Excellent essay. I’m assuming this was inspired by the recent tragic attack on Palestinians by a group of Israeli teenagers.
I'm currently reading Yoram Hazony's recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I am not done yet, but at the half-way point I think this is one of a handful of the most important Jewish books of the modern era. Even if the second half is tripe I'd say so. Anyone interested in in the true structure and message of the foundational text of Judaism, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) should read this book without delay. Whether you love the Tanakh or struggle with it, or even hate it, read this book.
I translated this poem from the Hebrew with the help of T. Carmi's version. It is by the Jewish devotional poet Eleazar ben Kallir, who lived in the 6th century. I'll let it's merits speak for itself.
The King Who Speaks to the Ocean (Melech Ha'omer LaYam)
Yours, YHVH, is the dominion and you are above all.
A king who says to the oceans: “Up to here only!”
He shall rule as King!
A King of filth, who comes from a putrid drop
and ends at the grave-
why should he rule as King?
A King who builds in the heavens his chambers
in the heavens his chariot-throne
He shall rule as King!
A King who returns to the dust
like a candle blown out
why should he rule as King?
A King who rescues from all harm
all who trust in Him-
he shall rule as King!
A King who flees like a driven leaf
from the fears of his heart-
why should he rule as King?
A King above multitudes of powers
who makes thousands and thousands of angels-
he shall rule as King!
A King who fears and worries
before the judgement of his Master
why should he rule as King?
A King who was and will be
in his kindness and his goodness-
he shall rule as King!
A great article by Yoram Hazony, in the Wall Street Journal:
Tzedek tzedek tirdof: justice, justice, you shall pursue. So says this Parsha. The Rabbis give the repetition here a brilliant interpretation: you shall pursue justice- justly. No detention without trial; no blowing up of whaling boats; no suicide bombs; no means justifying the ends. There are no ends, Gandhi said, only means.
I read a story this last week which I told in my Jewish meditation class, synchronicitously foreshadowing this parsha, which I didn't know was coming next at the time. In the story a man reads this directive, zedek zedek tirdof and sets out into the world in search of justice. He cannot find it, though. Not in the rabbinical courts, or in the tavern, not in the streets or the market. Finally he leaves the village and goes into the wild, and even there he cannot find justice. He approaches witches but they merely laugh and leer. He approaches thieves and they say. “To us you've coming looking for justice?”
Finally, deep in the forest, the man comes upon a small cottage emanating light. No one answers the door, so the man opens it carefully and calls out. No one answers, and he cautiously goes in. Inside the cottage, which is much bigger inside than it is outside, the man sees rows and rows of shelves containing hundreds and hundreds of oil lanterns, all burning. As he approaches the shelves for a closer look a strange man appears from out of the shadows and says, “Would you like to know what these are?” The man says yes and his odd host shows him that at the base of each lantern is written a name and each one is the life of a living soul.
The man immediately searches for his own. He finds it and sees to his horror that there is barely any oil left. The strange man smiles eerily at him and says, “Now you know. You should go home.”
The eery man turns and leaves, and our hero is left looking at his lamp, so poor in oil, and the lamp next to it, which is nearly full. What would it hurt, borrowing just a few extra drops? A few more weeks, a few more months? The man reaches out his hand to the full lamp, and suddenly he feels the cottage owner's hand on his shoulder. “Is this the justice you were looking for?”
As I said to my students, I think we can assume the man did not live much longer. It appears that the melech hamavet– the angel of death- has caught him messing with his things.
My students agreed that the message seems to be that the place we should search for justice is in our own actions. The truth is that this is often, in fact, the last place we look.
This parsha has personal, sentimental significance for me. Several years ago when I begain studying Tanach seriously for the first time it was during this parsha, and it was consequently the first I earnestly struggled with and tried to understand. It is somewhat ironic that it was, because this parsha opens with a “command” from Hashem that I find repulsive and morally indefensible. That mitzva is to destroy the temples, altars, and images of the resident Canaanites who we dispossessed, according to the story, when we entered Israel as freed slaves.
