The Trembling of the Earth: Jewish Descriptions of Earthquakes in the Early Modern World

Dean Phillip Bell

The early modern period (1400-1700) witnessed dramatic climatic shifts, devastating plagues, and severe earthquakes.  People living in the early modern period had recourse to a wide range of models to help them explain the cause and meaning of these environmental conditions.  Scientific theories inherited from classical antiquity were combined with new knowledge building towards the scientific revolution.  “Traditional” religious explanations, emphasizing God’s power over nature and punishment for sin, were also proffered. At the same time, an impending apocalypticism cast a long shadow over much of early modern society, particularly in the context of rapidly changing social structures, religious fragmentation, technological advancement, and military expansion. Despite the largely “scientific” and religious explanations of these events, a close reading of texts and images from the early modern period reveals that the description of environmental conditions and natural disasters could also serve a wide range of purposes, including political debate and communal identity formation.

Jews, like their non-Jewish neighbors, experienced the devastations wrought by earthquakes throughout the early modern period. Focusing primarily on texts written by early modern Jews, in this paper I explore the nature and function of discussions about earthquakes.  Paying particular attention to Jewish writers such as Azariah de Rossi, who experienced the great Ferrara earthquake of 1570, and David Gans, who describes numerous contemporary and historical earthquakes in book two of his Zemah David, I ask how early modern Jews presented these natural disasters and what their depictions can tell us about early modern Jewish thought, culture, and identity.

The Natural Intelligence of the Song of Songs

Ellen Bernstein

Just as in the Garden of Eden story—where the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden is emblematic of the separation between man and woman, God and humanity, and humanity and nature—so the Song of Songs is emblematic of the healing of those separations.   Healing in one domain must accompany healing in another.  The rift between humanity and nature will only heal as we heal the rift between man and woman, and God and humanity.  In other words, from
a spiritual perspective, how we treat the earth corresponds to how we treat each other and how we treat God.

The Song of Songs then offers a corrective to the Garden of Eden story; indeed, this idea is encoded in the very language of the two stories.  According to biblical scholar Ellen Davis, in the Garden of Eden, man’s alienation from woman is inscribed in Adam’s domination over Eve:  “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16). But in Song of Songs, no longer is man alienated from woman (and the land).  No longer does man dominate female, as indicated by the verse: “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.”  The particular grammatical construction, his desire [teshuqah], is found only in these two places, and nowhere else in the Bible, indicating that we should pay attention: there is a connection here.

In this essay, I plan to argue that the Song of Songs is the biblical text par excellence that offers up a vision of a reintegration of mind and nature, a binding of body and land, a weaving of nature and culture.

Journalist Daniel Goleman coined the phrase “emotional intelligence.”  I believe that the Song expresses both an “emotional intelligence” and a  “natural intelligence,” which I am defining as a kind of intuitive understanding of nature. The categories I use to explore the Song include language, beauty, reciprocity, the nature of body, the cycle of seasons, the nature of love, and fruitfulness.  I maintain that these categories can help us develop the language and ideas we need to re-imagine our relationship with nature, and mend the rift between body and mind and between humanity and nature.

Kabbalah, Food, and Sustainability

Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus

Kabbalah tends to view the interactions and exchanges between the divine and human worlds as a sort of “cosmic re-cycling,” particularly in its transformation of the traditional language of the biblical sacrificial system. Kabbalistic meal rituals evoke these metaphors to heighten the intensity of the experience of the physical activity of eating, casting the eater as a crucial role in the mythic drama of cosmic re-cycling.  The spiritual experience of the fusion of body and soul advocated by Jewish religious mystics—in speech-cued, mindful acts of eating—is not so far from the experience of the sustainable banquet Michael Pollan prepared for his friends, a kind celebratory “Thanksgiving” or “secular seder” that he describes at the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Both channel the “psychosomatic” experience of mindful eating (to us Joel Hecker’s term) into a predisposition for environmentally-conscious moral action, by way of mythic stories and metaphors of connectedness between people, and between people and nature.

