Reflections on Power, Knowledge, Wisdom, and Progress

“Alma De’atei,” The-World-That-Is-Coming: Reflections on Power, Knowledge, Wisdom, and Progress

Jeremy Benstein

The world to come is this world, which we hold in trust for its rightful recipients.

More has been discovered in the last 50 years than in all of recorded history, and at the same time, more has been lost and destroyed — nature, cultures, on every level — than ever previously.

–Dr. Sylvia Earle, eminent oceanographer and resident explorer for the National Geographic Society

The secular, exploitative side of science must correspond to something in nature, otherwise it wouldn’t be so efficacious in destroying the world. But at the same time, it must be missing something essential, for precisely the same reason.

–Prof. Seyyed Hussein Nasr, historian of science

In his address to the conference, “The Good in Nature and Humanity,” farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry pointedly observed: “The ‘environmental crisis’ is a misnomer, since it is (of course) a crisis of ourselves, not of the environment.” Most environmentalists would understand Berry’s terms of reference, and heartily agree with his striking and helpful refraining of a familiar issue. But most people are not environmentalists, and I suspect that much of the general public would not know what on earth he is talking about. Those same people, influenced by the media, would of course acknowledge the existence of (environmental) problems, here and there–even serious ones. But a crisis? And of ourselves?

On the contrary: conventional wisdom has it, at least the more optimistic versions, that human ingenuity, especially in its most omnipotent incarnation, technological development, surely is solving our problems as fast as they crop up. In fact, it is my impression that people (in this case, comfortable middle class and up) enjoy the benefits of our lifestyle and the technology at its base while ignoring the increasingly heavy prices, the down side of those benefits and that lifestyle. They do not live with a personal consciousness of “crisis” (neither “eco”- nor “ego”), but rather feel themselves the favored beneficiaries of one of the greatest boons known to human kind, the technological progress that we know in the contemporary (post-)industrial West.

This essay is an attempt to delve a little into the claim that we are indeed in the throes of a crisis, and that although there are severe environmental repercussions, it is in fact a “crisis of ourselves,” of our worldview and values, our spiritual situation (literally, “placedness”). I write both as a concerned citizen, interested in the relations among religion, science, environment, and the modern condition, but also as a Jew, trained in traditional textual exegesis and engaged in the application of those texts and values to our contemporary world. For instance, a traditional Jewish term for eternity or the afterlife is the Hebrew olam haba’, meaning “the next world,” “the world to come,” or as the Aramaic version alma de’atei emphasizes, “the-world-that-is-coming.” This spiritual “world” of course traditionally contrasts with the temporal reality in which we live. But there is another “world” that is coming (indeed as some techno-fans exuberantly claim, “the future is now!”), and one doesn’t need to be a sci-fi fan, conversant with branching futures or alternative worlds, to feel that this term can very profitably be applied to this world, the reality we call home, the world we create and perpetuate (or not) through our actions, the world we will leave to our children.

Is progress truly progressing? Does increased technological prowess mean better lives and a better world? Can it be sustainable (over time), and will it sustain us, in body and in spirit? What are the spiritual and cultural implications of a blind belief in everything getting better all the time? Can knowledge be reconciled with wisdom, power with humility?

Let us begin with progress. The case for the amazing benefits that have accrued to recent generations as a result of technological development need hardly be made here. Witness the breadth and depth of our “empowerment” (a partial listing): the harnessing of natural sources of power for our needs, wants, and whims (from steam, coal, oil, to the atom); advances in medicine, warfare, telecommunications (computers, telephone, television, Internet); a panoply of creature comforts, and most recently genetic engineering and the mapping of the human genome. Together these constitute a veritable miracle, whose transformations of personal quality of life possess an almost salvific character. The society that has inaugurated these achievements (the modern West), the people in that society who have been the pioneers in these fields (predominantly white, male scientists and technocrats), and even the mental faculties that have motivated and enabled us to get this far (analytic reason, objectification of the world and its processes) are indeed all exalted and glorified in the light of these accomplishments.

