BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
Last Sunday, as is my custom, I watched “Sunday Morning,” CBS’s version of a news magazine. One of the reports was on the diminishing number of migrating song birds – apparently, the population of these birds have been reduced by 50 percent in the last four decades.
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The reason for this is obvious: The decimation is due to our increased numbers, which keeps on encroaching on the birds’ habitat. And this is but one of the many consequences of human population explosion.
It is not my intent to burden you with statistics; the fact is that we have violated the equation on which this world is built. If we increase the human birth rate, we also increase the size of human habitat, which in turn decreases the habitat of other living entities.
This world was created in the principle of balance – if we decrease death rates, to keep the balance, we must decrease birth rates. And if we violate the principle of balance, we threaten the survival of the earth and all that is in it.
But Were We Not Told?
Like most Jews in my shtetl, as a child I too accepted an absolutist view of the mitzvot (the commandments in the Torah). That perspective told me that the Torah and its laws were fundamental to Judaism because they represent our contract with G-d: “You shall be my people, and I your G-d.”
Jewish lore tells us that the covenant between Jews and G-d at Mt. Sinai specified our unquestioned belief that the laws contained in the Torah – as well as those in the Talmud, referred to as the Oral Torah – were absolute, immutable and eternal. After all, the “eternal” Jew is the collective of all Jews past, present and future; thereby, all stood at Mount Sinai and in unison declared na’aseh v’nishmah, “we shall listen and do (or obey) all the laws of the Torah.”
But in my teens, I became aware of a disconnect. I learned that Judaism proclaims a commitment to chchmoh, binoh v’daat (wisdom, understanding and knowledge), but I was not encouraged to use these tools – expressed collectively as reason – when examining why G-d ordained his mitzvot.
Tradition proclaimed that the reason why G-d gave us certain ordinances is known to G-d alone and that this should suffice for us. I was admonished for asking questions, told over and over fregt nicht kain shaloos, “don’t ask questions.”
But I had also been told that the Torah should be interpreted. Hence, when the Torah tells us that the laws contained therein will enhance our life, should we not be permitted to ask “how” and “why”?
If today’s world (which includes we Jews) seeks to understand all the laws of nature, even the “God particle,” should we not be permitted to seek the rationale and reason for the biblical dictates?
Giving Life – Don’t Take It Lightly
A biblical law that has caused great problems for humanity in the last 500 years – and that which I wish to draw attention to with this column – comes from Genesis 1:28. Now, as this command was given to Adam, I must assume that it is a universal law, as Adam is the symbolic representative of all mankind:
Pirya v’rivyah; we are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” The three words that follow are, in Hebrew, umiloo et ha’aretz; this can be translated either as “fill the world” or as “replenish the world.”
Apparently the former interpretation has come to dominate, as we have multiplied and filled the world for the last five centuries. Unfortunately, though, the resultant overpopulation has greatly contributed to wars, the alteration of the world’s climate and the loss of many non-human species – in short, the endangerment of the existence of the world.
Seeing this damage done, should we not change our practice and view our instructions as merely to replenish the human species? After all, what is even more important comes at the very end of the aforementioned verse, which in reference to the world says that we should “…have dominion over it.”
On the sixth day, the Torah tells us He finished his task and set in motion the universe that moves in a rhythmic equilibrium – day and night; season follows season – and then we are told that we (mankind) are the ones to govern the world. G-d made the world, and then made humanity responsible what happens in it.
I see that as a suggestion of the concept of tzimtzum, the teaching of Kabbalah that says when G-d created the universe, He withdrew from it to create space for it. But, instead of being wise rulers as He watches from afar and following the moral path – that is, to guard the gift that G-d entrusted to us – we seek to destroy it.
And when something goes wrong because of our misuse, we come to the synagogues and churches and pray, seeking His help to undo that which we have destroyed.
Let us be aware: The greatest destructive force is one we unleashed, and it arose from our misinterpretation of the purpose of our procreation.
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.