Translated and adapted by Anson Laytner and Dan Bridge
In this interfaith and multicultural fable, eloquent representatives of all members of the animal kingdom—from horses to bees—come before the respected Spirit King to complain of the dreadful treatment they have suffered at the hands of humankind. During the ensuing trial, where both humans and animals testify before the King, both sides argue their points ingeniously, deftly illustrating the validity of both sides of the ecology debate.
First penned in Arabic by members of the Islamic “Brethren of Purity”, Ikhwan al-Safa, a Sufi order, in the environs of Basra, Iraq, sometime before the tenth century of the Common Era, this story was the twenty-fifth of fifty-one “letters”, or treatises, in which were described the mysteries and meaning of life.
Much later, this one story, Iggeret Baalei Hayyim (The Letter of the Animals), was translated by Rabbi Kalonymus ben (son of) Kalonymus, known among Christians as Maestro Calo, at the request of his master, King Charles of Anjou (in France), in the year 1316 C.E. Kalonymus lived primarily in Arles, in the Provence region of France, a region that, along with Spain and Italy, were highly cultured and more tolerant than other parts of Europe because of the influence of and contact with the Islamic/Arab world through Muslim Spain.
His Hebrew version has now been translated and adapted into English for the first time by Laytner and Bridge. Published by a Sufi press (in Kentucky!), it was edited by a Christian and illustrated exquisitely by a Muslim woman from India under the patronage of a Saudi princess. This is a true interfaith and multi-cultural title for both the young and old of today! It addresses environmental and animal rights issues with charming effectiveness.
Interview with the Authors (2007)
What is The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity about?
Rabbi Dan Bridge – The treatment of animals. How we treat animals has a direct impact on how we treat one another. The animals are portrayed in this story as [beings] who can think and who are willing to work with human beings, but the human beings just won’t to listen to them. There is also an environmental twist, looking not just toward saving the relationship that we have with the animals that we live with, but the relationship we have with the environment–the land and the earth we live on.
Where does the tale come from?
Rabbi Anson Laytner — In actuality the antecedents of the story are Indian but the first written version of the story was penned by members of the Order of Pure Brethren,” a Sufi order in the environs of Basra, Iraq sometime in the 10th century of the Common Era. In their version it was the 25th of 51 letters that described the mysteries and meanings of life. The “Animals” story was translated [into Hebrew] and adapted by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus at the request of King Charles of Anjou in 1316 C.E. The story was popular in European Jewish communities into the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
How did your collaboration come about?
Rabbi Dan Bridge – This project started out as two rabbis studying together. It began nine years ago when Anson and I were looking for some texts to work on Hebrew, to read and to translate. Anson had found this small volume in the Hebrew Union College library in Cincinnati [more than 10 years earlier]. We started looking at it and it was an interesting premise, so we said, ‘Why don’t we work on this?’ We got together every week and we translated the book and that’s how it got started.
How does the current version differ from the original?
Rabbi Dan Bridge — The book, in its original form, categorizes people and it categorizes animals, and uses broad generalizations to describe both. The story as it was presented in the 10th century wasn’t an easy-to-understand version, so we started talking about ways of dealing with the tale’s complex issues, and came up with a different way of telling the same story.
Rabbi Anson Laytner – We tried to put as much action into a story that was originally a litany of talking heads. We also jazzed up the ending. We changed that so that both the animals and the humans were personified and became real. We wanted to take this kernel of the story and make it living and vital and current.
Why did you rewrite the ending?
Rabbi Anson Laytner –The original story ends almost anti-climactically. You’ve got this whole long story – build-up, build-up, build-up, then – “Oh, yes. What was the King’s verdict? The king said, ‘Things should remain what they are, but behave nicer.’” We gave the king a speech and we gave him admonishments or warnings to give to the people, so their descendants would know if they’d gone back on their word. We had the king stand up and give a powerful speech, then put some oomph into his message about “behave better’ or there are going to be problems.
Is this the first English translation of the tale?
Rabbi Anson Laytner –There isn’t, as far as we know, another translation of the Hebrew story. [There is a 19th century] translation of the Arabic tale, which is, I think, somewhat different from what we worked on. We’re talking about a story that has existed in a Hebrew version and an Arabic version. We assume that the rabbi who translated it from Arabic to Hebrew took out all the Koranic references and put in Biblical ones.
How did you get it published by Fons Vitae?
Rabbi Dan Bridge – Anson found this publisher who lives in Kentucky and is Sufi. She read the book and liked it quite a bit. She found the illustrator, who is Pakistani and the person to finance the illustrator, who is a Saudi princess. That’s how the book came about, it was looking for the right match.
Rabbi Anson Laytner – It’s really a collective endeavor – an Arabic Sufi tale that was translated by a rabbi into Hebrew in the Middle Ages and was translated by us, with a Sufi publisher and a Pakistani Muslim artist. Matthew Kauffman, the editor, is a Christian. It’s just interesting that we all came together.
Who do you think will read it?
Rabbi Dan Bridge – The lessons are certainly lessons that we would love children to be able to grow up learning, so getting into the hands of children of junior high age would be a wonderful thing. But also, just as adults deal with fables and learn lessons from them, it would be wonderful for adults to read it too.
Rabbi Anson Laytner – I see multiple audiences. It appeals to animal lovers and maybe to environmentalists. It appeals to interfaith audiences who are looking for stories that transcend our religious communities. I think it would appeal to a Jewish audience who would like to read a story that helps them connect to their tradition and maybe, open doors to new ways of thinking that they may never have had before. And kids, because I do think that it would make a very wonderful older children’s story, not to mention a great animated feature.
The story of this book is miraculous in itself. The fable and the message it so clearly…comes with great force over a thousand years, to us who can see the catastrophes approaching because humans have through these thousand years largely ignored these warnings, and indeed things are often so much worse for animals in our industrialised and human-centred societies. I found in this book a message that speaks so clearly to me and to us all. It is remarkable it has survived, and has been published by a small press, the Fons Vitae (fountain of life) in Kentucky USA. It is beautifully illustrated on the cover and throughout by Kelsey Begum, and presented with great love.
— From the Summer 2011 issue of the GreenSpirit Journal. Reviewed by Jean Hardy
Fons Vitae is to be congratulated for making this work available in its current form…the cooperation of representatives from all the religions of the Abrahamic family in the preparation of the present book – reminds us of the basic truth that the most crucial problems of today are those which all authentic religious people face together…They have provided a book of value for experts on medieval thought as well as ordinary readers interested in reading a fascinating story of enduring spiritual worth and great current significance.
— Seyyed Hossein Nasr, George Washington University
Our Tri-Faith Dialogue group read this book for our book club. It was also discussed during October Peace Month activities at a local universities. It is well-written, and a tale supported by the three Abrahamic faiths (Christians, Jews, and Muslims). The arguments made by the animals and the attitudes of the invader humans are eye-opening, and will make you think about how we treat all animals. The book acknowledges that we do use animals for our needs (food, clothing, etc.). It was written in the 14th century but is very relevant to our lives today. PETA may not like it since it does not condemn the use of animals to need human needs, but we can and should consider just how we use animals and why, and definitely reassess how we treat ALL animals…A book people should read!!!
— Mairedubhtx (from Amazon website)