I cannot, and do not, deny this-benefiting no less than others from the miracle – yet without overly indulging some deep Luddite sympathies, I would like to accentuate the other, darker side. Earle and Nasr, quoted above, eloquently express the highly ancipital nature of the technological project-and so it has been, from fire on down. For all that has been gained, much has been lost, and there are growing piles of debris lining the pathways of the technological motorcade. Moreover, the growing momentum of inventions and discoveries begetting more of the same, has become an unstoppable juggernaut, which along with all the undeniable benefits brings huge (and growing) social and environmental costs. When these costs are confronted at all, they are either overshadowed by or disassociated from the aforementioned advances, under the naive belief that we can have one without the other.

For some, there is also a price to the human spirit. As critics of technology continually inveigh, we spend more and more time, as individuals and as a society, contemplating the virtual bellybutton of our own technological prowess, and marveling primarily at our own cleverness. What one can experience on the Web seems far more amazing than what one might experience in a forest or a swamp – and this message is not lost on children now growing up in the OOs. This realization, however, does not depress everybody. In the eyes of its most enthusiastic, optimistic proponents, the (hi)story of technology is the progressive revelation of the uniqueness of the human being – or at least the modern Western technocratic version – and our gradual elevation to a transcendent status over and above other creatures and nature as a whole. Transcending the physical limitations of our own bodies, we are getting ever closer to our apotheosis as pure consciousness.

Interestingly, the history of scientific thought tells a strikingly different story. Freud referred to a triad of “outrages upon our naive self love” when he grouped together Copernican heliocentrism, Darwinian evolution, and his own theory of the structure of the psyche and the centrality of the (irrational) unconscious. The social and intellectual history of the reception of these revolutions in society is not straightforward; but it is claimed that, at least in theory, these conceptual innovations have progressively unseated the human race (that is, the Biblically inspired Western version)from our centrality in the cosmos and in the natural world. They could also be understood to undermine our calm self-confidence as purely rational agents. As Stephen Jay Gould (1994) put it, Copernicus changed “our abode from the immobile center of a limited universe to a small peripheral hunk of rock subordinate to one star among billions”; Darwin “cancelled our ‘particular privilege of having been specially created’ (in God’s image, no less) and [propounded] our consequent ‘relegation to descent from the animal world'”; and Freud altered “our view of mind from a logical and moral instrument to a largely non-rational device buffeted or controlled by an ‘unconscious.'”


How might this triple [1] theoretical assault on the underpinnings of human centrality, uniqueness, and supremacy have been received? One could at least imagine a great outpouring of human humility in light of these insights of literally cosmic import. For instance, post-Copernicus, a little Jobian self-abasement when confronted with parsecs, galaxy clusters, and light-years; [2] or perhaps some ecstatic unio mystica at our new-found Darwinian oneness with the natural world. After all, now we are no longer just dust and ashes, but also apes and peacocks. [3] And after Freud, why not a smidgen of tempering of rationalist scientism and its goal of understanding and controlling the world? If we indeed have such a justifiably hard time understanding and controlling our own psyches and behavior, then how can we ever hope to do the same, intelligently and sensitively, concerning the entire world? This perspective helps us to understand Berry’s comment about the contemporary crisis being one of ourselves and not of the environment.

These were certainly roads not taken. Western society responded in no such way. These sobering realizations have had no discernible mitigating effect on human hubris as to our place in the world, on the progress of progress, and the resultant snowballing technological development. On the face of it, in fact, news of these philosophical sea changes seems not to have reached most sectors of society at large, or if they have, their less than conscious absorption might have had precisely the opposite effect. That is, rather than lead to a healthy humility, these conceptual re-orientations, if they’ve sunk in at all, become (sub-conscious) spiritual dis-orientations, fueling existential angst and insecurities that can be seen to underlie the scramble for materialist comforts in our society (see section III).

The sectors I am referring to are: (1) the mass of bourgeois citizenry leading their (rather: our) daily lives, who through the enormous power of collective consumerism acquire, enjoy, or otherwise benefit from and therefore propagate technological developments; and (2) decision-makers and policy shapers who through the power of their (our?) influence encourage, advance, publicly support, and finance similar and other developments, furthering and spreading more and more of said progress. In other words, for most, both proles and pols, progress is indeed progress, technology works (and is, of course, only getting better), and theoretical scruples as to human self-understanding, or deconstructions of any ideological underpinnings are, in their eyes, just so much metaphysics, derogatory connotations intended.


