Nature's Healing Power, the Holocaust, and the Environmental Crisis

Article excerpt

Two recent articles in this journal have raised fundamental questions about the relationship of Jewish thought to the world of Nature. In "Nature vs. Torah" by Jeremy Benstein, and "Judaism and Nature" by Eilon Schwartz, the authors go well beyond the usual tactic of showing that Jewish law and tradition support environmentalist views.(1) Rather than merely "presenting Judaism's environmental credentials,"(2) or searching traditional sources for passages that support environmental positions,(3) each writer grapples with difficult texts and problematic traditions in the Jewish relationship with Nature. Is Judaism a belief system that is fundamentally transcendent, placing supreme value on a spiritual world totally separate from the material realm of Nature? Or is the natural world, as part of divine creation, sacred? Is the study of Torah so important that a study of the natural world must be avoided? Can we develop an appropriate response to the environmental crisis without returning to a form of paganism? Can we discover an authentic Jewish response to the natural environment? As Benstein notes, there is no one Jewish tradition concerning Nature, environmentalist or otherwise: "Part of the richness of Judaism . . . is the ongoing dialogue between the frequently very disparate voices of that tradition."(4)

As a secular environmental philosopher who has had some experience with Jewish texts concerning environmental policy,(5) request permission to enter into this debate. I begin from an unusual and perhaps idiosyncratic starting point. For almost twenty years I have worked in the realm of academic philosophy on questions concerning the moral status of the nonhuman natural world, questions that can be applied to the ethical foundations of environmental policy. More recently, I have become interested in the philosophy of the Holocaust. Does my work as an environmental philosopher have any relevance to an understanding of the evil of human genocide? Can the study of genocide teach us anything about the human-induced destruction of the natural world, what is sometimes called the process of "ecocide"? Schwartz, for example, discusses the dangers of paganism by tying it to Nazi ideology.(6) I believe that there are connections between the massive destruction of the earth's biosphere and the planned extermination of European Jewry. In my view, genocide and ecocide may be linked together by an analysis of the concept of domination. A comparative study of these two evils may point us in the direction of developing a harmonious relationship with both the natural world and our fellow human beings.

This essay is also the result of a visit to several Holocaust sites in Poland and the Czech Republic in October 1995. It is both more and less than a philosophical argument. I could not have developed these ideas through the philosophical method of argument and analysis. The lived experience of these places not only colors my thoughts but to some extent informs them. The essay is my attempt to come to terms with the physical experience of these places, and to place these experiences into the context of philosophical ideas about the meaning of the environmental crisis, the practice of human domination, and the significance of Jewish life in the modern world. It is my hope that these reflections will contribute to the development of a Jewish philosophy of nature appropriate to the environmental crisis which surrounds us.

1. Places

The trees are like a forest. Although I can hear the sounds of traffic on Okopowa Street on the other side of the wall, inside the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw all is quiet. Light rain and fog, mist and shadows, the grayness of this day, prevent my eyes from seeing deep into the cemetery. There are trees and underbrush, lush and green, growing up and over the scattered and crooked grave stones. One main walkway and a few paths have been cleared, so that tourists can view several hundred of the tombstones. …