Human Again

             The Davis Academy just staged a fabulous production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” In addition to the beautiful music, Beauty and the Beast has some very poignant and thought provoking elements. Consider the following lyrics from the song “Human Again”:

All:
When we’re human again
Only human again
When the girl fin’lly sets us all free
Cheeks a-bloomin’ again
We’re assumin’ again
We’ll resume our long lost joie de vie
We’ll be playin’ again
Holidayin’ again
And we’re prayin’ it’s A-S-A-P
When we cast off this pall
We’ll stand straight, we’ll walk tall
When we’re all that we were
Thanks to him, thanks to her
Coming closer and closer
And closer and…
We’ll be dancing again!
We’ll be twirling again!
We’ll be whirling around with such ease
When we’re human again
Only human again
We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes
We’ll be floating again!
We’ll be gliding again!
Stepping, striding as fine as you please
Like a real human does
I’ll be all that I was
On that glorious morn
When we’re fin’lly reborn
And we’re all of us human again!

 

As I’m typing these words I recognize (fully) that analyzing Disney lyrics for their philosophical content is a suspect endeavor. But the message of “Human Again” really resonates with me. By showing us human beings who are slowly being transformed into household objects, Beauty and the Beast brilliantly communicates a critical message to viewers: the potential for objectification and dehumanization. It’s also asking us to consider the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Here are two quick insights regarding this question, one from Ancient Greece and another from Rabbinic Judaism.

Diogenes of Sinope lived in the 3rd-4th centuries BCE. One of the many tales told of him (he was quite a wily character)  involves him roaming the streets of his town in the middle of the day with a kindled lamp. When asked what he was doing he replied, “Looking for human beings.”

For Jewish educators, Diogenes’ lamp should bring to mind the teaching of Rabbi Hillel from Pirke Avot (2:6): B’makom sh’ein anashim, hishtadel l’hiyot eish (“In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.”). Hillel’s teaching makes more sense when translated as, “In a place where there’s a shortage of humanity, strive to be a mentsch.”

The German/Yiddish word mentsch simply mean “human being.” But what I love is that in a Jewish context is that “human being” isn’t only descriptive but also prescriptive. Core to the idea of being human is the idea of being “good.” Being a mentsch means being a good person, making the world a better place etc… As I’m fond of saying, “human being” is not a neutral concept in Judaism. We aren’t expected simply to be, but to be good. Anything short of being good (ethically, morally, spiritually) means that we’re failing our most basic responsibility.

Having taken this detour, I come back to the lyrics of “Human Again” from Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, as I write these words details are still emerging about the shooting outside of a Jewish school in Toulouse, France that has claimed 4 lives, including 3 children. This tragic incident shows all too clearly the danger when we objectify, dehumanize, and devalue human life. In my mind nothing could be more groteque then the murder of innocent children on their way to school.

If more people took the teachings of Diogenes and Hillel (and yes, Beauty and the Beast as well) to heart then school children everywhere could enjoy their school musicals without having to draw such horrific parallels between Disney Songs like “Human Again” and real world incidents such as these.

At times like these it is incumbent on all of us to kindle our lamps, shine a light on all the mentschlichkeit in our midst, and drive away the darkness at the core of such senseless deeds.