So, on the one hand, we have more (techno)power than ever before: our actions affect far more of the world far more deeply, and far more adversely, than those of our forebears, both individually and collectively. But this technopower does not translate into a sense of real personal, individual empowerment. For on the other hand, the worldwide spread of Weberian bureaucracy, as well as globalization and the growing power of corporations over sovereign democracies, has led to a growing loss of control and to real dis- empowerment: citizens and face-to-face communities are dwarfed by the collective and its political and economic institutions. Ordinary people are losing their ability to democratically shape their societies and insure the well-being of their environments.

These phenomena — growing technological/consumer power alongside spiritual malaise and political disempowerment — are linked. The central engine of globalization is worldwide consumer demand: more people wanting more things [4] in more places. Globalized consumerism represents at one and the same time both the creation and spread of a problem, and a very particular, and highly problematic response, to something deeper. For, arguably, the rampant materialism which characterizes our society–both in the common sense of widespread consumerism and the more philosophical sense of emphasis on matter and the physical over spiritual values and pursuits — is a result of the combined existential implications of the encroachments on our metaphysical well-being, including the aforementioned spiritual and political disorientation and disempowerment. Mass consumerism can be seen as a collective attempt to assuage the loss of our sense of personal significance, control, and satisfaction, through power over, and satisfact ion from, things.

We have experienced a collective decontextualization of sorts, a “de-situ-ation,” a loss of sense of purpose or telos, an existential hollowingout, while at the same time gaining increasing physical control of the conditions of our lives in the here and now. In other words: we have been acquiring capabilities in the “what” and “how” departments, while losing our grip on “why?” “to what end?” “for whom?” Mystery has given way to mastery with no guiding vision for its application.

So there is a deep dissonance between the progress of scientific theory, potentially decentralizing, even devaluing the human project in the larger scheme of things, and the progress of technological praxis, loudly protesting nearly the opposite, that we are indeed godlike in our skills and abilities. [5] That dissonance has taken its toll.

But more significantly, there is something terrifying simply about the inner logic of progress itself as a belief system. Plainly put, if we think everything is always getting better: then there is nothing of value to be learned from the past (for it is backward and primitive); and we do not have to worry about the future, since it is going to be even better than this glorious age. Past and future and our connections to them and their residents (our progenitors and progeny) are devalued. The resultant overwhelming emphasis on the present creates a huge obstacle to identifying problems, especially with long-term implications, and organizing to address and solve them. Sustainability, as a vision and as a goal, is stuffy and “retro”: why worry about the future when the future surely can take care of itself? We need to worry about ourselves over all.

Contrast this approach with the values of a traditional society.[6] For instance, biblical man (also woman, depending on your interpretation) was rooted in the chain of intergenerational responsibility, back to progenitors, revered ancestors, and on to progeny, future fulfillers of the covenant. They saw themselves as exalted, as the beloved creature of God, created in the divine image, crowning glory of Creation, and yet humbled in the face of God and the awesomeness of that Creation.[7] The Earth itself, even if not worshiped or deified as in pagan cultures (or at least in environmentalist versions of them), was a sacred trust, never simply raw material.

Now, though, in the highly secularized present, we are alone in the void, the object of the affections of no one but ourselves (and with a sense of responsibility to no one else), and not at all humbled by a disenchanted nature that we are apparently increasingly learning to understand and control (at least in the short term) that has become our only frame of reference. Is it any wonder that we have lowered our sights, as it were, and sought our deepest satisfactions in this-worldly betterment?

A fascinating example of the implications of progress on world-view is the question of life expectancy. Advances in medicine are among the most universally acknowledged, appreciated, and unassailable benefits of technological progress. We suffer less, we see fewer of our children die, and whether sustainable or not over the long term, we feel that we have more control over disease than people had in previous eras. A very common response to any criticism of scientific development (and one given me by a prominent Israeli philosopher) is that our average lifespan in the developed West is over seventy years, whereas that of previous generations (or of contemporary primitive cultures) was half that. We win hands down.

