Nature and the Environment in Hasidic Sources


No. 5, October 2002

Introduction

Hasidism has had a significant, continuing impact on Jewish attitudes over the last 250 years. While Hasidic thought is not cast in one mould, its many currents have much in common. Even a superficial look at early texts of this mystical movement reveals many references to nature and to issues which we now call “environmental.” In this essay, we will examine in more detail several specific recurrent patterns of thought on this subject in Hasidic sources. To demonstrate that such motifs are not merely incidental, we will frequently bring examples of the same view from several different authors.

Concern for the environment has only become a mainstream issue in Western society in recent decades. The environmental discourse is still consolidating and comprises many disparate subjects.1 A wide variety of “environmental” motifs can be found in early Hasidic texts. Hasidism also accepted, and often expanded, natural and environmental themes found in earlier sources such as Tanakh, Talmud, midrashic literature, and the Kabbalah.2 While many environmental elements are present in these classic sources, Hasidism used and integrated them in its specific way. Some early Hasidic texts also raise philosophical and religious concepts related to environmental ethics. This is not to infer, however, that Hasidism had an explicit or coherent environmental worldview or an integrated functional approach toward most major modern environmental issues.

Environmental subjects covered in the sayings of the early Hasidic sages ‐ and analyzed here – include: the use of natural resources; man’s relationship to the animal, vegetable, and inanimate world; and man’s attitude toward consumption and spiritual and physical waste. Some Hasidic sages also regularly engaged in specific acts which imply environmental responsibility and concern. An analysis of environmental thoughts, motifs, and behavior within Hasidism may also provide insights into how environmental concern in Hasidic and other traditional Jewish communities can be further increased.

Determining Principles

A number of underlying principles influence Hasidic views of nature and the environment, and its expression in action:

1) In line with the kabbalistic tradition, R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (the Besht),3 the founder of Hasidism, perceived everything to be infused with Divine sparks: “It is a great principle that there are holy sparks in all there is in the world. Nothing is void of sparks, even trees and stones.”4 He further taught that such sparks are also in “all of man’s actions. Even in man’s sins there are sparks resulting from the breaking of the vessels.”5 This panentheistic worldview, which sees elements of the Divine in everything, should not be confused with the panthe-istic doctrine that God and nature are identical.

2) Hasidism emphasizes that man can serve God in many ways, beyond obeying His explicitly stated commandments, in order to raise the omnipresent Divine sparks back to their source. It encourages man to serve God in all his actions – both bodily and spiritual. Everything depends on man’s intentions. Eating, drinking, work, and even sexual relations, when performed with appropriate holy intent (no trivial task), can be a Divine service equivalent to Torah study and prayer. This idea is quite pronounced in the writings of R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, the founder and seminal leader of Hasidism in Galicia (Poland).6

3) Hasidism’s mystical outlook builds on that of the Kabbalah. It views man’s position as ambivalent. The Divine dimension is integral to human existence, but man is also physically dust and the spiritual embodiment of lowliness (shiflut). His free choice enables him to either become a conduit for God’s flow of light and beneficence to the world, or he can, erroneously, focus solely on the physical and damage this crucial connection. Thus, man’s position as part of the physical world is as much a challenge as an opportunity.

How these principles influence the way Hasidism perceives the environment is discussed below in more detail. Analyzing the “environmental” aspects of selected Hasidic texts can not only increase our understanding of the movement’s perception of environmental issues, but can also provide an interesting perspective on its overall worldview.

Panentheism

Early Hasidic masters adopted from the Kabbalah the idea that elements of God exist in everything: man, animals, vegetation, and even inanimate objects. Otherwise, these creations would cease to exist. From the Besht’s belief in God’s immanence, he derived that all man’s encounters are meaningful. The Besht’s innovation was that he did not apply this only to people – including the poor and humble – but to all living creatures as well as the vegetative and inanimate spheres.

Several early Hasidic sages expanded upon this idea of Divine sparks vitalizing all components of the environment. R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk,7 a disciple of R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch,8 says: “there is nothing material in the world which exists and has vitality without sparks from the upper worlds…there is nothing material which has vitality without holiness.”9

Similarly, R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl10 writes in Me’or Einayim, an early Hasidic work, concerning the verse: “By the word of the Lord the world and what fills it were made, by the breath of His mouth, all its host,”11 that “there is nothing in his world that does not have a holy spark, drawn from God’s word, which vitalizes it.”12

Since everything contains a Divine spark, the environment is not only to some extent similar to man, but can also assist his relationship with God. To that extent, the animal, vegetable, and inanimate worlds have a partner in man. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi,13 founder of Habad (Lubavitch) Hasidism, says: “To all the world’s creatures God gives life and He continuously brings them from nothing to substance through the light and vitality which influences them. Also in the material body, and even in inanimate stones and dust, there is light and vitality from Him, which will not return to naught and nothingness as it was.”14

Concern for the Vegetative and Inanimate

Hasidic writings are replete with concern for the vegetative and inanimate. This is found not only in the sayings of the early masters, but also in examples from a more recent period. R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of Habad Hasidism recalled how one of his predecessors, the Rebbe Rashab, “having once observed that he had unthinkingly plucked a leaf, commented: ‘How can a person be so light-minded in relation to a creature of the Almighty? This leaf is something created by the Almighty for a particular reason….One should always remember the mission and the Divine intention of every created thing.'”15 Such a vision seems to imply that one of man’s functions is to be a steward of nature.

