It’s been far too long since I’ve blogged, but now that the month-long string of chagim (Jewish holidays) is finally over and fall is nipping the air (and Shabbat– the Jewish sabbath– is starting earlier and earlier on Friday afternoons), we’ve come to an exciting time: the beginning of the Torah.
For those who don’t know, the Torah are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Tanakh, which is a Hebrew acronym for Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Khetuvim (Writings)), and their authorship is traditionally attributed to Moses…or, rather, to God, who used Moses as a conduit/scribe/whatever. That’s a topic for another time, but Jews read a different portion (called a “parshah” in Hebrew) of the Torah every week, and it takes a year for us to finish the whole thing. Some congregations actually read a third of each parshah every week, and it takes them three years to finish the entire book; this is called a “triennial cycle” and actually has very ancient roots in the Middle East. The festival of Simchat Torah (“Joy of the Torah”) celebrates each year’s completion of the full Torah scroll…and then we start all over again.
It’s strange to come to a time of beginnings when the natural world seems to be starting its annual march toward death and hibernation. For me, though, still trying to keep my head above water in my classes and adjust to yet another city and lifestyle, it’s a perfectly fitting time to be getting a fresh start. I’m sure anyone still using freshly sharpened pencils and breaking in their school shoes will feel the same– more on the school journey later.
That brings me to Breishit– the first parshah of the year, and probably one of the most familiar to people of all Abrahamic faiths. (Parshiyot– plural of parshah– are named after the first significant word that appears in them, and “breishit” essentially means “at the beginning.”) THIS WEEK IN GOD, we see the creation of the world in six days, including all its inhabitants, and the world’s very first Shabbat, observed by none other than God Godself.
Unfortunately, time is short for me this week, but I’d love to share some thoughts I had on this parshah while writing about it for my class on Jewish environmental ethics. It’s posted below, but in case you’re a tl;dr kind of person, here’s the gist: using Breishit as the basis for a modern environmental ethic is pretty questionable, since God essentially gives people unqualified dominion over the animal world.
Born to Rule
In Stephen Schwartz’s off-Broadway musical Children of Eden, the Biblical stories of the world’s creation and the flood are retold, drawing parallels between the families of Adam and Noah and exploring the nature of obedience and betrayal. In Act II, Noah sings to the assembled animals waiting to board the ark, “God made you our charges;/we made you our victims. Now that we’re starting anew, / can we give Eden back to you?” This lyric is but one simple, modern example of the way that man’s stewardship over the earth and its inhabitants has become embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sources used to support the man-as-caretaker position abound in Biblical and rabbinic texts, beginning with the creation story as told in Genesis 1. It is perhaps unwise, however, to offer the creation story as a divine commandment to foster a concern for the earth’s welfare, especially given that its language of mastery over the animals provides no conditions requiring benevolence.
Neither God nor any of the Bible’s compilers or editors provides the reader with a roadmap of God’s plan for creating the world; rather, the narrative is straightforward in relating God’s sequential actions, giving no rationale for either the order or the choice of steps, though rationales may be inferred, as will be addressed later. Darkness, water, and God’s “wind” or “spirit” are already extant (and, as is revealed on day three, there is land under the water), and God separates the light from the darkness, creating the concepts of night, evening, morning, and day—the first day. On the second day, the sky is created and separated from the water; day three sees the drawing back of the water to reveal dry land (and the naming of Earth and Sea) and the advent of vegetation; day four contains the birth of “signs for the set times” to illuminate the day and night (i.e. the sun and the moon).
When, on the fifth day, God creates both sea creatures and flying animals, the order of the created elements begins to make sense; that is, sea creatures could not survive without the sea, and the vegetable base of the food chain is already in place (though God has not yet explicitly given the animals permission to partake of the vegetation). Likewise, the land animals and insects created on the sixth day could hardly survive without the dry land revealed on the third day.
