Until recently, I sensed that an authentic Jewish sensibility carried somewhere within it a fundamental rebellion against, or at least an ambivalence toward, the natural world. As the quintessential ‘people of the book,’ I held that our spiritual life, at its pinnacle, points somehow beyond this world with its living creatures and calls us to cleave to history and its remembrance, to text and its interpretation. Though we are bound, in a covenant of yearning, to the land of Israel, we are also a deterritorialized, diasporic people, evolved beyond any immediate, organic unity with the land as such, there or anywhere. Our soil is Talmud; our ecosystem, halacha; our homeland, remembrance. My commitment to a certain radical uprootedness was given a political dimension by my perception of the disastrously unethical turn taken by modern Jewish nationalism, in its attempt to ‘replant’ a people in its ‘native’ soil.
Of course, I knew we are a deeply embodied people and that the Buddhist path of contemplative withdrawal from the world or the Christian way of radical negation of the flesh was foreign to us. Of course, I knew that innumerable of our mitzvot, our holidays, our stories and traditions remain deeply attuned to the earth, its cycles, and its creatures. And yet, I clung to the notion that the essence of our monotheism, revealed to us at Sinai, commands us ultimately to look beyond any created thing, any aspect of the natural world, in order to bear witness to its source in G-d’s oneness. Perhaps it was that any mystical exaltation of nature smelt too much like the patchouli oil of New Age hippies, or evoked too strongly the primordialist organicism of fascist ideology; perhaps it was that I didn’t love camping, and most Jews I knew didn’t either. While I drew spiritual sustenance and joy from nature, I held that a pure exaltation of the natural world, in and for itself, was akin to some kind of paganism.
Rabbi David Seidenberg’s Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More Than Human World forced me to rethink these deeply held assumptions. (Disclosure: Rabbi Seidenberg contributed a source sheet to this issue.) As he makes clear in the introduction, the very notion of a supra-natural essence of Jewish monotheism is hardly m’Sinai—revealed to us at Sinai—but a recent invention: an anthropocentric bias introduced to modern Jewish thought by the assimilationist leaders of the Haskalah and Wissenschaft movements of 19th-century German Jewry who, in their drive to modernize Judaism in accordance with Enlightenment (and tacitly Christian) modes of thought, “recast Judaism in terms of an imagined opposition between rationality and history on the one hand, and myth and Nature on the other.” As Seidenberg shows in his book, the rabbinic tradition cultivates a wide variety of reverential, embodied relationships to the earth and its creatures, or, as Seidenberg and others call it, the “more-than-human world.”
Kabbalah and Ecology is primarily a response to the profound threat posed by human-caused climate catastrophe and a wrestling with its implications for Jewish theology. “The transformation we need to carry out” in order to forestall the worst impacts of climate change and to live sustainably upon the planet, Seidenberg writes, “will affect every aspect of human culture.” And Seidenberg is convinced religion has a crucial role to play in “husbanding love towards social transformation,” or, in other words, in cultivating the awe and compassion that compels us to sanctify our dwelling-place—the created world—and to act collectively to magnify kedusha—holiness—within it. But to do so, religion must overcome its own assumptions of humankind’s dominance over nature, assumptions deeply ingrained in the structure of much contemporary religious thought by the same forces of modernity that have led humanity—and the natural world—to our frightening precipice.
In Seidenberg’s view, practically all modern Jewish movements find themselves limited by foundational assumptions that alienate the human being from the natural world.
For Judaism, Seidenberg claims the problem is that “nearly all modern Jewish thinkers (including Orthodox) adopt a modernist-humanist perspective that devalues the more-than-human world, where the value of the human being is defined against the value of all other aspects of Creation.” I was not alone in my prejudice, it turns out; in Seidenberg’s view, practically all modern Jewish movements—religious, intellectual, and social—find themselves limited by foundational assumptions that alienate the human being from the natural world, including much of the mainstream Jewish environmental movement.
