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Judaism Introduction

Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard Divinity School
Religions of the World and Ecology Series
Judaism and Ecology Volume
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, ed.

“Introduction: Judaism and the Natural World ”
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson

  Jews and Nature in Historical Perspective
The Jewish voice has joined the environmental movement relatively recently. Jews are not among the leaders of the environmental movement, and environmental activists who are Jews by birth have not developed their stance on the basis of Judaism.1 With the marked exception of the Bible, the literary sources of Judaism have remained practically unknown to environmental thinkers, and Jewish values have only marginally inspired environmental thinking or policies. Moreover, since the famous essay of Lynn White, Jr.,2 many environmentalists have charged that the Bible, the foundation document of Judaism, is the very cause for the contemporary ecological crisis. The biblical command to the first humans “to fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28) is repeatedly cited as the proof that the Bible, and the Judeo-Christian tradition based on it, is the direct cause of the current environmental crisis.

Jews, too, have not regarded the well-being of the physical environment a Jewish issue.3 In the post-Holocaust years, the physical and spiritual survival of the Jewish people, rather than the survival of the earth and natural habitats, has dominated Jewish concerns. While environmentalism was gaining momentum in the industrialized West, Jews were preoccupied with other issues, such as the prolonged Israeli-Arab conflict, relations between the State of Israel and the Diaspora, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and pluralism within Judaism. The desired relationship between the earth and the human species has not been at the forefront of the Jewish agenda.

The lack of interest in the natural world among Jews has deep historical and religious causes that go beyond the contemporary Jewish anguish about survival. For most of their history, Jews have been an urban people. In the Greco-Roman world, although Jews dwelled in urban centers, agriculture remained the primary mode of Jewish livelihood in Palestine and Babylonia. After the rise of Islam, heavy taxation on Jews made agriculture unprofitable and accelerated the process of urbanization, leading Jews to concentrate in commerce, trade, finance, and crafts. In medieval Christian Europe the Jewish estrangement from the land was even more pronounced because feudal relations excluded Jews. Although in some parts of Western Europe landed property was granted to Jews as late as the thirteenth century, Jews were increasingly forced to engage in moneylending, an economic activity that was odious to Christians. Frequent expulsions and voluntary migrations further estranged Jews from land cultivation, turning the ancient agrarian past into a distant memory. No longer in practice, the prescribed land-based rituals of Judaism fueled the hope for the ideal Messianic Age in the remote future, when the exiled people will return to the Land of Israel. For two millennia of exilic life, Jews continued to dream about their return to the Holy Land, but they waited for divine intervention to bring it about. Until then, Jewish life was to be shaped by the norms of rabbinic Judaism whose comprehensiveness enabled Jews to remain loyal to their religious tradition, despite the loss of political sovereignty and in the face of hostility and discrimination.

Nature, nonetheless, was not absent from traditional Jewish life. Through prescribed blessings and prayers the traditional Jew acknowledged natural phenomena and expressed thanks for God’s benevolent creation. Yet the natural world was not understood to be independent of God’s creative power. To venerate the natural world for its own sake or to identify God with nature is precisely the pagan outlook that Judaism rejects as idolatrous.4 The world created by God is good, but it is not perfect; it requires human action to perfect it in accord with God’s will. While nature is not in itself holy, it can be sanctified through performance of prescribed commands from God, the source of holiness.5 In Judaism, the system of revealed commandments stands in contrast to nature, prescribing what should be done to that which already exists. Steven S. Schwarzschild captured this ethical stance when he coined the phrase “the unnatural Jew.”6

The prescriptive stance toward nature was compatible with attempts to fathom how the natural world works. During the Middle Ages, Jewish philosophers sought to understand the laws by which God governs the world and availed themselves of contemporary science based on the study of natural phenomena and their causes. Medieval philosophers regarded the study of God’s created world a theoretical activity whose reward was the immortality of the rational soul, or the intellect. It was a religious activity that enabled the philosopher-scientist to come closer to God. Moreover, the study of nature was never divorced from the study of the revealed Torah. Even though from the twelfth century onward medieval Jewish philosophers did not use biblical verses as premises of their philosophical reasoning, they all presupposed that in principle there could be no genuine contradiction between the truths of the revealed text and scientific knowledge about the world; both were believed to manifest the Wisdom of God. In premodern Judaism, then, all reflections about the created world, the doctrine of creation, and the doctrine of revelation functioned as the matrix within which Jews speculated about the natural world.