But is this so cut and dried? One of the most eye-opening comments I have come across on this topic, and on progress and its pitfalls in general, comes from a remarkable little book called Lost Worlds: How Our European Ancestors Coped With Everyday Life and Why It Is So Hard Today by the German social historian Arthur E. Imhof (1996). Imhof discusses several ways in which the experience of death is vastly different in our age from previous ones. In particular, he points out that while in fact their chronological life-span was much less, they believed in an eternal life after the temporal one, and the same praxis that brought with it increased life expectancy wrought havoc on the religious worldview that included an unshakable belief in the afterlife. writes:” … we have shortened life tremendously. What does it mean to double or triple the life expectancy of one’s physical existence when eternity has been lost? … [W]e have completely eliminated the [incomparably larger] otherworldly part of life, seculariz ing it out of existence. The only segment of life that remains for us is the earthly part, and for better or for worse, it has had to assume the role of the only important one” (171-72). Progress — like nostalgia — ain’t what it used to be.


The idea of Heaven — ultimate other-worldly or next-worldly reward — bears a detailed environmental analysis. In the space of this paper, only a bare outline can be offered. Heaven it seems, has its pluses and minuses; it is part of one aspect of the problem, while also fulfilling an important function in one configuration of a solution. On the one hand, otherworldliness is often anti-environmental: the temporal gives way before the eternal, with anything and everything physical and material being treated as an impure vessel, a profane means to the sacred eternal ends. If the next world is the goal and this world is the means, then the means is inherently transcendable or even completely dispensable. [8]

And yet, emphasis on the hereafter also represents the ultimate in delayed gratification. The belief in an eternal reward was a mega-incentive, in the longest of long-terms, against wrong doing, ill-gotten gain and its enjoyment, and short-term materialism. One can accept suffering or hardship now, whether actual poverty or just the lack of fancy gadgetry, if one believes one will eventually get one’s just desserts forever after. [9] Gary Paul Nabhan remarked at the conference: “It’s hard to know whether there is or is not a God, but there sure are a lot of people walking around with a God-shaped hole in their hearts.” There are probably a lot of heaven-shaped holes in a lot of hearts, too. That is, we still need a bulwark against the quick fix, against our inability to curb our huge appetites for things, to help impose limits on runaway consumption and breakneck technological development. But for most — for the predominantly secular society that needs it most — the bulwark will not be the dream of an other -worldly Heaven. As Imhof, pointed out, we have traded that in for — progress.

Following the seminal Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1921) we can discuss this question in terms of the relationships among God, Human, and World. Previously, human arrogance and concomitant wrongdoing was mainly an affront to divinity, or had repercussions for one’s own person, spiritual and/or physical. Humans needed to limit themselves either to curry divine favor (or avoid divine wrath) or as part of a path of spiritual discipline — for the sake of the soul of the self. Now, though, with the ramifications of human hubris and destructive human behavior threatening global ecocide, we can add a new term to the equation, perhaps one that will possess more rhetorical suasion: we need to curb ourselves for the sake of the World [10] itself, for the ongoing sustained perpetuation of Creation, including of course ourselves within it.

Filling that heaven-shaped hole then needn’t be so difficult. Heaven, alma de’atei, “the-world-that-is-coming,” a dreamed-of better place, can be, should be, that all-too-real world that our children and grandchildren will be inhabiting all-too-soon, not that other one that our deceased forebears might be in now. David Brower has often commented: “Environmentalists may make meddlesome neighbors, but they make great ancestors.”


This new perspective, this expanded purview of putting the World at the center of our spiritual lives, of seeking heaven this side of the rainbow, is well-exemplified by a close reading of several Biblical passages, including three seemingly unrelated commandments. They all deal with different realms, but they come with the same very large promise attached: do them “in order that you may fare well and have length of days.” This is the reward for honoring one’s father and mother (Ex 20:12, and again in Deut. 5:16), for using honest weights and measures (Deut. 25:15), and most esoterically, for sending away a mother bird before taking her eggs or fledglings (Deut. 22:6-7). This reward of living well and long has been traditionally understood in one of two ways: instant, tangible rewards, here and now, or ultimate otherworldly satisfaction in the hereafter. There have been far-reaching theological disputes over how best to interpret the problematic promise.

