent. So too, because chimpanzees’ hands differ slightly in build from human hands, chimpanzees who have learned American Sign Language inevitably communicate with a chimpanzee accent. Shabbat belongs to God, and it belongs, in a still real but lesser form, to the divine humans who accept the treasure of a weekly day of rest. Our species must remember though that we might be far from the only creatures who are built to enjoy religious experiences. Until a chimpanzee was given maror, we never knew who else might have discovered “BITTER CRY FOOD.”*



*I recall this anecdote being reported to me by my sister, Shelley (“Shuli”) Rank, as a story that she had heard when serving at CHCI and had happened some time prior to the summer of 2006. Any error in the accuracy of this reporting is my own entirely.




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