The religious outlook of premodern Judaism reached a crisis in the late eighteenth century. The rise of the centralized, modern nation-state, and, thereafter, the spread of democratic principles, made it impossible for Jews to continue to live in autonomous communities and be governed by their own laws and by special laws imposed by the state. If Jews were to remain in their country of residence, they had to be granted citizenship and civil rights. Many Jews wished to end age-old social and religious segregation and integrate into Western society and culture. For many, especially those who were open to the ideals of the Enlightenment, the sacred myth of Judaism and its traditional lifestyle became untenable. For the first time in their history, Jews evaluated their own tradition by criteria derived from the surrounding society, which they now regarded to be superior to their own. The Emancipation of the Jews during the nineteenth century was accompanied by a rapid process of modernization of Jewish religious practices, beliefs, and social customs. It was helped by more positive attitudes toward finance and commerce in modern mercantile and later capitalist economies. Yet precisely because Jews in Western and Central Europe so successfully and rapidly integrated into modern society, anti-Semitism emerged as a backlash, culminating in the elimination of one-third of world Jewry in the Holocaust. The multiple causes of the Holocaust cannot be discussed here, but it is appropriate to ponder the causal connection between the collective destruction of the Jews and the current environmental crisis.7

Zionism was the most radical Jewish response to modern anti-Semitism. A secular, nationalist movement, Zionism called on Jews to leave their country of residence and settle in the Land of Israel where they would rebuild the Jewish homeland and enjoy political sovereignty. For many Zionist ideologues, especially those associated with Labor or Socialist Zionism, the return to the Land of Israel was not merely a political act; it was also a deliberate attempt to create a new kind of a Jew, a person who will be rooted in the soil rather than in the study of sacred texts and the performance of religious rituals.8 The return of the Jews to nature was supposed to liberate the Jews from the negative character traits they had acquired during their long exilic life and to lead to personal redemption not in the afterlife but in this world, and not through observance of divine commands but through manual labor.9 The “religion of labor” through land cultivation was the most profound transformation of traditional Jewish values.10 Along with the return to nature, the Zionists created a new, Hebrew culture that highlighted the agricultural basis of many Jewish festivals and designed new rituals that celebrated the abundance of the land without referring to God or to the sacred sources of Judaism.11

Despite the Zionist return to land cultivation and the emotional link to the Land of Israel, the physical environment did not fare well in the State of Israel. Since its establishment, the nascent state has been struggling to survive in a hostile environment, and nature preservation has not been at the top of the national agenda. In fact, the rapid population growth of the Jewish state after 1950, industrialization, and the perpetual state of war with its Arab neighbors dictated overuse of preciously scarce natural resources, especially water.12 Furthermore, the influx of Jews from the Arab world, which had not been exposed to Western modernization, reintroduced traditional Jewish life and values to the young state, including a certain indifference to the physical environment. The social agenda of these immigrants, as well as of the refugees from Europe after the Holocaust, has had little to do with protection of the land and its limited natural resources.

Environmentalism does exist in Israel,13 but its forms indicate the complex relationship between Judaism and ecology. On the one hand, intimate familiarity with the landscape, its flora and fauna, and concern for the preservation of the physical environment are popular among secular Israelis. Yet these activities are not legitimated by appeal to the religious sources of Judaism. Even when the Bible is employed to identify plants and animals in the Land of Israel, the Bible is not treated as a revealed text,14 but as a historical document about the remote, national past. For secular Israelis, attention to environmental issues has more to do with a Western orientation and links to environmental movements in Europe and North America than with the religious sources of Judaism. On the other hand, Jews who are anchored in the Jewish tradition tend to link their love of the Land of Israel to a certain religious nationalist vision. Even though the religious, nationalist parties now promote outdoor activities for their constituents, these activities were not grounded in the values and sensibilities of the environmental movement. Nonetheless, in recent years attempts have been made to include ecological awareness in the religious-nationalist school system.