The Role of the Environment in Shaping the Evolution of Jewish Culture, as Reflected in the Hebrew Bible

Daniel Hillel

In principle, the development of human culture, wherever it takes place, is shaped by the environment that prevailed at its inception.  Reciprocally, a society's responses to the opportunities, challenges, constraints, and hazards it
encounters tend to modify the environment.

The early Israelites were a peripatetic people. In their early history, they experienced all the contrasting ecological domains of the ancient Near East.  As they interacted with indigenous societies of each domain, they absorbed selective elements of their cultures and gradually fused and synthesized their perceptions into a radically new culture of their own.  More than just affecting their material existence, the region's ecology influenced the Israelite's views of creation and the creator, humanity's role on Earth, and their own distinctive sense of identity and destiny.

In my latest book (The Natural History of the Bible:  An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures, Columbia University Press, 2006), I reveal how the environmental experiences of the ancient Israelites affected their realization of the overarching unity governing nature and led to the evolution of ethical monotheism.

Ideology and Changing Attitudes Toward the Environment in Two Israeli Films: Sallah Shabbati and James’ Journey to Jerusalem

Philip Hollander

Inspired by Aharon David Gordon’s work and thought, the ideology of early twentieth century Zionist settlement in Palestine linked the revitalization of individual and collective Jewish spirits to the Land of Israel’s revitalization.  As a result, Zionism viewed itself as environmentally friendly and linked its self-image to the kibbutz, an institution employing agricultural labor to help “make the desert bloom.”  This self-image finds poignant expression and confirmation in Ephraim Kishon’s classic early state period film Sallah Shabbati.  Nonetheless, a scene where the eponymous hero and his family labor in reforestation uses the Jews’ relationship to his land to shed light on overlooked aspects of Zionism exploitation of the environment and others.  Drawing inspiration from the earlier film, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s James’ Journey to Jerusalem (2004) works to overturn the environmentally friendly Zionist self-image, which deflects attention from exploitation.  Alexandrowicz’s film has another Sallah Shabbati protecting a plot of land in Tel Aviv from development. Yet this Sallah only makes his plot bloom with the aid of stolen plants and the aid of James, an illegal guest worker.  With this deceptive garden eventually sold for development, the film points to the centrality of the city and its environmental costs for national self-understanding.

Reconnecting to Nature for Our Very Survival

Barbara Lerman-Golomb

Nature is of the very essence of Deity (Israel Baal Shem Tov, Shivkhe Ha-Besht, 329).
Our disconnect to nature is leading to the destruction of our planet.  We have compartmentalized environmentalism and environmentalists into an “us” and “them” scenario.  But we can no longer afford to leave the fate of the planet up to “environmentalists” only and essentially allow others to ignore their individual and societal responsibilities to Earth stewardship.

Much of the disconnect is due to the fact that urbanization of Jews continued throughout the Middle Ages. In some cases, our land was seized, or we were forbidden to own land, or we were in other ways forced off the land; in others, economic pressures, ranging from prohibitive taxes to business restrictions, as well as shifting economic opportunities, led us toward the cities. (Rabbi Daniel Swartz, Jews, Jewish Texts and Nature:  A Brief History).

Through a concentrated effort of education, advocacy, and action, the Jewish community needs to find its way back to being awed by the sacredness of Creation, which will help us understand how we fit into the “chain” and will lead to respect for our roles as stewards.

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass and all growing things, and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer (Nachman of Bratzlav, Maggid Sichot, 48).

We need to physically reconnect to nature—get people outside, be more in touch with how our food is grown and processed, help educate on how vital it is to protect our limited resources (e.g., clean air, clean water, sustainable energy) and that Judaism prohibits wasteful consumption.  This reconnection will not only lead to survival of our planet, but will also serve as a source of renewal for the Jewish community.

