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Parashat Bechukotai – “When Nature Begins to Hate Man”

What is the proper relationship between God, nan, and earth? Why does that rather abstract question matter?

Perhaps the most influential paper addressing this issue appeared in Sciencei in 1967, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”. In it, Lynn White, Jr., argued that based upon its Jewish roots, the Biblical creation narrative established for Christianity “a dualism of man and nature, [and] also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends….By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference.”

Here is White’s reading of the Genesis narrative, to which I have added his presumed references in brackets (question marks denote claims without direct textual reference in the Creation narratives):

By gradual stages a loving [?] and all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes [Gen. 1:1-25]. Finally, God had created Adam [Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7]: and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely [Gen. 2:20-22]. Man named all the animals [Gen. 2:19], thus [?] establishing his dominance over them [Gen 1:26 & 28]. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit [?] and rule [ibid.]: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes [?]. And, although man’s body is made of clay [Gen. 2:7], he is not simply part of nature [?]: he is made in God’s image [Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1].

By the medieval period, White continues, this Christian natural theology had been transformed into an “effort to understand God’s mind by discovering how his creation operates.” Advancing a few more centuries, he asserts that “modern science is an extrapolation of [such] natural theology… [and] modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental realization of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature. But over a century ago science and technology – hitherto quite separate activities – joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.”

Finally, White states that in our contemporary period these attitudes are “almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.”

His conclusion is blunt: “Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.”

Even as White’s analysis, accusations, and proposals for change have been hotly debated by Christians (including the current Pope, Francis, who largely agrees with Whiteii), scientists, historians, and others for the past half-century, so too numerous Jewish perspectives have been published about the relationship between God, Man, and Earth. Here I summarize the novel and comprehensive view of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in chapter 3 of his posthumously published, The Emergence of Ethical Man.

Expressly contrasting his Jewish approach with the Christian view described by White, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “While Christianity kept on preaching that sin means surrender to nature and rebellion against God, Judaism states the total opposite: Sin is detachment from nature and non-compliance with her dicta.” To the contrary, “As long as man lives within the bounds set by his Creator, which accentuate his naturalness, he remains ben adam, the son of Mother Earth, and may claim asylum in her lap.” Hence,

Sin and atonement apply to both man and earth because man is a part of her; man is nature expressed in a meaningful existence. Earth, nature and man flow into each other. There is complete identity of man and earth. Let us not forget that by the word “earth”, we understand not just the land but nature as a whole, the entire complex of physical conditions that make man’s existence possible. As an organism, he depends upon his surroundings, and this dependence spells ontic unity and uniformity.

Obedience to God means, “Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit” (Lev. 26:4); disobedience – “…and I will make your skies like iron, and your earth like brass, and your strength shall be spent in vain.” (Lev. 26:19-20).

The[se] blessings and curses of Leviticus 26 do not constitute a promise of reward or punishment, but a statement of a fact – man’s confluence with nature. Thus, man is not a universal abstract being who roams along the infinite lanes of the cosmos without finding attachment to any part of it. He is confined to a determinate, finite world; he must, like the plant, be rooted in an enclosed part of the soil and live together with nature.

Rabbi Soloveitchik rejects the traditional Christian dualistic split between man and nature which leads to its view of man’s god-like domination over base, inferior nature. He posits the opposite: the essential unity of finite, earthly man as part of, and as confined to, “Mother Earth”. In a section of the essay entitled, “Man’s Stewardship of Mother Earth”, Rabbi Soloveitchik is therefore compelled to challenge the moral legitimacy of man’s dominion over “Mother Earth” which Christianity had made primary:

Is not the notion of man’s partnership with Mother Earth at odds with the Biblical notion of man’s dominion over nature [cf. Gen 1:28; Psalm 8:7-9]? How is the rule of man over nature warranted if man is nothing but a son of Mother Earth? The answer to this problem is very simple. Man’s dominion of nature is not that of an alien autocrat over a people subjugated by forceiii, but that of a loving father over his young son, or of a devoted son over an incapacitated mother…. It is more cooperation than dominion, more partnership than dominion

This is man’s freedom: either to live at peace with nature and thus give expression to a natural existence in the noblest of terms, or to surpass his archaic bounds and corrupt himself and nature. Man’s freedom is embedded in his confinement to his environment, in his coexistence with nature.

This vision of man may externally resemble that of the naturalists, but is profoundly different in inner significance. According also to modern naturalistic philosophers, man’s identity with nature is certain; his existence is a natural existence. But they deny man’s freedom to ennoble or to defile nature; for them, the contact is stable. Judaism understands an intelligent relationship between man and nature that fluctuates between full harmony and antagonism.