He also once said: “The world is not governed by chance or caprice. Every motion within it, from the turning of a leaf in the wind to the transition of power from nation to nation, is controlled by a unique Divine Will.”16

A similar story concerns R. Abraham Israel Kook who was close to several of Hasidism’s ideas without being a Hasid himself. R. Aryeh Levin picked a flower while walking with him in the fields of Yafo. This shocked R. Kook, who retorted: “My whole life I have been careful not to pick grass or a flower which could have grown more, as there is no grass which does not have a star above which tells it: ‘grow.'”17 While the latter is a development of a midrashic text,18 he continued with poetry expressing a personal sensitivity toward nature: “Each grass says something, each stone whispers a secret, and each being sings a song.”

Moving on to the inanimate, R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk kept his old used clothes, commenting: “A coat that once honored man should not be treated with contempt once it is no longer being used….If it beautified you when it was new, why would you reward it with evil?”19 While the previous quotes referred to man’s undesired intervention in the Divine plan, here the motif is that the personification of inanimate, but Divinely imbued, objects leads to gratitude, and thence a motive for a sort of conservation.

Hasidism continues and develops biblical and rabbinical traditions of using and reflecting on natural metaphors and symbols, such as the classical comparison of Torah, humility, and water. The following statement by the Besht’s grandson, R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim of Sudlikov, proposes one aspect of a parallel or allegorical analogy for a specific purpose: “Water is the symbol of lovingkindness [hesed]. As water trickles down from a high place to a low one, so too the holy Torah will only be found in one who considers himself lowly.”20

In a later period, R. Avraham ben Nahman of Toltszyn showed great care for the inanimate, writing in his testament: “I ask forgiveness from all that is created in the world – inanimate, vegetative, living and speaking – for what I have sinned against them or pained them, physically or spiritually.”21 He also thought that, if he sinned, he may have pulled over the weight of the world to the side of guilt and thereby influenced its entirety.

Serving God through One’s Actions

The Besht believed that man is drawn to his environment because it contains Divine sparks man can elevate. He stressed the spiritual elements of the material: “It is a great principle that from everything which a man wears, eats or uses he enjoys its vitality; it would not have had any viability without spirituality. There are holy sparks in it, which belong to the root of his soul…and when he uses this thing, or eats food, even for his bodily needs [with proper holy intent], he repairs the sparks. Afterwards he works with the force, which he has gained for his body through this cloth, food or other things. This force then serves God; and [the sparks] are thus repaired.”22 This text implies that nature’s main purpose is to enable man to serve God, through which it itself is raised. Such an attitude is ideologically antithetical to asceticism.

Regarding eating and drinking as a way to serve God, R. Israel of Koznitz23 maintained: “Possibly there are hidden evildoers who admit partly that one has to serve God with learning and prayer and in fulfilling other commandments. They, however, do not believe that one also has to serve God through eating and drinking or that anything material can elevate the sparks and attach them to God. This is the question [of the evildoer in the Passover Haggada]: ‘What does the service of this mean to you?’ This means: for all your needs.”24

“The explanation is that also with this you must serve God. The evil man, however, jokes about this. Thus the [Haggada’s] answer is: ‘Hit his teeth!’ As if to say: since you do not believe that foods and drinks were created in honor of God and to serve him, why would you [by eating with your teeth] wantonly destroy bread? A man who eats like an animal lowers the sparks, God forbid. Thus it is better for him to have clean teeth” and not eat anything.25 (Here the Koznitzer may be referring to the philosophical position of the Mitnagdim, Hasidism’s opponents.)

Resource policies are central in environmental thinking, which thus pays much attention to attitudes toward consumption. Early Hasidic thinkers reflected on such issues from their religious perspective. R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl condemned “resource use for consumption’s sake,” writing: “King David said: ‘I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living.’26 Bodily matters such as eating and drinking and man’s other needs – if done out of craving – are without vitality [and thus not in the land of the living]. This is not so when he eats according to his need and elevates his food, drink and other needs to God….Then they are called the land of the living. In their earthliness lives the God of Life.”27

This was not the view of a single individual. R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim expressed the same attitude in an even broader sense: “[Man] has to be content with what he has. He should not value the enjoyments of this world and rush to them. He should be content with what he has and not run after the superfluous.”28

Physically, Man is a Lowly Being

It is a frequently held contemporary view that the more man considers himself elevated above the environment, the more likely he is to abuse it. On the physical level, Hasidism considers man a lowly being. Physically, man is nothing and represents lowliness (shiflut), as mentioned above. The Besht taught that man should not say in his heart that he is more important than his fellow. Rather, if his devotion is intense, that is only because, like all other creatures, he has been created to serve God.29

Expanding on this thought the Besht quoted the Psalms: “I am a worm, less than human.”30 He then explains: “If God had not given man a brain, he could only serve him as a worm. [Man, in that sense,] is neither in a class above the worm nor above other men. He should be aware that he, the worm and all small creatures are equally important. All are God’s creatures and their abilities are only those God has given them.”31 Thus, self-deprecation can lead to a sense of the unity and importance of all living things.