The creative weaving of Judaism and ecology took place in North America and began in the early 1970s as an apologetic response to the charges that the Judeo-Christian tradition was the cause of the environmental crisis. Defensive responses came first from Orthodox thinkers who showed that the accusations were based either on misunderstanding of the sources or on a lack of familiarity with the richness of the Jewish tradition.15 Since then, Jews from all branches of modern Judaism—Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Humanistic Judaism—have contributed to Jewish ecology thinking, giving rise to a distinctive, albeit still small, body of literature.16

If reflections about nature from the sources of Judaism began with religiously committed Jews, environmental activism, by contrast, was initiated by Jews who were already involved in the environmental movement and who found their way back to their Jewish roots as part of the Jewish Renewal movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. At the forefront of the Jewish environmental movement was the organization Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), whose goal was to raise Jewish awareness about ecological problems, such as pollution of natural resources, deforestation, erosion of top soil, the disappearance of species, climatic changes, and other ecological disasters brought about by the Industrial Revolution and by human greed and unbridled consumerism.17 Jewish environmentalists have shown how ancient Jewish sacred texts and practices expressed concern for the protection of the earth and its inhabitants and urged Jews to reconnect with the rhythms of nature that are the foundation of many Jewish festivals.18 In 1993 the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) was founded as an umbrella organization of diverse groups in North America to coordinate Jewish educational efforts and influence environmental policies. The final essay in this volume, by Mark X. Jacobs, the current executive director of the organization, documents the political and educational activities of Jewish environmentalists and reflects on the challenges that face them

Existing Jewish ecological literature has shown that the sacred sources of Judaism are compatible with the sensibilities of the environmental movement, especially the value of stewardship, and that the values of Judaism could be used to formulate viable environmental policies. Contrary to the accusations of secular environmentalists, the Bible itself serves as the point of departure of Jewish environmentalism. Three main areas are commonly cited as evidence of the ecological usefulness of the Bible and rabbinic literature: protection of vegetation, especially fruit-bearing trees; awareness of the distress of animals; and predicating social justice on the well-being of the earth itself.19 All three areas are framed in the context of covenantal theology, the bond between Israel and God.20

The causal relationship between human conduct and the thriving of the natural environment is spelled out in the relationship between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel: when Israel conducts itself according to divine command, the land is abundant and fertile, benefiting its human inhabitants with the basic necessities of life. But when Israel transgresses divine commandments, the blessedness of the land is temporarily removed and the land becomes desolate and inhospitable (Lev. 26:32). When the alienation from God becomes so egregious and injustice fills up God’s land, God brings about Israel’s removal from the land by allowing Israel’s enemies to overcome her. The well-being of the land and the quality of Israel’s life are causally linked, and both are predicated on Israel’s observance of God’s will. In short, the covenant between Israel and God implied specific laws intended to protect God’s land and ensure its continued vitality.

Jewish ecological discourse has shown that Judaism harbors deep concern for the well-being of the natural world.21 To date, however, the movement has not articulated a Jewish theology of nature, nor has it submitted the sources of Judaism to a systematic, philosophical examination. This volume is a first attempt toward that goal. The volume comprises essays presented in February 1998 at a conference at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, as part of the larger study of religion and ecology, spearheaded by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim of Bucknell University. Organized by Rabbi Steven Shaw and Moshe Sokol, the conference brought Jewish academics, environmental activists, and educators to reflect about Judaism’s attitude toward the natural world. Unlike other gatherings of academics in Jewish studies, this conference intended to bridge the gap between objective scholarship and subjective commitment, between theoretical reflections and recommendations for action. The volume reflects this vision.

