Judaism and Nature

Judaism and Nature[1]


On Jews and Pagans

We live in a culture where many of the basic beliefs and documents of Judaism are shared by most of the largest religious communities. For this reason it might require a special effort to imagine what things were like when the religion of the Israelites made its first appearance thousands of years ago.

It was not just a question of how many gods one was prepared to worship, or even of the contrast between the universal scope of God's dominion and the local jurisdiction of the competition. For the concept of monotheism carried with it some radically new understandings about the roles of God, of human beings, and of the world.

When we think about what we know about the various polytheistic religions--whether our frame of reference is the artistic sophistication of ancient Greece and Rome or the contemporary mythologies of Africa or America-- it becomes clear that the supernatural powers that are central to their faiths are usually associated with the powers of nature: the sun and moon, the winds, the earth and the rain. Religion often consisted of gaining the favour of those forces, especially by offering them gifts, which was the original purpose of sacrifice.

Ultimately, of course, the place of humans in that scheme was not a very important one. For nature really takes little notice of us puny little creatures. The greatness of the natural forces lay precisely in their cyclical and unchanging character. You could count on the sun to rise every morning and set every evening. You could be sure that the seasons would follow a consistent course every year, and that the stars would travel along predictable paths in the heavens.

Compared with such mighty and eternal powers, the gods had little reason to concern themselves with the trivial affairs of mortals. Occasionally, of course, one of them, especially in the Greek myths, might become infatuated with a particularly attractive human creature; or, as was related in the ancient Babylonian tradition, their celestial repose might be interrupted by the loud noises coming from the terrestrial abodes impelling them to wipe out humanity with a great flood. But such instances were exceptional, and in the majority of cases nature and its divine representatives were expected to pursue their inexorable course, maintaining aloofness over the lower realms.

The God of the Torah is of course a very different matter. For one thing, he is not the embodiment of any single natural force, or even of their totality. Rather he is described as being outside of nature altogether. He called the natural world into being and set it into motion.


On Laws and Their Suspension

Jewish thinkers have not always agreed about the extent of God's continuing involvement in the processes of nature since the pressing the proverbial "start" button at the creation. Some teachers have tried to minimize his active participation, believing that the world was fashioned so efficiently that it is self-running and self-perpetuating, except for those rare occasions when a suspension of the normal processes--a miracle--is required. Some even went so far as to assert that the miracles too were pre-programmed into the creation, a belief which, according to Maimonides, was expressed metaphorically in the Talmudic legends about certain miraculous items, like Balaam's donkey and the pit that swallowed up Korach's followers, having been created at dusk on the final day of creation. For scientific minds like Maimonides, God is best appreciated through an intensive study of the natural sciences which leads us to admire the infinite harmony and regularity of the universe and its author.

At the other extreme are those religious figures who see the uniqueness of God precisely in the fact that he is not confined to the natural or physical laws to which lesser creatures are subject. Adherents of this view prefer to emphasize God's personal concern for each individual raindrop or blade of grass, regarding each moment as a new miracle produced by the divine will.

Whether we choose to adopt one these approaches, or one of the many intermediary options, it remains clear that God is not perceived as part of nature, but as above it.


On Geography and History

A more significant difference between the religion of the Torah and that of ancient paganism has to do with the place of humanity within the large picture. Contrary to the pagans' feeling that their gods are capricious beings who are indifferent to the deeds of mortals, Judaism placed morality at the centre of the religious agenda. We are so accustomed to the equation of religion and morals that it is easy to forget how radical a notion it was when first introduced by the religion of Israel. According to the Bible, God has a personal concern for the behaviour of human beings, as individuals and as members of communities and nations. Much of the Bible consists of historical narratives in which the authors perceived a close connection between ethical conduct and the destiny of the Israelite nation. God manipulates nature in order to measure out rewards or punishment in accordance with the actions of the people.

The stage upon which nature unfolds is that of space. Insofar as the natural processes were felt to be unchanging, history was usually not an important concern of pagan religion. In most instances, time was viewed as circular: The same agricultural seasons would repeat themselves from year to year, and the same life-events from birth to death would recur from generation to generation.

By contrast, Judaism saw history as the testing ground for moral life. For the Torah, history consists not merely of eternal annual and generational repetitions, but it is lineal: It had a beginning, and it will one day reach a culmination, when humanity will be judged, current inequities will be corrected, and the world will finally be established in accordance with God's ideals.

The opposition between these two world-views has been observed by several thinkers. One of the most eloquent was Abraham Joshua Heschel, who composed a beautiful tribute to the Jewish Sabbath based on the premise that, as distinct from the physical shrines and artistic masterpieces that were encouraged by Western civilization, the religious genius of Judaism expressed itself in the crafting of "cathedrals in time"--through the sanctification of historical events, of days and life-stages, of words and music.

Heschel's book makes provocative and compelling reading. However it does not take too much reflection to realize that the truth is much more ambivalent than that. For the Torah, there is never an either-or choice between history and nature, between time and space.


On Agricultural and Historical Festivals

Nowhere are these complexities more evident than in the holidays that we celebrate. Several of the important Biblical festivals have a dual nature: They celebrate milestones in the unfolding of the seasons and agricultural development, as well as commemorating formative events in our history.

Some historians have argued that the Torah was not inventing new holidays, but rather it was injecting new meaning into days that were already being observed as nature festivals by the ancient residents of the Middle East. What is significant is that the earlier nature holidays were not abolished, nor were their original purposes obliterated. Rather, history and nature were allowed to co-exist and complement one another.

