A catholic priest, a buddhist, and a Jewish-Quaker walk in to a room.
While this sounds like the beginning of an (admittedly bad) joke, it’s actually just the setting for an interfaith event which took place last night sponsored by the Cathedral’s programme: ‘Interfaith St. Albans.’ The subject of the evening, in line with Sustainable St. Albans Week, was ‘Faith- Friend or Foe of the Environment?’
It left me thinking a bit about how Judaism relates to the environment, and in fact, the natural world as a whole. In particular, one of the mishnayot from Pirkei Avot’s third chapter, which we read this week, seems especially relevant:
“Rabbi Shimon says: One who is walking on the way and repeating their studies, and interrupts their studies and says, ‘How lovely is this tree! And how lovely is this newly plowed field!’ – Scripture considers them as if they are liable for [forfeiture of] their life.” (3.8)
This one always struck me as a bit upsetting. I think it’s absurd to suggest that the Torah would apply capital punishment because someone commented on how beautiful nature can be! Many commentators have understood it exactly that way though, and have devoted themselves to trying to come up with absurd rationalizations for why we mustn’t ever appreciate the beauty of nature.
None of them make any sense– especially when the Torah itself routinely discusses the power of nature and the ways in which nature contains symbols of God’s power and love. The good news is, there’s another way to read that quote, and it’s way in which I think it was probably meant.
Most who read it emphasise the natural world part, seeing the crime being described as a sort of abstract paganism, effected simply by commentating on a tree. Perhaps instead the part that’s meant to be emphasised is the ‘interrupts.’ If that’s the case, the meaning is quite different.
One is liable for their life if they interrupt their Torah study and their appreciation of nature. To think that religion and nature are two entirely separate domains is the actual crime here. The problem is not in appreciating the beauty and majesty of nature, but in thinking that it should dwell in a domain separate from Torah study.
In fact, our study of the Torah and our faith in it, should be placed hand-in-hand with our study and appreciation of the natural world. We should study Creation and learn cosmology, observe kashrut while caring for the animal kingdom, and bless God’s gifts from the Earth while acknowledging our dependence on it.
The true warning of that mishnah is that we mustn’t think faith is a foe of the environment. If we are to observe our faith correctly, then it, and we, must be friends to the environment.