The sixth day is also, of course, when God creates humans, but the process is, for the first time, different. God announces God’s intention to create human life, saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1.26) (a proclamation whose plural form deserves its own paper). Moreover, God says that “[man] shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth” (Gen 1.26). Then, for the first time, God makes a creature “in the image of God,” and, unlike with the animals, sex is also given recognition, for “male and female [God] created them.”
It is once man is created, though, that the full force of the destiny God intends for humanity is revealed: that is, not only does God repeat the earlier language of mastery, but also addresses man directly, indicating a significant difference in the relationship God has with man from that God has with any other creature. In addition to the “mastery” over the earth which God has given man, God also orders humans to “be fertile and increase” and addresses the practical consideration of food, saying that humans may eat all seed-bearing plants and fruits (Gen. 1.28-9). Interestingly, God also now provides food for the animals, which God failed to do upon creating them, saying “and to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food” (Gen 1.30).
From this bestowal of “mastery” come several divergent ideas of man’s place in the natural world, including one concept of Jewish environmental ethics. Since God ordered humans to “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth,” Jewish environmentalists often claim, it is incumbent upon humans to act as benevolent rulers, providing protection in return for submission (Gen. 1.28). It is this ethic that is cited in the quotation from Children of Eden at the beginning of this paper—the idea that God made the animals “our charges.”
It is arguably, however, too far a leap to take the “ruling” or “dominion” or “mastery” God grants humans and transform it into true stewardship using only the Biblical text. God gives no explicit instructions to the humans regarding how they are to treat the animals over which they rule, nor does God address the animals directly or appear to be overly concerned with their welfare. In fact, God’s failure to mention a food source for the animals until well after the creation of the swimming and flying creatures, and only then after specifying a food source for the humans, could imply that the entirety of creation is for man’s benefit. This reading of the text is supported by the later creation story in Genesis 2, when the animals are, in fact, created to solve the problem of man’s loneliness (Gen. 2.18). God does not order humans to be benevolent rulers, and does not threaten either consequence or punishment should his latest creations destroy his earlier ones.
This mastery, however, does have at least one limit; man is not (yet) permitted to eat the animals in his charge. (Interestingly, animals are also denied the right to be carnivorous.) This will change in the aftermath of the flood, later in Genesis, but it would appear that the ban on eating animals does not extend to a ban on killing them. Though God does not explicitly grant permission to do so, nor does God request this from the humans, animal sacrifices follow closely upon man’s expulsion from the garden, first with Abel’s offering of the firstlings of his flocks (Gen. 4.3), and later with Noah’s thanksgiving offering for safe passage through the flood (Gen. 8.20). (Abel’s offering is not specified as a burnt offering, so it is possible that the animals he separated for God were alive, but it hardly seems likely, and Noah’s sacrifice was certainly of slaughtered animals). God is also pleased with both of these offerings, “giving heed” to Abel’s and responding to Noah’s by promising never again to destroy the earth (Gen. 4.4 and 8.21). Given that this is slaughter in worship of God, it is certainly not a wanton use of power over the animals, but it does point to the fact that, even without God’s explicit permission to do so, humans may exercise the ultimate authority over the other creatures on earth.
As a human, it is tempting to read this creation story with an almost teleological bias, seeing God’s creation of the entire world as a process whose culmination is in the arrival of man, arguably the main character of the rest of the Bible. Indeed, assuming the participation of humans at any point in the production of the Biblical narrative makes it entirely plausible to read the story as having been intentionally presented in such a way. The text itself, though, is somewhat more ambiguous, saying neither that the earth was created for man nor man for the earth and relating the entire saga from the perspective of a dispassionate narrator. All good rulers, whether of a Machiavellian persuasion or not, know (or quickly learn) that it is to their benefit to protect the lives and well-being of their subjects, lest they no longer have anything to rule. Man, however, is not exhorted in Genesis to be a “good” ruler—only to rule.