The Dialectical Nature of “Nature”

BY: Sarit Bendavid.

In Sefer Bereshit, humankind is charged with a dual role. On the one hand, we are celebrated as the pinnacle of creation, the surrounding natural world set in place to provide for us. We are told to “fill the earth and subdue it,”[i] to rule over the flora and fauna and exploit natural resources in order for humanity to progress in this world. On the other hand, we are told to “watch it and guard it,”[ii] to protect nature and ensure that it is not abused, for we are merely members of the natural world, on equal footing with the rest of its inhabitants. These two facets of humanity, of being above nature while also existing within it, describe the dialectical human experience in relation to our physical surroundings.

The same question can be asked not only concerning our relationship with the physical world, but also with the natural forces that guide us from within ourselves. Do the mitsvot reflect our natural tendencies, or are they something distinct which demands that we disobey our inherent desires? Jewish thinkers seem to have conflicting opinions on the influence that human nature has on Halakhah. For instance, there are differing approaches towards prayer, which is the expression of our relationship with the Divine. While some believe that prayer should not be forced, but should rather flow naturally when we truly feel motivated, others maintain that we must transcend our natural desires and compel ourselves to have kavannah (intent) at set times.

The cover image of this edition, a copy of a painting by Marc Chagall titled “The Magic Flute,” seems to reflect the complex relationship between Man and Nature. Produced in 1966 as a poster advertisement for the Metropolitan Opera Company’s upcoming production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” the painting can be interpreted as merely depicting characters from the opera; yet, there seems to be another, more universal, layer of meaning that hints to Man and his place in the Garden of Eden.[iii] The image depicts a garden-like setting; the lions, which seem to be in an amorous relationship, represent Adam and Eve, who are the kings of the animal kingdom, just like lions are considered to be the kings of the jungle. God’s presence is symbolized by the white dove or the red triangle at the top of the painting, and the snake is clearly visible between the lions and God, highlighting his role in distancing Man from the Divine. However, the woman floating in midair and playing the flute seems to represent a different facet of mankind than the lions, one that transcends the natural world. The woman appears to be flying up to meet God, while the lions are looking down at the earth below. These two different representations of Man are at the heart of this issue: what is the essence of humanity, and how are we to relate to the natural world around us? Should we look towards the sky and try to fly above our physical limitations, or should we look towards the earth and attempt to utilize it in our divine worship? On the one hand, we ask God, “What is Man that You should be mindful of him?” while we also believe that God made us “but little lower than the angels.”[iv] Our relationship with the natural world, both within ourselves and with the world surrounding us, is dynamic and should constantly be re-evaluated.

The theme of this edition concerning Judaism and its relationship with nature is incredibly broad, which is reflected in the range of article topics. Jonathan Ziring considers different possibilities of how to understand the essence of man, whether above nature or within it, as well as the relation between Jew and Gentile within this context. Chesky Kopel investigates the true nature of the yetser ha-ra (evil inclination), and Danny Shulman examines the religious value of spirituality that falls outside the realm of Halakhah. Eli Putterman provides us with insight on the philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, specifically in relation to natural morality. Additionally, an interview with R. David Horwitz, rosh yeshivah at RIETS, is included, which discusses issues relevant to our theme.

Another path of exploration in this issue concerns our relationship to the physical land and the animals that inhabit it. Tovia Moldwin examines the relationship between man and animals, focusing on meat consumption, while Kaitlyn Respler discusses the value of sensitivity towards animals that Judaism promotes. Tali Adler presents an overview of Judaism’s sensitivity towards the natural world, especially focusing on Judaism’s land ethic, and Adam Hertzberg compares the theology of the film Avatar to Kabbalistic and Hasidic ideas about our connection with nature.

Issues raised by science and rational thought are also tackled by a number of writers. Ariel Caplan explores the question of how we should accord our traditional views of Creation with evolutionary theory, and Jerry Karp specifically focuses on theistic evolution and the different possibilities of how God could have directed this process. Rafi Miller addresses the popular idea in science today that God was not involved in Creation, highlighting a number of problems with this assumption. Reuven Rand analyzes the awareness of the presence of God in our lives today and our conceptions of divine intervention in light of modern sensibilities.

We hope that you enjoy this edition of Kol Hamevaser as you explore the “nature” of the natural world around and within us.

Sarit Bendavid is a senior at SCW majoring in History and English Literature, and is an Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] 1:28.

[ii] 2:15.

[iii] The identification of this painting with the biblical story of the Garden of Eden is discussed in Philip B. Malzl, “An Allegory of Eden: Marc Chagall’s Magic Flute Poster,” BYU Studies, 43:3 (2004): 219-228. The identification of the characters in the painting that are presented above are adapted from this article, excluding the interpretation of the floating woman playing the flute, which resulted from this author’s own reflections.

[iv] Tehillim 8:4-5.