Constructive Jewish Theology of Nature

The volume commences with two attempts to construct a Jewish theology of nature in order to address the current ecological crisis. Arthur Green and Michael Fishbane both take their inspiration from kabbalah. Green believes that in kabbalah we can find the correct view of the relationship between God and the universe and that such a view offers useful insights for our environmental predicament inasmuch as it is compatible with the evolutionary model of the life sciences and with the orientation of contemporary physics and cosmology. Green boldly asserts that in order to address the concerns of the “environmental age,” it is necessary to formulate “a Judaism unafraid to proclaim the holiness of the natural world, one that sees creation, including both world and human self, as a reflection of divinity and a source of religious inspiration.” Adopting the ontological schema of kabbalah, Green maintains that all existents are in some way an expression of God and are to some extent intrinsically related to each other.

Contrary to Michael Wyschogrod, who holds that in Judaism “nature per se is not sacred,”22 because holiness belongs only to the Creator, Green obliterates the ontological gap between the Creator and the created. Instead he adopts the monistic, emanationist ontology of kabbalah, according to which “multiplicity is the garbing of the One in the coat of many colors of existence, the transformation of Y-H-W-H, singularity itself—Being—into the infinite variety of H-W-Y-H, being as we know, encounter, and are it.” Green also endorses the kabbalistic tendency to blur the distinction between creation and revelation. Both are forms of God’s self-disclosure and both should ultimately be understood as linguistic processes. The natural world is ultimately a linguistic structure that requires decoding, an act that only humans can accomplish because they are created in the image of God. “Each human mind,” says Green in accord with kabbalah, “is a microcosm, a miniature replica of the single Mind that conceives and becomes the universe. To know that oneness and recognize it in all our fellow beings is what life is all about.” Thus, Green unambiguously privileges the human in the order of things, a view that is vehemently rejected by many environmentalists, especially those associated with deep ecology.23 From the privileged position of the human, Green derives an ethics of responsibility toward all creatures that acknowledges the differences between diverse creatures while insisting on the need to defend the legitimate place in the world of even “the weakest and most threatened of creatures.” For Green, a Jewish ecological ethics must be a torat hayim, namely, a set of laws and instructions that truly “enhances life.” He does not specify what these can be, but he does provide a Jewish way of thinking about environmental ethics and the policies that could derive from it.


Like Green, Michael Fishbane illustrates how the traditional language of Judaism could be reinterpreted to think about nature in light of contemporary ecological concerns. But if Green takes his point of departure from the paradox of unity and multiplicity, Fishbane reflects on the paradox of God’s creative act. The Bible depicts the creation of the world as the result of divine speech: God spoke and the world came into being. If nature is God’s speech, nature itself reveals God. Fishbane’s implicit indebtedness to kabbalah is evident when he regards creation as an act of God’s self-revelation. In Fishbane’s own words: “God’s speaking is the world’s fullness, an infinite revelation at the heart of creation.” The creative/revelatory act, however, has two aspects: one is the creative energy that brings things into existence, and the other is the perception of what exists. Fishbane captures these two aspects by differentiating between “Breath” and “Speech.” The divine Breath is the creative power that vitalizes everything, whereas Speech is that which articulates things, making them distinct and accessible to human perception. Fishbane then identifies “Speech” and “Breath” with the two central categories of rabbinic Judaism—“Written Torah” and “Oral Torah,” respectively. He states: “the Oral Torah is eternally God’s breath as it vitalizes being, ruha be-ruha (‘spirit within spirit’), whereas the Written Torah is this same reality contracted into the vessels of human cognition, language, and experience.”

