Wednesday, 3 June 2009

'And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!'...right?

From Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia (1617-1619)

A few weeks ago, during the Eco Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, i got to see two films (the trailers of which are at the bottom of this page). The Age of Stupid--a jeremiad about climate change--and Sharkwater--a film about the brutality of shark finning and its impact on the ecosystem. Both films seemed to be trying to teach their 21st century audience about the structure of our delicate universe, and our place in it. Basically, we're ruining it. And the worst part is, we know it.

Don't get me wrong. I am well aware that there are loads of human concerns. I live in Israel, where yesterday (unbeknownst to me), we had our largest national drill to prepare for missile attacks. One reason i joined Greenpeace (the other being that when it comes to politics, i'm still watching Cecil and Essex duke it out) was because of the enormous potential environmentalism has to unify people from all countries, religions, beliefs, etc. No matter what our differences, we can all agree that we don't want to be wiped out as a species. Well, one would think so anyway...

Interestingly, the hackneyed categories of the 'ancients and the moderns', (hopefully a future post) which seem to have evolved into 'backwards religious people' and 'rational modernists' have moved into the political arena as the stereotypes of the 'Bible-thumping-moose-killing-oil-drilling-Republicans' and 'liberal-godless-immoral-baby-killing-Democrats'. Like all generalisations, this is grossly exaggerated, yet rings true in certain ways.

It pains me to admit that the environment is practically a non-issue amongst religious or orthodox people. In 1999, Meimad, a left wing religious Zionist party was formed in Israel. This groundbreaking move to reclaim both Orthodox Judaism and Zionism from right-wing politics is still viewed as an anomaly; in this year's elections, the Meimad-Green Movement coalition failed to gain a seat in the Knesset. The underlying tension felt by many of Meimad's members is well expressed by the the religious philosopher Ernst Simon, incidentally, the father of Professor Uriel Simon, one of the party's leaders and an academic giant in his own right:
The people you can talk to, you can’t daven (pray) with, and the people with whom you can daven, you can’t talk
Why is it that the religious communities tend to play down environmental concerns whilst those who embrace those causes tend to reject tradition?

In 1940, at the behest of the pacifist society in Oxford (otherwise it would have been pretty awkward), CS Lewis delivered the address 'Why I am Not a Pacifist' (published later in The Weight of Glory), in which he explains the departure from tradition within the context of a crumbling sense of community:
I am aware that, though Hooker thought 'the general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God Himself,' yet many who hear will give it little or no weight. This disregard of human authority may have two roots. It may spring from the belief that human history is a simple, unilinear movement from worse to better--what is belief in Progress--so that any given generation is always in all respects wiser than all previous generations. To those who believe thus, our ancestors are superceded and there seems nothing improbable in the claim that the whole world was wrong until the day before yesterday and now has suddenly become right. With such people I confess I cannot argue, for I do not share their basic assumption.
Hooker is clearly Lewis's go-to guy, perhaps because he is a strong advocate of an ageless morality that Lewis would go on to refer to as 'The Tao' in The Abolition of Man. Lewis further distinguishes this body of knowledge from the evolution of the mechanical world:
Believers in progress rightly note that in the world of machines the new model supercedes the old; from this they falsely infer a similar kind of supercession in such things as virtue and wisdom.

As a devotee of The Schwarz and a follower of St. Roy, i'm inclined to take issue with the notion that progress entails using newer machinery, but even if this was a correct supposition, are we really more tuned in now then people 'back then'? Check out the bizarre picture above--it's from Robert Fludd's Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia--The metaphysical, physical, and technical history of the two worlds, namely the greater and the lesser. Click here to download Fludd's book. Go ahead. Don't be shy. Drink it in. Fludd depicts the complexity of the natural world, in all of its hierarchies, yet depicts nature (yeah--the naked lady) as holding a chain linking the physical world to God, and the microcosm to the macrocosm. In other words, the enmeshed existence of humanity, nature, and God was obvious to Fludd.