While his diagnosis of modern Jewish thought is compelling, Seidenberg’s broader linkage of “religion” to global ecological crisis suffers from an overly vague a-historicity. Are all contemporary religious traditions equally scarred by a conceptual chasm separating humankind and nature? Is this tendency most evident, as Seidenberg seems at times to suggest, in the Abrahamic traditions? Does it appear, in particular, in those strains of monotheism shaped most deeply by sustained interaction with capitalism, technological development, European Enlightenment, or some other force of modernity? Seidenberg never fully answers these questions in his introduction, an omission that threatens to flatten and homogenize the spectrum of human belief-systems and spiritual epistemologies, rendering suspect any broader vision of cross-cultural eco-theological transformation founded upon such a reduction.
Still, within the Jewish tradition at least, Kabbalah and Ecology is an earth-shattering—or rather, earth-repairing—intervention. Seidenberg’s tikkun, in our era of climate catastrophe, is to till the churning soil of rabbinic tradition and modern Jewish thought, uproot a host of anthropocentric biases therein that lead to the privileging of humanity over nature, and to cultivate instead old-new sprouts of a biocentric Judaism, grounded upon a harmonious relationship to our planet and its creatures. But his “ecotheology” is not simply a utilitarian, modernizing attempt to catch Jewish theology up to the present by foregrounding Jewish teachings relevant to contemporary climate concerns; nor does he imagine that he can construct a biocentric Judaism simply by extracting and presenting lyrical aphorisms about trees from the wellsprings of our tradition. Rather, in Kabbalah and Ecology, Seidenberg seeks to “evolve new ways of thinking about God, human and cosmos.” Paradoxically, he develops a new “constructive theology” precisely by deconstructing a series of dichotomies that structure centuries of inherited tradition, before and since the Enlightenment era—dichotomies between history and nature, Judaism and paganism, body and soul, and humanity and the rest of creation, to name only a few—while unearthing subversive strands, in that same tradition, that suggest an alternate worldview and might serve to reorient us toward a biocentric Judaism.
Seidenberg’s sweeping exegesis of rabbinic and Kabbalistic sources, which forms the core of his book, pivots around a single Jewish concept: “the fundament of Biblically-based theology that is often the greatest source of disconnection from the natural world—the image of G-d.” The notion that humankind is created b’tselem elokim, in the image of G-d, has played a vital role in the development of modern Jewish ethics. And yet, by enshrining humankind as the telos of the rest of creation—which, it is assumed, is not similarly created b’tselem elokim—the concept threatens to implicitly degrade non-human creatures and the natural world and render humanity dominant over nature. Seidenberg asks, while remaining faithful to and grounded in rabbinic tradition, can we articulate a new vision of tselem (image/form) that extends beyond the human world, to include in the embrace of G-d’s image all non-human creatures, the natural world, and indeed all of creation? In answering this question, Seidenberg guides readers through a dizzying array of rabbinic sources, seemingly touching on every conceivable topic related in some way to the earth; its creatures; the embodied, creaturely corporeality of the human being; and the proper relationships and responsibilities of the Jew—and the human—towards the more-than-human world.
A series of rabbinic commentators twisted the Torah concept of tselem in new directions, performing an interpretive dance that, in true rabbinic fashion, blurred and undermined the very boundaries between soul and body, matter and spirit, human and animal.
Seidenberg begins his exploration of tselem with an acknowledgement that, according to the p’shat (surface-level meaning), many passages of Torah do lend themselves to an anthropocentric, “dominionist” reading. For example, Bereishit 1:27–28 reads, “And G-d created man in His image…And G-d blessed them, and G-d said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.’” Beginning in the early centuries of the common era, however, a series of rabbinic commentators twisted the Torah concept of tselem in new directions, performing an interpretive dance that, in true rabbinic fashion, blurred and undermined the very boundaries between soul and body, matter and spirit, human and animal.
Tselem, for the rabbis of Talmud and Midrash, far from signifying some “metaphysical or transcendental element, such as moral responsibility, free will, rationality, or the soul” that sets humanity apart from creation, is intimately connected with physicality, flesh and the body, even sexuality and sexual difference. Tselem is at times expanded beyond the human to embrace the angels and the heavenly realms, while in other instances tradition alludes to an indwelling tselem in the souls of animals as well. While, in the hands of the rabbis, tselem sometimes enshrines the principle of human “dominion” over the animals, that dominion is just as often interpreted as a benevolent stewardship, complicating any simple anthropocentrism that reduces non-human creatures, and the earth itself, to the status of subservient things.
