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Tu B’Shevat and the ‘Nature’ of Jews

On Tu B’Shevat, Jews celebrate the natural world. Do we praise it for its own sake, or only as a reflection of God?

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Tintern Abbey. (barnyz/Flickr)

In his masterpiece “Tintern Abbey,” poet William Wordsworth recalls his passionate younger self, obsessed with nature:

The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love.

Could a Jewish poet have written these imperishable lines? Although literary critic Lionel Trilling once wrote an essay finding affinities between Wordsworth and the rabbis, it is hard to imagine the mostly nature-indifferent rabbis responding to this passionate effusion. Nature, in rabbinic writings, exists mostly to settle questions of law (can an elephant serve as the side of a sukkah?), or mythological speculations of wonder—such as the tales of Rabbah bar Hannah, which speak of a bird so big that the waters of the sea only reached to its ankles. But this is not reverence for nature; it is the extravagance of a God-besotted imagination.

When they were moved to celebrate the created world, Jewish poets wrote of it as reflected glory. Nature was the prism through which God’s artistry could be seen. Tu B’Shevat, which falls this year on Jan. 25-26, is the holiday when Jews typically sing their praises of the natural world. But the holiday does not recognize Wordsworth’s nature, glorious in its own, self-contained radiance.

When the Psalmist writes of nature, it is theological or didactic: “The mountains skipped like rams” (Psalms 114:4); “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree” (Psalms 92:12). Nature, for the ancient Jewish poets, cannot be loved for its own sake. In the conclusion to the Book of Job, God describes the majesty of the world, recalling ma’aseh bereishit, the act of creation. Nature is beautifully described through its obedience to the Creator and indifference to the moral laws that human beings assume govern all life. Wordsworth, on the other hand, cherishes the scene itself, although he does feel

a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man

The woods and fields may be a showplace of spirit, but here is unqualified reverence for the “wild green landscape.” In solitude, Wordsworth approaches fellow poet Byron’s famous assertion that he loved not man the less, but nature the more.

The great English poets took nature as a theme. Jewish poets (with scattered exceptions during the golden age of Spain) began to write of nature only once the world became desacralized. Bialik penned lovely tributes to the Jewish study hall, but he and his artistic contemporaries were saddened by how separated was the student from the world around him. Spending day after day indoors, bent over a folio, breeds a writer very different from the English lake poets strolling through the “sylvan wood.” Bialik’s nature poetry was a declaration of independence issued to the world from which he fled. Unlike Bialik, even when Hasidim took to the forest in the practice of hitbodedut (aloneness), for prayer and contemplation, it was not to venerate the natural world. Such worship was anti-monotheistic. The idea is vividly embodied by the character of the rabbi who becomes a literal tree lover in Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Pagan Rabbi.” You need only to read the title to imagine how such veneration of nature strikes a traditional mindset.

Tu B’Shevat is the Jewish New Year for the trees. According to the Talmud, by this date most of the rain has fallen and fruit begins to form. Over time, the holiday offered a way to renew our connection to the land: Special fruits that have their origin in Israel are eaten in the Diaspora. As a young student in yeshiva I remember being given “bukser” (that is, carob), a hard, almost inedible substance in this state. Carob recalled the Talmudic discussion of Tu B’Shevat and was also, according to tradition, what sustained Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai in his years of living in a cave hiding from Romans. In a time when fresh fruit was not on the diet (our yeshiva cook, the redoubtable old Mrs. Gardner, would get upset when we didn’t eat our “butter bread,” but apples were few and far between), gnawing on bukser served as a reminder that some things did actually grow on trees.

Despite the tribute paid to trees on this holiday, nature is celebrated not for its own sake but because it is the canvas of God the artist (tsayyar, in Hebrew) who created the world. The Tu B’Shevat Seder involves the kabbalistic idea that eating certain fruits will increase the flow of God’s blessing. Kabbalah posits four levels of creation: atsilut, beriah, yetzirah, and assiyah. The lower three are all symbolized by various fruit.

Today in Israel, special dishes are prepared and tree plantings mark the celebration of Tu B’Shevat. Tradition in many iterations compares a human being to a tree, and so homilies and explanations of the importance of trees flourish. They all serve as analogies: The human being is like a tree; the Torah is a tree (etz chaim); the kabbalistic sefirot are sometimes depicted as a tree. A Jewish Joyce Kilmer would see many things as lovely as a tree.