In order to better appreciate how profoundly Judaism is tied in the agricultural and seasonal cycles, it is instructive to compare it with Islam, a religion that shares many traditions and values, but which diverges from Judaism precisely in the place that it assigns to nature.


On Lunar and Solar Time

For example, in calculating their respective calendars, Muslims, like Jews, preserve the original significance of a "month" as the length of time that it takes for the moon to go through all its phases: Approximately 29 1/2 days (in practice, they alternate between 29- and 30- day months). Indeed, the two communities usually observe Rosh Hodesh on the same date. A "year" consists of twelve such months, adding up to 354 days.

Now 354 is close to the 365 1/4 days of the solar calendar, but it is not identical. If no adjustment were made, then the lunar calendar would very quickly lose touch with the solar year that forms the basis of the agricultural seasons. In Judaism this cannot be allowed to happen, because Passover must occur in the Spring, Sukkot in the Fall, and Shavu'ot at the outset of the Summer. The discrepancy is compensated for by periodically adding extra months into the year.

Not so for our friends the Muslims. They have few festivals at all in their calendar, and none of these are associated with crops or seasons. Unlike the Torah, the Qur'an does not assume that its audience consists of peasants or farmers, but rather of merchants whose livelihood is not bound to the agricultural times. Therefore there was no need to correlate their lunar calendar with the solar one, and they continue happily to fall 11 1/4 days behind the civil calendar, to the great distress of those of us who might be called upon to translate between Islamic and other dating systems without the assistance of a computer.

By way of comparison we see, then, that Judaism does not focus on history and morality to the exclusion of nature, but that the two realms exist side by side.

A few qualifying remarks are in order.


On Humanity's Place in Nature

Unlike some other cultures and ideologies, the Torah makes it very clear that humans are not on the same level as other natural beings. Our superiority is expressed in the Bible's account of how we were the last ones to be formed on the sixth day of the Creation. Although we are forbidden to cause unnecessary destruction or suffering to God's other creatures (as illustrated, for example, in the prohibitions against wantonly cutting down trees, or against taking chicks in the presence of the mother bird), there is no question that humans, created in God's image, are more important.

On a Particular Nature

Furthermore, in keeping with Judaism's tendency to deal with concrete specifics rather than with general categories, much of the "nature" that is presupposed in our religious observances is the specific nature of the Land of Israel. This fact finds expression in several different contexts.


On Subduing the Earth

If you are not yet aware, the environmentalist movement has not been very sympathetic to the Torah, and some would go so far as to blame it for our entire environmental crisis. As tends to happen in such cases, the critics focus on a single passage, and utterly ignore the hundreds of Biblical passages that attest to a community living in close harmony with nature.

The offending passage is Genesis 1:28, where God instructs the first human beings "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth."

Truly, the language of subduing and dominion conjures up images of the industrial revolution, of arrogant human beings laying waste the environment for our short-sighted selfish interests.

Of course such a reading is anachronistic. Subduing is not equivalent to destroying, and after all the praise that the Torah has heaped upon the creation in the preceding chapter--culminating in the declaration that "God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good"--it does not make much sense to argue that he was authorizing us to despoil that very creation. At any rate, it is only in very recent times that humanity has possessed the technological power to inflict serious devastation upon the natural environment.

No, the meaning of the passage is undoubtedly far more innocent than its critics would have it: It grants permission to the human species to cultivate the earth and produce food through agriculture and the domestication of animals, and asserts that, as beings imbued with the divine image, we have precedence over lesser creatures. The implications are spelled out with greater clarity a few verses later on (Genesis 2:15), when God installs Adam in the Garden of Eden "to cultivate and to preserve it." It seems to me that these two tasks are interconnected: Unless we take care to preserve the land, there will remain nothing to cultivate. This conclusion follows from simple common sense and long-term self-interest and requires no special ideological stance towards nature of the environment.

Of course there are groups who would still condemn such attitudes as "species-ism" and view it as unwarranted arrogance for our species to elevate itself above any type of creature. With such philosophies we must agree to disagree.


On Subduing and Falling

Nevertheless, our sages were conscious that our supremacy within the natural order is not necessarily absolute, that it is conditional upon our caring for nature in a responsible manner.

The rabbis expressed this idea, as was their custom, in the form of a midrashic wordplay. In Genesis 1:26, immediately after it states that Adam was fashioned "in our image, after our likeness," God goes on to declare that humans will "have dominion" over the other species of nature. The Hebrew verb expressing that idea is "Yirdu" which differs only by one invisible vowel from "Yerdu," meaning "they shall go down" or "fall." Basing themselves on this verbal association, the Midrash cites the following traditions:

Said Rabbi Haninah: If they prove themselves deserving, they will "have dominion"; but otherwise they will "fall." Said Rabbi Jacob of Kefar Hanan: Those who are truly "in our image, after our likeness," shall hold dominion. Otherwise they are doomed to "fall."
It seems to me that these comments aptly summarize the point: The exalted place that Judaism assigns humans in the natural order shoule not be regarded as a privilege, but as a challenge and a responsibility. Unless we are diligent in performing our tasks as custodians of this God-given world, we will inevitably hurl both it and ourselves down to a state of chaos.


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[1] Talk presented to the Seniors' Summer Lecture Series, Calgary Jewish Centre, July 15 1997