God, Earth, and Earthling: 2 eco-theologies

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

This past Shabbat, in the same mail–delivery to my door,  there arrived both a copy of Rabbi David Seidenberg’s magnum opus Kabbalah & Ecology (published by Cambridge University Press), and the in-print Fall 2015 issue of Tikkun magazine, including an article of mine  on “Prayer as if the Earth Really Matters. ”  

My article encodes into liturgy an explicitly unconventional eco-Jewish theology. It joins a series of articles in that issue of Tikkun that are a kind of anthology of eco-theologies in various traditions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and several strands of spiritually open secular thought. 

Rabbi Seidenberg’s book  and my article (a distillation of much of my own eco-theology) present two new theologies, both rooted in Torah, looking at different aspects of Torah yet both reframing the relation of God to Earth and human earthlings.

David’s work, as his title announces, draws chiefly on Kabbalah and addresses its way of understanding tzelem elohim, the Image of God. He brilliantly shows that many Kabbalists extended the sense of the Image not only to the human species but to the universe as a whole and therefore all the beings within it. And he wonderfully explores the implications of this finding — intellectual, spiritual, scientific.

 My work is much more rooted in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible — as the spiritual explorations of an indigenous people of shepherds & farmers

who are close to the land. To understand God at the heart of this, I hear— literally hear —  YHWH as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh – the Breathing/ Interbreathing Spirit of the world —  ruach ha’olam – and I hear the shmei rabbah / Great Name of the Kaddish as a Rabbinic continuation of this outlook  weaving together all the names of all beings, including galaxies and quarks, rabbis and rabbits.

So it felt utterly fitting that on the day that they arrived in my mailbox was not only Shabbat but also the 8th day of Passover, Its fervently messianic Prophetic reading – “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb; in all my holy mountain nothing vile or evil shall be done; the intimate knowing of the Breath of Life shall fill the Earth as the waters cover the sea””) gives it the name of “the Passover of the Future.”.

My outlook begins with the spiritual findings, parables, and teachings rooted in one people’s experience of one sliver of a multi-ecosystem land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean,  and I midrashically extrapolate from there/then to the planet as a whole in an era when what we extract and consume from the Earth is no longer only edible food but also burnable fossil fuels.

 Whereas the Image of God that draws David comes from the first Creation story, I focus on a crucial thread of Torah starting from the second Creation story –– adam birthed from adamah, and YHWH breathing life into the newborn human species as a midwife breathes life into the newborn human individual. (“Earthling” and “Earth” are the closest we can get in English to the richness of “adam and adamah” in Hebrew.)

 From there I see a crucial thread of concern for Earth-earthling relationship that runs through Tanakh — beginning with a parable of the disaster of failed adam/ adamah relationship in Eden, and then yearning toward a series of  sacred efforts to repair the disaster: the parable of bountiful Manna that comes with restful Shabbat; the attempt to make shared bounty practical through the Sabbatical/ Shmita Year and its hope of  the Jubilee/ Homebringing Year; and ultimately the vision of the Song of Songs  —  Eden once again, this time for a grown-up race of human earthlings and our well-beloved Earth.

I am delighted that both these new Jewish theologies are emerging in response to the planetary crisis we are in. Indeed, they both point to the ways in which the world we actually live in, and the policies and practices we develop to address it, call us to re-imagine God –-  that is, to create new theologies.

I had time on this past  Shabbos/ Yontif & Maimouna to begin perusing David’s book– which I had not been able to do in any thorough way via electrons. (My eye-brain connections still live in the 20th century.)

I’m very impressed indeed.   Extraordinary breadth of scholarship, both in Jewish texts and in ancillary readings on e.g. evolution and other related fields. And a strong thread of Akiba’s “Study is greater ––  if it leads to action.”

I was especially tickled to see David’s comments on the Great Chain of Being. (The “Great Chain of Being” is a theory of the world as a hierarchy from “inanimate objects” like rocks up to the Divine King and Lord.)

In my Tikkun article I explicitly took on the GCB thus –

It is both factually and theologically notable that this liturgical song [“We Have the Whole World in Our Hands”] transforms an older hymn in which the refrain was, “He has the whole world in His hands.”

That assertion — He is in charge of the world —  is closely related to a major traditional metaphor in most Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayer. In that metaphor,  God is King, Lord, Judge —  above and beyond the human beings who are praying.  In regard to the Earth, this metaphor crowned a series of hierarchies:

The “Great Chain of Being” is a theory of the world as a hierarchy from rocks and rivers up to vegetation, thence up to animals and then to human beings and finally up to the Divine King and Lord. 

Today we know that the relationship between the human species and the Earth is ill described by these metaphors of hierarchy.  Not only do we know that what we breathe in depends upon what the trees and grasses breathe out; now we know that within our own guts are myriads of microscopic creatures that occasionally make us sick but far more often keep us alive and healthy.

…  So  those metaphors of ordered hierarchy are no longer truthful, viable, or useful to us as tools of spiritual enlightenment.

If we are to seek spiritual depth and height, the whole framework of prayer must be transformed.

I hope that many of us will read both David’s book and the whole issue of Tikkun. My own essay is also at  —

 <https://theshalomcenter.org/content/prayer-if-earth-really-matters>. And the Introduction to David’s book is posted at <neohasid.org/KAE>, together with instructions on how to order it.

 From our different perspectives, David and I are both especially interested in efforts to synthesize ancient wisdom with post-modern science. 

 For him, the question is how Kabbalah and modern Science (especially an ecological-scientific frame of mind) may track each other.

 From my different focus on the Tanakh, I am interested in –

  • connecting the warnings of Lev 26 with modern ecological predictions;
  • connecting YHWH as  Interbreath of Life with the Oxygen/CO2 interchange so that the “climate crisis” – resulting from a catastrophic overdose of CO2 —  can be seen as a crisis in “YHWH” Itself – a crisis in God’s Name;
  • seeing paragraph 2 of the Sh’ma as a  proto-scientific statement about the relationship between idolatry (“carving out” only a part of the Breath/Flow/ Great Name to worship as ultimate) and eco-catastrophes;
  • seeing Pharaoh, enslavement,  and the Plagues as a teaching affirmed by modern political/ economic science that top-down arrogant power oppresses both human beings and the Earth, requiring struggle for eco-social  justice. (So for me, eco-theology flows smoothly into political activism.)

In short, I bring “social science” and “political science” and biological/ climatological/ ecological science into relationship with the early “science” of shepherds and farmers observing their own relationship with the Earth, making systemic theory from their observations  — and treating that relationship itself as sacred and our understanding of that relationship as Torah.

I take great joy in the simultaneous emergence of two eco-theologies – one that begins with the Image of God in the first Creation story, and another that begins with the Earth/ earthling relationship in the second Creation story. (David’s work does not ignore the second story, but his focus on the Image and on Kabbalah draw him in a different direction.)

May we be able to weave the two stories together as does our earliest Torah!

No Replies to "God, Earth, and Earthling: 2 eco-theologies"

    Got something to say?