Utterly destroy, we are told. Burn their sacred trees. We are then told how to offer animal sacrifices to Hashem. We are not to be distracted by the practices of the survivors of the tribes we destroy. We are to be weary of false prophets from amongst our own ranks, and we to kill any Jew who takes up the practices of the tribes we have displaced.
The Parshah then goes on to discuss kosher laws, tzedakah (charity) and the mitzva of the Jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all slaves are set free. So on the positive side, in my view, this parsha teaches the essential Jewish mitzva of giving to the needy and the fascinating practice of remitting debts and freeing slaves every seven years (a big shabbat of sorts). As Joshua Berman has recently demonstrated so thoroughly and brilliantly (in Created Equal), these mitzvot were part of the radically egalitarian and utopian vision of Israel.
These teachings are pretty straightforward and worth contemplating personally and politically. The more difficult question is what there is to learn from the violent commandments of this parsha. When I studied this parsha for the first time I interpreted these mitzvot entirely symbolically: sacrifice your lower animal nature, and destroy those things you worship instead of God- the “strange god within you” as the Ba’al Shem Tov creatively interpreted the original commandment.
Reading it this cycle, years later, the way I look at Torah has changed. I have gone through the stages of initial romance, marked by hopefulness and blindness to my beloved’s faults; marriage, characterized mostly by trying to find a way to live together; divorce, characterized by seeing all the faults I had repressed in my awareness and the passionate embrace of others; and now rapprochement, in which I have a balanced view of my beloved’s faults and virtues and understand that she will always be a part of me.
In any case, when I read Tanakh now I still look at it symbolically and thoroughly enjoy the non-literal drashes of the Rabbis. I do not shrink from seeing the horrors and the madness of the text, however. The question I am left with now is, what can we learn from an unflinching reading?
First of all, why did the Jews want to eliminate the Canaanites and their practices? The Tanakh suggests that they wanted to eliminate them because they believed they had a divine dispensation to re-settle in Canaan, the land of their forefathers, and create what we would call an enlightened society. The fact that they believed that wholesale slaughter of the natives was justified towards this end I can’t forgive. The best we can say is that it was standard practice in their neighbourhood: the Assyrians or Babylonians did the same and much worse to those they conquered, things too horrifying to bear repeating here. “Standard practice” has never been enough for Jews, however, and I can understand, but not accept, their behaviour on that basis. Certain things are, and must be, forever unacceptable, even if commanded by God.
As for destroying the religious artifacts of the Canaanites, the text itself explains why: we believed they were morally abominable. They even sacrifice their children, the text says, and many historians agree. The Canaanites, in Jewish eyes, were guilty of the following: child sacrifice; ritual rape and cult orgies which involved ritual sex; a hierarchical society which lacked social justice; and of course, the cardinal Abrahamic sin: making images of the God beyond form and worshipping Him through man-made objects. The opposing virtues, as reflected throughout Torah law, were valuing all human beings as of inherent worth; the abandoning of human sacrifice; sexual restraint and purity; social justice; and the worship of a formless, morally demanding God who was the sole Divine reality.
I am not suggesting here that the Jewish displacement of the Canaanites was entirely motivated by moral and spiritual sentiment. I imagine that the desire for a homeland of their own was also a motivation, and to some degree we painted the Canaanites black to justify our violence against them. That said, while I don’t accept in any way killing people for the sake of ideology, I am interested in understanding the moral intuitions of our ancestors. Just as I assume that the Canaanites, as well as engaging in morally objectionable practices, also had beautiful aspects of their culture which were wiped out by emerging Israel, I also want to see the positive moral intuitions interwoven with our ancestors violence.
