Yesterday I was reading David Ellenson’s reflection on Parashat Mishpatim (Exod 21:1-24:18). He cited the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who notes the difference between rules and principles. If the facts a rule stipulates are given, then a rule is valid. The answer it supplies must be given. The halachic materials of the Torah are replete with rules but also principles as well. Ellison cites, “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt” (Exod 22:20) and “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9). These might be seen as rules themselves, but the reality is that they are legal principles one must live by. Legal systems must have both rules and principles. It might be said that rules are normative judgments whereas principles are moral and ethical principles in the framework of law that are a means to allow the legal system to have continuous relevance. That a system must present us allow us for the visionary. Robert Cover, who wrote, “Nomos and Narrative,” distinguished between “imperialistic,” or I might say positivist interpretations of law and “jurisgensis” interpretations of law. The former is on the application of rules. The latter asserts that the Torah is not meant to be a system of laws to be followed. Rather, the halakhic material must be situated within a larger context of narrative discourse and meaning. It is meant to be a “bridge to a better world.” Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts something similar when he notes that “there is no binding halakha without aggada.” All of this points to the binding nature of human experience in shaping our understanding of Judaism. Halakha must always be contextualized with our experiences. Heschel went so far to say that those who understand halakha as being the only important aspect of Judaism, thus relegating the individual and communal religious experience as secondary is not even fit to interpret halakha.
Ellison’s context is situated within the context of queer Judaisms and how there might be legal principles within the Torah that might actually help color our understanding of the law. Then again, I see a definite link between his reading (and Heschel’s) and our discussions of environmentalism, or ecology. The Torah tells us of our right to dominate the earth. God commands it, therefore, we have a right to do whatever we want with it. We might consider this a rule. Then again, we cannot live with that halakhic rule alone. We must have aggada there to tell us what dominion actually means.
It is easy for me to see that the theocratic Right are blinded partially by their own stagnant reading of the text and their collusion with corporate wealth and greed. We on the religious Left often ignore the latter but I think it has to be said. I am no psychologist but the theocratic Right projects a lot of their own personal issues onto us. Those of us who believe in environmental stewardship are said to participate in the “cult of the green dragon.” I find it laughable considering that it seems increasingly clear that they are in collusion with corporations. Why are we not similarly stating that they’re part of the “cult of the invisible hand of the free market”? Or the false idol of capitalism? They constantly use the biblical text to prove that it supports capitalism. I think this is problematic.
I know I cannot do so with environmentalism but I think we should be clear about that. The biblical and rabbinic writers don’t have to face what we’re facing, so they never address it. To turn back to Ellenson, they do provide us with principles. To turn back to Heschel, we must look to our own religious experiences and our own narratives to interpret halakhic material. If we don’t, we have no right to interpret the rules. Judaism has the principle, tza’ar ba-alei hayyim “sensitivity to the pain of animals.” We have the the legal stipulation of the jubilee, which dictates that it is God who rules over the land, not humans (Lev 25). This may point to God’s omnipotence but the priestly authors also dictated us being made in the image of God. As Heschel’s thought expresses time and time again, God is in search of humans. God does not want to be along. The Biblical narratives express God’s almost express Hir need for us. God giving us the earth is not for abuse but rather because of God’s love of us. Creation is good even before humans are created. Humans are not the pinnacle of creation, Sabbath is.
So what happens when there are threats to the earth? Do we simply state that God has control over everything, we need not worry about it? Do we simply state, “oh well humans have dominion over the earth?” Our own experiences are telling us that the earth is crying out and that our abuse of it is destroying it. God only hesitated to create the world because of us, the Midrash tells us. Ze decided to do so because while human beings had the capability of doing evil, we also had the capability of redemption, of doing some really great and transformative things.
God created the world. If we decide its okay to destroy and conquer, are we not really just slapping God in the face? Are we not simply slashing the canvas? Dominion, if it implies kingship does not simply mean doing whatever one wishes. The history of Israel is filled with examples of how the Israelite monarchy constantly fucked up. They did whatever they wanted. They were greedy. They had no concern for the living things within the land. Their right to kingship gave them the right to do what they will. So, if we are going to espouse of theology of dominion, does that mean that our lack of concern for all living things on the earth is alright? Who wants rulers like that? Who likes humans like that? I should think no one. So, Jewish principles, narratives, and history compels me to say that we need to do whatever we can to protect the environment. God created the earth, that is the ultimate blessing. I am not concerned with how that went about. I am really only concerned with how to show the Sacred that I acknowledge living on earth as a blessing.
Jay Michaelson writes about the command to choose life. He notes that fundamentalisms of various sorts focus on death. This world is transitory and that our real concern should be the life after this one. Judaism, on the other hand, rarely talks about the afterlife. Michaelson does not that this is complicated and that Judaism has no one voice that speaks for it. Nevertheless, I think we need to focus on choosing life. On preservation and protection of life. We have to do whatever we can to make life livable. The theocratic Right mocking those who find importance in conservation and environmentalism is almost a death sentence. It assumes that humans have no responsibility in doing anything for the earth. In the end, it mocks the blessing everyday. It assures that for future generations, life will not be livable.