In Fishbane’s poetic theology of nature, the terms “Written Torah” and “Oral Torah” no longer denote a certain body of Jewish literature, Scripture and rabbinic deliberations respectively, but two coordinates that invite Jews to organize their experience vis-à-vis the natural world. As much as the Written and Oral Torah are interdependent in traditional Jewish thinking, so are humans interdependent on the natural world and the divine creative energy that vitalizes it. Fishbane expresses the duality of the human condition by using yet another set of terms: “natural eye” and “spiritual eye.” As part of nature, human beings have a physical body and perceive the world through “the natural eye,” namely, through their bodily senses. But humans are also possessed with the ability “to perceive the world with God’s Oral Torah in mind.” That is to say, humans are aware of being different from other creatures, but they are also able to see what they have in common with other beings. When we become aware of the “organic coherence” of which we are a part, we are able to exhibit “precious attentiveness to the multiform character of God’s Written Torah . . . [while being] attuned to the Oral Torah speaking in and through it.” Becoming aware of the “Godly nature” of everything that exists is precisely the purpose of Jewish prayers, blessings, and acts of sanctification, according to Fishbane. These are ways in which Jews acknowledge the limits of human speech, while using language. At the same time we also become aware of and attuned to “the rhythms of other persons and things by adjusting our breathing patterns to them and their way of being.” Fishbane’s theology of nature calls people to live as part of nature and at the same time to seek to transcend the natural.

The ethical conclusions of Fishbane are the same as Green’s: we must be attuned to the rhythm of nature, we must do our best to protect God’s nature, and we must recognize that we and everything else in the natural world are linked to each other. Whether kabbalah and Hasidism, its modern offshoot, could be legitimately used to anchor contemporary Jewish ecology, is questioned by other scholars in this volume.

The Human Condition: Origins, Pollution, and Death

From constructive Jewish theology of nature the volume moves to consider the Bible and rabbinic literature, the foundation documents of Judaism. The essays of the second section advance this conversation in interesting, new directions. Evan Eisenberg presents a comparative reading of the biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden in light of the sacred narratives of other Near Eastern cultures and what is known today about the civilizations of the ancient Near East: the riverbed civilization of Mesopotamia and the terraced-hills civilization of the Canaanites, of which ancient Israel was a part. By establishing the ecological facts behind the Garden of Eden narrative, Eisenberg proposes a rather somber reading of the biblical narrative that carries a moral lesson about the relationship between humans and natural wilderness.

In Eisenberg’s comparative study, the Garden of Eden is a mountain that functioned as a “cosmic center,” a “world-pole,” or the “navel of the world.” It is the source of life. Eden, however, was not a place fit for human dwelling, since humans are animals with a unique capacity to make tools and produce farming, writing, and urban dwellings, in short, to create civilizations.24 In Eisenberg’s secular, anthropological reading of the biblical narrative, the Fall of Man was a necessary process of self-expulsion, or self-alienation from nature. Eden belongs to God, and not even gods or angels could remain in it, let alone humans. To develop their potential, humans had to leave Eden and create civilization, which inevitably destroys the very natural resources at human disposal. According to Eisenberg, the tragic human condition cannot be avoided, but its scope can be minimized, if we become aware of it. The biblical Garden of Eden narrative, therefore, should function not as a place to which we aspire to return but as a source of wilderness: “we must revere it, draw sustenance from it, [and] keep it alive.” Conversely, we must be cognizant of the fact that our civilizational accomplishments have separated us from the sources of life, and that the quality of our life has been drastically reduced since the dawn of civilization. Eisenberg does not offer a way out of the human conundrum, but he suggests that if we become aware of our tragic ecological situation, we may be able to minimize its scope.

How are humans to negotiate their tragic relationship with the natural world? In traditional Judaism answers to such a question have to be sought, in principle, in rabbinic sources that apply divinely revealed Scripture to concrete human situations. The essays by Eliezer Diamond and David Kraemer treat these sources from two distinct, but complementary perspectives. Whereas Diamond focuses on halakhic (i.e., legal) discourse, Kraemer looks closely at aggadic, that is, the nonlegal, homiletical, and speculative aspect of rabbinic Judaism. From their detailed textual analyses emerge general principles that could be most useful for contemporary thinking about ecological problems.

