Why do we sometimes find it difficult to display humility and responsibility in our relationship with the rest of the natural world? Helen Freeman traces the history of Jewish thought on this issue, and advocates that a deeper understanding of consumerism and the need for rootedness and security will help us to see our relationship to the created world in a new light.
For Jews, our understanding of engagement with the created world goes right back to the creation story in Genesis chapter one. Once the beautiful world and its life forms have been created, God says, in verse 26:
’vayomer Elohim, na’aseh adam b’tzalmaynoo kidmootaynoo u-rdu vidgut hayam, oov’of hashamayim, oovab’haymah oov’khol ha-aretz oov’khol harems haromays al ha-aretz-And God said, let us make Adam in our image and likeness, and he will rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heaven and the cattle and all the earth and all creeping things that creep upon the earth.
The word for human being, adam, is related closely to the word for earth, adamah, and conveys the earthiness and closeness of the relationship between human beings and the soil of the ground.
The later rabbinical commentators understood the human right to rule over the other creatures to be an ethical imperative; if they did not do so justly, then terrible things would happen. Using a play on the word ’u-rdu – and rule – the fifth-century midrash in Genesis Rabbah 8:12 says this:
‘And have dominion (u-rdu) over the fish of the sea etc.’ Rabbi Chanina said: If humanity merits it, u-rdu (it will have dominion); and if humanity doesn’t merit it yirdu (it will descend/fall). Rabbi Ya’akov of Kfar Hanan: That which is ‘in our image, according to our likeness’, u-rdu (it will have dominion), and that which is not in our image according to our likeness yirdu (it will descend).
The challenge to humanity is then how we conceptualise our place of dominion over the created world.