Author Archives: Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein

About Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.

Biodiversity is God’s Glory

Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, February 19, 1998. This article is a commentary to the Haftarah for the weekly Torah portion “Yitro,” Isaiah 6:1-7:6 and 9:5-6.

The time had much in common with ours: When Isaiah was called to prophesy in the eighth century BCE, there’d been relative prosperity under King Uzziah, including territorial expansion. But Judea faced constant threats from without; and newfound comfort and luxury led to decadence and immorality from within. Isaiah describes abuses from political corruption to ignoring the underprivileged to exploitation of dwindling land resources by rich estate owners: “Ah, those who add house to house, and join field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land!” (Isaiah 5:8).
jewish biodiversity
Against this background, Isaiah has the remarkable vision that initiates his mission: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne…” (6:1). In a rare example of visual human-divine contact, Isaiah sees God. And he sees the seraphim in attendance, proclaiming God’s holiness in words that have become a centerpiece of Jewish liturgy. The verse (6:3) has been rendered: “Holy, holy holy, is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory” (old JPS translation) or: “Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!” (new JPS version). Those translations and their like bolster mainstream transcendental theology that sees God’s glory as something separate from the world, that comes “down” from God to fill the earthly vessel, inspiring awe in the creatures below.

No Dichotomy of God and World

But the simple Hebrew points in another direction. The key phrase, melo kol ha’aretz, is better read not as an adjective – “the whole earth is full of” God’s glory – but rather as a noun: “the fullness of the whole earth” – that is God’s glory! This suggests a very different theology, one more immanental, which does not draw a dichotomy between God and the world. God’s glory does not descend from on high to suffuse the otherwise purely physical created world. The earth  and the fullness thereof are the stuff of the divine presence; the material is spiritual. God’s glory and presence don’t fill the world – they are the world!

Shavuot and Land Ownership

Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem Report.

We’re used to seeing Jewish holidays as having two dimensions: history and nature. Even the Sabbath is described as a remembrance both of Genesis, nature’s creation, and of the Exodus, historic redemption. A close look at Shavuot reveals a third dimension, which carries a very contemporary social message.

The usual history-nature synthesis is clearly seen in the other two pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Sukkot. Pesach commemorates the people’s birth in the Exodus, along with the spring budding, the rebirth of life in nature. Matzah is the bread of affliction and slavery, and of the hasty flight to freedom; yet it’s also the new grain, as yet unfermented in the nascent springtime. Likewise, the booths of Sukkot hark back to the temporary dwellings of wandering Israelites in the desert, but are also the shacks of field workers bringing in the harvest.

Shavuot, the third pilgrimage holiday, didn’t originally fit the pattern. In the Torah, it’s only a harvest festival. Only later did the rabbis fill in the blank by connecting it to the giving of the Torah, thus situating it between the Exodus and the Wandering. This created symmetry, but more importantly, it was a response to the fact that the historical aspects of the holidays would be much more serviceable for Diaspora culture.

But Shavuot breaks the mold for another reason. In Leviticus 23, one of the Torah’s major accounts of the festival calendar, after the description of the holiday’s Temple rituals (verses 15-21), the text repeats the commandments to leave the corners of the fields and the unharvested gleanings of the crops for the poor. Given the ritual focus of the chapter, this ethical addition is even more remarkable. Commentators, however, generally gloss it as a simple mental association with the harvest season of Shavuot, or as a reminder that there are social obligations beyond the ritual ones.

But there’s a deeper reason. Pesach, with its unleavened bread and dietary restrictions, is clearly in some profound way about food. Sukkot, second only to Pesach in strenuous preparations, focuses on shelter: where, in what, and how you live. Both mandate a form of enforced poverty–eating matzah, the bread of affliction, and living in a shack, the most modest of dwellings. These holidays are great social equalizers. Fulfilling their central obligations to make the wealthy more like the poor, and no one, rich or poor, is excluded by the rituals.

Shabbat & Nature

Excerpted from The Jerusalem Report, January 26, 1995.

