Friday, January 25, 2013

The ‘Nature’ of Jews

On Tu B’Shevat, Jews celebrate the natural world. Do we praise it for its own sake, or only as a reflection of God?

In his masterpiece “Tintern Abbey,” poet William Wordsworth recalls his passionate younger self, obsessed with nature:
The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love.
Could a Jewish poet have written these imperishable lines? Although literary critic Lionel Trilling once wrote an essay finding affinities between Wordsworth and the rabbis, it is hard to imagine the mostly nature-indifferent rabbis responding to this passionate effusion. Nature, in rabbinic writings, exists mostly to settle questions of law (can an elephant serve as the side of a sukkah?), or mythological speculations of wonder—such as the tales of Rabbah bar Hannah, which speak of a bird so big that the waters of the sea only reached to its ankles. But this is not reverence for nature; it is the extravagance of a God-besotted imagination.
When they were moved to celebrate the created world, Jewish poets wrote of it as reflected glory. Nature was the prism through which God’s artistry could be seen. Tu B’Shevat, which falls this year on Jan. 25-26, is the holiday when Jews typically sing their praises of the natural world. But the holiday does not recognize Wordsworth’s nature, glorious in its own, self-contained radiance.

When the Psalmist writes of nature, it is theological or didactic: “The mountains skipped like rams” (Psalms 114:4); “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree” (Psalms 92:12). Nature, for the ancient Jewish poets, cannot be loved for its own sake. In the conclusion to the Book of Job, God describes the majesty of the world, recalling ma’aseh bereishit, the act of creation. Nature is beautifully described through its obedience to the Creator and indifference to the moral laws that human beings assume govern all life. Wordsworth, on the other hand, cherishes the scene itself, although he does feel
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man
The woods and fields may be a showplace of spirit, but here is unqualified reverence for the “wild green landscape.” In solitude, Wordsworth approaches fellow poet Byron’s famous assertion that he loved not man the less, but nature the more.

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