Hiddur Mitzvah as an Eco-Theological Imperative

Sandra B. Lubarsky

The Jewish tradition of hiddur mitzvah, making special or elaborating on a mitzvah, is based on an expansive instruction by the sages to “beautify God in the eyes of the world or praise Him.”  It has been mostly limited to the use of special ritual objects for holidays and, more recently, to the inclusion of the arts in liturgy, temple design, and programmatic activities.  But what if beauty is central to an appreciation for the created world and to our efforts to sustain it?  What if the desire to redeem the world is as much the consequence of the experience of the beauty of the world as it is of suffering and loss?   Then hiddur mitzvah becomes an eco-theological imperative that enjoins us to “become holy” by preserving, enjoying and increasing the beauty of the created world and thereby contributing to the divine-human partnership.  If we understand ourselves as “commanded” to be aware of beauty and to participate in it, we find ourselves involved in cultivating increased sensitivity and responsibility to the world. In this paper, I take seriously the role that beauty plays in ecological stewardship and begin to develop a Jewish theology of beauty.

A Tree of Life: Text and Nature Working Together

Rabbi Natan Margalit

Judaism’s roots stretch deeply into an ancient agricultural society and also back into a venerable textual tradition.  The two are thus intertwined, informing one another, such that Jewish textual thinking reflects natural patterns while also embodying a growing, changing culture.  Investigating the patterns embedded in our texts, we uncover a mode of thought that is more congruent with the patterns of nature than is the mode of thought currently reigning in the modern world. Thus, we may find in Jewish texts the possibility of a theology that helps us live more harmoniously with the natural world.  

Modern scholarship has long struggled with the organization and logic of biblical and rabbinic writings, noting that they are not composed according to our familiar ideas of order. In response, scholars such as Max Kaddishin and Jacob Neusner have sought to explain rabbinic thinking as organic, or anthropological. Without judging among the various theories, I take up this idea of the “shape” of these ancient Jewish texts to demonstrate that their literary patterns have implications for how we act in relation to the natural world. Gregory Bateson’s systems approach to biology and culture is very relevant to this discussion, as he theorized dissolving the dualistic split between mind and nature according to “the pattern which connects.”

From the Desert to the Sown: Israel's Encounter With the Land of Canaan

Gary A. Rendsburg

Archaeological evidence demonstrates clearly that some portion of the earliest Israelites were resident in Egypt and that the main tradition of the Israelites originated in the desert experience (the remonstrations of certain scholars, who hold that the Israelites originated in Canaan, notwithstanding).  These experiences inform the Israelites’ understanding of the land of Canaan, as reflected in a wide array of biblical passages.  

Prime among them are several key verses in Deuteronomy, including Deut 11:10-11, which contrasts the irrigation system of Egypt with the rain-fed land of Canaan (most would consider the former to be more advantageous, but not the biblical author!); Deut 11:15, where God states, “And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle” (very reminiscent of what Joel Salatin says about himself!); and Deut 8:7-10, with the famous list of the seven species (and with a striking parallel from the Egyptian tale of Sinuhe written about a millennium earlier).

I begin with a presentation of the aforementioned archaeological evidence, using photos and images throughout, in order to establish this important historical background.  I next turn to a close reading of the relevant biblical passages, both the aforecited ones from Deuteronomy and additional selected verses from the Prophets and elsewhere.

Food For Thought: How the New Jewish Food Movement Provides A Fresh Route Into 'Judaism and The Environment'

Nigel Savage

"From SuperSize Me to Omnivore's Dilemma, contemporary food issues have punched into public consciousness in powerful ways in the last few years.  Meantime, the Jewish people have three thousand years of experience with the question of what is fit to eat.  How do these two questions interact with each other?  In this paper, I describe the parameters of the New Jewish Food Movement and suggest ways that it provides important fresh impetus for the evolving conversation about "Judaism & The Environment."

Classical Rabbinic Steps Toward a Theology of Cosmic and Environmental Torah

Jonah Chanan Steinberg

Torah and cosmos are deeply linked in formative rabbinic thought. For the Mishnah and classical midrashim, Torah shaped the world, and there was Torah to be discovered and applied in every nook and cranny of creation.  Our ancestors read the world as a text – Torah and environment were mutually strengthening.  Can it be so for us?  How might a Torah in the spirit of classical rabbinism be responsive to the state of the world around us?  How can we learn Torah from the natural world of our times, and how can we learn wisdom to survive our times from classical rabbinic sources?  This presentation examines traditional texts on Torah and world-making, and it is also informed by the project of educating future rabbis in a trans-denominational setting.