In Pirkei Avot (3:9), we read: “Rabbi Jacob said: If a man is walking by the way and is studying and then interrupts his study and says: ‘How fine is this tree?’ or ‘How fine is this ploughed field?’ scripture regards him as though he was liable for his life.” One gets the sense, shared by early Zionist ideology, that in the Torah, people lived in the natural world but later in the rabbinic age, the ideology of study closed the walls around the Jewish soul. Nature was a rival to the word of God, its beauty more a snare than an inspiration.

Tu B’Shevat is a chance to explore our relation to the natural world. Do we love it because it is our home, for the sake of its own magnificence, or rather because it directs us to God, who fashioned it? Surely despite traditional opposition between these conceptions of nature, the heart is large enough for both. We can sit on the mountaintop and feel the deep, disinterested love of that which cannot be owned: the stars, the mountains, the sea, the sky. At the same time we can appreciate that everything from a tree to the cosmos is a gift. The deepest Jewish attitude toward beauty is to cherish it as a reflection of a more surpassing sublimity we can only begin to fathom. Wordsworth calls himself “a worshiper of nature … Unwearied in that service.” Judaism has been unwearied in service as well, but in service of the One who bestowed the wonder.

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This is a reductive approach to be sure to the role of nature in Jewish poetry, perhaps most especially modern Hebrew poetry which often extols the landscape to both lyrical and political effect. And one might also begin with the poetic prose of S. Yizhar whose sensibility is often quite “Wordsworthian.” Even a great Jewish “urban” poet like Charles Reznikoff celebrated the natural world’s incursions on the city. It is not clear what figures the author is reading to have reached such a dismal conclusion–but clearly not enough.

Sorry Rabbi, but you are wrong about Wordsworth. Don’t set him up as the straw man to the book-bound rebbes.

I think any scholar, or even lowly English major worth his or her salt, would strongly disagree with the assumption that Wordsworth (of all poets) loved Nature purely for Nature’s own sake.

Rather, quite like the rabbis and the Psalmist, but unlike other atheists of his time, he sees the infusion of God’s grandeur and glory in and through Nature, and even deliberately echoes imagery of Psalm 114 in “Intimations of Immortality”, when he writes of “the tabor” and “young lambs” bounding about.

In “Intimations” Wordsworth asserts that we all come from the Godly source of nature’s beauty and energy, “But trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home,” but we are unable to maintain the connection and we age…. and that this “falling away” from the source as we grow older is the price paid for living in the world. However, the pain of the loss of closeness to the Source is what is truly holy about observing the creations around us. There are compensations for the loss of the child-like connection to the Holy and the natural world He (the primal sympathy) made.

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And in fact, though Wordsworth describes himself at the end of the poem as a “worshipper of Nature,” he clarifies in the next line which ends Tintern Abbey, “rather say with far deeper zeal of holier love,” which assumes a connection to the Holy One. He hopes, in the future, that his young sister will remember him when he is gone; when her matured mind has transformed the images and senses of Nature into a spiritual, holy “intimation” of God’s essence whose works we dimly perceive.

Jessica K. Shimberg says:

I appreciate the thought that went into this piece, and for the first time ever, am disappointed with the approach of Rabbi Wolpe. The “nature” of Jews (referring to his title) is SO alive today with a huge number of us connecting to nature for nature’s sake and in doing so – finding the Divine and the divine in the natural world. I appreciate the many textual references and wish that Rabbi Wolpe would have ended with a recognition of the tremendous growth of a very Jewish connection to and gratitude for the natural world – through outdoor experiences, conservation and environmental stewardship, food-related efforts from farming and eco-Kashrut to sacralizing the process of food preparation and eating – all renewed and made sacred through a Jewish lens. And why does Rabbi Wolpe seem to suggest that we have to choose between God and nature? My God is within nature and nature within my God. The two are NOT distinct. Our liturgy allows me access to praising both as do my own private conversations with the Source. Shabbat Shalom.