I would argue that the follwing lessons wait in the parsha. 1) The divine is to be found not in images and temples, but in life itself and in our actions. The God of Israel is everywhere- no where in particular. He is not bounded by form or location. Yes, the Jews had a central temple where they brought offerings, but this was extremely minimalistic compared to their neighbours. According to Maimonides it was a compromise. The locus of the sacred, then, is everywhere, and our expression of the sacred is in our actions: “seek justice practice kindness, and walk in humility with the sacred”, to paraphrase Micah.
2) On a psychological level we can relate this to what Chogyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism”: the transformation of spiritual life itself into an idol, an object of consumption, a servant of the ego. This is, as we all know, is as rampant today as ever, as a flip through Yoga Journal will testify. I don’t want to equate the Canaanite religion with spiritual materialism: my point here, rather, is that our ancestors may have viewed it that way.
3) Protest. Our journey through time and place has molded our culture. One way is through our persistent status as outsiders. The outsider possesses a special lens through which to view the dominant civilisation and is perfectly placed to become a socratic gadfly, provoking change and un-ease in the larger body of culture. Jews have played this role abundantly over time. This role seems to have begun with our enslavement in Egypt, and it is interesting to note that this event is traditionally viewed as the genesis of the Jewish people, divinely orchestrated and planned to such a degree that Hashem warned Abraham about it generations earlier.
I recently read Jay Michaelson’s provocative essay “Hasidism and ‘Nature’: Negation and Affirmation”, available here: http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117171/ . In this piece Michaelson considers whether Hasidic philosophy can serve as a source for environmentalist ethics and concludes that it cannot.
What Michaelson is particularly concerned with evaluating is the cogency of something he calls “neohasidic environmentalism”. This is the environmentalist mining of Hasidic texts by Jews who differ widely in observance and philosophy and are basing their spiritual lives in their own interpretations of Hasidic texts and spirituality. That Michaelson is skeptical of this movement is clear from his description of it as a “postmodern bricolage of early Hasidic mysticism, non-Western and New Age spirituality, and contemporary politics”. The somewhat condescending use of the word “bricolage” nevertheless accurately reflects part of Michaelson’s thesis: that NeoHasidim are using Hasidic texts in ways which have little to do with their original purposes. The other part of his argument is that the resources that the NeoHasidim are using are not only divorced from their original purpose, but do not in fact serve well the purpose they are now being put to. I think he is incorrect in both of these assertions.
Michaelson considers three forms of Hasidic thinking about the world which might serve as paradigms for thinking about nature:
1) the Ba’al Shem Tov era image of the simple shoemaker who does Kabbalistic unifications with each stitch of his art;
2) the absolute monism of the Tanya (all is God);
3) an image from a story told by R’ Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir: In this story R Akiva contemplates the form of a beautiful gentile woman and raises his consciousness by recognizing the expression of beautiful cosmic forces which delight the Creator in her phenomenal manifestation, thus transcending a simple and inappropriate (in this case) lust; and
4) R’ Nachman of Breslov’s teaching that one should go out to fields and forests to pray so that the melody of the grasses can join with your prayer and lift it to Heaven.
Michaelson considers these models as each one better than the last, but all ultimately not satisfying.
The first image is used by some NeoHasidim as a glorification of the material world and of simple labour. Michaelson considers this unworkable because if the shoemaker can make unifications while stitching shoes he could in theory make unifications while clear-cutting a forest. Strictly speaking this is probably untrue: Michaelson does not address the fact that unifications cannot be accomplished during activities which violate the principles of Jewish law and ethics. Michaelson explicitly states that he will not be addressing halachic issues in his essay- a move I think inevitably results in an artifical and incomplete argument. I’ll leave that point aside, however, and continue to look at Michaelson’s argument as he presents it.
