Judaism and Nature: Theological and Moral Issues to Consider While Renegotiating a Jewish Relationship to the Natural World
Schwartz, Eilon, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Since the advent of the modern environmental movement some thirty years ago,(1) dozens of articles have been written exploring the relationship of Judaism and the environment, attempting to articulate a Jewish response to the environmental crisis.(2) Many of the articles came in the wake of the environmental movement's attack on the Judeo-Christian ethic, whose biblical injunction to "fill the earth and master it" was seen by many in the environmental movement to be the theological and ethical source for an anthropocentric and ultimately exploitative relationship to the natural world.(3)
Articles were also written to defend tradition, often by presenting Judaism's environmental credentials. Although translations of Jewish culture into terms acceptable to the larger cultural milieu have often sacrificed authentic Jewish perspectives at the altar of cultural relevance, in the case of Judaism and the environment it seemed as though no trade-off was necessary.(4) Finding "green" traditions within Jewish sources is not difficult. Such traditions are strongly anchored in normative Judaism. Bal taschchit, tzar baalei chayim, shnat Shemita, yishuv haaretz, to name a few of the Jewish value-concepts(5) most often quoted by environmentally concerned Jews, are all pointed to as representing authentic Jewish environmental perspectives.(6) As they are.
Still, the need to validate a Jewish environmental ethic, to show Judaism's credentials, as it were, stifled a true airing of Jewish positions.(7) Judaism's relationship with the natural world is far more ambivalent than that with which many Jewishly committed environmentalists would feel comfortable. Too few have delved into the complex and intricate relationship between Judaism and the natural world, a relationship which, while containing the "green" traditions often quoted, also contains the admonition in Pirkei Avot that
One, who while walking along the way, reviewing his studies, breaks off from
his study and says, "How beautiful is that tree! How beautiful is that plowed
field!" Scripture regards him as if he has forfeited his soul. (Ethics of the
(*) See Jeremy Benstein, "One, Walking and Studying...': Nature vs. Torah," Judaism, Vol. 44, no. 2 (Spring 1995).
For Jews to confront the environmental crisis as part of a rich and complex Jewish tradition, it is necessary to come to terms with both sides of the tradition and to understand the interrelationship between them. Only by understanding the theological, philosophical, and moral concerns which are an integral part of the Jewish relationship with nature can Jews offer a voice that will not simply mimic already articulated perspectives, but will offer unique attitudes to help guide the task of tikkun olam while confronting issues too long avoided by Jewish thought.
By surveying the literature previously written on Judaism and the environment, I hope to influence the direction of future writing by pointing to places that need exploration. My not-so-hidden agenda is to reassert the Jewish perspective in the encounter between Judaism and the environment with the conviction that a Jewish contribution to the growing debate on environmental ethics can only come from a response strongly rooted in all the ambivalences and ambiguities of the Jewish relationship to the natural world. Perhaps even more importantly, I believe that the reevaluation by the environmental movement of our modern cultural relationship to the natural world, which challenges some of the basic values of our modern culture, deeply confronts ingrained trends in Jewish thought, as well. To engage the points of tension, and not only the points of confluence, will facilitate a dialogue from within the tradition that can lead to a reawakening of the natural world as a central category in our Jewish understanding of what we mean by both the human and the Divine.
Paganism and Judaism
Any serious confrontation of the Jewish relationship with the natural world must confront the Jewish relationship with paganism. The conventional wisdom of modern Jewish thought maintains that Judaism came about as a radical distancing of the Holy from immanence within the world.(8) In this account, idolatry is defined theologically as viewing God as being contained within the material world, whereas Judaism came to assert the transcendental, wholly other nature of the Holy. Paganism, both in its biblical and Hellenistic manifestations, understood God as being contained within Nature. Jewish monotheism distanced the Holy from paganism and its concept of nature.
Such a presentation of the Jewish relationship to nature by way of its polemic against pagan idolatry suggests an antagonism to nature, and the theological affinity between paganism and Nature. Indeed, the modern environmental movement is filled with writings that have picked up on such a reading, calling for a rejection of monotheistic approaches to the world, and a rebirth of paganism. Lynn White sees paganism as the alter-ego to the Judeo-Christian theologically sanctioned exploitation of nature;(9) some ecofeminists have called for a renewal of pagan customs of May Day, celebrations of the moon, and witchcraft;(10) one of the more radical biological theories of our day holds that the earth is a living organism, and has named her Gaia, the name of the Greek earth goddess.(11) This reassertion of pagan theologies, customs, and language understands paganism as a world view which sees Nature as …
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Publication information: Article title: Judaism and Nature: Theological and Moral Issues to Consider While Renegotiating a Jewish Relationship to the Natural World. Contributors: Schwartz, Eilon - Author. Magazine title: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. Volume: 44. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 1995. Page number: 437+. © American Jewish Congress Fall 1996. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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