April 03, 2008
The author Jonathan Rosen recently delivered a lecture on “The Life of the Skies: Judaism, Evolution, and the Natural World” as the University of Pennsylvania’s 2008 Silvers Visiting Scholar.
Rosen delivered a lively talk laced with humor and stories, including a joke about the elephant and the Jewish question:
The French student writes his paper on “The Love Life of the Elephant,” the German produces four volumes titled “A Short Introduction to the Natural History and Evolution of the Elephant,” and the Jewish student writes a paper called “The Elephant: Good for the Jews?”
However, according to Rosen, everything is about Jews — and birds.
The disappearance of wilderness in our civilized world has stirred a deep longing in the modern soul. This desire is greatly intensified by the conditions of city life, which isolate its dwellers from the natural world. Rosen cites as evidence of this thirst for nature the astonishing fact that 48 million Americans call themselves bird-watchers. Speaking passionately about bird-watching as the “mediator between civilization and wildness,” Rosen argues that birds are the truest remnant of the natural world still living among us, nesting in parks, perching on telephone poles and skyscrapers, and generally going about the business of being birds, independent of their human admirers.
Mentioning a surprising Jewish connection, Rosen told of Abraham Cahan, founding editor of the Forward, whose mission included helping Jewish immigrants feel at home in America. Cahan said of his fellow Jews that “they could sturdy themselves in new places by leaning on the natural world.” He added that “birds are the language spoken by the land itself.”
Rosen’s own interest in bird-watching was sparked by a rabbi’s casual comment at a Shabbat lunch in New York City. “The warblers,” said the rabbi, “will be coming to Central Park soon.” From this simple beginning blossomed Rosen’s understanding of and appreciation for the creatures he describes as “the link between earth and sky.”
Rosen speculates that the attraction of birding is a result of the change, over eons of time, in our relationship with other life forms. At the dawn of our species, we depended upon and sought animals as prey. The interest that so many civilized humans share in the natural world may be genetically programmed for the evolutionary advantage it once provided. Now, many of us hunt birds with field guides in hand and shoot them with our cameras.
He describes himself as an urban person who has begun a journey of discovery into the natural world. He states that all environmental questions are also religious questions because they address the issue of human responsibility for God’s creation. Skillfully weaving Jewish themes into his talk, Rosen reminded his audience of the oft-told story of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his special way of responding to a crisis. He would go into a special place in the forest, build a bonfire, chant certain prayers, and the problems would be solved. As one generation succeeded another, the special place, the way to make the bonfire, and the prayers were all lost, leaving only the story to be treasured by his followers. This powerful theme of loss over time underpins our understanding of natural history as well.
This Jewish theme of “the diminishment of things” continues to be reflected in post-Holocaust Jewish history and parallels the loss of species and habitats within the natural world. Rosen links these two with the injunction that, rather than be content with the story alone, one should allow the tale to lead him back into the forest to seek connections with God and nature: “It is the search for the return to wildness when thinking is not enough.”
The Jewish relationship to the divine encompasses a powerful message about our stewardship of the earth. In “returning to the forest” we can heal ourselves and address our longing for nature while protecting the natural world and its inhabitants. Through scientific observation, we are still learning the cost to and the impact of these decisions on the lives of creatures whose world we share.
Much of the Christian world found it impossible to reconcile the apparent scientific truths of natural selection and modification over time — as laid out in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species — with biblical passages that described the order of creation. Rosen argues that the Jewish oral tradition of argument and interpretation, as well as a tolerance for multiple points of view, enabled Jews to reconcile Darwin’s theories with their own views of the creation.
In addressing the disappearance of wildness in our lives, Rosen speaks of the famous Russian-born Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever, who linked the longing for the natural world with his attachment to Judaism. In his book Poems from My Diary, Sutzkever said that this longing stirs in us an intense drive to seek nature. One of his poems ends with the line, “God will remain.”
Susan Frost is a teacher and lover of nature and birds. A version of this story appeared in The Philadelphia Jewish News.
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