Michaelson argues that the ontology which sees devotion as possible during all actions does not provide a rationale for ecologically responsible actions being better than any other. While Michaelson is correct as far as his argument goes, I think what he misses here is that it is legitimate to view this parable as advocating the simple point that skilled manual labour can be a sacred activity. This message is quite important for those who wish to take up farming, craftsmanship, or other forms of “re-skilling” neccessary to make our lives more local and more sustainable. This use of the parable seems justified and straightforward, and I fail to see Michaelson’s view as compelling. He seems to be arguing that there is one logically required interpretation of the story, and it is not an environmentalist one. I simply disagree: there are more than one logically possible interpretation, and an environmentalist friendly one is possible.
The second model, of the Ba’al HaTanya’s monism, is also unsatisfying according to Michaelson, and for similar reasons. Some NeoHasidim see this image as inspiring a reverence for God’s presence in the Natural world, which is in fact, in the final analysis, itself nothing but G-d. Michaelson is skeptical: after all, if everything is God isn’t a parking lot as much God as a rainforest? Again Michaelson is correct as far as he goes, but the message of the Ba’al HaTanya could just as well be taken as a call to us to perceive the divinity in things and be moved to treat them with respect. This attitude is one which was traditionally shown by many Torah sages from the Talmud onwards. I would argue that whatever their exact philosophy, it was their sense of the divinity of Creation that was responsible for this attitude in them. Michaelson’s perspective on this teaching of the Ba’al Tanya seems awfully abstract. If divine immanentism does not inspire respect for nature, then why do so many people who take the idea seriously interpret it to do so?
The third model, of Rabbi Zeev Wolf, also falls short by Michaelson. R’Akiva is able to see the beauty of the sefirot (the divine emanations underlying this world) in a gentile woman. This suggests that human beauty reveals the beauty of the sefirot, in which the Creator delights. Therefore, postulates Michaelson, perhaps natural beauty is better than the artificial ugliness of a coal mine or a plastic flower. But R’ Wolf then goes on to praise R’ Akiva for seeing such beauty in “an impure place, in a defiled body, and the dust of the gentiles.” This suggests that the beauty is seen in ugliness, and Michaelson therefore argues that according to this story divine beauty could be seen in a garbage heap, and therefore it fails to provide us with a basis for valuing natural forms above toxic man-made ones. (Michaelson also refers to this morally unsettling comment as being an example of the largely “racist” nature of Hasidic thought, a characterization which I will examine below.) Thus again we fail to find what we are looking for: divine beauty does not rest particularly in the ecologically whole and natural, but in any creation. My critique is the same here as for the previous examples: isn’t it just as much a logical possibility to interpret this drash that creations made by God reflect the sefirot more clearly than those created by humans? If neoHasidim wish to interpret R’ Zeev Wolf that way, why argue with them?
As for Michaelson’s characterisation of “most Hasidic thought” as “racist”: I disagree with this claim. I believe Michaelson is referring to the characterizations of gentiles as “impure”, or “dust” or on a more extreme level as being from the “klipot”, the metaphysical forces which mask divinity, or as possessing animal souls which are less divine than Jewish souls. First off I would like to say that I reject all these teachings, which are based in the Kuzari and in the Kabbalah of the Zohar and the Arizal but which I do not think are well grounded in fundamental Torah. I do think that we need to be clear about what these teachings are saying however. To categorize them as “racist” is not accurate.
Gentiles are characterized this way because their lives are not percieved by these Jewish thinkers as inherently dedicated to G-d in the way that Jews are. Now, for this idea to make sense we have to realize that for the Hasidim a “Jew” meant a person born into, or converted into, the multi-ethnic tribe of Israel a tribe whose identity was fundamentally religious. For these Hasidism to be a Jew is first and foremost a religious fact, not an ethnic or racial identity. They did not have in mind the categories of ethnicity and race applied to Jews in more recent times. It also should be borne in mind that there are Hasidic and Kabbalistic teachings which present a secular atheist Jew as being not just “impure” and hiding divinity like gentiles but actively Satanic and on a level far worse than a comparable gentile. Also of importance is the fact that if the gentile woman of the parable were to convert to Judaism, and thus be intitiated into the Jewish tribal identity and mission, then she would no longer be considered to belong to the “dust and impurity” of humanity not conscrated to God.