During the Geonic period from the late 6th–11th centuries CE, the impact of medieval philosophy and Christian apologetics on Jewish thought led to an “extraordinary diminishment in the variety of anthropologies found in Jewish theology,” effecting a restriction of tselem to the narrow confines of the human. But in revolt against this restriction, there developed subterranean streams of Kabbalah that moved in the opposite direction, expanding tselem and its analogues far beyond even earlier Midrashic commentary to embrace plants and animals, the earth, the cosmos, and ultimately the very stuff and substance of creation itself. Kabbalah accomplished this subversive evolution of tselem not by directly contradicting earlier anthropocentric readings put forth in Torah and Talmud but “in an allusive way…through hints and concealed meanings,” developing a chain of interconnected expansive concepts such as YHVH (the Name of G-d) and the Sefirot, that allowed for the broadening of tselem “under a veil of esotericism…[accessible via] a privileged kind of mystical awareness.” The end result, which Seidenberg deftly explores in the second half of the book, is that according to the worldview of Kabbalah, each human being, each limb of the human body, the diversity of humanity, the species as a whole, and “all kinds of creatures, realities, senses, spectrums, and dimensions are seen as corresponding to YHVH, to the Sefirot, and to the unification of Creation, so that the structure of the whole and each whole within the structure bears witness to the image of God.”
Here, finally, Seidenberg finds the most fertile ground for an ecotheology of the Jewish future. If all of Creation is b’tselem elokim, how does this command the human to act in relation to the more-than-human world? How can this inspire us, as Seidenberg quotes the words of Rav Kook, to “contemplate the wonders of Creation, the divine dimension of their being, not as a dim configuration that is presented to you from the distance but as the reality in which you live”? How can we see the natural world, on the deepest level, not—as per my earlier confession—as something to be transcended in service of its source but rather as the unfolding, embodied manifestation of the oneness of G-d? How can we use the deepest insights of Kabbalah to craft either a fully biocentric Judaism, where all human distinctiveness dissolves in awe of the fullness of Creation, or a softer or weaker anthropocentrism, where human uniqueness, while not annulled, is sublimated to serve “as pivot rather than pinnacle of Creation,” inspiring us to act as intentional and compassionate stewards and servants toward the more-than-human world?
Seidenberg traces an arc of “creative betrayal” whereby the interpretive gaze of the rabbis transforms tradition even as that tradition is conserved and fortified as well.
It is no accident that throughout Kabbalah and Ecology Seidenberg draws attention to the moments and processes whereby Jewish tradition seems to interrupt, undermine, and course-correct its own assumptions, reformulating its own foundational questions and evolving beyond its own boundaries. In the centuries-long development of Midrashic and Kabbalistic thought, Seidenberg traces an arc of “creative betrayal” whereby, in order to open new fields of theological exegesis and evolve new modalities of ritual and practice, the interpretive gaze of the rabbis transforms tradition even as, in the very act of creative interpretation, that tradition is conserved and fortified as well.
It is no accident because this kind of creative play is Seidenberg’s project as well. Kabbalah and Ecology is a work of deep fidelity to and love for Jewish tradition that, in its careful attentiveness to inheritance, seeks to lay the spiritual-theoretical foundations of a new ethos and way of being Jewish that transcends modernist-humanist, anthropocentric biases we have inherited from the Western world. Kabbalah and Ecology, then, effects a tikkun of Jewish tradition itself, a bold attempt to overcome modern distortions, gather sparks and strands from our deeper past, and synthesize a constructive theology that can guide us through and beyond the climate catastrophe of our present and immediate future. It also effects a tikkun for Jewish identity, guiding us beyond entrenched assumptions that alienate and detach us from creation and fashioning a new Jewish orientation towards the more-than-human world. It effects a tikkun, finally, of the more-than-human world itself by offering a valuable and lasting resource for the urgent work of l’taken olam b’malchut shakai, of rectifying the damage done to our all-too-shattered world and its interconnected web of life.