A compelling illustration of these disputes is found in rabbinic literature. The Talmud [11] describes how Elisha Ben Abuya, the famous rabbi-turned-heretic, might have lost his faith. It presents a scene in which a father instructs his son to gather some eggs from a nest, but to be careful first to let the mother bird go. Performing his father’s request, the boy should be doubly rewarded with length of days: he is honoring his parents and fulfilling the divine command of sending off the mother bird. Yet he falls from the tree and dies. How could this be? Elisha may have witnessed just such a scene, and presuming that the biblical promise referred to the quality and length of life of the individual performing the commandments, he concluded that the promise was false, that there was neither Judge nor justice in the world. Others, including his grandson, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Korshai, [12] took the opposite approach: we are to expect no reward whatsoever in this life for following any of the precepts. The rewards a nd punishments are all in the next life, heaven, the world to come.

The common denominator of these two seemingly contradictory interpretations is that they are applicable exclusively to the individual, whether the well-being referred to is temporal or eternal. A similar assumption underlies traditional commentators’ differing views of the purpose of driving off the mother bird. Maimonides, [13] for instance, says it is for the sake of the (individual) animal – sparing the mother bird the pain of seeing her offspring taken. Others, like Nachmanides, [14] claim that the commandment is focused rather on the (individual) person: to inculcate humane, compassionate behavior.

Yet why limit the discussion to the individual? The precept has a deep logic, and becomes more provocatively palatable to contemporary ears when it is seen as relating to the health and well-being of the collective. All three of these commandments are in fact nothing less than prescriptions for sustaining human society and its place in the natural world.

Concerning the commandment to send off the mother bird, Wendell Berry (1981) has observed: “This [precept] obviously is a perfect paradigm of ecological and agricultural discipline, in which the idea of inheritance is necessarily paramount. The inflexible rule is that the source must be preserved. You may take the young, but you must save the breeding stock.” In short; by all means eat of the fruit, but take care not to destroy the fruitfulness.

This is not only a contemporary exegesis. In the fifteenth century, Jewish Bible commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (Spain/Italy) states it most clearly: “The Torah’s intention here is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather to encourage Creation to exist as fully as possible…. ‘In order that you may fare well and have length of days’ means that it shall be good for humankind when Creation is perpetuated so that we will be able to partake of it again in the future… since if we are destined to live for many years on this earth, we are reliant upon Creation perpetuating itself so that we will always have sufficient resources.”

This is sustainability, or at least one aspect of it. For there are two distinct sides to sustainability, which are often not explicitly differentiated. Usually, when environmentalists speak of sustainable development, or more generally of sustainability, they are calling for an economic system of production and consumption that can sustain itself, and its environmental context, over the long term, living up to our responsibilities to future generations. But again, following Berry, we need to sustain not only the physical environment and its products, but also, perhaps primarily, ourselves, materially and spiritually. Sustainability then becomes intimately linked with the rejuvenation and preservation of sources of spiritual sustenance on every level.

Strikingly, the precise formulation of the biblical verses allude to both sides: the quantity, creating a society that can sustain itself, physically, over time (“length of days”), not reaching, or breaching, the natural limits of the capacity of the earth; and the quality, which can nourish and sustain its members spiritually (that they “fare well”). Our society is far from this simple yet far-reaching ideal: for too long we have enjoyed the fruit, and paid no heed to preserving the fruitfulness. One imperative, then, for long and good lives here on the earth, for us collectively as a society, is treating the natural world with reverence and self-restraint. As Paul Gorman said at the conference: “Global warming isn’t about carbon emissions; it’s about inter-generational equity.” He then (also) quoted Deuteronomy (30:19): “and therefore choose life, that you and your children may live….”