The Sabbath appears out of place in the Ten Commandments. It is the only ritual requirement in the bunch. Tucked in between the first three commandments, which deal with monotheism and idolatry, and the following six, which regulate relations between people, Shabbat is connected to both categories yet fully part of neither.

It is among the best known Jewish practices, and one of the least understood.

We are commanded to rest, yet nowhere is the meaning of rest spelled out in the written Torah. The rabbis, on the other hand, provide us with more details than we might care for. It becomes a violation to pick a flower, write a poem or, later on, flick a switch.Flowers Shabbat

“Are we dealing here with extravagant and compulsive exaggerations of an originally `sensible’ ritual,” psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote, “or is our understanding of the ritual perhaps faulty and in need of revision?” Fromm’s answer was the latter, and he provided the following definition of what is forbidden on the seventh day: “‘Work’ is any interference by man, be it constructive or destructive, with the physical world. Rest is a state of peace between man and nature.”

This aggadah of Shabbat, the theory behind the practice, is hinted at in the commandment itself: We rest in imitation of the original divine rest that was the climax and cessation of Creation. Yet God’s rest allowed the world to exist without divine intervention. In the same way, Shabbat is as much a respite for the world as it is for the people who observe it. How else can we understand a day of joy and rest that prohibits labor-saving devices, and involves frequent inconvenience – but by seeing that something other than human needs are paramount?

Creation and Rest

The link between the commandment and the creation story indicates how Shabbat rest contrasts with creative labor. Genesis describes a very anthropocentric world: Humanity stands at the head of the created beings, as benevolent dictator in chapter 1, and conscientious steward in chapter 2. Shabbat implies an approach that can be labeled biocentric, demanding that humans abstain from domination. It thereby allows them to see themselves as creatures, rather than creators.

Genetic Engineering: A Call for Restraint

Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book,” The Jerusalem Report, May 2, 1996. This article is a commentary on the (double) weekly Torah portion “Ahare Mot – Kedoshim,” Leviticus 16:1-20:27.

Biogenetic engineering, the science (or art) of splicing genes and parts of genes (recombinant DNA) is practiced in laboratories all over the world. The products of this experimentation are beginning to appear in supermarkets, in the form of genetically altered foods. Examples include a tomato with an “anti-freeze” gene taken from Arctic flounder to help protect it against frost; trout that carries human growth genes, so that the fish will grow bigger faster; and even tobacco with firefly DNA that makes it glow in the dark, thereby permitting night harvesting.

jewish ethics of genetic engineeringThese bioengineered creations, known as “transgenic” organisms, are seen by many as promising new solutions for industrial agriculture’s constant problem: How to bring more food to the consumer, faster and cheaper. The genome of creation is a vast thing, the possibilities limitless.

There Are Many Questions. And Who Should Answer These Questions?

But should they [bioengineered creations] be exploited? Is everything conceived of in a lab to be produced? Concerned citizens may fairly ask whether these products are safe. The American Food and Drug Administration has ruled that the presence of genetic material from other organisms requires no special labeling — rather than being an additive, said the watchdog agency, it is merely the extension of traditional methods of cross-breeding.

But is health the only concern? Do you want to eat a squash with sheep genes? Such hybrids evoke a visceral negative reaction that cannot be articulated in our modern languages of physical safety or utility, but reflects a more profound sensibility.

A reaction heard in the scientific community blames that negative reaction on popular ignorance and sensationalist treatment of the topic, a la Jurassic Park. A complicated, technical area should be left to the experts, it is claimed. This approach assumes that science and technology are subject to the judgment of technical expertise alone, and are free of moral dilemmas.

Advertising and the Tenth Commandment

The author’s dismal view of advertising would be contested by some, arguing that advertising can and sometimes does inform us about beneficial products of which we might otherwise be unaware. Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, August 13, 2001. This article is a commentary to the weekly Torah portion Va’et’hanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11.