R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk presented a somewhat different perspective:32 “I do not know how I am better than the worm; I do not [even] know in which way I am as good as he is. Look: he does the will of his Creator and doesn’t destroy anything,”33 whereas a man is prone to sin. Similarly, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev34 taught: “When a man examines the greatness of the Creator, he says: what can I ask for…I am dust, maggot and worm, full of sins and crimes.”35

The Hasidic sages thus expanded the earlier themes of man’s lowliness as well as self-deprecation which are often coupled to natural images in classical Jewish literature. God says after man is expelled from Paradise: “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”36 In other biblical texts man is compared to a worm and a maggot. The fragility of man’s life resembles that of grass.37

Judaism’s ambivalent attitude to man’s position gains an additional dimension in the words of R. Israel of Koznitz regarding the humility of a tzaddik: “Even when the rabbis said ‘For me the world was created,’ they did not mean, God forbid, to make man arrogant. To the contrary he should be submissive and humble out of apprehension and fear that the world was created for him, which means that he has to serve God in various ways as much as he can. Yet, whatever service he does, he falls short of what he should do.”38

Early Hasidism’s acceptance of the classical Jewish theme of man’s lowliness profoundly influences its perception of both the social and natural environment. As mentioned before, if man sees himself as low, he cannot so readily become species arrogant. This is true even if he does not honor other elements of the natural world. This may be behind the statement of R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk that “the tzaddik lowers himself like an animal and through this the community rises.”39

When discussing the same subject, R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl referred to a more universal aspect. “We are similar to the nations of the world and animals in our animal acts, but if we can serve God with our earthliness we can eliminate the evil from the earth. Thus it is written: ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,’40 and then there will be no evil in the world for ‘nothing evil or vile will be done.’41 Then all nations will serve God because of us when we will serve God in all his ways, including our earthliness. They will be partners with us and we will elevate them with our service.”42

The same sage teaches a recurring Hasidic motif, aforementioned already – that man is inanimate without Divine life: “God’s inspiration in man is according to his humility and lowliness…matter should not consider itself as substance, because all facts, intelligence and qualities he has are only…the Divine part in him. When the higher vitality leaves him he remains like a lump and inanimate stone.”43

He then describes man’s polluted origin: “As man considers that his beginning is from something putrid and his end is dust, what is there to be proud of if he cannot be proud of both beginning and end? What is in the middle is not important either.”44

Waste and Pollution

In environmental thought, attitudes toward waste and pollution are important motifs as well. These themes recur frequently in Hasidic texts. Says R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk: “It is known to believers…that in all that is material, words as well as thoughts…everything is from God’s hand who is really present in them. Without his vitality there is no material and form, taste or smell; and all are non-existing cadavers.”45

R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk described tzaddikim who live among the ordinary people and yet remain at their own high spiritual level.46 He also quoted the Maggid of Mezeritch’s statement that: “Whoever is holy flesh and is a perfect tzaddik never smells even if he is in touch with the public and speaks with them.”47 This thought echoes the mishnaic statement about the meat of the Temple sacrifices, which never emitted an unpleasant odor.48

The notion of waste, its unpleasantness, and potentially positive uses appears several times in the writings of other Hasidic leaders. According to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi: “[While] the angels say songs and praise to God the whole night, man lies on his bed with dreams and empty words like a defeated cadaver”;49 however, in the case of the tzaddik, “even his bad waste is soul and vitality to demeaned people.”50 This suggests a form of spiritual relativism and recycling, in that the tzaddik’s spiritual waste could, because of its relative purity, be of potential value to evil men.

R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim found potential value in the very challenges posed by this obscuring spiritual pollution, if it can be rejected and overcome. He linked the Hebrew word for statue [pesel] to that for waste [psolet], both having the same 3-consonant root (psl). “One can explain the text ‘You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image’51 as I have said: that there is in everything purity and clarity as well as aspects of muddiness, dregs and waste….’You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image’ means [not to create spiritual] waste, dregs and muddiness.”52 However, “Whoever is wise and has his eyes in his head will understand that there is a great light covered and hidden in that darkness; there is no place void of it and when he will understand this and believe it fully then he will become stronger in [God’s] service…and through this he purifies and sifts the good from the bad and the bad is rejected. That is, the muddiness, the waste, is really rejected and false, while the good goes up.”53

R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev described similar notions: “When man elevates sparks to the service of God, praised be He, he raises the inwardness which is in the sparks and the externalities he throws out. As he throws out the externalities they cause a plague to the house, as the waste in the sparks stinks.”54

Man’s Relationship to Nature

Some early Hasidic masters, such as the Besht and his great-grandson, R. Nahman of Bratslav,55 often withdrew into nature. We cannot accurately assess how much the Besht’s frequent visits to the forest influenced his perception of nature and the metaphors in the texts attributed to him. His pupils, however, preserved his views on seclusion: “When a person wants to ‘seclude’ himself, he has to be with another person. One person alone is in danger unless there are two in a room and each one secludes himself there with God. Sometimes if he is in a state of attachment [devekut] he can seclude himself even in a house where there are people.”56