Humans are social animals and their interaction with each other requires cooperation as well as mechanisms for conflict resolution. Diamond wrestles with one aspect of contemporary ecological problems: pollution. He considers the effects of pollution, not on natural environment, but on humans. More specifically, he is concerned with the problem of environmental justice.25 Since conflicts about pollution pit the interest of the individual against the interest of the community, Diamond examines how the Mishnah and subsequent medieval and modern legal sources, including rulings by the Supreme Court in Israel, deal with such conflicts. Diamond shows that halakhic sources struggled with the tension between personal and conventional standards, established the parameters of unacceptable pollution, were aware of the difference between inflicting nuisance or discomfort and causing economic deprivation, and that they have evolved over time because they addressed changing life circumstances. While Diamond reasons within the parameters of Jewish legal sources, the ramifications of his essay extend beyond the boundaries of Jewish society, for whom this reasoning is normative. He convincingly argues that halakhic reasoning about notions of conventionality and equity in environmental matters could be applied meaningfully to the problem of global warming. Such application requires a careful analysis of concrete human situations as well as a creative analysis of Jewish legal sources.

The same interpretative creativity can be applied to the nonlegal rabbinic sources that expressed rabbinic theology and shaped religious practices. Kraemer advances our understanding of Jewish views on the relationship between humans and nature by looking at death rituals. On the basis of a comparative analysis with Zoroastrian and Egyptian death rituals, he argues that in all human societies death rituals are rooted in a certain view about the origins of humanity. In rabbinic death rituals the dead body was to be placed in the ground immediately after death. While one can rationalize this ritual by appealing to the hot climate of the Near East and the need to avoid early decomposition of the body, Kraemer cogently argues that the rabbinic rationale for the practice was linked to the biblical narrative of human creation. The Bible, however, has two creation narratives: Genesis 2:7 depicts the creation of the first human from the earth, whereas Genesis 1:26 highlights that the human was created “in the image of God” (be-tzelem ’elohim). The two creation narratives have very different consequences concerning the relationship between humans and the natural world. According to the earthbound story, the human (’adam) comes from the earth (’adamah) and must return to it at death; according to the second narrative, humans are in some sense “above” the earth. Kraemer shows that rabbinic death rituals privileged the earthbound narrative, thereby signifying the essential link to the natural world. From this, Kraemer derives a rabbinically based ecological ethics: the relations between humans and the earth is “a relationship not of subduing or conquest, but of natural partnership. An act of abuse against the natural world is an abuse against humanity, and vice versa.” It follows that humans must not “view the natural world as ‘other,’ something to serve our needs, something to exploit.” Rather, “our needs are part of, and must be harmonized with, the needs of the natural world.”26 Kraemer does not tell us how to accomplish the reconciliation between conflicting needs, but it stands to reason that further exploration of halakhic sources could provide an answer.

In his response, Eilon Schwartz clarifies Jewish approaches to the natural world by delineating four models. The first focuses on human rationality and posits an instrumental attitude toward nature. Schwartz admits that this model, in which human rationality manipulates the world to satisfy human needs, makes Judaism susceptible to the accusation of the environmental movement that Judaism endorses human domination of nature. Yet, the Bible offers a second model that affirms human responsibility toward the earth, highlighting the partnership of humans with the earth and its inhabitants. These two models, Schwartz argues, need not be understood as mutually exclusive, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik proposed in his famous essay,27 because human physicality can be “a source of deep spiritual meaning.” While Schwartz agrees that the second model is attractive, he confesses to a certain discomfort with it, given his own environmentalism that is inspired by the wilderness tradition. Therefore, Schwartz finds the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel akin to his own sensibility, because Heschel highlighted the “radical amazement model.” Whereas this model belittles the human and calls for humility in light of nature’s awesomeness, the fourth model, the “holy sparks model” of Lurianic kabbalah and Hasidism, makes the human deeply involved with the transformation of nature. Schwartz insightfully suggests that this religious model was given a secular twist in Zionism, where it cohered with Romantic nationalism, on the one hand, and with Nietzsche’s philosophy of life, on the other hand. With a greater awareness to the diverse models within Judaism, Jewish environmental education has more options and can avoid the sense of crisis and despair articulated by Soloveitchik’s religious existentialism.

