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Cisterns or Trees…?

(reposted from a blog by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, http://blog.bjen.org/)

There is a wonderful teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud which reads: "Rabbi Yohanan, speaking on behalf of Rabbi Yossi, says: 'Just as they (the other rabbis) believe that civilization depends on cisterns, so I believe that civilization depends on trees.'"

The work of blending civilization and nature has always been a challenge. In this "man vs nature" tug of war, we must ask, who wins? What has precedence over what; what should yield to what?

Gray infrastructures – the built environment of houses, streets, marketplaces, and water systems are often seen as more essential than Green infrastructure – trees, wetlands, swales, hills, bees, bats and more. (Think cutting down 40-year-old trees to make way for a 3-day Grand Prix.) Nature is seen as either plentiful or wild, or otherwise able to be pushed around and manipulated and superseded by humanity's better management.

This discussion has echoes in old rabbinic texts exploring the rights of neighbors, landholders and trees.

In the case Rabbi Yohanan commented on above, the rabbis ask, how far apart must a tree on one neighbor's property be planted from a cistern (a pit dug to hold water) on an adjacent neighbor's property?

The answer was 25-50 amot, depending on the type of tree. (This way, the cistern would be reasonably safe from intruding roots.)

What if the tree and cistern are found to be too close? The rabbis answer: if the cistern was there first, the tree should be cut down, and the tree owner compensated. If the tree was there first (or if you are not certain which came first), the tree remains.

But Rabbi Yossi objects: not so. Even if the cistern came first, you do not cut the tree down.

Rabbi Yossi seems to be arguing for property rights: I can do what I want as long as it is in the domain of my property.

Okay, truth be told, I am not enamored of this position if Rabbi Yossi would also say that you can just as easily choose to chop down all the trees on your property on a whim. I am hoping that Rabbi Yosi would say even personal property rights have their limit when it comes to preserving nature.

So I am going with Rabbi Yohanan who interprets Rabbi Yossi as meaning: grey infrastructure depends on green infrastructure. Civilization, and the grey infrastructure that defines it, cannot survive without nature; nature will survive (battered and changed, perhaps, but ultimately triumphant) without civilization.

Cisterns are invaluable, after all, only so long as rain and water flow. Trees bring shade and bring water, hold the soil and protect your crops.

Good trees, good nature, make good civilization. We do need civilization to make nature usable to us, to turn grain into breads, wool into coats, stone into buildings, wood into homes, rain into captured water. And we need civilization at times to protect us from nature: wild animals, illness, the rawness of weather.

But we cannot abuse, push around, ignore or sacrifice nature and believe civilization will survive. We need to live within the tides of nature, mine the wisdom of biomimicry, yielding our forceful ways of civilization to the more efficient, elegant ways of nature. Then it will not be a question of who wins. We all do.

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  • Isaac Hametz
    January 4, 2012 (11:14 am)

    Rabbi Cardin, the story you shared proposes an interesting dichotomy – civilization versus nature. However, I wonder if this dualism serves to obfuscate a more nuanced, hybrid reality in which humanity is a part of nature. If we can accept this condition of human nature, how do we interpret social contracts like property laws in the framework of natural laws? If our social contracts follow Rabbi Yossi’s opinion, what are we saying about our relationship to natural laws? It would seem to me that as humanity has moved farther away from creation, the Garden of Eden, Noah, Abraham, etc we have moved farther away from the reality of human nature to a position of human versus nature. Our social contracts reflect this transformation and prioritize human constructs in place of natural conduct, which leaves us in the precarious position you present – that civilization cannot survive without nature. How then can we restore our social contracts so they reflect our renewed understanding of human nature, not human versus nature?


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