About R. Nahman, whose thoughts in many areas were somewhat atypical for the Hasidic world, it was said: “Our rabbi, of blessed memory, even though he had a separate room in the village where he lived by himself, would nonetheless usually go over the fields into the woods; and he would seclude himself there. Once I went with him…[walking] around the fields and the mountains. He stretched his hand toward the fields and mountains and said to me: ‘On all these fields and mountains which you see around the town…I have walked several times.'”57

R. Nahman found serenity in nature: “When a man prays in the field then all the grasses come to help him in prayer and give him force in it.”58 He also claimed that, “it is better to be in solitude outside town, in a place where there are grasses, because these cause the heart to awaken.”59 He furthermore described how the grasses assisted his prayer: “In the winter all the grasses and plants die because their life-force is invalidated and they are in a state of death. When summer comes, they all awake and are alive [again]. Then it is good to go out for a ‘talk in the field.’ This ‘talk’ is prayer and supplication to God, praised be He, and then all the shrubs of the field, which start to live and grow, yearn and are included in one’s prayer and plea.”60

In passing, isolation, in all its variations, must have affected a tzaddik’s views, a subject which warrants further investigation. One might evaluate the differences between seclusion in the forest, like R. Nahman, or the desert, like the prophet Elijah. Yet another very different case was the near-total isolation of R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk who remained confined in a room for many years.

Asceticism

Seclusion in the forest is only one way the Besht related to nature. When he was in the village of Koshilowitz, he would immerse daily in a stream covered with ice. A peasant whose hut was near the water noticed how one time, one of his feet stuck to the ice. He drew it out so forcefully that his skin ripped, blood streaming down his leg.61 This probably happened in his younger years.

Later the Besht’s attitude changed.62 As Moshe Rosman notes: “Another novel, not entirely original, direction the Besht apparently promoted among the Hasidim of his day was anti-asceticism….The letter to Jacob Joseph of Polonne, probably dating from the late 1740s or early 1750s, indicates that he was against excessive fasting and self-flagellation. Not suffering, but the joy of performing mitzvot was to inform religious life.” Furthermore, “By eschewing asceticism, the Ba’al Shem Tov removed a most daunting obstacle facing the potential Hasid. Without the physical commitment required to carry out fasts and flagellations, the kabbalistic doctrines and rituals were much more accessible.”63

The Besht explained this to R. Nahman of Horodenka, a Hasid of the old type, who prescribed many penances to himself. R. Nahman said: “When I was a great Hasid, I went every day to the cold ritual baths. In this generation, nobody can suffer such baths. And when I came home, I found the place very hot, so that even the walls were almost burning. I didn’t feel the heat for an hour and, despite that, I could not abstain from alien thoughts until the wisdom of the Besht convinced me.”64

R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk argued that fasting was not a way of serving God. When he was asked: “Did not the Ba’al Shem Tov fast a lot?” he answered: “When in his youth, the Ba’al Shem Tov used to go on a Saturday night to the place of his isolation, he would take with him six loaves of bread and a jug of water. One Friday he lifted his bag to return home and felt that it was heavy. He opened it and found all six loaves in it. This surprised him. It is permitted to fast in this way.”65

Hasidism’s perspective on consumption was balanced: “The wise man can eat good things and enjoy other pleasures and can also torment himself; the most important thing, however, is spirituality…to which God gives meaning and maintains it.”66

The Besht was tolerant toward asceticism: “When a person wants to fast, he has to be careful not to undo what he wants to do, even if he knows that it is better to serve God in joy and without self-mortification, because it causes sadness. But this man knows that he has to fast because he has not purified his soul enough.”67

To the Besht, serving God with joy superceded any negative attitude toward normal consumption. In later generations, however, the behavior of Hasidic leaders varied greatly. Some forgot to eat for days on end; others, such as R. Israel of Ruzhin, outwardly led a life of great wealth and conspicuous consumption.68

The Language of the Animals

The combination of a panentheistic viewpoint and self-deprecation contributed to Hasidic interest in the animal world. This also led to an interest in the language of animals and trees, a motif which we also find in the midrashic literature. Some of it was considered excessive by the Besht.

The preacher Rabbi Aryeh Leib from Polna desired very much to learn the language of the animals, the birds, and palm trees because he wanted to use it to rebuke people. As his intention was to sanctify God, he decided to travel to the Besht and ask him to teach him this wisdom. He was sure that the Besht would fulfill his wish.69

For a long time the Besht ignored him. Then he told him that he knew he wanted to learn the language of the birds. The Besht taught him secrets which enabled him to understand their language perfectly. With one ear he would hear the Besht’s explanations of texts from the Zohar, and with the other ear he would hear the animal’s conversation. The Besht explained all this to him while they were traveling toward the city in a wagon. When they reached the town, the Besht asked him whether he had understood everything. When R. Aryeh Leib said he had, the Besht moved his hand over the rabbi’s face, who promptly forgot everything. The Besht laughed and said that if the rabbi had needed this wisdom to serve God, he himself would have taken the initiative to teach it to him.70

