12 October 2019
Welcome everyone to the Deep Water Initiative’s Religion and Ecology Podcast. I’m your host Charlie Forbes and this week’s podcast is meant to serve as an introduction for the upcoming weekly series of audio essays titled “Torah for the Earth.” Every week, for the next year, I will be releasing a short audio essay that seeks to bring an ecological lens to the study of Torah. The Torah, which is Hebrew for ‘instruction’ or ‘law’, comprises the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanach): Genesis (Heb. Bereshit), Exodus (Heb. Shemot), Leviticus (Heb. Vayikrah), Numbers (Heb. Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (Heb. Devarim). The Torah is also known as- or is synonymous with- the Five Books of Moses and the Pentateuch.
The aim of this series is to follow along with the weekly Torah portions, comment on them, and derive a message that relates to our present ecological crisis. Within the religious tradition of Judaism, the Torah is systematically divided into 54 weekly parashot (plural for parashah), which are sections of each of the five biblical books that form the Torah. It is a custom among Jewish communities to read these sections over the course of a year, with corresponding selections from the rest of the Tanach, which are known as haftarot (plural for haftarah). The haftarot, which are sourced from either the Prophets (Heb. Nevi’im) or the Writings (Heb. Ketuvim), consist of hagiographies, poetry, and wisdom literature. The haftarot are usually thematically related to the Torah portion, and both correlate with the Jewish life cycle. This cycle culminates with Simchat Torah, which is Hebrew for ‘rejoicing in the Law’, and celebrates the conclusion of the High Holy Days and the beginning of a new cycle of annual reading and continued study.
The premise of this series is fairly concise, but it would be a wild understatement to call it simple. The Torah is an incredibly rich and complex text, an intricate mosaic of human narratives, emotions, and metaphors which confer varieties of human experience that can lead to higher understanding and meaning. Torah is a world unto itself, and people can- and certainly do- dedicate their lives to its study. It is important to note that I am not a biblical scholar, but I am a student of Ecology and Religion, which is significant because our entire paradigm of learning is changing. The world has entered into an unprecedented phase of human impact known as the Age of the Anthropocene, and- as a result- we have found ourselves asking questions that we did not consider earlier. Facts and worldviews that we have taken at face value for many centuries are being challenged, and new answers to new questions are beginning to shape the rapidly evolving tapestry of human life. So, while I am not a biblical scholar, what I seek to bring is a new attitude to learning brought about by a new ecological setting that can eventually contribute to scholarly discourse. In other words, I am not as concerned with knowledge as I am with providing an ecological hermeneutic for biblical studies. It is this shift of emphasis in learning that I believe to be critical in bridging the gap between the disciplines of ecology and religion, and providing a fresh paradigm that can make a difference as we- as humans- collectively work towards a sustainable, ecological future.
In closing, I would like to address one small- yet immense- point about the opening word of the book of Genesis. In Hebrew, bereshit is often translated into English as ‘In the beginning,’ but this isn’t quite right. (1) If you look at the first letter of the first word, there is a shewa (a grammatical symbol consisting of two, vertical dots) under the letter bet. Because of the presence of the shewa, this means that a definite article is not contained within the word. What is often translated as ‘In the beginning’ is actually closer to ‘In a beginning’ or- as the Stone Edition Tanach translates it- “In the beginning of G-d’s creating.” (2) In English there is an emphasis on a chronology and the sequence of Creation, beginning with a very definite moment that later climaxes with the creation of human beings. It is easy to see how such a translation can lead to believing that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, which has had obvious consequences for our relationship with the natural world. But I would urge us to remember that conceptually bereshit could infer that human beings were brought into the infinite expanse of Creation for a beginning, and to fulfill a certain purpose. This is to suggest that we were introduced into creation- and not simply the result of a singular moment of G-d’s creation- which is a perspective that charges our presence with immense meaning. In this respect, the Torah is not a history book, but is instead a dynamic text that can provide human beings with a cosmology to navigate the complexity of human life. It is this realization that has tremendous implications for our awareness of the purpose of Creation, and for our role within it.
Thank you all for listening to this beginning. That’s all for now and see you next week.
(1) Carasik, The Commentators' Bible: Genesis, p.3- Quoting Ibn Ezra: “…the sheva under the preposition in out verse makes clear that ‘in the beginning’ is not the correct translation. Others say that our word always means ‘in the beginning of,’ and that a following word must be understood here: at the beginning of the evening, or the night, or the darkness. But they have forgotten ‘He chose for himself the beginning part’ (Deut. 33:21), which has no ‘of’. Grammatically, this is of course correct; but the mind itself cannot actually conceive of a beginning in the abstract, a beginning that is not the beginning of something. Still others agree that the preposition is extraneous and take it as a title: ‘The Beginning’. This (in their view) would be intended to prevent people from thinking that heaven and earth had no beginning.”
(2) Scherman, Stone Edition Tanach, p.3 (Genesis 1:1)
Carasik, Michael. The Commentators' Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot. Jewish Publication Society, 2018.
Scherman, Rabbi Nosson. "Tanach (Artscroll Series)." Stone Edition (1996).
The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.