PARSHAT LECH LECHA
WORSHIPPING, EXPLOITING, OR TRANSFORMING NATURE
“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every male child among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10)
This is a message I shared a few years ago regarding nature and circumcision. I entered an expanded version of this article in a contest on Jewish thought. (I did not win but I received some wonderful compliments.) This week’s portion introduces circumcision as a symbol of the covenant between God and the people Israel. Circumcision says something vital about the Jewish view of nature.
There are three ways we can approach the world of nature. The first is by worshipping nature. In the ancient pagan world, nature was sacred and everything from the sun to mountains to trees were objects of worship. The first religions practiced animism, where the entire natural world was infused with spirit. As I have mentioned in the past, the cycles of the seasons gave the ancient pagans a cyclical view of reality. The Bible rejected this view of nature being holy. God is holy and nature is God’s creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalms 19:2)
Nonetheless, this idea of nature being sacred has never really disappeared from Western thought. It was a central part of the Romantic movement which grew as a reaction to the pragmatic thinking of the Enlightenment. The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712 – 1778) believed that children ought to be raised in nature, that society and culture corrupt them. And this worship of nature has become a central part of modern deep ecology. For example, the Gaia hypothesis teaches that the earth is an organism which has rights. This worship of nature is behind such modern ideas as the anti-vaccine movement, the anti-baby formula movement, and of course, the anti-circumcision movement.
The second approach is the opposite, exploiting nature for human ends. Nature has no intrinsic value, but rather instrumental value. The early Enlightenment thinker Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) invented the modern scientific method. He believed that the purpose of science was to give humanity power over nature, power which they had lost in their “fall from grace.” (Bacon was a Christian.) Humanity had to return to the ideal expressed in Genesis 1:28, to “fill the earth and conquer it.”
Many thinkers blame Western religion, particularly Christianity, for our modern ecological crisis. In a seminal 1966 essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Lynn Townsend White Jr. (1907 – 1987), wrote, “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. … Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions … not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” If we are to save our planet, we must stop exploiting nature. And so, the dialectic between worshipping and exploiting nature continues.
Judaism offers a third approach, one the world needs to hear – transforming nature. Nature is God’s creation and worthy of respect. Nature is also imperfect, in constant flux, and in need of transformation. Humans are God’s partners in transforming nature. When God created the world, God saw that it was “very good,” very good but not perfect. The role of human beings is to “perfect the world as a kingdom of God,” as we say every day in the Alenu prayer. Perfecting nature is the message of the ancient rite of circumcision.
Seven days symbolizes the completion of nature, reflecting the week of creation. On the eighth day we recognize that nature is incomplete. As a powerful symbol of this fact, we circumcise every Jewish baby boy on the eighth day (unless there is a medical reason to delay circumcision.) We are giving a vital message to this baby as he begins his life. Do not worship nature. Only God is worthy of worship. Do not exploit nature. That will lead to destroying our world. Rather, seek to understand and if necessary, transform nature. Become God’s partner in the creation of the world.