Other Hasidic sages also mention the subject of trying to understand or communicate with animals, a motif which is also found in midrashic literature. On the young Shneur Zalman’s second trip to Mezeritch, he visited R. Pinhas of Koretz.71 The latter offered to teach him the language of the birds and palm trees. The young rabbi refused, saying: “Man has to understand one thing only and that one learns very well in Mezeritch. When he later came to Mezeritch the Maggid said to him: ‘R. Pinhas wanted to teach you the language of the birds; but I’ll teach you about God’s presence in the world.'”72

When he was old, R. Shneur Zalman traveled with his young grandchild. They saw birds hopping and chirping. The rabbi put his head out of the carriage for some time. “The birds’ chirping is their way of speech,” he said to the child. “They have their own alphabet. Those who have a good sense of listening and understand well can comprehend what they say.”73 For the environmentally-oriented reader, this story means that in this way the rabbi was teaching his grandchild to be attuned to nature.

R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim explained a Pirkei Avot metaphor vis-a-vis the centrality of nature: “Whoever occupies himself with the Torah, for its own sake attains many things…he becomes like a perennial spring and an ever-flowing river.”74 His interpretation, “For the person who deals with the Torah, it becomes a well of living water and of ongoing flow which bubbles without interruption….In the Holy Zohar it is explained that whoever is worthy can understand the talk of the birds, palm trees and God-serving angels.”75

Compassion for Animals

Hasidic reflection on animals takes many forms besides wishing to understand their language: “The holy rabbi R. Abraham of Parwishet said to one of his followers: When one sits at one’s table to eat, one should think about the following: ‘The food which is given for me was an animal like myself. Why am I eating him and he is not eating me?’… The man apologized and said: ‘It is relevant to reflect when one eats by oneself. When one sits with one’s whole family and there is only one bowl, then when one meditates nothing will remain to eat.’…R. Abraham said to him ‘That is what you say? A Jew has to believe that what belongs to him nobody can take.'”76

Among Jewish environmental commandments, Za’ar Ba’alei Hayyim – avoiding unnecessary suffering to animals – is a very prominent one. Many stories are told about Hasidic rabbis stressing that this commandment should be taken seriously. Martin Buber – who adapted Hasidic stories rather than quoting them exactly – relates how R. David of Lelov once rebuked a coachman before a tzaddik for hitting his horses. Seeing the heavy load, the rabbi suggested to the other traveling Hasidim that they walk, but the coachman refused and began hitting the horses. The coachman claimed that the rabbi had given him the whip, but had told him only to use it for making the sound of whipping, not hitting. The coachman said the rabbi had delayed his travel so much that he became angry and asked: “Whom should I hit then, if not the horses?”77

Similarly, when R. Wolf of Zabariz traveled in a carriage, he forbade the coachman to strike the horses, saying: “You shouldn’t even curse them….You should understand how to talk to them.”78

Other tzaddikim went even further. “It is told of the Hasidic master, R. Zusya of Anapole, that, saddened by the sight of caged birds, he would purchase them from their owner in order to set them free. He informed his disciples that he regarded this to be a form of ‘ransoming prisoners,’ which constitutes a moral imperative.”79

Negative Perceptions of Animals

Hasidic references to animals are ambivalent. The sages are concerned with animal welfare, but animals often serve as a metaphor for lower levels of physicality which a spiritual man should avoid. For man to develop his “Divine soul,” he must struggle continuously to overcome his “animal soul.”

R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi stated that the “animal soul” expresses itself in excessive consumption. “Whoever is a glutton, eating meat and swilling wine to fulfill the lust of his body and animal soul…lowers the vitality of the meat and wine in his belly and is, at that moment, considered absolute evil…until he returns to the service of God and his Torah.”80

This is the opposite of the spiritual approach to eating advocated by the Besht at the beginning of this essay. R. Shneur Zalman also called a tzaddik who suffers, “a man who strengthens his Divine soul and wages war against his animal [soul], without converting the evil into goodness.”81

Like in many other societies, animals of prey also serve as metaphors for evil and violence. For example, R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk82 spoke about “the bitter and fateful exile amidst these wolves” (the oppressor nations).83

R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk mystically interpreted the statement in Ecclesiastes that the fate of man and beast seem identical as: “Who knows the spirit of man, whether it arises easily like an eagle, and the spirit of man-and-beast, whether it descends to the depths of the shells [kelipot], may God save us.”84 Here animals are used as both positive (eagle) and negative (beast) symbols.

