In the Theocentric Universe, Human Beings Are Not Masters

Powerful passages in the Book of Job teach that the world, and the animals in particular, must not be abused or exploited by human beings.

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Theological and Practical Implications

The basic theme, that the universe is a mystery to man, is of course overtly expressed in the God speeches. There are, however, two other significant implications. In accordance with characteristic Semitic usage they need to be inferred by the reader.

The first is theological: since the universe was not created with man as its center, neither the Creator nor the cosmos can be judged from man’s vantage point. The second is ecological. Though the poet was not concerned with presenting a religio-ethical basis for ecology, he has in effect done so. Man takes his place among the other living creatures, who are likewise the handiwork of God. Therefore he has no inherent right to abuse or exploit the living creatures or the natural resources to be found in a world not of his making, nor intended for his exclusive use.

If we have read the meaning of the Speeches of the Lord aright, we now have a sound conceptual basis for one of the more beneficent aspects of 20th-century civilization  -- the growing concern for the humane treatment of animals. This sensitivity expresses itself both practically and theoretically.

On the practical side, a far-flung and highly varied network of organizations has arisen in Western Europe and America, designed to protest the cruel treatment and undue suffering to which animals are often exposed in industry and even in scientific research. Many concrete proposals have been advanced for laws to protect animals against abuse and needless pain. The rising tide of protest against contemporary practices in these areas takes on many forms, some perhaps ill-considered and at times even bizarre and violent. On balance, however, the essentially positive character of the movement for animal rights is undeniable.

Aside from a deepening involvement with concrete measures in this area, there has also been an increased interest in a philosophical basis for the rights of animals, with a growing literature on the subject as a branch of secular ethics.

The Book of Job offers a religious foundation for the inherent rights of animals as coinhabitants of the earth, adumbrated two millennia earlier than the emergence of secular ethics in this area.

By insisting on a God-centered world, to which man has only a conditional title, the Book of Job presents a basis in religion for opposing and ultimately eliminating the needless destruction of life and the pollution of the natural resources in the world.

Reprinted with permission from the estate of Robert Gordis, from Judaic Ethics for a Lawless World, published by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1986.

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Dr. Robert Gordis (1908-1992) taught for over half a century at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as Professor of Bible and Rapoport Professor in the Philosophies of Religion. He served as a congregational rabbi and as editor of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal. Among his many books are Love and Sex and Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law.