Monday, March 28, 2011


Science has labeled human beings as "Homo Sapiens" - defined as having a brain capacity averaging 85 cubic inches, dependent on language and creates and utilizes complex tools. "Homo" is a genus which includes monkeys, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and baboons. "Sapiens" refers to intellect.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski wrote in his book Twerski on Spirituality that there are traits in addition to intellect which are unique to human beings and which distinguish us from animals. Some of the traits which comprise the definition of a human being are:

1) The ability to learn from past history.
A rat will learn not to press a lever if it gets shocked, but it doesn't have the capacity to learn from his grandfather's experience.

2) The capacity to think about the goal and purpose of one's existence.
While some humans may not do so, they have the ability to do so.

3) The capacity to volitionally improve oneself.
It is unlikely that a cow will ask itself, "What can I do to become a better cow?" Only human beings can reflect on self-improvement.

4) The capacity to delay gratification.
Yes, a dog will wait until given permission to eat the doggie treat, but only a human can push off fulfilling a desire for a higher goal or an appropriate time.

5) The capacity to reflect on the consequence of his actions.

6) The capacity to control anger.
If an animal is enraged, it will attack. A human being can assess the provocative act and conclude that there is no reason to get angry. It might have been an unintended or accidental act.

7) The capacity to forgive.
Animals may forget, but it is highly doubtful they are capable of forgiving. Humans may forgive and forget (but as one husband told me, "My wife forgives and forgets - but never forgets what she forgave!")

8) Free will.
Animals are under the absolute domination of their body and cannot make a free choice. If hungry, it must look for food. It can't decide to fast today. If a jackal sees a tiger eating a carcass, it will refrain for fear of retribution. Only a human being can be in a position with no possibility of detection or retribution and decide not to steal because it is morally and ethically wrong.

Writes Rabbi Twerski: the sum total of all the traits that are unique to human beings comprise the spirit that makes us distinctly human. Whether one believes that the spirit was instilled in man by G-d or somehow developed in the process of human evolution - the fact that human beings have a spirit is independent of one's belief.

If one is seeking spirituality, then one must exercise his uniquely human capacities. Spirituality is thus nothing more than the implementation of these capacities, hence spirituality can be seen as being synonymous with humanity. To the degree that a person is lacking in spirituality, to that degree he is lacking in humanity.

Without including religion in the definition of spirituality, the above definition is for generic spirituality. However, for Jewish spirituality one needs to look to the old testament for direction on how a spiritual seeker (my definition of what a Jew is)  should exercise his uniquely human capacities!

Love Yehuda

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