Last Wednesday I had the privilege of making a small contribution to ‘Loving the Planet.’ It wasn’t a tree-hugging session, a team effort to prepare a hedgehog highway underneath a road, or a hedgerow planting day, but a seminar at Regents Park College, Oxford. I was asked to respond to a lecture by Professor Melissa Raphael as part of an interfaith seminar on Ecology, Love and Theology.
There’s no obvious commandment to love the earth, Professor Raphael argued, undoubtedly correctly. Judaism offers plenty of pragmatic direction: don’t destroy, don’t be cruel, allow your animals to rest each seventh day and the land each seventh year, repair the world. But love the planet? The Torah contains no such injunction.
She then proceeded to make a moving argument that, since we have become estranged from the land, its fauna and flora, seasons and smells, needs and yields, perhaps the earth itself is now, too, one of those strangers which the Torah instructs us to love in no less than thirty-six places. Is our degraded planet calling out to us: ‘Love me.’
Imanuel Levinas teaches that we must hear God’s command in ‘the face of the other’, calling on us to take responsibility for one another, so the earth too has a visage, ‘pnei tehom, the face of the deep’ over whose darkness God spread the first mantle of light. This face of the earth also commands us. Commandment is ‘interruptive’: it insists on a response, demands our ‘Hinenni – Here am I.’
It was a beautiful paper. It put me in mind of the Torah’s other love commandments, especially the love of our neighbour. Could we understand the earth not just as stranger, but also as neighbour, I wondered in response? After all, it’s never far away.
Like so many rabbis, Samson Raphael Hirsch loved word associations. In his Torah commentary he links Re’acha, ‘your neighbour’, with mir’eh, ‘pasture’. From a strictly semantic perspective this is most unlikely, but it’s an evocative connection, nonetheless. Destroy our neighbours’ ‘pastures’, he argues, their rights, place in society, sources of sustenance, the earth on which they and we depend, and we break the commandment to love our neighbour like our self.
“And it’s not just ‘like us’,” someone in the room added; “it is us, for our very bodies are of the earth.” So, should ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ include the meadows, woods and wheatfields too – without devaluing our special responsibilities to our fellow humans?
Yesterday Deborah Golend and I opened the fourth conversation Jewish and Emotional on the subject of gratitude. It led me to think of the closing lines of a poem by Rachel, the pioneer Hebrew poet whose life was cut short by tuberculosis:
Let me not be bitter, lest I cloud with my bitterness
the pure blue of the sky, my friend of old.
Her term for ‘my friend’ is re’i, the same word as ‘neighbour’ in the Torah.
Perhaps, them the earth is both stranger and neighbour, calling, in different ways, for our care?
The Torah has, of course, a third love commandment: Love God. Judaism rejects the deification of nature, the pantheistic worship of hilltops, moons and stars. Yet, together with the mystics, the panentheists, we may see God not as nature, but within, as well as beyond, it. The spirit which hovered over the deep, lives within all breathing things, for God is Chei hachaim, the Life of all life.
How then can we treat any creature with wanton cruelty, or cause needless destruction, when in so doing we hurt not only its particular life, but something infinitely precious at the same time, a tiny portion of God’s presence? The very thought makes the heart ache, and isn’t that a symptom of love?