Indeed, the social-environmental reading of this commandment stands in stark contrast to the individualistic interpretations. First, the dichotomous question of whether the commandment is for the sake of the animal or the human (in the short term) disappears, for it ignores the deep long-term interdependency that exists between us all. Second, the expectation of instant material rewards, for me, now (whether Calvinist or consumerist), has deep anti-environmental implications–it bespeaks short-term materialism, including “more is more” and instantaneous gratification, and hinders thought of long-term impact. Likewise, as noted above, otherworldly spirituality usually privileges that which is considered eternal and spiritual, and denigrates this world and its physicality. [15]

The idea of intergenerational sustainability is a response to both. It is a deeply religious response that resituates the human in the flow of time and gives us perspective in the larger scheme of things. It is perhaps the most likely candidate to fill that heaven shaped hole: for the-world-that-is-coming is best understood as this world, our world that we are holding in trust, and which we will shortly return to its rightful recipients, posterity.

This same point is exemplified in the other two commandments that promise well-being and length of days. Honoring our father and mother, our progenitors, honors the idea of giving life and not just taking for ourselves. It rejects an inherently unsustainable throw-away culture in which even the elderly are disposable. Parents and our regard for them help situate us in a great intergenerational chain of being, and are a strong statement against that sort of progress that would have us believe that the past has no value or meaning. Indeed, in such a heavily knowledge-based culture, with the frontiers of that knowledge constantly being advanced, where parents thus find it increasingly difficult even to help their children with their homework, this is a vote for the importance of wisdom that stems from tradition and experience, over cleverness and data.

Honest weights and measures, symbolic of fairness, justice, and equality also represent a constitutive characteristic of a society that hopes to create well-being for all its members and to endure over the long term. Sustainability captures the two distinctive modes of justice that are becoming increasingly important in the growing mutual engagement of environment and society: the usual, “horizontal” intragenerational justice, and the “vertical” intergenerational variety, that demands fairness and equity beyond the quarterly report and the four-year term of office, to future generations.

To re-emphasize, sustainability also means sustenance: we don’t just need an economy that can sustain itself important, and imperiled, as that is; we need a moral and a spiritual life that can sustain and nourish us. This is the force of the promise in these precepts: not the individual long life of a single person, and not a pie-in-the-sky promise for bliss in the afterlife, but a life and a world of quality and meaning sustained for us and our children after us, and for all the World.


Returning to Berry’s crisis of self, and to the question of what is to be done: in light of the above I would claim that we have, essentially, both too much and too little power. In terms of the crisis of environment, self and society, the latter trope — political disempowerment in the face of immovable bureaucracy and bulldozer globalization — leads to one configuration. That is, if we, the people, have too little power, clearly someone or something has too much: They, or It, are the enemy. Our response then should focus on personal and political empowerment, public participation, decentralization, democratizing the marketplace, opposing globalization, and the like. But the former aspect, each of us possessing too much of a different kind of power (but with too little guidance or wisdom) leads to a different configuration. Here we meet the enemy, and also clearly–he is Us. Here the answers must be framed in terms of lifestyle changes, personal awareness, simplicity, and self-limitation.

These two configurations of the crisis are related through the concepts of limits and limitations. Recognizing the world’s (physical) limits is connected to recognizing, internalizing, adopting, and enforcing our own behavioral and spiritual self-limitations. We have reached the ecological limits of the global macrocosmos because we have not disciplined, limited ourselves, the human microcosmos. The physical manifestations of the external crisis in the world–having reached, or breached, systemic, ecological limits–reflect the essential spiritual responses called for in ourselves, the urgent imperative to (re)impose limits on our own appetites, lifestyles, and sense of self-importance. [16]

But that personal, spiritual, lifestyle change is not enough. Politically, we also need to address the question of limits: impose limits on those individuals and institutions that wield power for the benefit of the few and to the detriment of the many; and burst the oppressive limits that have been imposed upon us by an impersonal system that is the driving force of a global society increasingly beyond our control.

And limits, when correctly understood and imposed, can lead to connections. Indeed a solution can only come when we create the connections necessary to overcome the alienation that has led to this hollow, spiritless materialism. Returning to the Rosenzweigian triad, our age is characterized by distance, or downright estrangement from the divine, the human (both self and society), and the natural. We need to re-ligate, [17] bind and bond, not only spiritual connections with divinity (a possibility probably only for some), but perhaps more accessibly, social and personal ones in the form of nurturing relationships and communities, and not least, reconnecting with the natural world as an ongoing source of sustenance.

