The Emergence of Eco-Judaism

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Emergence of Eco-Judaism

By Arthur Waskow*

During the past thirty years, there have been three distinct responses of Jewish thought to the ecological challenge.

The first was a defensive and apologetic one, responding to scientists' accusations that the Hebrew Bible and its daughters, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, were responsible for creating a rapacious modern human culture that is endangering the planetary web of life. This first set of responses celebrated the aspects of Judaism that affirmed protection of the earth and pooh-poohed the claim that Judaism, especially, had set the stage for eco-destruction.

The second response was a more nuanced examination of the veerings in one direction or another through which particular Jewish teachings (especially Rabbinic and Zionist) have sometimes treated the earth as simply a resource for human use, and sometimes treated it as bearing the independent sacred value of being God's creation.

The third response has been to look beyond the specific rules and symbols of Biblical or Rabbinic Judaism or of Zionism and to ask some broader questions:

  • Why does the relationship between the earth and human earthlings now seem to be in such intense crisis?
  • Is this a profoundly new and unprecedented situation, or just another version of an old dilemma?
  • Why are the tones and teachings of Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism on issues of the earth so different from each other?
  • Does the ecological crisis give us any reason to reassess our images of the relationships among God, Torah, and Israel?
  • Does the history of Planet Earth have anything to do with God and Torah?
  • Do the other crises Judaism faces — in the profoundly changing relationships among women and men and the profoundly

    changing relationship of Judaism and Jews with other traditions and their practitioners — have anything to do with the ecological crisis?

Let us look more carefully at these three sets of responses. The first set were keyed to a famous challenge from Lynn White that appeared in Science magazine vol. 155 (March 10, 1967), pp. 1202-1207. White blamed much of the (even then dangerous) eco-destruction on the Christian ethos that he said underlay Western thought — even secular scientific modernity and the scientific-industrial complex. He traced the Christian outlook on the natural world to Biblical Judaism, summarizing the Creation story as follows: "God planned all this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes."

White ended by saying. "Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. . . . I propose [Saint] Francis as a patron saint for ecologists."

The Jewish responses to this challenge were mostly the quotation of a passage here, a verse there, or a major category of Biblical or Rabbinic thought like the tradition of Shabbat or of "bal tashhit" ("Do not destroy"), to show that the "subdual" passage did not mean what it sounded like, and that biblical and rabbinic Jewish tradition did indeed care for the earth.

More recently, however, there have been efforts to look more deeply into the present ecological crisis as itself an index to a changing relationship among God, humans, and other strands of the Web of Life — in which God's place in the relationship shifts along with the places of the other partners.

That effort begins by looking more deeply into the whole gestalt of the Bible for clues to previous such transformational crises, and how such crises may have shaped the very foundations of Jewish peoplehood and spirituality.

The fullest and deepest examination of Biblical Judaism from this perspective is The Ecology of Eden by Evan Eisenberg, an anthropological-historical analysis of how the onset of agriculture affected the worldview of ancient Israel, and how the resulting tugs between "the Tower" (Babylon, the city), and "the Mountain" (Sinai, the wild) affected not only biblical but more recent understandings of what is sacred in the world.

Eisenberg suggests one variant of the view that the Eden story is a tale told by West-Semites who mixed small-scale hill farming with nomadic shepherding and hunting-gathering. At one level, he suggests, Eden and the Cain-Abel story are "about" the encroachment into West-Semitic lives of a great agricultural empire, Babylonia. (There are obviously other levels through which this story also enriches our spiritual lives. The different levels are non-exclusive, and may even be complementary.)

From this perspective, Eden was a story about how the victory of one-crop imperial agriculture over small-farm /pastoral /nomadic cultures brought new knowledge into human hands, increased the alienation between adam and adamah, and subordinated women to men.

Let us look further at this model. Babylonia had become powerful precisely because it was one of the places where highly organized agriculture was invented. This invention was a step "forward" in controlling the food supply and multiplying humans, and at the same time it was a step into alienation from and coercion of the earth by human beings. That the same act could have both meanings should be no surprise: In the individual life-cycle, for example, we are used to the idea that birth itself, "the terrible two's," and "adolescence" are all steps in growing up, involving both rejection and rebellion toward Mama/Papa, and striking out on one's own.