Jessica K. Shimberg says:

And, thanks to this article, I have been inspired to find this quote from Cynthia Ozick, author of the Pagan Rabbi, published in the Paris Review in 1987 and from an interview she did with Tom Teicholz. I think it applies equally well to the competition R’ Wolpe seems to set up between reverence for God and reverence for nature: “Until quite recently, I held a rather conventional view about all this. I thought of the imagination as its name suggests, as image-making, and I thought of the writer’s undertaking as a sovereignty set up in competition with the sovereignty of … the Creator of the Universe. I thought of imagination as that which sets up idols, as a rival of monotheism. I’ve since reconsidered this view. I now see that the idol-making capacity of imagination is its lower form, and that on cannot be a monotheist without putting the imagination under the greatest pressure of all. To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination. I no longer think of imagination as a thing to be dreaded. Once you come to regard imagination as ineluctably linked with monotheism, you can no longer think of imagination as competing with monotheism. Only a very strong imagination can rise to the idea of a noncorporeal God. The lower imagination, the weaker, falls into the proliferation of images.”

If one were to substitute the word nature for the word imagination, in Ozick’s reconsidered notion, one would see a transformation from the constricted praise for nature (canvas or image) offered by the rabbis as referenced by R’Wolpe, to boundless praise for nature.

Thanks, Rabbi Wolpe, for this pre-Shabbes exercise.

lovely. touching. and right on.

Michael Geselowitz says:

What year as this article written? Tu B’Shvat this year falls not the secular calendar on 25 – 26 January but on 15 -1 6 January (i.e., today!).

As Jews became only at End of 11th century, banned from Western Europe and refuge in Eastern Slavic countries, they lost a second time since the destruction of the second Temple,their relationship with the Real Natural Fighting World. Like pre Quakers, they abandoned the Weapons which were then forbidden to them and took refuge into self built Shtetln (sort of Pre-Ghettos.. after having lived in fact by convenience in their Judengassen… Independant Kehiloth lived an Appart Life with no fightsd anymore even to defend themselves…mostly favourized by Kings and Bishops and Duchkes…Popumlace, actual Leftists? remained their biggest murderess enemies…”Nature” jobs where Jews had excelled in Western Europe since Roman times: vineyards woods and cattle exploitation; vanished in less than a century when the European economical and Church’s political revolution of Power Taking made them Pariahs…
Bernhard Blumenkranz (1966-CNRS Editions Paris) described how in the area of Maco-Lyon-Vienne, Jew fought with their fellows Christians on the Cities Walls and were the creators of most Vineyard and Wine export business in these places of Now Beaujolais Macon Côtes du Rhône….
During the 11th century, they started to sell their Properties to Nobles but mostly to Abbeys and Monks and became Export Merchants of the Wine they had stopped to produce….
Jews have to Re

As Jews became only at End of 11th century, banned from Western Europe and refuge in Eastern Slavic countries, they lost a second time since the destruction of the second Temple,their relationship with the Real Natural Fighting World. Like pre Quakers, they abandoned the Weapons which were then forbidden to them and took refuge into self built Shtetln (sort of Pre-Ghettos.. after having lived in fact by convenience in their Judengassen… Independant Kehiloth lived an Appart Life with no fightsd anymore even to defend themselves…mostly favourized by Kings and Bishops and Duchkes…Popumlace, actual Leftists? remained their biggest murderess enemies…”Nature” jobs where Jews had excelled in Western Europe since Roman times: vineyards woods and cattle exploitation; vanished in less than a century when the European economical and Church’s political revolution of Power Taking made them Pariahs…
Bernhard Blumenkranz (1966-CNRS Editions Paris) described how in the area of Macon-Lyon-Vienne, Jew fought with their fellows Christians on the Cities Walls and were the creators of most Vineyard and Wine export business in these places of Now the Beaujolais the Macon and Côtes-du-Rhône wines….
They frequented often the mass at Catholic Cathedral with their christian friends (…upsetting obviously the Archbishop Agobar who tried to expel them.
During the 11th century, they started to sell their Properties to Nobles but mostly to Abbeys and Monks and became Export Merchants of the Wine they had stopped to produce….
Even if abstraction is a great value…Jews have to Re adapt to the real world, natural and human and abandon their “out of the real abstract attitude” refusing the hard field work as the military obligation of defending ones’ terrain…..
At the times when Tu B’shvat was created , Jews were pushing the Plow and cleaning the trees surroundings and vineyards and vegetables gardens, to make a living…!
Business and money lending isn’t a fate nor a true job.

David Levavi says:

We’re a kosher camping family and passed many a sabbath when the children were growing up tenting in the wilderness. Nothing celebrates the Creator and his creation like a pleasant, restful Sabbath in a pristine natural environment.

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Tu B’Shevat and the ‘Nature’ of Jews

On Tu B’Shevat, Jews celebrate the natural world. Do we praise it for its own sake, or only as a reflection of God?

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