Today we have a guest post from Mira Beth Wasserman, who teaches rabbinic literature at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is the author of Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities. Wasserman's book undertakes a close reading of Avoda Zara, arguably the Talmud's most scandalous tractate, bringing it into conversation with new areas of the humanities that have been reshaping the understanding of what it is to be a human being. Here, she elucidates her approach—in particular her understanding of the posthumanism with which her work is in dialogue—via a reading of the new film War for the Planet of the Apes. Enjoy!
The sub-title of my book, “The Talmud after the Humanities,” refers to my effort to bring talmudic studies into conversation with posthumanist theory. I have been searching for an accessible way to explain posthumanism to friends and colleagues. This weekend, I found what I was looking for at the summer movie blockbuster War for the Planet of the Apes.
Directed by Matt Reeves, this is the third film in the third Apes franchise—there were five original Planet of the Apes movies from 1968-1975, and an earlier reboot by Tim Burton in 2001. Those who remember the basic scenario in the original series will appreciate the stunning reversals in this summer’s new release. The first film, starring Charlton Heston, was set in the distant future. A crew of astronauts crash onto a planet ruled by apes. These apes are intelligent, but cruel, and they govern a strictly stratified society in which humans are subjugated and harshly oppressed. In the iconic image with which the movie ends, the astronauts discover the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, and realize that this alien planet ruled by apes is actually earth, centuries after nuclear devastation. In this 1960s version, human beings are vulnerable and virtuous, and they must struggle for liberation from heartless, simian rulers.
The new Planet of the Apes turns the tables, making humans the bad guys, and aligning our sympathies with the intelligent apes who resist a violent human regime. The hero is Caesar, an ape who as a Moses-figure embodies many virtues that are quintessentially human: He speaks, he loves, he acts with compassion and with bravery, he has a moral conscience. In this 2017 version of dystopia, humans are heartless and cruel, and the best hope for peace and justice is the demise of humanity, and the rise of something new—a community of human/ape hybrids that combine morality and intelligence and live in harmony with the rest of the natural world.
The vision of a post-human future projected by Reeves’ film is a popular expression of the same critical concerns that shape posthumanist theory within the academy. Posthumanism is a broad heading for a collection of critical perspectives that all challenge aspects of Enlightenment thought. Included under this heading are critiques of Western humanism that emerge from a variety of disciplines, including environmental studies, gender studies, critical race studies, disability studies, animal studies, and the new materialisms. Some posthumanist theorists take aim at the construction of the human being as a rational autonomous subject, pointing out that this concept of the human not only excludes many human beings (such as children, and those with intellectual disabilities), but also diminishes human experience in ignoring the affective, somatic, spiritual, and relational aspects of human life. Others focus on how the Enlightenment’s elevation of the human has led inexorably to the devastation of the planet, and to the degradation of other forms of life. Posthumanist theory, like the new Planet of the Apes, topples the kind of hierarchical thinking that enshrines the human being as the apex of existence, and as the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right.
For all they share in common, there is an important difference between popular fantasies of a world without humans, and critical theories of posthumanism. For most critical theorists, it is not humanity writ large that posthumanism rejects, but rather the particular Western intellectual tradition called Humanism. (The “post” modifies “humanism,” not “human.”) As I understand it, posthumanism is a critical discourse that aims to de-center the human being, recalibrating the meaning and value of human difference.
Posthumanism does not disparage the human, and it does not repudiate the humanities. In today’s political climate, with humanistic scholarship increasingly under attack, it is important to emphasize that posthumanism is a vibrant part of the world of the humanities. Posthumanistic theory grows out of earlier traditions in humanistic scholarship. While conceptions of the human change, what does not change is the role of the scholar as an interpreter and critic of texts and artifacts.
The task I set out in my book is to bring new ideas from posthumanist theory into conversation with a much older intellectual culture, the world of the Babylonian Talmud. The book focuses on the part of the Talmud ostensibly dedicated to shoring up separations between Jews and other people, Tractate Avoda Zara. I argue that even as the tractate elaborates on the differences between Jews and non-Jews, it also investigates what Jews and non-Jews share in common, and by extension, what it means to be human. I propose that there is a hidden structure that organizes the talmudic discussion as a descent down the great chain of being, from the supernal realm of souls and spirit, to the world of animals, to the world of inanimate matter. From the perspective of the Talmud’s creators, humanity is but one link on the great chain of being, distinguishable from the rest of animal life only by degree. For the Talmud, there is no great distinction in being human; being a Rabbi, however, is something to boast about. Rabbinic scholars rise above the fray, distinguishing themselves from humans and other animals, because they dedicate themselves to the pursuit of learning and to law.
The Talmud is not an antidote to the ills of Western civilization, and Tractate Avoda Zara is particularly problematic because of its xenophobia. What the Talmud does offer is a way of thinking about what it means to be human that avoids the anthropocentrism of Western humanism. This is one point of connection between the Talmud and posthumanism. At the same time, the Talmud also steers clear of a temptation to which both posthumanists and filmmakers sometimes fall prey—the tendency to anthropomorphize animals, re-making them in the human image.
Anthropomorphism is rampant in War for the Planet of the Apes, and this makes certain omissions within the film all the more striking. In the simian world projected by Reeves, apes master human language, but show little interest in other traditionally human pursuits. The qualities of mercy and compassion become the exclusive preserve of the apes, but other aspects of human society do not survive at all. Though the apes can talk and reason, they have no literature or law, no art or religion. The planet of the apes is a world in which the humanities are extinct.
War for the Planet of the Apes projects a future devoid of humans and of the human genius for meaning-making. This is not an expression of posthumanist theory, but of its failure to promote a persuasive vision of a world in which people can flourish without dominating others. The movie’s bleak outlook for humans and the humanities helps me appreciate the degree to which both the Talmud and the posthumanities put their trust in human imagination, inquiry, and interpretation. In both these worlds of discourse, letters are humane, and scholarship makes a difference.