So we might say that for the human race as a whole, just as for individuals, this process of self-definition/rebellion comes in stages. The "birth" of the human race is told by the Bible as a tale of earth and breath: A lump of reddish clay (Adamah) loses the final letter "hei" from its name — the sound of a breath — and receives the "ruah elohim" — the Breath of God — to become adam (Human/ Earthling). Perhaps we can see the lost "hei" as the unconscious breathing through the placenta that is lost in birthing, and the ruah as the conscious, independent breath that comes soon after.
On the species level, the human race tears itself from the womb of earth (perhaps a relationship much more like that of the other primates) and separates itself into a slightly — but only slightly — alienated being. Hunter-gatherer humans were not so different from our primate cousins. They — and even shepherds — had a playful relationship with the earth, moving from place to place to avoid exhausting it, and thus also avoiding exhausting themselves.

But the process of maturation/ alienation did not halt there. Agriculture — especially mono-crop imperial agriculture — was another step toward separating ourselves from the earth so as to subdue it. And in subduing earth, we subdued ourselves and each other. More births, more birth-pangs. Women ruled by men. Ownership, and governments to enforce it, with armies to protect it. From the standpoint of small farmers, hunter-gatherers and shepherds, the agro-revolution was a disastrous, dangerous, oppressive event.

So from this perspective, Eden becomes the story of a tragic mis-take built around an act of eating, the results of which are war between earth and human-earthling; role differentiation and pain between women and men and between the generations; and conflict between centralized power and the stubborn local cultures.

And from this perspective, as Eisenberg points out, the ancient midrash that the Tree of Eden was a wheat plant makes good historical-anthropological sense.

Yet this newly alienated being, the farmer-human, is not an alien — but one of the results of the earth's own processes of evolution.

The hill-farmer/ shepherd Semites were ultimately drawn into the orbit of imperial agriculture. But — they kept drawing on their own past experience as hill farmers, shepherds, and gatherers to build in such protections of the earth and of their own long-term vision as the Shabbat, the shmitah (Sabbatical) Year, and the Jubilee, during which humans become gatherers again one-seventh of the time.

What is crucial here is seeing the emergent Torah as a response to the great traumatic leap forward of the agro-revolution. A response that tried to create new forms of community, so as to bind into livability and decency the radically new forms of controlling other human beings and the earth.

Does this kind of analysis eliminate God from Torah? No; it sees the Torah as the record of many generations of spiritual seekers in search of the Divine, seeking especially in time of profound social crisis and transformation for Divine teachings about how to live a holy life. That Shabbat might become a central teaching for a people trying to renew its I-Thou contact with the earth in the face of I-It agriculture is not a dismissal but a celebration of God.

And now let us turn to how the spiritual seekers and religious activists of our own day might draw upon this way of understanding the Tanakh. We can see that the process continues. We can draw on the experience of a number of revolutions like the agro-revolution.

One of these, the victory of Hellenistic/ Roman civilization, shattered Biblical Judaism and called forth a response (analogous to the response of Torah) in the form of Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Most recently, the industrial and techno-revolutions are calling forth movements for renewal and transformation of all the faith traditions on the planet, and is also calling forth such new approaches to community as feminism and ecology. (It also, in all the ancient religious communities, calls forth retrogressive efforts to vomit out Modernity by restoring their old religious and social forms — putting women back in their place, other communities in theirs, and the earth in its — all, of course, subordinate.)

And so we have learned to see more clearly both the alienating and the maturing aspects of this continuing story. And we can ask ourselves: How does the human race keep growing up?

That means: How do we respond to the great recent leaps in technology, in control of the earth and each other, by creating, renewing, and revitalizing the other aspect of growing-up — adding not only new ability to control and make and produce, but new ability to love, to commune, to be?

