Earth Etude for Elul 12- Returning to Diversity

by Rabbi Michael Cohen~

The opening chapters of Genesis not only include the account of the creation of the earth but over and over tell us of the importance of diversity. All of creation is called “good,” reminding us of the value of the multiplicity of the world that we live in. The text also teaches us, by describing everything that is created before humans as “good,” that all things have intrinsic value in and of themselves beyond any value that we may place on them. Once humans are created, “very good” is the adjective applied by the text. An anthropocentric reading of the text would say this is because the world was created for our needs, and once we are in place we can do what we want with the world. A biocentric reading of the text says that “very good” only means that creation as described in the text was complete, and that we humans were the last piece of the biological puzzle.

This reading is supported by the reality that if humans were to disappear from the face of the earth all that had been created before us would go on quite well, actually better, without our presence. However, if a stratum of the diversity of life that had been created before humans were to disappear, we, and all that had been created after it, would no longer exist. In a bit of Heavenly humor on Darwin’s survival of the fittest, it is actually the smallest and least physically strong species, like the butterflies, bees, and amoebas, which hold the survival of the world in place. Unlike the other species of the planet, we have the power to commit biocide if we do not protect and preserve those smaller forms of life.

The importance of diversity is emphasized a few chapters later, in the story of Noah, where Noah is told to bring pairs of each species onto the ark so that after the flood they can replenish the earth. After the flood, God places a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to never again destroy the world. It is both a symbol and a metaphor: a single ray of light refracted through water, the basic source of all life, produces a prism of diverse colors.

Immediately following the story of Noah we read about the Tower of Babel. The whole account takes up only nine verses. The conventional reading is that its message is one against diversity; the babel of languages at the end of the story is understood as a punishment. The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz presents a different reading of the text. For Leibowitz, Babel represents a fascist totalitarian state where the aims of the state are valued more than the individual. In such a society, diverse thought and expression is frowned upon. The text tells us that everyone “had the same language, and the same words.”

We read in the genealogies that link the Noah and Babel stories that the “nations were divided by their lands, each one with its own language, according to their clans, by their nations.” Leibowitz sees the babel of languages not as a punishment but a corrective return to how things had been and were supposed to be.

That is still our challenge today. Diversity is not a liberal value; it is the way of the world. We know that the environment outside of our human lives is healthier with greater diversity; coral reefs and rain forests being prime examples. It is also true for humanity. We are better off because of the different religions, nations, cultures, and languages that comprise the human family.

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is a founding faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies ( where for over twenty years it has worked to prepare future leaders from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and around the world to cooperatively solve the regional and global challenges of our time. He also teaches Conflict Resolution classes at Bennington College and is Rabbi Emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont.

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