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  • Andres Spokoiny

Did Judaism Wreck the Planet? (Tu Bishvat 5779)

Antisemites think Jews cause everything bad. We’re to blame for capitalism and communism, ethnocentric nationalism and rootless globalism, and more. But I’m disappointed at their lack of creativity, because there’s one thing they haven’t yet accused us of: causing climate change and environmental catastrophe.

And the fact is, they’d have a kernel of a point if they did.

No, I haven’t gone over to the anti-Jewish side. But we should recognize the historical and philosophical fact that Judaism changed the relationship of humans to Nature.

One of the central Jewish ideas is that God is not part of Nature, not subject to the laws of Nature, and not bound by any natural limitation unless God chooses to self-impose it. It’s also a basic tenet of Judaism that Man is created in the image of God; as such, it’s no stretch for Jews to see humanity as being likewise above Nature, as part of sharing God’s image.

Those ideas about God and Man are about history and human development as much as philosophy, argues Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. He holds that the Bible is both a product of and a theological justification for the agricultural revolution and its resulting change to humanity’s relationship with Nature. Adam and Eve are foragers in the Garden of Eden, and after their expulsion they must “eat bread by the sweat of your brow”, i.e., become farmers. Farming upends the relationship of Man to the environment. It transforms plants into produce and animals into livestock and for that, a theological justification is needed.

Judaism provides it. It sanctifies God, Harari explains, but it also sanctifies humans. If in animist cultures Man was one character among thousands, now he’s the central hero. Think about the story of the flood: the iniquity of Man justifies destroying the world. That millions of animals die because of Man’s sins is not seen as a problem by God or Noah. Animals are not the main characters of any Biblical story, just extras. By making humans “in His image”, God marks them as different and destined to dominate other organisms, which are in turn, downgraded.

This Jewish belief in human dominance was a huge innovation; for most of human history, people were animists. Most hunter-gatherers believed (and the few surviving still do) that there’s no essential gap separating humans from other animals; they talked to trees, mountains, and animals as peers, all part of the same fabric of Nature. In traditional Inuit hunting, for example, the hunter asks the seal’s permission to slaughter it. Failing to do so results in the seal’s spirit haunting the hunter. It doesn’t matter that the seal can’t really give informed consent; the point is that this tradition sees humans as needing to negotiate with animals. The hunter doesn’t treat the seal like something automatically subservient to her needs. The world belongs, in this view, to all its inhabitants and everybody must follow the same rules.

Farming started to change that, but even in economically developed pagan cultures like ancient Egypt or Greece, the gods themselves were not above nature. They could be killed, they had natural needs and desires, and they were subject to limits, albeit different limits than humans. And the personification of nature persisted; in Egypt, cats were sacred, and so was the Nile. In Judaism, the move from many gods to One is about more than numbers; the Canaanite sacred trees are not only rejected but disenchanted. There’s a theology of separation — God transcends Nature — and an anthropology of separation — humans are different from the rest of nature. No more talking to animals, rivers, and trees, and of course, no more praying to them. And, for good measure, let’s throw in the story of the snake, so that humans learn that bad stuff happens when you talk to animals. (The only animals that speak in the Bible are the Garden’s serpent and Balaam’s talking donkey; neither story has a happy ending for those talking with the animal.)

Take this ethos of separation from and dominion of Nature to its logical conclusion, implies Harari, and you have industrial cattle breeding, mutant chickens, genetically engineered wheat, deforestation, pollution, and climate change.

Tu Bishvat is the holiday on our calendar with the most clear ecological content. So it’s a good opportunity to ask ourselves if our theology and anthropology of separation created this mess.

With all due respect to Harari, the answer is no. So no, antisemites, don’t jump to accuse us of climate change. Harari is right that in Judaism, humans are a reflection of God, and as such we have power and majesty over nature. Yet being like God implies many other qualities besides power. God is power, but also compassion, mercy, care, and responsibility. God is concerned with the wellbeing of His creatures. God is not an autocratic ruler but a generous and loving one.

A telling story in the Talmud (Bav Metzia 85a) relates that a Rabbi Judah Hanassi saw a calf being taken to the slaughterhouse. The calf nuzzled the rabbi’s robe and whimpered. Judah admonished the calf: “Go, because you were created for this”. For his insensitivity, Rabbi Judah was punished with kidney stones and other pains that lasted 13 years.

The moral of the story is that power over nature doesn’t equal callousness, and there should be no authority without responsibility and compassion.

Judaism indeed creates a deep, essential separation between Man and Nature. But that separation is mainly based on the human capacity for moral judgement, for discerning good and evil. In practical terms, that anthropology of separation, the “desacralization of Nature”, allowed humans to create civilization, increase our wellbeing in unprecedented ways, and produce stunning advances in science, art, prosperity, lifespan, and more. And while that approach also created problems in our relationship with nature, Judaism gave us the antidote to them: responsibility and compassion.

Tu Bishvat reminds us that we are distinct within Nature but also of Nature. Yes, we have the power to control other living beings but we share their fate.

For those of us who hold power in the Jewish community, the philanthropic community, and our broader societies — and that’s all of us, to some degree or another — we must never allow our imitation of God stop at power and leave out care. Just as a natural ecosystem needs balance, so too does our moral ecosystem. On this Tu Bishvat, let’s “work and keep” the garden — the ecological garden and the moral one — with humility, responsibility and love.


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