In our own generation, what could we do that would be analogous to the West Semites' insistence on observance of the Sabbath and Sabbatical year as ways of taming the most destructive urges of the agro-revolution, and celebrating the spiritual value of a rhythm in which communing with earth alternates with controlling it?

We should note that the kind of reading we have done here differs both from the classic Traditional ways of reading religious texts and from the Modernist way of reading these ancient documents. In the Traditional way, the text itself was understood to be all-sufficient as the Word of God, and midrash (or other forms of reinterpretation) was almost always justified on the basis of a textual indication or oddity.

From the Modernist standpoint, on the other hand, the text is seen as only a reflection of the social-historical context. It has no independent validity as an ethical or moral teaching, and by many Modernists is analyzed into different documents and in other ways so totally relativized that it is radically diminished or even nullified as ethical, moral, or religious teaching with any meaning for our own era.

Among Jewish-renewal circles in the last generation (and of course among some Christian thinkers as well; I am less familiar with their work), there has grown up a different model. It looks at the biblical text (and other traditional texts, like the Talmuds) as the records of spiritual seekers who in the context of their own societies are struggling to hear and respond to God.

As process, their struggles and the records of them in these texts are sacred; the specific content and the specific responses they made to what they heard as God's will may or may not be specifically sacred, depending on the arenas in which society has and has not changed.

That means the history and sociology of the Biblical or Talmudic or other sacred literatures must be understood in order to decide what specific content to accept and what to transcend. To take one major case, understanding the relationships of women and men in the societies out of which the speaking and writing of various sacred literatures arose will have a deep impact on spiritual seekers of today, when their own values (and the underlying social reality) about relationships between women and men may be so different.

This approach, which has been so strong among some feminist Jews and Christians — who are ready neither to relativize their Traditions into meaninglessness nor to accept them as fully God's Word — is having an impact on "environmentalist" readers of the Traditions, as well. Faced with a Judaism or a Christianity that has sometimes demeaned non-human aspects of Creation just as it demeaned non-male members of the human race, some readers today are similarly seeking ways to understand the ancient text as a guide through its process, more than its content, to an affirmation of all Creation.

This approach does not counterpose the historical/ political to the spiritual, but sees each as an expression of the other.

So far, we have explored this version of our people's spiritual history from the side of human beings seeking God. Can we also look at this process from the side that may include human yearning but is not limited to it? In other words, what might this process look like if we turn our attention to God's side of it?

We might draw both on the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria and the radical Catholic theology of Teilhard de Chardin (without being limited to their formulations).

Luria saw the universe as itself an aspect of God — the enfolded reshimu or residue of the Divinity that was left-over in the void that emerged from the Infinite's tzimtzum , Its inward contraction. The reshimu twirled, folded, grew, robed Itself in garments of Itself so as to seem material — and look, a world!

Similarly, Teilhard saw the whole process of evolution, including human cultural evolution, as an expression of God Unfolding, through which ultimately at the Omega Point the universe, through human self-awareness and the emergence of the Noosphere (an all-encompassing sphere of consciousness) would come to full Self-awareness.

We have till now looked at the alternating leaps of Control and Love, Making and Being, as historical surges merely: A surge in Control through Babylonian agriculture; deeper Loving/ Being through Israelite Shabbat. A surge in Control through Hellenistic civilization; deeper Loving/ Being through Talmud. A surge in Control through Modernity; deeper Loving/ Being through — the next stages in the renewal of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, feminism, ecology.

What if, following in the direction pointed by Luria and Teilhard, we were to see this historical process and its undulating spiral of growing power to control interwoven with growing community as the fits ands starts through which God's Presence becomes more fully manifest in the world?

A hypothesis, put forward as a way of thinking about the earth-human-God interaction:

That the tzimtzum is the Infinite God's attempt to see Itself mirrored, reflected, through the unfolding God that emerges from the Divine reshimu — that is, through the finite universe that hazily reflects the Infinite. And that the resulting aspect of God, God-embodied-in-the-universe, grows toward revealing Itself, toward becoming able to mirroring the Infinite Beyond.

