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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?

David Wolpe
January 25, 2013

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.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe