God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.
At least that was the plan according to a poster by New Mexico artist Diana Bryer that I own. Before you object or roll your eyes, though, remember this verse in last week’s Torah portion:
Then God said, “Here! Throughout the whole earth I am giving you as food every seed-bearing plant and every tree with seed-bearing fruit. And to every wild animal, bird in the air and creature crawling on the earth, in which there is a living soul, I am giving as food every kind of green plant.” And that is how it was. (Gen. 1:29–30, CJB)
Originally not only humans but animals too were all vegetarians. Meat eating entails violence and apparently there wasn’t any of that until after Adam and Eve got booted from the Garden. In fact, even vegetarianism might not have been peaceful enough in this place of primal peace. According to The Jewish Study Bible, “Humankind, animals, and birds all seem originally meant to be neither vegetarians nor carnivores, but frugivores eating the seeds of plants and trees.” Seeds and fruits fall off the plants on their own, making this the ultimate non-violent diet, and leaving humankind radically innocent.
Jewish commentator Dennis Prager tells about being on a long flight on which the woman sitting next to him was served a vegetarian meal (while he was given a kosher one). He asked her why she was a vegetarian and she responded, “Because we have no right to kill. After all, who are we to claim that we are more valuable than animals?”
Prager is okay with that first sentence, and it does seem consistent with the frugivorous Shangri-La of Eden. But Prager is shocked at the second sentence: “Who are we to claim that we are more valuable than animals?”
With that sentence in mind, he begins asking high school students wherever he speaks, “If your dog and a person you didn’t know were drowning, which would you try to save first?” He says that in secular schools “no more than a third of the group has ever voted to save the person.” In religious schools, in contrast, students vote overwhelmingly to save the person. Prager concludes that without the biblical teaching that humans are created in the image of God belief in the unique value of human life is easily lost. “What [persuasive and definitive] nonreligious reason could be offered for regarding people as more valuable than animals?” he asks.
I’ll add that if we humans are no more valuable than animals, then we have no more responsibility than animals. We remain naked innocents.
But our intrinsic value and dignity as human beings is established in a passage right before the dietary verses cited above:
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in the likeness of ourselves; and let them rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the animals, and over all the earth, and over every crawling creature that crawls on the earth.”
So God created humankind in his own image;
in the image of God he created him:
male and female he created them.
God blessed them: God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air and every living creature that crawls on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26–28, CJB)
This is revolutionary! Human beings by nature bear the image of God the Creator. There’s a vast gulf between human and animal—no matter how much we might love our dogs. Recognizing the divine worth and dignity in the other is the root of all morality. This revolutionary idea was revolutionary in the context of the ancient Middle East, and it’s still revolutionary in the postmodern world, where the notion of God as Creator is in the process of suppression. Prager’s fellow passenger sounds kind and peaceful, even innocent, but denying the unique value of every person as revealed in Genesis has fueled the cruelest regimes of the cruel 20th century—Nazi, Soviet, and Maoist.
Some might object that in this same passage in Genesis, humankind is given the task of subduing the earth and taking dominion over the animals. “Subdue” here is from the Hebrew root radah, and translator Robert Alter comments, “In most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.” But before Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, it was a benign mastery. Not only were animals forbidden to them, but they weren’t even supposed to hurt the plants, as the frugivorous diet implies. Human mastery over the planet becomes cruel after we rebel against God’s decree, and the remedy isn’t to avoid this mastery by equating ourselves with the animals. Instead we’re to exercise it in submission to God and his decrees, as bearers of his image. Innocence is not an option. We are responsible in a way that animals are not.
It’s significant that the image of God in man wasn’t lost when Adam and Eve disobeyed. Whatever else changes because of their fall, they maintain the divine image and pass it on to their offspring:
When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man [Adam] when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. (Gen. 5:1–3, ESV)
And in this week’s Torah portion, even after the sweeping judgment of the Flood, and all the violence that preceded it, the Torah invokes the divine image:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image. (Gen. 9:6, ESV)
This raises the question for today: Is there a way to exercise our image-of-God dominion over the earth in harmony with the earth? In a manner that respects and sustains the gift of life in all of creation—and especially honors the image of God in other humans? It seems to me that these are foundational moral questions for today. And declaring that humans aren’t worth any more animals only avoids the questions and the responsibility they imply. Innocence is not an option.
 Cited in R. Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. II (New York: Bell Tower, 2009) 330.