This growth then appears to us as a double spiral:

In one spiral, growing self-awareness is used in the service of greater efficiency at controlling the surrounding universe — greater power.

In the other spiral, growing self-awareness is turned toward creating deeper love, broader connection.

In one spiral, my I eyes what I have just done, to do it more effectively.

In the other spiral, my I eyes the face of an Other and sees within it my own face, sees within its differentness my own uniqueness, and so can love my neighbor as deeply as my Self.

These two spirals are rooted in the living universe long before there emerges what we call life, or humankind. What we call life, and then what we call humankind, are themselves leaps forward in both spirals — the one that is more efficient, and the one that is more loving.

The two spirals are not independent of each other. They are intertwined. What Martin Buber called "I-It" intertwined with I-Thou. One spiral of stronger Doing intertwined with one of deeper Being.

Each of these comes into the world as a step in the journey of the world to become more and more a Mirror for God, more and more a fully aware being, ever more fully aware of its own Unity.

What makes each of them a spiral is the other. As each moves forward in what might have been a straight line, it reaches a point of impending self-destruction that calls forth the other into vigor. Each curve forward in the one spiral calls for a curve forward in the other.

An increase in efficiency unaccompanied by any increase in a sense of connection threatens that the more efficient being will gobble up its own nurturing environment — and ultimately find itself without nourishment — unless it learns to become part of a larger whole, a deeper, fuller community. Whether the being is a proto-protein hmmming in a sweet and early sea, or an amoeba devouring all the sugar-water in the neighborhood, or a global human civilization using up all the space in which other species can survive, the discipline of learning to love, to connect — or to die — is very strict.

And the creation of a new level of community — a multi-celled creature at one level of this double spiral; at another level, a society that understands it is part of a larger, richer habitat in which grow other species — the achievement of this new level creates the context for another leap forward in efficiency and power.

One of these spirals — the one in which self-awareness gives a being the ability to "look" at its techniques for acquisition, see its shortcomings, imagine a more effective solution, and make it happen — is the "competitive natural selection" aspect of evolution. The mistake of "social Darwinists" is to see this as the only aspect of evolution, ignoring the I-Thou spiral.

The emergence of life was one enormous leap forward in the ability of aspects of the universe to understand and control, and then of these same aspects to pause, reflect, love, and be self-aware.

The emergence of the human race was another such great step. For the universe to continue on this journey toward self-awareness, there needs to be a species capable of self-awareness — made up of individuals who can reflect upon their own selves, and also able as a species to reflect upon itself and to see itself as part of the Unity of the universe — on which it is also capable of reflecting.

That is what it means to live in the Image of God — to reflect upon the Unity, and thus to mirror God's Own Self. Among the species on this planet, the human race so far bears this Image of God — the self-awareness of Unity — most fully. That does not mean other beings have no share in this Image, nor does it mean that the unfolding of the Image stops with us.

And within human history, the pastoral and agricultural revolutions were further leaps forward in accessing the Divine attributes of power. Each meant that human beings were able to hold and use powers that previously had been held only by Divine "outsiders" — gods, spirits, God. Each meant that some aspect of Divine power became more available to human hands. And in response to each, human beings created new forms of connective community, intended to cradle the new energy of doing in new forms of loving.

And so the thin film of God that became the universe revealed Itself more and more fully, as the universe grew toward mirroring the Infinite.

And on each of these occasions, a leap forward in power and control had to be followed by a broadening of love and a deepening of self-aware reflection. Otherwise the new intensity of power would have swallowed up the world. And each growth of broader community gave the context and the impetus for another leap forward in Doing, Making, I-It. Thus the double spiral continued.

The agricultural revolution was one such turn on the Doing, I-It spiral — and it required the emergence of biblical Israel, Buddhism, and the other great ancient traditions on the Being, I-Thou spiral.