The Doctrine of Creation
All Jewish reflections about the natural world, as Michael Wyscho-grod has already noted, take their point of departure from the belief that God created the world and that God is the source of the moral order. The third section of the volume examines more carefully the doctrine of creation in the Bible, rabbinic texts, and Jewish philosophy.

Stephen A. Geller’s analysis of the Book of Job captures the core problem in Judaism: the tension between the belief that God created the world and the belief that God revealed His Will to Israel in the form of law, the Torah. The Book of Job is the earliest manifestation of this problem. According to Geller, the book reflected a crisis of faith in Israel during the sixth century BCE, after the destruction of the First Temple. The crisis pitted the “Old Wisdom tradition” against a “new militant monotheism” and its covenantal theology, articulated in the Book of Deuteronomy. The ancient Wisdom tradition saw the origin of nature and the origin of the moral order to be the same. Wise is the one who observes nature and knows how to live rightly in accord with it. By contrast, the new Deuteronomic faith posited a covenant law that is discussed in terms of Sinaitic revelation. Geller highlights the tension between the Old Wisdom tradition that proceeded “from God through creation and nature to morality,” and the covenant faith that ‘deriv[ed] all morality from revelation to humankind, i.e., Israel.” According to Geller, then, the Book of Job is a hybrid of intellectual piety and covenantal piety, a mixture that is best evident in the speeches of Job’s friends. The author of the Book of Job does not resolve the tension logically, but the book ends with an emotional solution to the tension. In chapters 38–42, the climax of the book, the author of Job “wants to rescue a role for nature, but he realizes that this can be achieved only by abandoning the demand for understanding itself.” The proper attitude toward nature, according to the Book of Job, is expressed in the category of the “sublime” as understood by the English poets of the eighteenth century. The sublime combines humility, terror, awareness of one’s insignificance, and fear with feelings of exaltation, forgetfulness of self, and fascination. The conclusion of the Book of Job is that “Revelation and nature cannot be reconciled by human wisdom.”

Although Geller succinctly captures the tension between the doctrines of creation and revelation, the history of Judaism did not follow his conclusion. What is true about the Book of Job, if one accepts Geller’s reading, is not true about Jewish philosophy. The Jewish philosophic tradition was grounded in the assumption that human reason can indeed bridge revelation and nature and that the same rational ability to fathom the laws of nature can and should be applied to the interpretation of God’s revealed Will and Wisdom in Scripture. For the philosophers, the laws of nature, in principle, could not contradict the truths of revealed Scripture, and it is the task of the Jewish wise man to sort out the relationship between knowledge about the natural world and the true meaning of revealed Scripture.

Focusing on the Jewish philosophical tradition, David Novak explores how the doctrine of creation relates to the idea of nature, and more specifically to the concept of natural law. Writing both as a historian of Jewish thought and as a constructive Jewish theologian, Novak argues that in the classical sources of Judaism—especially in medieval Jewish philosophy—there is an elaborate discussion of natural law. The relationship between the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of revelation has to be configured in the context of a natural law theory. Novak argues that all theories of natural law are necessarily teleological and that they presuppose a hierarchical order of the universe. After elucidating four possible ways to configure the telos of the universe, and critiquing the relationship between creation and revelation in the thought of Saadia Gaon (882–942) and Moses Maimonides (1135/8–1204), Novak proceeds to articulate his own understanding of the interplay of creation, revelation, and redemption. His views are shaped by the philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929). Properly understood, Novak argues, creation is not in time; it is prior to the experience of every creature; and redemption is “not yet,” that is, it is beyond what humans can know or experience in the present. All that humans have is revelation, yet revelation is not a one-time historic event, but is “God’s presence in us, with us, and for us.” It is the ever-present “Giving of the Torah to Israel,” an act which organizes all meaning for Jews. Novak argues, therefore, that nature cannot be grasped as a mere given, or an abstraction of the human mind. Instead, nature is “something that can only be grasped abstractly from within our historical present, a present whose content is continually provided by revelation.” On the basis of Rosenzweig’s philosophy, Novak proceeds to present what he considers to be the best theory of natural law in Judaism. Novak’s theological position can be endorsed by Orthodox, Conservative, and even Reform Jews who accept the primacy of revelation in organizing Jewish life, but it may be difficult for secular Jews for whom the category of revelation is meaningless or who view Judaism as the culture of the Jewish people.

