The Planet of the Apes movie franchise was a huge hit in the late 60s and early 70s, resulting in a series of 5 movies, a spin off TV show, toys, games, models, and even a guest spot for the star of the series, Roddy Mcdowall, on the Carol Burnett Show. Coming out of the turbulent 60s, the films (especially the first installment, based on the Pierre Boulle novel) were often understood as an exploration of race relations. What is the difference between one race and another? Where do the trappings of power come from? Is it destiny or fate that determines who dominates a culture, and who is dominated?
This summer, the Planet of the Apes franchise has made a come back. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has now grossed over 200 million dollars, and continues to do strong business. The subtext of racial tension still plays at the heart of the movie, even now some 45 years after the original film starring Charlton Heston was released. Sad to say, it is clear from the events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri since a policeman shot and killed a young African-American man that we still have a lot of work to do here in America on issues regarding race.
But there is another issue that the Planet of the Apes movies touch on, which we’ve also seen come to the fore in Ferguson. And that is the thin veneer of civilization that we wear, as individuals, and also as a society. Most of the time we live as law abiding citizens in a law abiding culture. We are ‘civilized’ in the classic sense of that word – we have been brought out of a savage state. The Planet of the Apes films, however, would suggest that we may not be that civilized after all, and that at the end of the day the difference between a human and an animal is not that extensive. A policeman can shoot an unarmed citizen. A neighborhood can erupt in flames and looting. Put us in the right situation and we can all too easily cast aside the veneer of civility that coats us. As it says in the Siddur (the prayer book) ‘a human has no advantage over a beast.’
What Judaism teaches is that at the end of the day, there is one thing that distinguishes us from animals: we have a conscious choice in terms of the actions we take. Animals can operate only on instinct. They can not override their natural feelings of aggression, or need to eat, or fear. But what makes a human human is that he (or she) can do precisely that. One of the reasons we fast on Yom Kippur is to remind ourselves that despite the fact that our instincts tell us to eat, we can decide not to do so. That when we are angry, when we want to lash out, our intellect can pull us back from the brink and allow us to calm down.
I would like to believe that that is not a veneer, but rather is something that is under the surface of our humanity, a fundamental part of us that needs nurturing, but that is always there. The Torah teaches that we are created ‘in the image of God.’ This in my mind can not mean that we look like God, because God has no physical being, no body. So it must mean that we resemble God on the inside. Our challenge always is to find that part of us, as individuals and also as a society, and to let it rise to the surface.