About fifty years later, John Evelyn, the famous diarist wrote the first English book against pollution, entitled Fumifugium, or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated together with some remedies humbly proposed by J.E. esq. to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now assembled in 1661, and the following year published Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty's Dominions. It seems that people have been aware of the problems of pollution for even before the Industrial Revolution.
Both Fludd and Evelyn were living at a time when, as Donne says, 'new philosophy (science) calls all in doubt'. Astronomers had trashed the idea of a geocentric, and with it, androcentric universe. It was something of a humbling time. In a scene of Sharkwater, Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd echoes this sentiment:
We don't really understand what we are. In essence, we're just a conceited, naked ape, that in our minds are some kind of divine legend. And we see ourselves as some kind of a God that can walk around the earth deciding who will live and who will die; what will be destroyed and what will be saved. But the fact is, we're just a bunch of primates out of control.
Remember that weird Fludd illustration? Here's a closeup. Check out what the naked lady's standing above (NASA is clearly lying about shooting stars):

Copyright Adam McLean 1997-2004
Taken from
Yep! An ape! Although it's not meant in the negative sense that Watson was talking about. Rather, the idea of humanity 'aping' nature through art (including science) is seen as a spiritual endeavour that connects us to God. In a previous post, we discussed the reversal of this process according to Frank Lloyd Wright's philosophy.

Watson's view is an extreme response, proportionate to the destruction that we are inflicting on the world, and though his anger is justified, i doubt that his outlook will compel Creationists to join the cause. In The Glory of the Garden, Rudyard Kipling uses the metaphor of a garden to describe English society, in which everyone must chip in:
There's not a pair of legs so thin, there's not a head so thick,
There's not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that's crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it's only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Kipling's portrait of a society united through a common project or custodianship and governed by ethics continues in the mould cast by Hooker, and celebrated by Lewis. If that didn't make you want to net strawberries or join the Home Front Command, Kipling draws upon the joys of Edenic horticulture to drive his point home:

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener's work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!

And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away !

Drawing upon Adam as a gardener made for a charming poetic emblem, but it seems to have done little to inspire the action and sense of responsibility to be found in Kipling's poem. But what would be the result if Adam's responsibilities as gardner were examined under the Judaic-legalistic lens?

1970 marked this turning point in environmental studies with the publication of Dr. Eric G. Freudenstein's ז"ל 'Ecology and the Jewish Tradition'. The article reveals that then, as now, the issue of environmentalism was charged with religion. Freudenstein demonstrates that careful readings of Biblical and Talmudic text

disprove the repeated statements in the popular press that the “Judeo-Christian concept” of Genesis 1:28 is the cause of the destruction of our environment by western civilization. Rather it is man’s misunderstanding of this Scriptural concept and his insensitivity to the Holy Writ’s concern for God’s nature that should be accused. The concern for the “guarding of the garden” in which man has been placed by Providence is implicit in the Scriptural message. It has been made explicit in the Jewish tradition as formulated in the Biblical exegesis of the Rabbis and in the legal ordinances of the Talmud.
Taken from Yad Gavriel: The Complete Anthology of Original Articles by Eric Gabriel Freudenstein, ed. by George G. Freudenstein, forthcoming

Beginning, appropriately with Adam, Freudenstein explains:

Sensitivity to nature can be found by a careful reading of the Creation story. Adam, the first man, is placed in his world, in the garden of Eden, “to work it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2:15). This supervision and maintenance can be taken as the duty to protect the natural environment.

So how are we doing? Well, here are some quick facts about the current plight of sharks and shark finning:

  • Shark finning refers to the removal and retention of shark fins and the discard at sea of the carcass. The shark is most often still alive when it is tossed back into the water. Unable to swim, the shark slowly sinks toward the bottom where it is eaten alive by other fish.
  • Shark specialists estimate that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually.
  • One pound of dried shark fin can retail for $300 or more. It's a multi-billion dollar industry that is only exceeded by the trafficking of narcotics.
  • We've decreased the shark population by about 90%, creating, according to scientists, an ecological time-bomb that is not yet fully understood
  • Here's an example of how we're basically the cause of our own downfall: shark depletion led to an increase in the octopus population which then preyed upon lobsters, and has already destroyed the Tasmanian fishing industry. This in turn sets into motion a slew of chain reactions in the economy and elsewhere
  • Experts estimate that within a decade, most species of sharks will be lost because of longlining.