This paper was written in response to the conference “The Good in Nature and Humanity: Connecting Science, Religion, and the Natural World,” which took place on May 11-14, 2000, at Yale University, sponsored by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; the Wilderness Society: the Yale Divinity School; The National Religious Partnership for the Environment; and the Forum on Religion and Ecology. The opening epigraphs are taken from presentations at the conference.

This article appears in The Good in Nature and Humanity: Connecting Science, Religion, and Spirituality with the Natural World, ed. Stephen R. Kellert and Timothy J. Farnham. Copyright 2002 by Island Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved. Available from Island Press in February 2002.

I’d like to thank The Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership (Tel Aviv, Israel) for making my participation at the conference possible, and its director, my friend and colleague, Eilon Schwartz, whose encouragement and ideas are present in every paragraph of this essay. I’d also like to thank my great and good friend, Dr. Noah Efron, for a very helpful critical reading.

Jeremy Benstein holds a master’s degree in rabbinic literature and is a doctoral candidate in environmental anthropology at the Hebrew University, researching joint Jewish-Arab environmental initiatives in the Galilee. He is the educational director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.


(1.) We might add to these humbling (in the eyes of some, humiliating) slaps to the collective human ego the unseating of Western patriarchal “enlightenment” via the less heroic, but no less far-reaching movements of post-colonialism and feminism. Yet these are already different stories, for they are not a global affront to human self-perception (or more accurately Western, biblically influenced perception of the human project), but rather a challenge to the primacy, or to use the term most in vogue, the hegemony, of part of that humanity- the West over the Rest, male and masculine over female and the feminine. These movements are relevant here, though, because inherent in post-colonialism and feminism are deep critiques of two of the central pillars of that narrative of technological progress: the tenet of objectivity regarding the methods of science and the pursuit of technology, and the assumed universal applicability of the policies and tools of what is termed “development” by its proponents (and “economi c imperialism” by its critics, indigenous and otherwise).

(2.) Interestingly, these three great scientific revolutions were met with trenchant, at times violent opposition from religious (that is to say, Christian) authorities. Does religion only pay lip service to the ideal of human humility? Or is humility only desirable in the face of divinity (or similarly sanctioned human authority)? Humility in the face of Creation (arguably one of the central messages of the book of Job) seems much less important than the traditional task of asserting dominion. But without human humility in the face of something greater than ourselves – whether Divinity or Nature – the biblical doctrine of potential human dominion, a message of hope for human dignity in a pre-technological age, in our own era of technological firepower coupled with unbridled hubris, becomes a veritable nightmare of exploitation and destruction.

(3.) Not that this insight was lost on all traditional religious thinkers. The great Jewish medieval Bible commentator Joseph ibn Kaspi (fourteenth century, Provence/Spain) in his commentary Adnei Kesef to Deuteronomy chapter 22 wrote: “Besides the eradication of cruelty the Torah wished to make us conscious of our own status… a sense of our modesty and lowliness, that we should be ever cognizant of the fact that we are of the same stuff as the ass and mule, the cabbage and pomegranate and even the lifeless stone.”

(4.) Or is it fewer things? Part of the phenomenon of globalized consumerism is a sort of material homogenization (indicative of a parallel cultural homogenization, of course). So we’re certainly dealing here with more and more things, but perhaps of fewer types, a lot more of certain, narrowly defined globally standardized merchandise.

(5.) Indeed, as I suggest, there may be a quasi-causal connection, with an existential vacuum being created that was gradually filled with the sort of techno-materialism that I am describing.

(6.) Obviously there is no one traditional society, and this is an impossibly broad generalization. But I think the point holds vis-a-vis a secular forward-looking progress/”knowledge” paradigm, as opposed to a more theistic “wisdom” perspective. I think that religious environmentalism is at its best expressing a spiritually based critique of the former.