What Makes Jewish Environmentalism Jewish?

Alon Tal

The presentation opens with a response to sundry iconoclasts who claim that Judaism and environmentalism are inherently incompatible.  While different perspectives are found in Jewish tradition, most are consistent with environmental protection and conservation ethics. After reviewing several Jewish approaches to the natural world, it is argued that modern Jewish environmentalism indeed has several unique characteristics that distinguish it from other green theological perspectives.  These include:

a)    The ancient origins of the traditional sources on which Jewish environmentalism rests, which provide stature and authority.  

b)    The centrality of the land Israel in Jewish tradition. Green advocates frequently encourage” thinking globally acting locally”; Jewish environmentalism implicitly thinks locally (about Israel) – but seeks action by Jews around the globe.

c)    The traditional Jewish environmental perspective emerged when Jewish life was fundamentally agrarian, even as for hundreds of years the vast majority of Jews have not been farmers. This dissonance has interesting implications that are explored.

d)    Jewish environmentalism is characterized by technological optimism – and feels more comfortable in paradigms of sustainable development than those involving preservation.

e)    Today’s Jewish environmental perspective is born of the same “Tikun Olam” – social justice impulses that fuel the broader Jewish tradition of commitment to societal reform.  

The unique perspective of Jewish environmentalism is manifested not only in the individual environmental leadership and activism that it inspires, but also in the growing role of Jewish communities in international efforts to live sustainability.

The Promise of Creation: A Jewish Environmental Theology of Redemption

Lawrence Troster

Neil Gillman has shown that the traditional liturgy is “the locus for the authoritative system of Jewish belief.”  (The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997], p. 126).  In the morning service the declaration of the Sh’ma is surrounded by blessings in which God is defined as Creator, Revealer, and Redeemer.  These are the classic Jewish theological concepts in which God’s providence or divine action is expressed.  Jewish environmental theology has tended to focus on Creation, while ignoring the latter two concepts.  This presentation will attempt to construct a Jewish environmental theology of redemption.

Jewish concepts (or “visions” as Gillman has called them) of redemption or eschatology can be expressed on three different levels: the individual, the national, and the universal.  While there are many Jewish visions of redemption, before the modern age they all assumed that there will come a time when the Jewish people will be restored to their land and living under a Davidic sovereignty; that the individual’s soul will survive death and be restored to the body; and that there will a profound change in the course of the world politically and in the laws of nature.  This last vision can be seen in the famous prophecy of Isaiah 11:1-9, in which carnivores will become herbivores.  Even in modern Jewish theology, which often does not take these visions literally, they are nonetheless seen as important metaphors for structuring our lives with meaning.

These visions of redemption are in direct conflict with an ecological perspective on the natural world. In this perspective, death and dynamic change are essential to a properly functioning world.  As Carol Merchant has shown in her study of the Eden myth in western culture (Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture [New York: Routledge, 2003]), these visions of a recreated Eden have only led to the further destruction of the environment.  A new redemption vision is therefore required which can incorporate the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam into a dynamic concept of Creation.  This will be based in part on environmental theologian John F. Haught’s concept of Nature as Promise.

Green Judaism and the Design of Communities: A Practitioner's View

Martin Shukert

Jewish philosophy and practice establishes principles at three levels that guide the Jewish environmental designer.  These include the Universal, the Practical, and the Detail.  The Universal addresses the relationship of God and humanity in the world and explores the meaning of partnership in creation, the concept of “dominion” and the related responsibilities of humanity, and the application of the concept of tikkun, or repair.  The Practical addresses the concept in Judaism of incrementalism – that a global whole is built from the aggregation of smaller, individual acts.  The Detail investigates the patterns by which the higher levels are operationalized.  In city design, for example, the Detail level considers the environmental implications of practices like the eruv or aspects of Shabbat observance, and the role and meaning of public space.  From these three levels it is possible to derive a Jewish theory of urban and environmental design, creating principles of sustainability and community that can guide professional practice.