Now one may disagree with all of this for many reasons. I myself strongly disagree with this characterization of non-Jews. It is not, however, a straightforward racism comparable to the belief that Caucasians are superior to Asiatics or whites to blacks, or Germans to genetic descendants of Jews. It is a tribal and religious chauvinism, yes. We may find it repulsive and wish to argue against it: I myself am deeply troubled by it. But it is not “racism”. It does not exalt a particular race over others, or denigrate a particular race at the expense of another. You might think I’m mincing words, but I think clarity and just speech is quote important in these very sensitive matters.
I also think it is important to recognize that many Hasidim, past and present, have argued that gentiles who follow the Noachide laws, or are in some way dedicated to virtue and or/God, are not “impure”, animalistic, etc. R’ Nachman, for one, who Michaelson turns his attention to next, taught that the Jewish Messiah would spend most of his time and attention on non-Jews. There are many voices in the Hasidic world as in all cultural worlds.
The fourth example pleases Michaelson the most although it still comes up short by him. This is the example of R’ Nachman’s prayer in the fields. Michaelson thinks that R’ Nachman sees the natural world not as mere illusion (as in the Tanya as Michaelson sees it) but as neccesary, or at least very helpful, for spiritual growth. He then dismisses R’ Nachman’s hasidut as being a useful foundation for environmentalist neo-hasidism on the following grounds: R’ Nachman’s thought is not particularly Hasidic but is in fact more like run of the mill love of nature as in his rough contemporary Wordsworth. Further R’ Nachman is not a true immanentist, ie. he does not see “God in all things”. Since this is a neccessary feature of Hasidic thought according to Michaelson, R’ Nachman does not truly qualify as a Hasidic thinker but is a dualistic “outlier”, a Hasidic rogue. Therefore he does not provide a model for Neo-Hasidic Environmentalism.
A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this essay, so I’ll state my argument in brief. 1) R’Nachman was a profoundly immanentist thinker, whose writings repeatedly refer to the omnipresence of Hashem and Torah in all things. If anything I would argue that his assertions about the ability to find Hashem in the most dark and concealed places, and about the presence of Torah and divine sparks and letters in even the most “unholy” places, surpass those of the Ba’al HaTanya. 2) R’ Nachman’s nature mysticism is not comparable to Wordsworth’s, but is firmly grounded in the Kabbalah of the Arizal. R’ Nachman’s teachings of the divinity of the grasses is not a mere romantic appreciation but a sense that every tip of grass is connected to angelic forces, and that in prayer and melody the Hasid can strengthen the grasses and the grasses him strengthen his prayer, through activating supernal forces. (For a full discussion of these matters, and an excellent overview of R’ Nachman’s though, see Zvi Mark’s “Madness and Mysticism”). 3) R’ Nachman was not an atypical Hasidic thinker. If anything he was the Hasidic thinker par excellence. To defend this claim is beyond me here, but I refer the curious reader to Zvi Mark’s excellent book.
After reading Michaelson’s essay, one question rose to mind above others: why has Michaelson decided to attempt to convince his fellow Jewish environmentalists that Hasidic spirituality cannot be an inspiration to them? And why has he undertaken this critique of the NeoHasidic project, that “bricolage”, in general?
If Michaelson were to succeed in convincing Jews that they should not shore up their environmentalism with Hasidic teachings, I’m not sure what positive goal would have been achieved. Even if Michaelson is right, and Hasidic ideas do not logically support environmentalist ethics, haven’t the Torah, and the words of our sages, been continually reinterpreted, elaborated, mined and reconfigured over the ages? Isn’t this in fact one of the central mechanisms of Jewish learning and creativity?
