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Judaism and Nature

Hillel Halkin, eminent author and Zionist thinker, blogged recently about an “enthusiastic article” in the Forward on “eco-Judaism” and Judaism’s (alleged) latent sympathy for environmentalism.

I admire Halkin and applaud him when he asks, regarding the Forward piece, “Why do I find this concept so silly?” But I disagree with his assertion that Judaism has had “very little to say about environmental problems” because “Jews have lived for the better part of their history in the Diaspora,” and that “when it comes to environmentalism,” Judaism’s place is not on the teaching end but “on the learning end.”

I believe, in fact, that there is no other aspect of modern life where Judaism has so much to teach.

True, normative Judaism has nothing to say about environmentalism in the modern sense. No religion does. Until recent generations (except for occasional oddball exceptions), the human population was too small and insufficiently industrialized to have any significant effect on nature, so environmental problems in today’s sense didn’t exist. Also true but in need of qualification is Halkin’s comment about the Jews’ long-term separation from the land: the classical rabbis were in close touch with the land of Israel for centuries after the Diaspora had begun. Of the two Talmuds, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi (or the “Babylonian” and the “Jerusalem”), the latter reflects the scholarship of the once-and-future land of Israel.

And then there is the Bible. Listen to the German Romantic poet and philosopher Johann Herder in The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry: “With what a joyful expression that poet [of the Psalms] surveys the earth!” Herder praises, separately, the Bible’s discussions of plants, animals (“their strength, stateliness, and velocity,” “the acuteness of their senses, their habits of life”), water, oceans, and storms; nowhere is “the poetry of nature” more perfectly expressed, writes Herder, than in the Hebrew Bible.

Reading the Bible, no one can doubt that Jews admire natural beauty. But they do so for one overriding reason: they see God reflected in it. Here Judaism and environmentalism diverge fundamentally. Judaism is always aware of the danger of idolatry and of paganism, which grows straight out of nature-worship; the sun, moon, and stars are the top gods in most pagan pantheons. Judaism abhors paganism, because it has the capacity to turn men into animals, to make them bestial.

Modern environmentalists are often agnostics or atheists, nursing a spiritual vacuum like a broken heart. When today’s environmentalist speaks of the earth as our common mother, or of man as “just another animal,” or of human beings as “children of the earth” (in Judaism, we are children of God), we can hear the grim rumble of paganism approaching like an avalanche, crushing all moral life in its path.

Nature is beautiful—and amoral. It is easy to admire a waterfall; anyone can do it. But no animal, plant, mountain crag, or swift-running brook has ever known how to seek justice, love mercy, or walk humbly with its God.



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