Journal Watch
Fri, 04/03/2009

At the crux of the regulation of food preparation and ingestion is the question of how our religious ritual activities hallow our lives and shore up our ethnic/national identity. The rationale for the laws of kashrut may indeed be arcane and unknown, indeed unknowable; but at bottom they are all about a reverence for life. Revering life means revering the ethical imperatives that make life worth living, and among the most important of these are concerns about the environment, an arena that seems to have become quite the vogue in religious circles — in Jewish organizational circles, to be sure — over the past two decades.

But was it not always thus? Rabbi Lawrence Troster, in a most readable and well-researched article, “God Must Love Beetles: A Jewish View of Biodiversity and the Extinction of Species,” in Conservative Judaism (Spring 2008), addresses the specific environmental issue of biodiversity and answers this question with a forthright “Maybe.” Species extinction is a serious business, argues Rabbi Troster, with the rate of extinction (the percentage of species “lost” per decade) at approximately 6 percent, according to some experts in the field. But Jews have known about, and have addressed, species extinction for centuries, indeed millennia. Rabbi Troster brings a number of sources that speak to this matter. Two are areas of interest. One, the dietary laws arena, with its system of classification of animals, is an oblique acknowledgement of the prescription in Genesis to protect beings created by God — the idea of stewardship. The second, a bit less elusive than kashrut, is the lovely and moving law (Deuteronomy 22-6-7) requiring that, in chancing upon a bird’s nest with the mother bird “sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother with her young. Let the mother bird go, and take only the young …” Respect for parent-child relationships, a sense that living creatures suffer physical and emotional pain, compassion — all of this is true in this mitzvah. But Rabbi Troster reminds us that the 12th-century sage Nahmanides (the Ramban) had it right: “The person who kills the mother and the young is regarded as though he has destroyed the species.”

Is Nahmanides expressing an ethic of the inherent value of species? Probably not. The Ramban does not express a positive obligation to preserve species; he is talking about a chance encounter. His agenda is to show that commandments have specific rationales that benefit humans; the most that we can say is that there is a stewardship ethic, which sees instrumental value in species.

Of interest, albeit in an idiosyncratic way, is a truly fascinating article by Swarthmore College’s Nathaniel Deutsch on the question of what happens when sectarian Jews – haredim, fervently Orthodox Jews -- come into contact with innovative technology: “The Forbidden Fork, the Cell Phone Holocaust, and Other Haredi Encounters with Technology” (Contemporary Jewry, 2009). The eponymous “forbidden fork” refers back to an episode in which Talmud scholar Rabbi David Weiss Halivni was caught by his chasidic uncle reading a newspaper — a religious “no-no” in their insular Romanian town. The uncle complained to Halivni’s grandfather about a whole list of young David’s religious infractions: “He has become ‘modern’; he eats with a fork, unlike most people …”

Deutsch uses the “forbidden fork” as a metaphor for forms of technology to be condemned by the sectarian Orthodox of today — but not simply because they are new. It’s a tough call for haredim. They are ideologically opposed to the idea of progress, argues Deutsch, but “they feel that it is possible to employ the technologies (such as the cell-phone) instrumentally without subjecting themselves to corrupting influences.” They “function as tools that do not transform the user,” hence they are OK.

What’s the issue for the haredim — and for everyone else? Much of the new technology provides content, which tautologically influences the way people think, and thus has a transformative effect on the user—“even the humble fork,” says Deutsch. But the haredim believe that they can shape the new tools in a way in which the tool is solely instrumental, thus “the Haredim preserve their sense of themselves as fundamentally unchanged since the time of their ancestors.”

It is a fiction, of course; it forces the haredim into a more insular sectarianism, as Deutsch would agree. But it’s a useful fiction for the haredi world.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “Whither American Zionism?”(Bar Ilan) and “The Future of American Jewish Religion” (Columbia University Press).