(7.) This is not to say that all traditional worldviews, or religions in general are environmentally sound or wise. Parallel to the approach known as “technological optimism,” the belief that we need not worry or fundamentally change our lifestyles for technology has the power to solve all our problems, is an interesting phenomenon that I term “theological optimism.” This is simply the similar belief that that we need not worry, or fundamentally change our lifestyles, for God has the power (and the will) to solve all our problems. This approach has Jewish as well as Christian variants. A very environmentally aware ultra-Orthodox Jewish friend of mine, mother of eight (who wanted more children), when confronted with the facts of the population explosion, responded: “God brings the children into the world, He [sic] will find the room for them.” As former Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, James Watt was reported to have said in testimony against the protection of forests for future generations: “my responsi bility is to follow the Scriptures … I don’t know how many generations we can count on before the Lord returns”; quoted in Callicott (1994), xix.

(8.) See James Watt’s comments quoted in previous note.

(9.) Of course this can be and has been abused: religious institutions perpetuating this worldly oppression and deprivation in the name of heavenly promises. Certain proponents of progress, or rather proponents of a certain type of progress, claim that the Church did indeed impede social and technological progress on these grounds or using these means.

(10.) It is interesting to note that the Hebrew term “olam” has both spatial and temporal meanings: it means both world and eternity. “L’olam” then (with only a slight variation in the vocalization of the initial consonant) can mean both “for the sake of the world” and “forever,” “for all time.” It is practically a one-word encapsulation of the notion of sustainability.

(11.) Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, folio 39b.

(12.) The same Rabbi Ya’akov has given us two of the most trenchant maxims regarding the insignificance of this world vis-a-vis the next, in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers (Goldin 1957): “This world is like a vestibule to the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule that you may enter into the (banqueting-) hall” (4:16). And: “Better is one hour of bliss of spirit in the world to come than all the life of this world” (4:17).

(13.) See his Guide of the Perplexed, section III:48 (tr. Pines 1963).

(14.) Thirteenth-century Spanish Jewish commentator. See his commentary to Deuteronomy, ad loc. In this context, he also gives one of the clearest statements applying biblical law to the question of the preservation of biodiversity. He interprets this commandment of sending away the mother bird globally to categorically forbid actions leading to species extinction: “Scripture does not allow the total destruction of a species, although it allows us to slaughter some of its kind” (ibid.).

(15.) Once again, the same Rabbi Ya’akov has expressed this thought most pithily: “One, who while walking along the way, reviewing his studies, breaks off from his study and says, ‘How beautiful is that tree! How beautiful is that plowed field!’ Scripture regards him as if he has forfeited his soul” (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:7). For a detailed study of this passage, its commentaries, and related ideas in the context of Jewish environmentalism, see Benstein (1995).

(16.) According to traditional Jewish values, this act of mastering one’s urges and inclinations is the definition of true courage, or heroism: “Who is a hero? One who conquers his own impulses” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1).

(17.) Whether or not these are religious initiatives per se, they essentially have the force of religion, for they act to “bind together” (re-ligio). As both Ursula Good-enough and Cal DeWitt pointed out, religion should act to “religate,” reconnect, people with each other, with the (heritage of the) past and (responsibilities to the) future, matter with spirit, science with ethics, etc.


Benstein, J. 1995. “Nature vs. Torah.” Judaism Quarterly 44, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 146-70. Republished in Arthur Waskow, editor, Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought (vol. 1). Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Press, 2000.

Berry, W 1981. The Gift of Good Land. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Callicott, J. B. 1994. Earth’s Insights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goldin, J. 1957. The Living Talmud. New York: New American Library.

Gould, S. J. 1994. “The Power of This View of Life.” Natural History 6, no. 94, 6–8.

Imhof, A. E. 1996. Lost Worlds: How Our European Ancestors Coped with Everyday Life and Why It Is So Hard Today University Press of Virginia.

Maimonides, M. 1963. The Guide of the Perplexed. Trans. with introduction and notes by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenzweig, F 1921. Der Stern der Erlosung. Frankfort on the Main: Schocken. 2d ed., 1930. The Star of Redemption, English trans. by William W. Hallo, 1970. Boston: Beacon Publishers.

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