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Legacy of Transcendentalism: Religion and Philosophy

Heaven on Earth: Is the Legacy of 19th Century Transcendentalism an Ecumenical Philosophy of Nature?

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1999

Introduction  19th Century Transcendentalism Native American Tradition Judaism
Overview Christianity Buddhism Bibliography

The Jewish Perception of Environmental Responsibility

Ten years ago, in September 1989, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America published a full-page ad in the New York Times and other newspapers nationwide. The annual High Holidays message was devoted to our environmental problems. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the environment and the Judaic relation to it, historically and at the present, had been an area of growing interest for a decade preceding the ad's publication. In large part this is a response to stinging criticism from Lynn White, Jr., who has accused the Judeo-Christian tradition of dangerous anthropocentrism and an uneasy, destructive attitude of dualism regarding the natural and the spiritual. However, Schorsch says that scholars have discovered that tradition actually lends itself to a much more constructive and healthful approach to ecology, if the old writings are heeded.

The essay "Learning to Live With Less: A Jewish Perspective" takes pages from Walden. "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" Thoreau said; Schorsch offers "a culture of self-restraint" to a world where environmental problems spring not from poverty or the exploitation of the poor--as they do in Sikvaraksa's Buddhist community--but from prosperity and excess. Schorsch echoes Transcendentalist thought even in choice of language when he declares that any and all environmental problems must be addressed "from the bottom up, at the human level," and he wonders if religion can "imbue the individual citizen with a spiritual renewal that will ennoble his worldview . . ." While he has no intention of speaking generically for religion, he states that the study of Judaism reveals "a millennial effort to foster a religious culture of self-restraint that intuitively respects the value and integrity of its natural environment." While he warns that he has no intention of painting Judaism as any kind of "natural religion with a special capacity for communing with nature" (which caveat Emerson might understand but Thoreau would likely scorn) he does believe that beneath "a canopy of legal regulations, theological notions, and intellectual values on a bedrock of a transcendent God concept . . . [lies the perception of] a decidely modest sense of man's place and purpose in the universe" (30, my emphasis). 

Schorsch notes that the Talmud and the Hebrew Bible both frequently "regulate a Jew's relationship to the natural world" and especially speak to the curbing of "man's unlimited use of his environment."  In fact, the laws are called "halakha, a word that etymologically connotes boundary." Consumerism has diluted the impact of such rules for living but the answer to "how much is enough" must "not be determined solely by commercial interests" (31).

Schorsch interprets the genesis of a theology of self-restraint as directly related to the Genesis of the Bible and the fact that there are two "beginnings" to man's earthly existence. The first chapter's story of Genesis is repeated in the second, but on a much more somber note: man's creation from clay is emphasized but not his resemblance to God's image or likeness, and his "mission" is clearly not to rule the earth but to be a good caretaker of the which task, as we all know, he failed (33). The mission of Judaism is essentially to rewrite the second chapter; reparation is necessary because it is "clear that the religion of the Bible is rooted in the conception of human nature as personified by Adam [in the second chapter of Genesis." Schorsch credits Freud for coining the phrase that best expresses this objective: Judaism has constructed "a system of instinct renunciation." If at first this sounds contrary to the Transcendentalist reliance on intuition and the senses, it must be remembered that the ultimate mission of Transcendentalism is "to redeem all society from sin" (Hochfield, webtext). The "inner voice" that one must listen to is the essential divinity of being, not to be confused with instinctual, "animalistic" impulses that may seem intuitive but actually flow from the physical, not spiritual, connection with the world. 

Under the precepts of this "instinct renunciation" Schorsch relates three specific tenets Judaism requires: first, "ideally, Scripture would have us live as vegetarians;" meat consumption is not forbidden but is restricted; there are detailed laws prohibiting the infliction of pain upon animals. In fact, although you may have some recourse for vengeance against human foes, animosity toward your enemy's animals is forbidden. Animal life is included in the messianic vision (31 - 32).

Land use is also regulated, and goes so far as to include a "sabbatical year in which the land was to lie fallow and whatever grew naturally was to be shared by man and beast." Field corners and gleanings are to be left alone; the poor and the animals may take these portions at will. Hybridization of plant or animal is prohibited. Fruit trees may not be destroyed even in time of war; Schorsch says this regulation is later expanded "to include the wanton destruction of any useful object or resource," so in other words, regardless of intense pressure on human social contract--and the old writings seem to understand this pressure is often unbearable--the bond with nature remains sacrosanct. Population creates demands on the land; the command to "be fruitful and multiply" is considered fulfilled following the birth of two sons, or a son and a daughter (32).

Finally, the third tenet, which without the first two can hardly be successfully implemented, is self-denial; "spiritual renewal is effected through physical contraction." As in some Christian custom, Judaic tradition calls for a complete cessation of work  on the Sabbath, in emulation of God's own rhythm as reported in Genesis (2:2 - 3). Schorsch interprets this as a rejection of the idea of man's dominion over nature, and the idea that humans must work relentlessly toward, as McFague says, "having it all." He asserts that this is a Biblically-mandated rejection of the consumer culture, seeing instead a reaffirmation that the parts of man, nature, and God create the divine whole; he paraphrases Goethe: "It is in his ability to contract that the master first shows himself" (32, 34) and echoes Thoreau's thought in Walden: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can let alone." 

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