The Naked Ape: Reflections on Human Violence


When my kids were very little, I used to love to throw them around on the bed. They would try to stand up and I would sweep my hand under them so they would fall. And, they thought that was hilarious, and they wanted to do it again and again.

One day, I was visiting the Woodland Park Zoo, and I saw a gorilla play with his children in exactly the same way. Here I thought I was so original. It was a very humbling thought to realize that in spite of a million years of evolution, producing in us vast changes from our biological ancestors, we hadn’t changed that much at all. We still remained what Desmond Morris once called the naked ape.

The rabbis had deep respect for the naked ape in us. They weren’t cynics. The rabbis believed deeply in the possibility of human change. They just cautioned us against the belief that it could be instantaneous. The Talmud tells us the story of Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan.

Resh Lakish was a gangster, a violent thug, and the leader of a notorious gang. Rabbi Yochanan was a Torah scholar known not only for his brilliance, but for his matinee idol good looks. One day, Resh Lakish spotted Rabbi Yochanan bathing in the river. Depending on how you interpret the story, he may have even initially mistaken  him for a woman.

Resh Lakish dove into the water and began swimming toward Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Yochanan was impressed with Resh Lakish’s physical power. He said to him: “With your strength, you would make a great Torah scholar.” Resh Lakish said, “with your good looks, you would have made a great woman.”

Rabbi Yochanan said: “My sister is even more beautiful than me. If you become a rabbi, I will give you my sister’s hand in marriage.” And, so Resh Lakish became a rabbi.

At first, he was Rabbi  Yochanan’s student. But, he soon became Rabbi Yochanan’s intellectual equal, and his chief sparring partner. The two men loved to argue with each other, and they were very close.

But, as Resh Lakish’s reputation increased, Rabbi Yochanan began to be threatened by his abilities. One day, they had a public argument about the precise moment a sword is finished. Rabbi Yochanan said when it’s passed through fire. Resh Lakish said, no, after that it’s cooled and polished with water.

Rabbi Yochanan said: “Aha! A thief knows the tools of his trade.” That is, “of course, you would be an expert on swords. You are a gangster.” Resh Lakish said: “Why did I go through this life transformation and become a rabbi, if you look at me as not having changed at all?”

Rabbi Yochanan then used his soul power to cause Resh Lakish to be sick. His sister pleaded with him to have mercy. But, he didn’t, and Resh Lakish died, literally killed by Rabbi Yochanan’s anger with him. But, as time went on, Rabbi Yochanan felt the pain of the loss of his good friend.  They tried to console him by bringing him another student, Rabbi Eliezer. But Rabbi Eliezer agreed with everything that Rabbi Yochanan said. And, Rabbi Yochanan said: “This is no fun! When my friend Resh Lakish was alive, he used to challenge everything I said with 24 proofs to the contrary. I really miss him.” And, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan went mad, and died of grief and remorse.

There is typical rabbinic exaggeration here, and we have to take some of the details of this story with a grain of salt. But, if we can get past the melodrama of this story, we’ll find the rabbis are saying two things about human violence. First of all, for the rabbis, the study of Torah was combat. It was a safe form of warfare. Becoming a rabbi was a way for Resh Lakish to satisfy his competitive drive and his aggressive instincts without killing anyone. He could defeat people in intellectual battle, instead of in physical battle.

So, the rabbis have given us a potential alternative to war. That’s so hopeful! But, the story doesn’t end there. The rabbis realized that our aggressive drive isn’t tamed that easily. A person in a nice suit and using high sounding words can be just as mean spirited and dangerous as the obvious gangster. In this story, Rabbi Yochanan is more violent than Resh Lakish. Resh Lakish has become a mensch. But, Rabbi Yochanan is still a naked ape.

And, the moment Rabbi Yochanan’s Torah fails him teaches us about the source of human violence. Rabbi Yochanan feels civilized in comparison to the violent Resh Lakish as long as Rabbi Yochanan is confident he can win the argument. But, the moment that Rabbi Yochanan reaches the limits of his persuasive abilities, he regresses and resorts to violence himself.

Our Tradition understands violence to be a kind of failure, a response we resort to out of a feeling of supreme frustration that is rooted in a feeling of deep inadequacy. When we despair of making our mark through peaceful means, when we don’t we can have an impact through conversation, we resort to violence. At a critical moment in the Torah, even God falls victim to this frustration. When the Jewish people threaten to reject the Promised Land and run back to Egypt, God tells Moses he is going to destroy us and start all over again with him. God has reached the limits of God’s persuasive power, and out of a sense of inadequacy, nearly gives in to murderous impulses. Moses reminds God that true power is found in the ability to achieve a cherished goal over the course of many generations. Human transformation is possible, but it takes a lot of work and determination. And, there are many setbacks.