If there were a multi-billion-dollar industry in our society whose sole purpose was to get you to murder, commit adultery, steal, or perjure yourself, we might wonder about its legitimacy. These transgressions are forbidden by commandments No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 [of the Ten Commandments], proclaimed for the second time in the Torah in Deuteronomy 5:17. Yet regarding the next one on the list, No. 10, there is just such an industry – the advertising industry. It is designed to get you to want things you don’t have, to covet.

advertising and judaismAnd yet the captains of this industry are not put behind bars; they are handsomely rewarded. The “products” of this industry – ads – are not distributed on the black market, nor do they reach consumers in brown paper wrappers. They are thrust before us in broad daylight, in every cranny of our society and culture.

“Thou Shalt Not Covet.” It sounds so Puritan, so old-fashioned. Yet the psychic state of continually wanting more, of perennial dissatisfaction with what we have, and therefore with who we are (for the two have become pathologically connected), is the driving force of our consumer society. Once, greed was bad – avarice, cupidity, rapacity, lust: these were vices to be rooted out. They threatened social relations, the common good, and the spiritual well-being of the individual. But the advance of the free market and the quasi-religious belief in “the invisible hand” change all that: Act solely for your own material betterment, says the new catechism, and the mechanism of supply and demand will ensure benefit for all. In the guise of “enlightened” self-interest, greed has been rehabilitated. Consumptive culture cultivates covetousness. And spiritual well-being? Oh, don’t be so new-agey.

Stop the Machine! — The Sabbatical Year Principle

Reprinted from the column “The People & the Book,” The Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001. The article is a commentary to the dual weekly Torah portions B’har-B’hukkotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34.

This year is a sabbatical year in Israel, and as usual, it’s a huge problem. The commandment described in Leviticus 25:1-7 mandates letting the land owned by Jews in their own country lie fallow every seventh year. The resemblance to Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath when no work is done, is more than coincidental: The seventh year of “release” (shemitah) is called a “Sabbath of the land.”

But it is more than that, for in an agricultural society, a Sabbath of the land is also a year-long sabbatical for most of the populace. Indeed, the Biblical shemitah is a stirring example of an entire society choosing to live at a significantly lower material standard of living for a year in order to devote itself to more spiritual pursuits than the daily grind. The vision is more revolutionary still, with its radical egalitarian thrust: All the produce of the land that grows by itself must be free to all (even animals have equal access), and all loans are to be forgiven, allowing people sunk in debt an opportunity to start over.

So what’s the problem? Well, these days – who can afford not to work for one full year? And how can we feed ourselves without agriculture for a whole year? And share our dearest resources with everybody? When seen thus, as a problem, shemitah invites solutions that bypass the original intent, whether fictitious sale of the land to non-Jews or depending on food raised by them.

The whole observance of the precept has become a subcategory of kashrut: People ask whether food is grown according to the rules, not whether the society doing the producing and consuming is “kosher.” It certainly isn’t seen as a model for addressing burning social and environmental issues. It has become another source of tension for and between Jews; another wall separating us by degree of religious observance.

Urbanization and Land Use: A Biblical Model

Reprinted from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, July 15, 2002. This article is a commentary to the dual weekly Torah portions Mattot-Mase Numbers 30:2-36:13.

We wouldn’t expect to glean useful insights regarding urban planning from the Bible. First off, from Genesis on the Bible has a distinctly anti-urban cast. The first recorded city was built by the murderer Cain (Genesis 4:17), presumably as a result of his alienation from the earth which had become cursed on his account. Then comes the ill-fated city of Babel, with its problematic urban architecture, followed by the original sin-cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. The only apparent exception to this inclination is the sanctity Jerusalem, city of God.

Furthermore, if there’s one social-environmental issue that seems uniquely modern it is the phenomenal growth of urbanization. As recently as 1800,only 2.5% of humankind (20 million people) lived in cities, and there were only nine cities with populations of over a million. By 1900 that swelled to 10% (160 million), and 27 megalopolises. Now, more than half the world’s population– over 3 billion– live in cities, with at least 240 cities of a million inhabitants or more.

But even though contemporary numbers and social context are wildly different from antiquity, the same questions were relevant then: How should cities be designed? How should they function in the landscape? What should be the relationship between urban and rural, settled and wild?

