Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
A few years ago, a chimpanzee at the Detroit Zoo was rescued from drowning in the zoo's moat by a visitor who leaped in to save him. (Chimps don't swim.) The chimp had been knocked out in a fight with one of its mates. When the other chimp approached the invading human, screaming and with canines bared threateningly, the visitor, one Rick Swope, jumped back over the enclosure fence to safety just in time.
The incident, which had been captured on videotape, was replayed on television screens across the country. By nightfall, Rick Swope was a national hero. When asked why he had risked his own life to save that of a chimpanzee, he replied, "Well, I looked into his eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of a man. The message was, Won't anybody help me?"
In this dramatic incident, Swope gave voice to a perception shared by many who have gazed into the near-human visage of these highly intelligent creatures. Indeed, such feelings seem to provide a species of anecdotal evidence of the evolutionary link between man and the primates. The truth of Darwin discernable in the eyes of the chimpanzee.
This conflicts, of course, with the anti-Darwinian position of established religion, and one would expect that Judaism would reject such claims out of hand, no matter how passionately they are advanced. But there is no need to deny the evidence of the senses. For there is in Jewish tradition a unique corroboration for this hailing of kinship between man and monkey. Albeit with a twist...
In the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel, we read that G-d scattered the people across the planet, dividing them by many languages. (Prior to that, Hebrew was the universal tongue.) The Midrashim speak of a conspiracy among the people to rebel against their Creator. The decree of dispersion was intended to break that unity which had turned to evil. It seems that there were different groups who suffered different fates. Some of those involved in the tower project were transformed into subhuman shadows of their former selves; they devolved into demons, elephants, and...monkeys.
This is why chimpanzees bear such a striking resemblance to humans, and why they are so adept at imitating humans. It is an expression of their innate desire to return to what they once were.
According to the Midrash, then, the perception that so many people have of a kinship with monkeys--- that when they look into their eyes, they are looking into the eyes of a man---does not contradict our tradition. What is incorrect is the conclusion that we must have come from them. On the contrary, it is they who come from us, who due to their sins, descended from the elevated stature of mankind, and who long to be with us and like us once again.
Judaism teaches that the tzelem Elokim, the image of G-d in which man was created, is something that should be a visible characteristic. As it says in the Torah verse "And all the people of the earth will see the name of G-d called upon you and they will fear you." (Deuteronomy 28.) In other words, we should be able to look into the face of a human being and declare, "I looked into his eyes and saw no mere animal, but Man, created in the image of G-d!"
Why, then, do we not see it?
The Midrash says that "When a man spills the blood of a man, his blood will be spilled. Rabbi Akiva says that whoever spills blood, it is as if he has diminished the image of G-d...because in His image G-d made man."
This does not mean that the Creator's image is affected in any way. It is an article of faith that He is perfect, and cannot be diminished. Rather, it is man's own image that is shrunk by acts of immorality. Man is created to emulate the mercy and wisdom of his Creator, and thereby to attain a level of godliness. In this way, he refines the image of G-d in which he was created. Acts of violence and corruption destroy the divinity in which we are cast and for which we are brought into this world. Such behavior over generations has virtually obliterated the tzelem Elokim, rendering it, for the most part, little more than the textual trace of a distant cosmogony.
There are exceptions, however; individuals who have developed their tzelem Elokim through living lives of Torah and good deeds. As one of his disciples said of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the modern mussar (ethics) movement, "Anyone who had seen Rabbi Salanter could never again believe that he came from a monkey." His nobility was of such an order that anyone encountering it could testify that it could not have derived from a lower order of being; rather, it must partake of something higher than man---from the Creator Himself.
The truth is that all of us bear the tzelem Elokim; and all of us, therefore, have the potential of becoming the kind of people whose very presence testifies to the Divine source of our existence.
Read part I of "Chimp of Your Choice".
Sources: National Geographic, Dec. 1995, P. 129; Shevet Mussar; Midrash Bereishis Rabah 34:20; Rav Shach, Yated Musaf Chol HaMoed Sukkot 5762, P. 6.
Reprinted with permission from www.E-geress.org.