It doesn't look like we're guarding nature very well. Freudenstein elaborates on the nature of our relationship to the environment, citing Rabbi Benno Jacob's commentary of Genesis:

Adam’s relation to the Owner of the garden in the terminology of Halakhah, Jewish law, is that of a guardian. To guard may simply mean careful treatment and protection against damage. Primarily, however, this term is meant to characterize the garden as someone else’s property. It is a garden that belongs to God, not to Man. (B. Jacob, Das Erste Buch der Tora, Genesis [Schocken Verlag, 1934], p. 91).

In the beginning of this (ridiculously long) post, i suggested that environmentalism has the potential to transcend political and religious factions in order to unite society and lamented the lack of impetus from the religious community. Freudenstein's innovation lies in the assertion that environmentalism is not something external to Judaism, but rather quite central to it. Therefore, those who are immersed in the Jewish tradition are propitiously positioned to promulgate the message of environmentalism:

Ancient Jewish tradition stressed the maintenance of the biosphere over three and one half thousand years ago, but during the centuries of the Diaspora, divorced from the land, that message of our venerable tradition became weak. Jews were often cooped up in urban ghettos, their energies absorbed by the struggle for survival in a hostile world which they were powerless to influence. Nor was the destruction of the world’s natural assets as yet a threat to human existence. In modern times, the active participation of Jews in the Diaspora, in all phases of the public welfare, the reclamation of the land in the State of Israel and a general awareness of the problems of ecology, have created a new climate for a deeper understanding and acceptance of the concern for the environment evinced by the Jewish tradition. Conditions are now propitious for the ancient Jewish message of bal tashchit to be once again proclaimed loud and clear to all men of goodwill.


  1. Naomi,

    You raise a number of great points. Your posts are always interesting journeys. For the sake of discussion, I have to disagree with your premise that religious people are less environmentally minded than the more secular individuals. I doubt many religious people would advocate for unrestricted shark finning. I agree there is likely such a perception, but this is more an issue of priority and scale. I will put forward the hypothesis that the difference lies in humility. The religious start with the premise that there is something greater than themselves (i.e God), whereas the secular view man as the grand arbiters of morality. If you start with that principle, what actions flow from it? The religious will view the environment as a gift from God as a resource for his people. The gift needs to be cared for and appreciated, but there is nothing inherently magical about it. Therefore, trees for example are a resource for we woodworkers that should be harvested and used wisely. The secular will view the environment as an equal, just another aspect of nature. Man has no right to cut a tree down because you might upset a bird. Along that line, since the religious have God, then humanity has more inherent value than to the secular. Therefore, the religious on the whole will balance environmental responsibility with human need. The religious will drill for oil in Alaska because it can be done prudently, it will help provide jobs, improve the economy which will help people, etc. The secular will see the concern of the moose on the same level as the concern of the people.
    The practical result is that the secular can be more zealous about the issue because they can justify it as natural morality, whereas the religious see the issue as simple stewardship and balanced priorities. There is also likely a reluctance of the religious to accept issues of the secular due to such differing views fostering skepticism about things like man-made global warming. That skepticism dampens involvement. Wow. That was too long.


  2. Hi TK - I think Naomi was thinking more of religious people in Israel, not being conscious of the environment.I hate to speak for her, so I'll let her comment on this...
    Great post, N, and I have "Sharkwater" ordered from Netflix.

