"One, Walking and Studying ...": Nature vs. Torah

By Benstein, Jeremy | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

"One, Walking and Studying ...": Nature vs. Torah


Benstein, Jeremy, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Rabbi Ya'akov says: 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).

The orthodox scholar, Michael Wyschogrod, ends his seminal essay, "Judaism and the Sanctification of Nature," with the following thought:

It is difficult to return to the religion of nature. It is difficult and dangerous, particularly for Jews, to worship nature again. At the same time the destruction of nature, which seems to follow to some extent from the desacralization of nature, has reached a stage that cannot continue. So we must try to combine these two themes. To be perfectly honest, I have long felt that the religion against which the prophets expounded so eloquently in the Hebrew Bible did not get a full hearing from them. I wonder whether the prophets gave a really fair representation of the point of view and theology of the worshipers of Baal and Ashteret.... Perhaps it would have been better if the prophets had occasionally sat down with them and said, "Tell us how you see the world." Could there be some insights in what they taught which we need to learn? I am convinced there were; and even if we don't agree with much of what they believed, I think we would profit by better understanding their point of view.(1)

While one can point to many profound ethical insights regarding the care and stewardship of the natural world in Judaism in particular, and Western monotheistic traditions in general, the desacralization of Nature that followed the rise of monotheism in ancient Israel is arguably one of the roots of our contemporary environmental crisis.(2) Perhaps for this reason modern environmentalists are so drawn to Nature-worshipping (i.e., pagan) religious traditions for words of inspiration and guidance. The castigation and subsequent fear of paganism in Judaism goes back to Moses and the classical prophets' inveighing against its dangers upon entry into the Land, and during first Temple times; it is also a dominant theme in the Jewish reactions to Hellenistic culture, and Greek philosophy, which affirmed the eternality of nature, and denied Divine Creation. Even simple appreciation of God's handiwork in the world could be seen as dangerous, for appreciation could lead to sanctification, and then to deification and worship, which is heresy.

For Jews, the Torah - the revelation of God's will in words - has functioned as the antidote to the risks involved in unmediated experience of Nature. For that reason, the Torah and its study have often been a wedge, distancing us from a direct relationship with the natural world. But while the slippery slope from admiration to deification was understood, the other side of the coin, the danger of desacralization leading to alienation and then to exploitation, and hence devastation, has only become evident in our day.

The proportions of the contemporary environmental crisis should lead us to re-evaluate aspects of our tradition that perhaps have functioned in negative ways, or at least have had unhealthy side-effects. This essay is a modest attempt at such re-evaluation.

Contexts

Being a Jew with strong environmental concerns, one is often led to study the Sources with an eye for those particular teachings that are inspirational for - or at least compatible with - one's own predetermined "green" positions, and thus avoid challenging oneself with texts that don't fit current environmental wisdom. All three sides-Judaism, environmentalism, and ourselves - suffer from this sort of superficial understanding of what it means to learn Torah - or to interact with any age-old wisdom tradition. This essay looks at one of those "tough" traditional texts, one that is seemingly antithetical to any sort of sympathetic portrayal of the natural world, along with the ancient and modern commentaries that show how Jews have grappled with it in different generations, in an attempt to understand what it may be saying to us, in our generation. …

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