Deserts and Trees

As with animals, Hasidic environmental symbolism includes both positive and negative elements. The desert, for example, is usually viewed negatively, although those Eastern Europeans who wrote about it had probably never seen one. For example, R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl wrote: “The Torah was given in the desert. The reason is that [the Torah] is a medicine against evil, thus it was given in a place of destruction and desolation to teach that the Torah’s essence is to sweeten the domain of the demonic [sitra akhra].85

A similar negative symbolism is employed by R. Nahman of Bratslav. His disciple R. Nathan writes: “I heard from his holy mouth that when you read [secular philosophical] books, it is like going into a desolate desert where you meet nobody. In the same way if you enter these books, you do not find any holiness in them.”86 Negativity towards the desert is even more pronounced in R. Nathan’s explanation why R. Nahman himself did study these books: “The Israelites went through the desert because it is the location of the demonic. In the Holy Zohar it is said that the Israelites went through the desert in order to trample the demonic by walking there. With the same intention, he studies these books which are like the desert.”87

Similarly, R. Nahman complained of a follower who bothered him with his worldly (livelihood) problems: “I am like a man who walks every day in the desert and tries to turn the desert into a settlement. In the heart of each one of you there is a desolate desert without inhabitants…and you trouble me with this foolishness.”88

From biblical times, trees, fields, orchards, and pastures have been generally viewed positively: Commenting on the concept that “everything that God created, He created in his own honor,” R. Nahman said: “When man looks at everything [in the world], he understands God’s honor and [spiritually] repairs the thing. Similarly our rabbis said: whoever sees [fruit] trees in Nissan says a blessing, and so too whoever sees nice creatures and the other things which the rabbis have mentioned. And they also said the opposite: If a man goes along the road and is learning and stops from his study and says, ‘How nice is this tree…he is guilty [of sin] because it was not created to distance him from the service of God, but to the contrary to bring him closer.”89 This might be interpreted as saying that, while man can serve God in many ways, there is a hierarchical order between these, as otherwise he would not be considered a sinner.

Hasidim versus Mitnagdim

Norman Lamm perceives a profound difference in the relationship between the Hasidim and their opponents, the Mitnagdim, to the natural world. The literature of the former teaches respect for nature, while the latter do not emphasize this in their writings: “While Hasidism does not directly declare nature holy, it finds in it sufficient potentialities for the sacred to allow for a greater respect for and closeness to the natural world, while the Mitnagdic dualism so completely desacralizes nature as to leave it completely neutral and irrelevant religiously, to be viewed totally objectively and without any feeling or relationship whatsoever.”

“For Hasidism, which is immanentistic, man has a kinship with other created beings, a symbiotic relationship with nature, and hence should maintain a sense of respect, if not reverence, for the natural world which is infused with God. The Mitnagdic view, emphasizing Divine transcendence, leaves no place for such feelings, and conceived the man-nature relation as completely one of subject-to-object, thus allowing for the exploitation of nature by science and technology and – were it not for the halakhic restraints which issue from revelation, and not from theology – the ecological abuse of the natural world as well.”90

Moshe Sokol disputes this view. He considers the oft-heard claim that “immanentism leads to an attitude of reverence and awe for the natural world” and asks: “But what does that purported reverence or awe amount to? Hasidism does not advocate vegetarianism, and to my knowledge none of the great Hasidic theoreticians of immanentism were vegetarians. That means that eating part of a cow is consistent with treating it with reverence and awe. I must confess that I’m not sure what ‘reverence and awe’ towards something really amounts to if eating it isn’t precluded. Are Hasidim any ‘greener’ than non-Hasidim? Indeed, just calling Hasidism ‘green’ seems odd, if not slightly comical. In short, there seems to be something amiss with this whole way of thinking.”91

Sokol argues that a huge difference between man and animals is expressed throughout mainstream Jewish thought: “According to virtually all major schools of thought [which apparently includes Hasidism], both immanentists and transcendentists believe that God created the world for His own purposes…and envision a hierarchy of being, according to which some forms of being have greater potential for Godliness than others. Since virtually all schools of Judaism hold that plants and animals have less potential for Godliness than humans, human well-being is valued above the well-being of plants or animals. This difference between the value of humans and animals is so great that, historically, immanentists and transcendentists alike have agreed almost universally that animals can be killed to satisfy human interests, even such interests as making leather shoes.”92

One may explain Hasidism’s attitude toward animals and inanimate objects in another way. Man can and should use nature as a tool to serve God; he should not, however, abuse it for his own ends. This view is consistent with God’s immanence in all Creation. From this perspective we can understand the talmudic saying that the ignorant should not eat animal flesh. Since they do not understand what serving God truly means, eating meat would not enable them to serve God – in kabbalistic and Hasidic terms – by raising the sparks of Divinity imprisoned inside.93 Hence, their eating meat would be nonproductive and thus inadvisable.

Metaphors

The images a person uses reflect his interests. Analyzing the way Hasidic metaphors and parables utilize elements of nature can thus provide further insights into Hasidism’s environmental worldview. For example, according to R. Shlomo of Lutsk: “God has created the world and within it man…why did he do so? The angels are great and polished lights. In spite of all this He has more enjoyment from man. This is like the parable of a bird who, when it speaks in front of a king, even if its words are nonsensical, gives the king more pleasure than the proverbs of ministers and poets.”94

Similarly, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev writes: “And how suitable it is for each Israelite to fulfill the commandments and do good deeds….God has several thousand angels….Why should any one mention man at all? We will explain this through a parable. It is like the ministers of the nations who teach a bird [to speak a] human language. The listener is amazed and tells his friends, ‘Let us hear and see something new!’ [whereas a man who talked would draw little notice]. In this way, humans open your eyes and see the greatness of the commandments and good deeds, until all the service of the angels above is considered like nothing compared with human deeds.”95

Conclusion

Although not among Hasidism’s priorities, nature and the environment are subjects that recur, in various ways, in texts by early Hasidic masters. They also, like many Jewish thinkers of their time and before, often utilized natural symbols and imagery in their expositions.