Levitical Cities — Surrounded by Green Space

At the end of the book of Numbers, though the Israelites are still wandering in the wilderness, there is already talk of the boundaries and tribal shares in the Land. Most tribes received large areas to afford extensive agriculture and animal husbandry. But one tribe remained essentially landless, relegated to urban areas: the tribe of Levi. The Levites and their work in the Temple are supported by tithes, and therefore they receive no nachalah, no “territorial share” among the tribes (cf. Numbers 18:23-24). No large farms perhaps, but this week’s portion (Ch. 35) requires setting aside no less than 48 Levitical cities, and includes instructions for their layout, making it a significant prooftext for Biblical views on urban and regional planning.

Humans as Guests in God’s World

Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, October 7, 2002. This piece is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion of Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8).

What are the opening chapters of Genesis about? Many people today read them as science — a factual description of the creation of the world. For others, they are ancient Middle Eastern mythology, or a piece of intellectual history — a canonical text that has helped shape the West. For still others they are still theology — God’s word telling us primarily about God: divine mastery and mystery.

The late scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel wrote that more than human theology, what people think about God, the Bible is “God’s anthropology” — a God’s eye view of people. Applying that perspective to Genesis illuminates some of the key issues confronting humanity today. For though it was composed long before the wonders and horrors of modern technology, and before challenges such as global warming, Genesis provides striking insights regarding the question of global sustainability — how to live responsibly in this world so we and coming generations can prosper — that is the subject of international debate on the environment today.

Environmentalists shudder when reading Chapter 1 of Genesis, which contains that nasty command (verse 28): “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens, and all the beasts that crawl on the earth.” Actually, 3,000 years ago this must have been an uplifting blessing, promising hope and dignity for a society with a short average life-span and great susceptibility to natural threats. Only recently have we fulfilled this “blessing” beyond any pre-modern’s dreams.

Genesis Chapter 2: Guarding the Earth

Chapter 2, a strikingly different portrayal of creation, provides the crucial counterpoint: giving human beings the task of “le’ovdah ulshomrah” regarding the garden, and by implication the earth. The Hebrew phrase has been translated as “to work and to guard,” “to till and to tend,” “to work and to watch,” “to serve and preserve.” All point to the contemporary concept of sustainable development. Working the land is crucial for human flourishing — but guarding the earth is the critical complement. We need to guard the world precisely from our avodah, the effects of our own work. In our struggle for the earth’s fruits, we sow the seeds of our own, and the world’s, destruction — unless we temper our toil with responsibility and concern for posterity. Unfortunately, as a contemporary policy, “sustainable development” all too often really means runaway development, with the demands of sustainability shunted aside.

The Earth’s Reward: Enjoy Its Fruit, but Protect Its Fruitfulness

Reprinted with permission from the column “The People and the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, September 11, 2000. This piece is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion “Ki Tetze,” Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19.

The promise is a nice one: “That you may fare well and live long.” The first mystery is, why it is stated as the reward for seemingly unrelated commandments: for honoring one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:12), for using honest weights and measures (Deuteronomy 25:15), and for sending away a mother bird before taking her eggs or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The deeper mystery, perhaps, is why we should believe that fulfilling these commandments will, in fact, result in such a reward. That’s not merely a modern question, as demonstrated by a Talmudic legend.

The Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin, describes how Elisha Ben Abuya, the famous [second century] rabbi-turned-heretic, might have lost his faith. It presents a scene in which a father instructs his son to gather some eggs from a nest, but to be careful to first let the mother bird go. Performing his father’s request, the boy should be doubly rewarded with length of days: he is honoring his parents and sending off the mother bird. Yet he falls from the tree and dies.

Is the Reward in This World or the Next? To the Doer or Done By? Individual or Species?

Elisha, suggests the Talmud, watched this, presuming that the Biblical promise referred to the quality and length of life of the individual performing the commandments – and concluded that the promise was false, that there was neither Judge nor justice in the world. Others, including his grandson, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Korshai, take the opposite approach: we are to expect no reward whatsoever in this life for following commandments; the rewards and punishments are all in the next life. Those seem to be the only possibilities: either tangible rewards, here and now (for the individual), or ultimate satisfaction (again, for the individual) in the hereafter.