Judaism and Nature: Theological and Moral Issues to Consider While Renegotiating a Jewish Relationship to the Natural World

By Schwartz, Eilon | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview
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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

Fathers, 3:7)(*)

(*) 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.

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