“Cooperation”; “stewardship”, “partnership”; “coexistence”; “ontic unity”; “freedom to live nobly at peace with nature”; mutual “dependence”; man as a plant rooted in Earth’s soil; a family member’s loving care for a beloved child or elderly parent – these ways of characterizing the relationship of God, man, and Earth differ have radically different implications than the divinely sanctioned Christian (and later, Western and secular) split between man and nature, and man’s resulting “whim” and “indifference” (White’s terms) towards the natural world. Rabbi Soloveitchik bluntly asserts those implications:

Let us watch out for moments of tension and conflict, when nature begins to hate man and to resent his presence, and we will convince ourselves that man’s sense of security and strength is nothing but a mirage.

The past, present, and likely future manifestations of nature’s “hatred” of man are, unfortunately, widely documented throughout the entire biosphere. Along with the majority of its elders, Earth’s youngest generation now understands that its future – its “sense of security and strength” – may indeed be “nothing but a mirage.” In the Anthropocene Era of humanity-caused changes to “Mother Earth” without precedent in human history, they easily perceive man’s “confinenment to his environment”.

Hence, they are “rethinking and refeeling our nature and destiny” here in our only, Earthly home. They understand that “man is nature expressed in a meaningful existence” and that, conversely, deep personal and religious meaning can and must be found in reestablishing a proper relationship between God, man, and nature. Let us Jews understand and resolve to act upon Rabbi Soloveitchik’s astonishing interpretation: “The[se] blessings and curses of Leviticus 26 do not constitute a promise of reward or punishment, but a statement of a fact – man’s confluence with nature.”

-Rabbi Barry Kornblau

i Science, 10 March 1967

iiThe first papal heir to St. Francis, the current (and eponymous) Pope Francis published an Encyclical Letter about environmental matters, “Laudata Si: On Care for Our Common Home”, in May, 2015. In it, he accepts and replies to White’s charge by rejecting the traditional Christian interpretation of “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 & 28.

Writing from within his Catholic theological and interpretative tradition, he begins (in section 66) by proposing a new Christian understanding of the relationship between man, Earth, and God: “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence. This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.”

In section 67, Pope Francis continues by admitting that White’s charge against Christianity is historically correct and therefore mandates a new Christian approach: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

He concludes section 67 by further elaborating his new Catholic interpretation of the Creation account: “The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

iii Nearly identical phrasing is used by Rabbi Avraham Yitchak haKohen Kook:

אין ספק לכל איש משכיל והוגה דעות, שהרדיה האמורה בתורה “וירדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים ובבהמה ובכל הארץ ובכל הרמש הרומש על הארץ” איננה מכוונת לרדיה של מושל עריץ המתעמר בעמו ועבדיו רק להפיק חפצו הפרטי ושרירות לבו; חלילה לחק עבדות מכוער כזה שיהיה חתום בחותם נצחי בעולמו של ד,’ הטוב לכל ורחמיו על כל מעשיו, שאמר “עולם חסד יבנה

There is no doubt in the mind of any enlightened thinker that the “dominion” spoken of in the Torah – “They shall have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over every living being that moves on the earth” cannot refer to the dominion of a tyrannical ruler who treats both subjects and servants cruelly in order to satisfy his personal, arbitrary desires. Chalilah that there should be an institution of servitude as ugly as this, stamped with an eternal seal, regarding God’s world “who is good to all and whose compassion extends to all creatures”, regarding which [the world] it is said, “a world built on lovingkindness.”

(From Rav Kook’s essay, “Afkim Banegev”, published in 1903-4 in the monthly journal HaPeles Berlin); excerpted in R. David Cohen (haNazir)’s “Hazon Hatzimhonut veHashalom”, 1961 and 1983)

Parashat Kedoshim: Plant for the next generation – as God did!

There is so much to learn from a beautiful midrash on a verse in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Kedoshim: “When you [the Children of Israel] shall enter the Land [of Canaan], and you shall plant every food-bearing tree…” (Lev. 19:23):

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: “Even though you will find the Land filled with every good thing, you must not say, ‘we shall dwell there and not plant saplings.’ Rather, be careful to plant saplings! This accords with the verse, “When you shall enter the Land, and you shall plant every food-bearing tree…”. Just as you entered the Land and found saplings planted by others, so too must you plant for your descendants.

