ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 263

Promoted Essay The Times of Israel - Promoted Content Sources Journal: Spring 2024

Judaism and Nature

At times, we may feel ourselves at one with Nature… but then we pack up, go home, and return to our day jobs. But who is this “we” who encounters Nature?

Mara Benjamins is a former Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She is also Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies at Mount Holyoke College. 

What comes to mind when we picture Nature?

We may immediately remember a hike in the woods, a vacation spent off the grid in a remote cabin among the evergreen trees, or paddling a kayak as loons call. Nature is a destination for which we prepare ourselves, bringing a compass, a backpack, and water. Or perhaps we think of Nature as the place where mosquitos and black flies buzz in our ears, where we contend with the lack of indoor plumbing or electricity and long to return “home.” At other times, Nature appears as an enemy, coming at us with its terrifying and destructive force: in hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. Nature is, in other words, a place we visit or something that visits us. But in every case, Nature is “out there.” We gaze upon it; we go into—and then come out of—it; we run from it. We seek to understand it; we wonder at it; we find it inscrutable. At times, we may feel ourselves at one with Nature… but then we pack up, go home, and return to our day jobs.

But who is this “we” who encounters Nature? Whoever it is must exist outside of Nature. How would it be possible to visit, contemplate, or gaze upon Nature if not from a remove?

This “we” is, of course, the Human: a unique being, distinguished in kind from other creatures. Until quite recently, it was manifestly evident that the Human has a monopoly on civilization (culture, art, morality) and advanced capacities (for consciousness, sentience, language). This was common knowledge: the Human is different; the Human is set apart from the muck and baseness of “the animals,” to say nothing of other forms of life and non-life, everything else given or created in the world. Plants, landscapes, bacteria, weather events, and (non-human) animals: they share, if nothing else, a lack of these Human hallmarks.

Ecological disaster has destabilized this way of thinking, revealing it to be a particular construction that makes it hard to see the world as it is. As Bruno Latour argues in Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Nature should not be regarded as a generic term. Rather, Nature designates a collection of non-human actors and phenomena imagined as fundamentally passive and inert; those who mold, shape, and extract resources from Nature are called Human. (I have capitalized Nature and Human to indicate these terms as marked rather than neutral.) Nature and Human are interdependent constructs that only have meaning as two halves of a whole. That steady, eternal, clockwork realm of Nature “out there”? The fully agentic, detached Human observer? All of it is a chimera, a fairytale spun by the architects of Western modernity’s science, philosophy, and politics and imagined as true by those of us who have benefited most (at least in the short term) from the story. Ecological crisis exposes the Earth once again as it truly is: active, local, limited, sensitive, fragile, trembling, and easily irritated, as Latour has put it.

Often without even realizing it, many, if not most, Jews today imagine our own tradition to authorize and validate the modern view of reality divided into Nature (or “World”) and Human. We see this assumption when Jewish environmental organizations appeal to audiences to “care for nature” or “take responsibility for the environment.” It shows up in modern Jewish thought and philosophy, as, for instance, when Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption names the constituent elements of reality as “Gott, Mensch, und Welt” as if God and the Human Being were somehow outside of the World.

But it is not just that contemporary Jews imagine the tradition to authorize this construction of the world. While Jewish classical sources portray human creatures’ agency as contingent, in contrast to how many modern Western philosophers would imagine it, the presumption of human exceptionalism—that humans are “differently different” from other creatures in some fundamental respect—is baked into its earliest and most influential strains. Jewish thought, as many of us today know it, is nurtured in the soil of Jewish textual corpora. But if these corpora consistently divide the world into basic units of human and non-human—which give way to other hierarchical distinctions within the human class—how can we engage in the kind of conceptual world-construction we need?

 

Continue reading at Sources: A Journal for Jewish Ideas

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