by Arthur Waskow

The ecological crisis is an index to changing relationships among God, humans, and all forms of life.

ARTHUR WASKOW is a Rabbi and director of the Shalom Center, a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. He is the author of Seasons of Our Joy, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and Godwrestling-Round 2, among many other works.

When Jews of this past generation began to sense a deepening environmental crisis in earth-human relationships, and especially when they saw the Bible accused of causing this crisis through its command to "fill the earth and subdue it," some of them felt impelled to wrestle anew with Torah in the light of that crisis. Their first responses 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 tashchit" ("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.

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 -- and to look 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. We will come back to what this different way of understanding both the texts and the history mean for religious thought and action. But first let us draw on three recent books in which this new way of exploring has raised similar questions, though not identical answers, by looking at the relationships among hunter, gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural life-paths in the Bible. I will be weaving some ideas from these three books together with some ideas developed in my own books, Godwrestling (1978) and Godwrestling-Round 2 (1997).

The three books are:

  • Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, a widely read "novel" made up of dialogue between a human and a gorilla about the present eco-disaster that the earth and human earthlings are facing;
  • 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;
  • The Book of Miriam, by Leonard Angel, the newly written text of a fictional, purportedly ancient sacred poem/ text by Moses' sister Miriam that in Angel's imagining had been hidden away or excluded by many generations of male Jewish scholars, while being secretly studied by generations of women. The Miriam text takes a view of the sacred history of the Israelites different from that put forward by Moses. It is far more devoted to nomadic life, far more opposed to centralized monarchy, far more naturalist in its outlook on God and miracles.

Quinn, Eisenberg, and Angel all suggest one variant or another of the view that the Eden story is a tale told by West-Semitic nonfarmers (shepherds or hunter-gatherers). At one level, they suggest (there are obviously other levels through which the stories also enrich our spiritual lives, and the different levels are nonexclusive), Eden and the Cain-Abel story are "about" the encroachment into West-Semitic lives of a great agricultural empire, Babylonia. From this perspective, Eden was a story about the alienation between human and earth and the subordination of women that agriculture meant. Cain -- the angry farmer -- was guilty of killing his peaceful shepherd brother. (Cain was then tamed by being turned into a nomad -- the opposite of a turf-conscious farmer.)

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 "hei" from its name -- the sound of a breath -- and receives the "ruach 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 ruach 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 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 hunter-gatherers and shepherds, the agro-revolution was a disastrous, dangerous, oppressive event.

So from this perspective, Eden becomes the story of a tragic mistake 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. From this perspective, the ancient midrash that the Tree of Eden was a wheat plant makes good historical-anthropological sense. Also from this perspective, argues Quinn, comes the Torah's story of Cain the murdering farmer, who shatters shepherd Abel -- Cain/ Kayyin/ Possessive-one, vs. Abel/ Hevel/Evanescent Puff of Breath.

From the perspective of the West Semites, the aggressive farmers have encroached on-and ultimately murdered -- their pastoral society. Even though the farmers have distanced themselves from the earth and have violently turned to dominating other human beings, they ultimately win God's protection and give birth to city-builders. 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 shepherd-Semites ultimately joined the agro-revolution and became also farmers. But they kept drawing on their own past experience as shepherds and gatherers to build in such protections of the earth and of their own long-term vision as the Shabbat, the Sabbatical Year, and the Jubilee, during which humans become gatherers again one-seventh of the time. (See the Jubilee tradition of the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 23:9-12, Lev. 25:1-55, Lev. 26:33-35, 43-45, Deut. 15:1-18, Isa. 58:1-14, 61:1-11, Jer. 32:6-27, 33:1-44, 34:1-22, 2 Chron. 36:20-21, and my own wrestling with it in Godwrestling [1978], 110-27, and Godwrestling-Round 2 [1996], 231-44, 301-13.)

What is crucial here may be 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 to bind into livability and decency the radically new forms of controlling other human beings and the earth.

Now let us turn to how the spiritual seekers and religious activists of our own day might draw upon this way of understanding the Bible. 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 (not the same as simultaneous movements for restoration of the old) of all the faith traditions on the planet, and are also calling forth such new approaches to community as feminism and ecology. 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 tradition into meaninglessness nor to accept it 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 nonhuman aspects of Creation just as it demeaned nonmale aspects 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. Torah becomes a tale of the spirals of growing up in power and love of the human race, and also of individual human beings. Indeed, for some this approach draws both on the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria and the radical Catholic theology of Teilhard de Chardin, seeing the historical process and its undulating spiral of growing power interwoven with growing community as the fits and starts through which God's Presence becomes more fully manifest in the world.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issue 1-2