Ironically, many Hasidic teachings are themselves built on radical re-interpretions of the words of Biblical texts. While this manner of exegesis goes back at least to Mishnaic times it reached new heights in Hasidism, heights which have to be read to be believed. The fact of the extreme non-literal exegesis employed and celebrated regularly by Hasidim makes Michaelson’s critique of NeoHasidim for (perhaps) doing the same thing strange and ironic.
The irony of Michaelson defending Hasidic Rebbes like R’ Nachman’s original intentions against NeoHasidic interpretation is brought further into light by something R’Nachman himself told his students: “Crease and bend my book as much as you like”, he said, “But don’t change a dot of the Shulchan Arukh.” In other words, creatively re-interpret my own teachings freely, but don’t abandon Jewish law and ethics. Michaelson can certainly charge NeoHasidim with re-interpreting R’Nachman’s words in ways R’Nachman would not have liked, or in contexts (like a pro-feminist co-ed mikvah ritual in the forest, for instance) he would not have understood and perhaps would not have condoned. If NeoHasidim think that their interpretions are in line with Torah, though, and advance Jewish values and connection to God, who is Michaelson to dismiss them? Of course he can argue that they are wrong, that their values are not Torah values, but that is not what he is doing here. He is criticising them for the mere fact of interpreting Hasidic texts in ways which he believes are not in keeping with their original intent, or do not logically follow from what he perceives as their true conceptual architecture. I find this charge, in a Jewish religious context, bizarre.
Questions of the NeoHasidim’s right to interpret aside, are their interpretations in keeping with the intent of the original Hasidic masters or not? What was the general intent of the Hasidic masters? I think we can be fairly confident that it was to show people wonders from the Torah, to bring them closer to God, and to improve their ethical behaviour. On those counts I would argue that the NeoHasidic interpretations pass with flying colors.
The Hasidim of old Europe were not thinking as environmentalists because the environmental crisis had not yet begun. There spiritual teachings could not have been environmentalist then, but they can certainly be environmentalist now. This is no different from the way that King David’s poetry may not have been Kabbalistic in his mind, but was according to the needs of later Jews. They did not violate the wisdom or intent of the Psalms to do this. They honoured the fundamental intent of the Psalms- that of articulating a relationship to divinity- and mined the hidden structures of the Psalms wisdom.
Lastly, I believe thyat there is a core problem with Michaelson’s approach: his apparent belief that ontology determines ethics. This belief goes something like this: if somone believes Belief X, and Belief Y follows as a natural consequence, then they will behave in certain ways that are in accord with belief Y. This type of argument is used to condemn atheism, theism, communism, capitalism, ontological dualism, ontological nondualism, Christianity, Paganism, etc. Etc. The strategy is to choose a belief you don’t like, to find a possible logical consequence of that belief which you believe to be repugnant, and to use that supposedly consequent belief to criticize it. There are many problems with this approach:
- Beliefs do not exist in vaccuums. How a belief will effect someone’s life depends on what other beliefs they also hold.
2. There are more then one possible logical conclusions to draw from any belief. One can postulate as to some people may draw, but we cannot claim that we know they will draw a certain conclusion.
3. People’s behavious are not generally governed by philosophical positions, especially ontological ones. In fact, whole spiritual disciplines exist so people can spend a lifetime training themselves to govern their behaviours on the basis of certain ontologies! These does not mean that ontologies are irrelevant, but they are only one factor determining motivation and behaviour, and often a weak one. I should admit as a consequence of my belief that this is so, and despite my criticism of Michaelson’s arguments, I believe that the best source for guidance on environmentalist concerns is not in the realm of Hasidut or Kabbalah, but in the realm of mussar (ethics) and halachah. That said, I believe that NeoHasidim are acting with integrity, and in harmony with Jewish tradition. I think they are fully justified in mining Hasidic texts for Environmentalist inspiration and then attempting to suffuse their behaviour with that inspiration, and I wish them all strength and success in doing so.