Friday, October 2, 2015

Our Place in the World (Bereshit)

For whose sake was the world created?

In the Genesis account, which we read in this week’s portion that opens the Torah, Bereshit, God gives humanity a mandate to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it. . . rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every living thing that creeps on the earth.” (1:28).  Based on this verse, the medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Saadia ben Yosef claimed that God created everything for the sake of humanity.  A thousand years later, Lynn White Jr. referenced the same verse—with an antagonistic twist—in an influential article blaming the biblical tradition for the West’s record of environmental degradation, suggesting that in Judaism and Christianity, “No item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.”

But this is not the only reading of the Genesis creation narrative. 

Moses Maimonides famously took issue with Saadia’s claim that creation exists to serve humanity.  He notes that after almost everything God creates, Torah repeatedly declares: “God saw that it was good”—long before the arrival of humankind.  God does not pronounce the abundance of flora and fauna to be good for humanity.  They are, instead, intrinsically good, for their own sake.  As Rabbi Shai Held describes Maimonides’ position in contemporary terms, “The biblical creation story is like a hymn to biodiversity, which is seen as unambiguously good in its own right.” Indeed, it is striking that Torah never describes God looking at human beings in particular and proclaiming us to be good.  When it comes to humanity, apparently, for the Torah, the jury is still out.

Talmud teaches that the schools of Hillel and Shammai held a debate on the question: Would the world have been a better place if humanity had not been created? Hillel argues no—our presence is, on balance, a benefit.  Shammai insists that in fact, the rest of creation would have been better off without us.  Alas, much of the current environmental landscape suggests that Shammai was correct.   But the discussion ends as so many in the Talmud do, with a quirky compromise; the sages conclude: “The world would have been better without us—but now that we are here, let us carefully examine our deeds.”

We—and our technological footprint—are here to stay.  Hopefully, in the coming year, we will make progress on considering the consequences of our culture and strive to be more worthy of our unique place in God’s creation.

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