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)