Whereas Novak focused on the philosophical interpretations of the doctrine of creation, Neil Gillman looks at the link between the doctrine of creation and Jewish liturgy and ritual. Gillman’s assumption coheres with the claim of Kraemer in the previous section: Jewish rituals express the underlying theology of rabbinic Judaism better than Jewish philosophical theology. Gillman shows how the Jewish marriage ceremony and the prayer of the morning service are organized on the basis of the doctrine of creation that is the linchpin of the sacred narrative of Judaism. Again in agreement with Kraemer, Gillman shows that the rabbis privileged the earthbound creation narrative in Genesis 2:7 and that they ascribed deep spiritual meaning to the physicality of creation. Gillman’s interpretation of the doctrine of creation is decidedly critical of the intellectualism of Maimonides as much as it is at odds with Soloveitchik’s reading of the creation narrative. In Gillman’s exposition of the marriage ceremony, the ritual should be understood as a reenactment of the act of creation that fuses “the two worlds, the transcendent mythic world of the creation story and the actual, real world of the two people who are getting married.” Liturgical acts are not mere ceremonies; they are theology in action. Gillman then looks carefully at three elements from the morning service in which God’s creative activity is blessed. He shows how the rabbis intentionally changed the biblical phrase (Isaiah 45:7) to convey their theological views about God, the world, and the origin of Evil. The liturgical language posits God as an omnipotent creator ex nihilo, who renews nature daily and whose “power ranges not only over nature but over history as well.” The Jewish normative attitude toward the natural world is expressed not through systematic reflections of the philosophers but through the daily liturgy obligatory to observant Jews.

In the response to these three papers, Jon D. Levenson clarifies Geller’s reading of the Book of Job while raising questions about Geller’s claim that the fusion of intellectual piety and covenantal piety in Job is similar to that found in late Stoicism. Levenson is most critical of Novak’s “Judaizing the classical and Roman ideal of natural law” and of Novak’s understanding of revelation. Levenson argues that Novak “leaves it unclear about how we are to derive any specific norms from natural law and what we are to do when these norms and those of the revealed law conflict.” With a veiled critique of philosophical discourse, Levenson expresses preferences to the study of liturgy as the authentic expression of Jewish views on creation and revelation, in accord with the essay by Gillman.

Nature and Revealed Morality

If it is true, as Novak claims, that verbal revelation is the only context through which Jews can experience the natural world, how does revelation organize Jewish attitude toward nature? In traditional Judaism revelation is understood to be the origin of morality, and so how does morality, the prescriptions and prohibitions of Judaism, relate to the natural world? Does morality, as articulated in the Torah, stand in opposition to nature? Is the human called by God to transform nature? Does Judaism bridge the distinction between nature and morality? The essays in this section wrestle with these questions.

Shalom Rosenberg’s essay documents the diverse conceptions of nature in Judaism that flow from different understandings of revelation. In Jewish sources, Rosenberg correctly notes, the term “nature” has a variety of meanings. “Nature” is used generally to denote “the cosmos or . . . the biological world,” as well as more specifically to denote the nature of humans, which for some philosophers was identified with the human capacity to reason. Moreover, the meaning of the term “nature” has varied over time in accordance with the function assigned to it. For example, in the modern period “nature” is evoked as a way to criticize existing ethical and legal situations, but it can also be used to justify existing morality presumably anchored in the social order. “Nature” can also refer to the belief in the existence of more basic laws that cut across traditions and create a bond between all people. Or, “nature” and “natural law” can be presented as something that “transcends not only space but also time and allows us to judge different historical cultures.” Since morality can be said to relate to nature in different ways, it is incumbent on those who generalize about these issues to be attuned to the rich canvas of Jewish views on the interplay between nature and revealed morality in Judaism.