Since trees take many years to bear fruit, this midrash continues by noting that some individuals might deflect this overarching collective duty to plant by claiming, “I am old and tomorrow I shall die, so why should I exert myself for others?” The midrash answers by noting that Hashem does not tell a person the time of his death, in part so that he will remain motivated to engage in productive activity throughout his life, for his potential benefit and/or that of his descendants. It then tells a story of an old man who planted with precisely this thought in mind and become rich in a surprising way from the resulting fruit – as well as the story of the man’s neighbors, who didn’t. The midrash then concludes:

Therefore, a person must never desist from planting. Rather: just as he found trees planted [in the world by others], so must he plant – and even more so. This is true even for an elderly person. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel, “Learn from Me!”, regarding Whom the Torah states, “And God-Hashem planted a garden in Eden.”

There is so much to learn from this beautiful midrash. By planting trees and moving Earth closer to an Eden-like reality, every person emulates God. Each generation must plant for each subsequent generation, leaving behind even more fruit trees than its predecessor bequeathed it. We must engage vigorously in long-term constructive activities without excuses, regardless of whether we will live long enough to benefit personally from them – and God will bless us for doing so.

— Rabbi Barry Kornblau

Welcome to our new Chief Content Officer

In light of increasing demand for its unique blend of traditional Torah and science materials from Jewish day schools as well as the increasing prominence and urgency of climate change and other environmental issues throughout the world, the prominent Orthodox Jewish group, Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah, has hired Rabbi Barry Kornblau as its Chief Content Officer.

A musmach of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University, Kornblau served for a dozen years as a senior member of the rabbinic staff of the Rabbinical Council of America. He has been a member of the Rabbinic Advisory Board of Canfei Nesharim for more than a decade and has spoken and written on its behalf for years, mostly recently at a conference of scientists and religious leaders at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He also serves as rabbi of Young Israel of Hollis Hills – Windsor Park in Queens, New York. A graduate of Yale, he was a fixed income computer programming analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co. before entering the rabbinate.

Canfei Nesharim’s founder and President, Ora Sheinson, said that, “We are heartened by Orthodox Jews’ increasing interest in the traditional Jewish approach to stewardship for Hashem’s Creation. But to significantly expand our reach, we need more vigorously to broadcast the depth and breadth of the Torah laws and values which drive the Torah’s distinctive approach to environmental issues. Having worked with Rabbi Kornblau for more than a decade, we know that he will advance our work powerfully.”

Indeed, Sheinson’s approach dovetails with the recommendations of Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication: “Dispassionate statements by climate scientists, couched in cautious, neutral language and supported by charts, figures and statistics, may resonate less than admonitions from religious leaders to respond to the ethical and moral implications of a changing climate.” The critical importance of addressing communities in terms that resonate with their members is true for other environmental issues, as well.

For his part, Kornblau is excited to get started. “In addition to continuing Canfei Nesharim’s current work, we plan to expand and refashion the Torah and science offerings on our website,” he said. “We will carefully trace how traditional halachic and hashkafic norms interact with contemporary scientific and environmental concerns, even as we address questions that committed Jews often have regarding environmental issues.”

He also looks forward to publishing in various venues, and to speaking to local communities and in other venues.

For further information, please contact him (kornblau@canfeinesharim.org) or Ms. Sheinson (ora@canfeinesharim.org) directly.

Apologies for Unrelated Content

#GIVINGTUESDAY IS HERE!

We hope your Thanksgiving- in whatever way you and you family celebrated – was joyous and meaningful.

The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of gratitude by the pilgrims for the fact that they succeeded in learning how to grow food in the new land and because of that had enough food to survive the winter. It was a celebration around the bounty of the earth and a deep appreciation of what the earth gave them. Over 300 years later, we still have just as much (and maybe more) to appreciate in connection with the earth and land that Hashem gave us stewardship over and on which we live.

Today is GivingTuesday. If this day is new to you, GivingTuesday is a movement that began a few years ago by people who were tired of seeing the huge consumeristic angle that Thanksgiving weekend had become. So they started GivingTuesday. After a long weekend of consumerism and buying things (complete with Black Friday and Cyber Monday), Giving Tuesday gives us the opportunity to step into a different space and give back to the world by donating to projects and organizations that we feel are doing important work.

With Thanksgiving and gratitude for the bounty that Hashem and the earth gives us fresh in our mind, we hope that you continue to value our work of bringing environmental consciousness to the Orthodox Jewish Community. In that spirit, we ask that if you are considering making a donation today that you donate to us to help us continue our important work.

You can contribute now by mailing a check to 3221 Shelburne Road, Apt. A, Baltimore, MD 21208, or via the internet on our website by clicking HERE.

Thank you for your continued support.

Sincerely,

Ora Sheinson
Board President