This is a message driven home by the Torah again and again. The struggle to overcome our aggressive instincts begins with two brothers wrestling while they are still in their mother’s womb. That’s how ingrained this aggressive drive is in us. The story ultimately moves towards true reconciliation among brothers when we get to the end of the book of Genesis. But, it takes time.

Even as the first battle with our own nature is won in the first book of the Torah, the struggle is not over. As Exodus opens, Moses kills an Egyptian aggressor and he feels like a hero. The next day he goes out and sees two Jews killing each other, and he says, “Uh, oh. This is going to be harder than I thought.” It takes forty years of wandering in the desert for the Jewish people to begin to change on the inside and to begin to understand what it means to construct a society based on words and not fists.

And, even then, the temptation to slip back into violence is always just around the corner. At the very end of Moses’s career, in a moment of frustration with the stubbornness of the Jewish people, Moses strikes a rock in anger to produce water for the people, instead of speaking to it, as God commanded. This is the moment that God asks Moses to step aside as the leader. The Torah could not be more clear in its insistence that words must take precedence over violence as a tool for human transformation.

We have seen this struggle play out many times in our own day. Time and again we have seen people strike out violently out of a deep sense of their own inadequacy, fearing that they lacked the tools to otherwise have impact on the human conversation. We have seen young men, rejected by their peers, feeling unnoticed and unheard, murder innocents indiscriminately on high school and college campuses.

We have seen too many advocates of Islamic culture, plagued by a sense of their own inadequacy in relation to the West, frustrated by their own lack of persuasive ability to win the argument over human values with words, spill over into violence against the West and against its own people. This is not to say that Islam is inherently inferior or violent. Not at all. It’s just that in our day, too many leaders of Islam have lost confidence that their message can be heard without violence to back them up. We do a great civilization no favor by pretending that the problem is limited to a fringe element. Islam has a problem. As a world religion, it has yet to fully embrace democratic values. We have to say this honestly, but respect, and not out of any feeling of self-righteousness.

Anyone who thinks the problem of human aggressiveness is endemic to Islam has a short memory. Only a short time after centuries of enlightened culture overcame age old bigotries and hatreds, Germany slid back into barbarism. Again, the culprit was a deep sense of national inadequacy, a sense of powerlessness.

And, in our own society today, the regression of Rabbi Yochanan has its own parallels. The equivalent of the Talmudic House of Study is the university campus. The university is our great hope for human transformation. It is here that we can replace actual war with a war of ideas. It’s on the college campus where we can do intellectual battle, and nobody gets hurt.

It’s a great idea, but our aggressive instincts our stubborn. At the University of Missouri recently, a photographer was physically attacked by student protesters when he tried to document their protest. And, an assistant professor who joined the protests was heard on video calling for ‘muscle’ to oust another student journalist. And, at Yale, and many other universities lately people have been shouted down, or intimidated or disinvited if they expressed an unpopular view.

If we look at what happened at these universities, it is clear that the students (and professor) who resorted to violence had reached the end of their persuasive abilities. In their frustration, they struck out. One student cried out recently that she just wanted to express her heart. And, she felt that no one was listening. But, a sense of powerlessness can never be used as excuse for violent behavior, unless we want to excuse Nazi Germany.

What’s ironic about the action in parashat Toldot is that Jacob and Esau were fighting over a blessing. And, what is a blessing? Words. Both Jacob and Esau believed in the power of words. That’s why they wanted the blessing so badly. In the end, they nearly killed each other over an idea. This is a scenario that has been repeated too many times in human history. It happened in the house of study of Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan. It happened in the Crusades and in the Inquisition. And, tragically, it happened again this week in Paris.

Our Tradition encourages us and gives us hope that we can do better. At the beginning of Moses’ career, he protests to God that he is inadequate to the task of taking Israel out of Egypt because ‘Lo eesh devarim anochi/I am not a man of words.’ Instinctively, Moses understands that only words can defeat Pharoah. Only when we are able to create a society in which we converse with words and not with bombs and guns, can we truly say that we have evolved into something more than the naked ape.

Modern democracy is built on this idea. It is rooted in human values that have been developed and refined over millennia. But, we still have much work to do. Our hearts go out to the nation of France, the families of the victims, and the wounded in body and soul. Let us redouble our efforts to strengthen democratic values throughout the world. And, may the spiritual impact of these values penetrate our governments, our religious institutions, our classrooms, our personal relationships, and our own souls.