Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heaven and Earth: Listening and Learning

Most of Ha’azinu, the shortest Torah portion, is a poem/song. In the opening words, Moshe calls upon heaven and earth as his witnesses:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass." (Deut. 32:1,2)
Is Moshe distinguishing between heaven and earth, or suggesting that together they constitute a whole?

In midrash Devarim Rabbah (Deuteronomy Rabbah 10:4), Moshe’s words are understood to attribute human characteristics to heaven, and if we pay close attention to the proof texts offered, we see something else, as well:
R. Yehoshua of Siknin said: From here you learn that the heavens have mouth, heart, and ear. Whence mouth? For it is written, The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:2). Whence heart? For it is written, And the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven (Deuteronomy 4:11). Whence ear? For it is written, Give ear (Deuteronomy 31:1).
The choice of proof texts is fascinating: Psalm 19 is a magnificent paean to God’s heavenly presence manifest in the physical universe (treat yourself: read it!). Similarly, Deuteronomy chapter 4 speaks of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, an event that was a nexus of heaven and earth. We are accustomed to thinking of heaven and earth as separate domains, but Torah continually reminds us that the universe is one cosmic whole.

In the early 1960s, James Lovelock, working for NASA in conjunction with the Viking program to develop instruments that would detect life on Mars, formulated the Gaia Hypothesis. He posited that all of Earth and its biosphere, functioning like one self-regulating biomass, is a single enormous organism. Scientists debate whether Lovelock’s hypothesis is scientifically valid (among his critics are Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins who have expressed concern about its predictive capacity and teleological underpinnings). Lovelock’s thinking has been derided as neo-Pagan New Age religion.

But can we view the Gaia Hypothesis as a beautiful and powerful religious metaphor: if we see our world as a metaphorically living, breathing organism, rather than a treasure trove of natural resources for us to excavate and plunder, we see a path forward that is in keeping with Torah’s teachings about protecting the earth, serving as her steward, and respecting her resources. The path leads us to see interconnections throughout the universe that we missed – and that truly matter: ecologically, religiously, spiritually.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful essay. I thought of James Lovelock recently when we watched Avatar in the theater. It also made me think of Baruch Spinoza's pantheism.