  3. Hmm..that would change the discussion. Please disregard. thanks


  4. naomi, i found this entry very interesting, but like 'anonymous' (TK?), i feel the need to take umbrage with your starting premise. i differ from 'anonymous' however in terms of the priorities. i think, if you're referring to israeli jews, like celine assumes, you need to consider that it's not that they disregard environmental issues. perhaps it's simply that they have stronger priorities in terms of civil action and voting patterns. not to say they shouldn't (or don't) attempt to take environmental concerns into account. however, in this country, voting for yeruka meimad was essentially a wasted vote. and if you're more concerned with security eg than enivronment, you needed to spend your one precious vote on a bigger party. two examples to support my thoughts here. 1. i read a blog of a quite religious, politically right-wing american jew who's been livign with his family in israel for around 20 years. he's devoted a number of posts to the environment- both b'gadol, and in terms of practical tips that he himself employs in his home. 2. a friend of mine who lives with her family here in jerusalem was recently telling me about how her mom makes them keep a bucket in the shower to save water, among other environmentally friendly activities.
    obviously these are just two small examples. but i share them b/c i think that the 'religious' community gets a bad rap on environment b/c they are more public about what they perceive to be more pressing issues. but i don't think that negates their awareness and action when it comes to environmental issues.

  5. here's a link to the political blog i read that is written by a religious jew living in israel.
    this is one of his posts on water conservation:

  6. Naomi, damn you, once again you've caught me with my unaware, barely high school educated trousers down.
    But here's what I've learned today:

    Robert Fludd was an ardent student of the Rosicrucian philosophy, ie, esoteric truths of the ancient past, hardly a forward thinker or progressionist. He was also an alchemist. None of the Google dictionary definitions stated it, but I always thought that an alchemists' main goals was the finding of ways to make gold out of lesser elements.

    Shark finning. Never even knew it existed or even heard of shark fin soup. Supposed to be quite good and a cure for God knows what. Have to ask Yao Mingh.

    If you sell a pound of dried up shark fin for 300 bucks, it kinda sounds like you've got the alchemy thing whupped.

    Seriously though, I don't know if environmentalism will ever be the uniting factor hoped for. Simply because of our dissimilar environments.

    Jeremiad - never heard the word before, but now that I know what it means, I have to say I have certainly enjoyed yours. As always you have made me think. And I guess that's good for me.

  7. gingy, i totally hear your point and think you are right about the hierarchy of issues being different for the israeli religious jew. and i have to say that it was very enlightening to hear that there are religious jews in israel who take the issue of environmentalism very seriously. however, you mentioned that voting for yeruka meimad is essentially a wasted vote (which is true) and one would probably want to save their one precious vote on a bigger party that will actually make some sort of difference. i think that is the issue that naomi is addressing--how come a religious jew who cares about both security and the environment is forced to forego one issue because there is only one religious party that addresses it? how come other parties that attract the religious vote deal with issues such as security and education but dont really take the environment into account?

  8. I agree with Yael in terms of her understanding of the point Naomi was trying to make here. I think that perhaps the answer lies in the fact that these political groups see themselves as the guardians of the Jewish nation and not of the world. The environment is a "world" issue, not a "Jewish" and hence outside the realm of their interests. Of course what Naomi is saying is that it should be a Jewish issue. I completely agree. (Says the girl who tried to start a recycling club in her Chabad elementary school)On the other hand, as an ardent supporter of separation of church and state I vote according to issues and not my religious views. A good environmental policy will always get my vote regardless of whether the party supporting it is religious, agnostic or pagan.
    As usual Naoms, this is a weighty, erudite post. Makes the long food post I just posted on my blog seem entirely frivolous.

  9. Thanks for discussing everyone. TK--i think your comments are relevant because i did blur the terms for the American and Israeli political landscape. I began a reply to you and my Macbook crashed, resulting in a blank hard drive, and deleting my comments.But Yael and Rogue Unicorn's comments (btw-very excited to check out the food post!) develope the ideas. Mum, let me know how you like Sharkwater. All--you can watch the whole thing on Youtube.
    Silverback--check out the alchemy link and also the Rittman library link (Mum-remember when we went there with Kathelijne on the Bloemstraat? You bought me that book about Reuchlin).