Philosophically, following the Kabbalah, they often connected the material and spiritual world, without seeing too sharp a dualism between them, since the physical could – when used for holiness – be raised or assimilated to the spiritual. This influenced their view of the environment.

Even if one cannot infer from such observations a complete environmental worldview, Hasidic thought embodied a large variety of original considerations on what we now term “environmental issues.” As such, this seems a fruitful area for further study.

The development of coherent attitudes by the world’s major religions toward the environment is still at an initial stage. That is also true for Judaism, although within Jewish law and its world of thought – from biblical times to the present – many elements of environmental policies can be found. This presentation provides one more facet, which can be of use in the construction of a more comprehensive Jewish environmental approach in the future.

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Notes

* The authors wish to thank Professors Immanuel Etkes and Norman Lamm, and Dr. Irvin Asher for their comments.
1. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Environment and Confusion, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies/Rubin Mass, 2002).
2. For a more detailed discussion on this topic, see Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies/Rubin Mass, 1998), ch. 2.
3. The Besht’s (1700-1760) sayings were written down by his pupils.
4. Besht, Zava’at ha-Rivash, photocopy (Brooklyn: Otsar Hahasidim, 1991), section 141, p. 54 (Hebrew). Many of the sayings in this book are probably not attributable to the Besht but to R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, his main disciple.
5. A cosmic catastrophe; see Zava’at ha-Rivash, op. cit., section 141, p. 54.
6. See Norman Lamm, Torah Unmade: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1994), p. 175.
7. 1717-1787.
8. Known as the Great Maggid, 1710-1772.
9. R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Noam Elimelekh (Bnei Brak: Hekhal Hasefer, n.d.; 1st ed., 1788), p. 13b (Hebrew).
10. 1730-1787.
11. Psalms, 33:6.
12. R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, Me’or Einayim, photocopy (Berdichev, 1798), p. 109 (Hebrew).
13. 1745-1813.
14. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Likkutei Amarim (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1979; 1st ed., 1796), ch. 38, p. 99 (Hebrew).
15. R. M. M. Schneerson, Likutei Dibburim (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1987), vol. 1, pp. 177-180 (Hebrew).
16. Sound the Great Shofar: Essays on the Imminence of the Redemption, from addresses by the Lubavitcher (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1992), p. 138.
17. R. Shear Yashuv Cohen, “The Cutting of Trees in Times of Peace and War,” Tehumim 4 (1983):45 (Hebrew).
18. Bereshit Rabba 10 (Theodor – Albeck edition).
19. M. Orian, Sneh Boer Bekotsk (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1962), p. 152 (Hebrew).
20. R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim, Degel Mahaneh Ephraim (Bnei Brak,1969) to Vayikra, p. 149a-b. Sifra, Ekev 12; M. Tanhuma, Vayakhel 8 and Tavo 3 (Hebrew).
21. R. Abraham ben Nahman, Kochvei Or, Leket Sipurim al Rabbi Nahman Mibratslav, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Shmuel Halevi Horwitz, 1933; 1st ed., 1896), p. 59 (Hebrew).
22. Zava’at ha-Rivash, op. cit., section 109, p. 38.
23. 1733-1814.
24. R. Israel of Koznitz, Avodat Yisrael, photocopy (Bnei Brak, 1973; 1st ed., Radishitz, 1842), p. 19b (Hebrew).
25. Ibid.
26. Psalms, 116:9.
27. Me’or Einayim, op. cit., p. 15.
28. Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, op. cit., p. 22.
29. Zava’at ha-Rivash, op. cit., section 12, p. 5.
30. Psalms 22:7.
31. Zava’at ha-Rivash, op. cit., section 12, p. 4.
32. 1730-1788.
33. As quoted in Martin Buber, Or Haganuz (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1979), p.168 (Hebrew).
34. 1740-1810.
35. R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, Kedushat Levi, photocopy (Munkacz: Dfus Munkacz, 1939), p. 67b (Hebrew).
36. Genesis 3:19.
37. See Manfred Gerstenfeld, Echut Hasviva B’Masoret Hayehudit: Olam Bar Kayama (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 2002), pp. 92-94 (Hebrew).
38. Avodat Yisrael, op. cit., p. 4b.
39. Noam Elimelekh, op. cit., p. 56 (see also p.18).
40. Isaiah 11:6.
41. Isaiah 11:9.
42. Meor Einayim, op. cit., p. 15.
43. Ibid., p. 9.
44. Ibid., pp. 14-15. Similarly, see Pirkei Avot 3:1.
45. R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Peri ha-Aretz (Jerusalem: Mesorah, 1989; 1st ed., 1814), p. 73 (Hebrew).
46. Noam Elimelekh, p. 73a.
47. Ibid., p. 75.
48. See Mishnah Avot, 5:8.
49. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Maamare Admor Hazaken Haktsarim (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1986), p. 227 (Hebrew).