The next great turn on the Doing, I-It spiral came when Hellenism brought a more powerful form of economics, science, politics, and war to the Mediterranean basin. This leap shattered biblical Judaism as well as other traditional cultural and religious forms. The "I-Thou" response was the creation of Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the last several hundred years, we have been living through another such leap forward in the I-It powers of the human race. This leap is what we call Modernity. It is by far the greatest of these leaps, for it brings the human race into the arena in which it is transforming the very web of planetary life from which it sprang.

That we would reach this point was probably inevitable. For to be capable of "self-awaring" life inevitably also means to be capable of creating the technology that can wreck the planet. Human social history is simply incomparably swifter than biological evolution at applying self-awareness to technological improvement — so swift that it reaches the asymptote of possible self-destruction.

That swiftness, to some extent throughout human history but with utter urgency today, gives the human race a mandate unique among all species: to act as if it were a steward for the planet. If we fail in this task, the planet's ruination will take us with it. In that sense, we are strange stewards and the "steward" model is partly useful but not fully adequate — for we remain partially embedded in the earth we steward.

Today, what is the alternative to ruination? It is another curve forward on the spiral of Being, Loving, I-Thou-ing. It is the renewal and transformation of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the spiritual traditions of all indigenous peoples — a renewal and transformation that can deepen each tradition in its own uniqueness while broadening the circle of love it can encompass. It is the bringing of restfulness and reflectiveness to a deeper level, just as work has been brought by modernity to a higher level. It is extending our love to the whole of the earth of which we are a part, without denying our uniqueness in its web of life.

Now that we live in the era of high-tech industrialism, and are not shepherds or farmers or foresters in the ordinary sense, we must learn to be shepherds, farmers, tree-keepers again in a different sense. For shepherds, farmers, and orchard-keepers knew you must not exhaust the earth you live on. If you're a shepherd and you let the sheep eat all the grass in one year, the sheep may be fatter and the wool thicker this year, but you're finished off. And farmers, vintners, and orchard-keepers learn the same thing.

What does this mean for us who have forgotten it — in the wild rush of making, doing, inventing, producing over the last couple of hundred years? What does it mean for us to renew that shepherds' wisdom, the wisdom which knew that consuming what comes from the earth is a central sacred act is a way of being in touch with God? What would it mean for us to renew that wisdom?

I want to imagine a new version of the Jewish people — a new way of understanding and shaping ourselves. Imagine that we were to decide to see ourselves as having a mission, a purpose on the earth. A purpose to heal the earth — one that is not brand new but is described in the Torah as one of the great purposes of the Jewish people.

What does it mean that Shabbat is a symbol, a sign between the God of the universe and "His" once whole people? The Shabbat of Sinai comes in two different guises. In Exodus, we hear it as the moment when our restfulness connects us with the cosmic resting that imbues all of creation. In Deuteronomy, Shabbat renews the liberation of human beings and the earth.

And there is also the Shabbat that we often forget — the Shabbat that comes before Sinai. It comes with the manna in the Wilderness, betokening our free and playful reconnection with the earth. This Shabbat betokens the peace agreement ending the primordial war between ourselves and earth which began as we left Eden — which came from a misdeed of eating and brought us painful toil and turmoil in our eating.

What would it mean for us to renew the sense that deep in our very covenant, deep in our covenant-sign Shabbat, is the call to be healers of the earth?

Imagine a people that can renew —

  • its forms of prayer to celebrate the earth and confront its despoilers;
  • its daily practice to become an "eco-kosher" lifepath;
  • its forms of Torah-study to intertwine Jewish texts with scientific and socio-political knowledge;
  • its relationships with other peoples and spiritual communities to seek allies in the effort to heal our planet.

In short, imagine the Jewish people as a kind of transgenerational, transnational "movement," committed for seven generations, from one generation to the next and beyond, to transmit the wisdom and the practice that can heal the earth.

And imagine this movement/people as one direct expression of God's need at this moment to unfold in the mode of deeper community: deeper Love and deeper Being.

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and author of Godwrestling — Round 2 and Down-to-Earth Judaism, among other works. An earlier version of this article appeared in the CCAR Journal (Central Conference of American Rabbis, Winter 2001), pp. 27-37.