50. Ibid., p. 145.
51. Exodus 20: 4.
52. Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, op. cit., p. 69.
53. Ibid., p. 9.
54. Kedushat Levi, op. cit., p. 66b.
55. 1772-1811.
56. “Our rabbi [R. Nahman] once told a man from Zlatipali ‘come with me for a walk.’ He went with him out of town and they walked through the grass. Then our rabbi said: ‘If you were worthy, you would hear all the songs and praises of the grass, how every blade of grass sings songs for God, praised be He, free of [ulterior] motives and alien thoughts without looking for any reward. How beautiful it is to hear their songs. It is very good to serve God among them.'” Sikhot Haran (Keren Rabbi Yisrael Dov Odesser, n.d.), section 163, p. 170 (Hebrew).
57. Zava’at ha-Rivash, op. cit., section 63, p. 20.
58. Sikhot Haran, op. cit., section 162, p. 169.
59. Likute Moharan (Jerusalem: Keren Hadpasa Dekhaside Breslaw, 1994; 1st ed., Ostra, 1808), part 2, section 11, p. 19 (Hebrew); Sikhot Haran, op. cit., section 227, p. 220.
60. Haye Moharan (Jerusalem: Makhon Torat Hanetsakh Bratzlaw, 1996), section 72, p. 93 (Hebrew).
61. As quoted in Martin Buber, Or Haganuz, op. cit., p. 69.
62. Sh. A. Horodotzky, ed., Shivkhe Habesht (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1948; 1st ed., Kapust, 1815), pp. 86-88 (Hebrew).
63. Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism, A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 182.
64. Ibid., p. 183.
65. Buber, op. cit., p. 69.
66. Likutim Yekarim, p. 15 (Hebrew).
67. Zava’at ha-Rivash, op. cit., section 69, p. 9.
68. David Assaf, Derekh haMalkhut: R. Yisrael meRuzhin (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1997) (Hebrew).
69. Shivkhe Habesht, op. cit., p. 86-87.
70. Ibid.
71. 1726-1791.
72. Chaim Meir Heilman, Beit Rebbi, photocopy (Tel Aviv, 1944; 1st ed., Berdichev, 1902), p. 3. This story appears also with minor changes in Buber, Or Haganuz, op. cit., p. 243 (Hebrew).
73. Ibid.
74. Mishnah Avot, 6:1.
75. Degel Mahane Ephraim, op. cit., p. 29.
76. Abraham of Parwishet, Mashmia Shalom, p. 211. Printed with Khesed Leavraham (Jerusalem: Makhon Tzivte Hasidim, 1995) (Hebrew).
77. Martin Buber, Gog und Magog (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1957), pp. 14-19 (German).
78. As quoted in Buber, Or Haganuz, op. cit., p. 154.
79. Quoted in David J. Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. 3 (New York: Ktav, 1989), p. 195.
80. Likutei Amarim, op. cit., ch. 7, p. 7a.
81. Ibid., ch. 10, p. 14b.
82. 1717-1787.
83. Noam Elimelekh, op. cit.; Likkutei Shoshanah, p. 101a.
84. Peri Ha-Aretz, op. cit., p. 120.
85. Me’or Einayim, op. cit., p. 168.
86. Haye Moharan, op. cit., section 111, p. 291.
87. Ibid., section 412, p. 321.
88. Ibid., section 240, p. 283.
89. Ibid.
90. Norman Lamm, A Jewish View of the Environment and Ecology, lecture given at the Technion, Haifa, October 7, 1996.
91. Moshe Sokol, What are the Ethical Implications of Jewish Theological Conceptions of the Natural World? Background paper, Conference on Judaism and the Natural World, February 22-24, 1998, Harvard University, Center for the Study of World Religions, p. 10.
92. Ibid.
93. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 1987; 1st ed., 1848), p. 31c. See also Devarim, 36c.
94. Shlomo of Lutsk, Maggid Dewarav Lejaakov, edited by Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990; 1st ed., Koritz, 1781), p. 186 (Hebrew).
95. Kedushat Levi, op. cit.,p. 66a, b.

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Manfred Gerstenfeld is Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an international consultant specializing in business and environmental strategy to the senior ranks of multi-national corporations, and an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, for which he co-chairs the Judaism Task Force. His books include Israel’s New Future: Interviews (JCPA and Rubin Mass, 1994); Environment and Confusion: Searching for a Balanced View, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and Rubin Mass, 2002); Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment (Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and Rubin Mass, 1998); and The Jewish Environmental Tradition: A Sustainable World (Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 2002) (Hebrew). For more essays on Jewish environmental and other subjects by the author, see: http://www.manfred-gerstenfeld.net/.

Netanel Lederberg teaches Talmud and Hasidism at various high schools and yeshivot. His research focuses on rabbinical leadership during the Shoah. He holds a B.A. in Talmudic Studies from Bar-Ilan University.

About Netanel Lederberg

Netanel Lederberg teaches Talmud and Hasidism at various high schools and yeshivot. His research focuses on rabbinical leadership during the Shoah. He holds a B.A. in Talmudic Studies from Bar-Ilan University.

About Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.