Editor’s Thoughts: Nature and Its Discontents

By: Daniel Shlian

The word “nature” is rich with differing meanings. When a chemist describes something as “natural,” a purveyor of organic food products might disagree[i]. One person’s proclivity in any number of realms might be described as unnatural by those who do not share them, but is perfectly natural to those who do. Absent a rigorous definition, then, the word loses much of its usefulness. Despite the word’s vagueness, for many, “natural” implies something desirable and positive, perhaps idyllic, or “the way things were meant to be.” But should it imply desirability?

The twentieth-century English philosopher G. E. Moore described the naturalistic fallacy: it is invalid to conclude that something is good from any of its natural properties.[ii] If something has the quality of being pleasant, that does not make it good. In Moore’s view, good is an irreducible property, not derivable from any other properties, just as the concept of “yellow” does not depend on any other concept, neither does the idea of “good.”[iii] Later philosophers have disputed Moore’s contentions, but as a purely logical tool; relating the good and the natural is not useful.

I am neither an ethicist nor a philosopher, but I will phrase the question in slightly different terms: in a religious worldview wherein creation is a Divine process and nature is put in place by God, is “natural” better? Should we attempt to leave things in the universe the way they are, or are we meant to use the World for our own ends?

Not at all surprisingly, Judaism’s sources are not quiet on the topic, but neither do they speak in a unified voice.  One reasonable location for proliferation of opinions on the matter is the prohibition forbidding certain hybridizing: crossbreeding animals and plants, and interweaving wool and linen.[iv] The Talmud[v] contends that the latter of these is fundamentally inexplicable by anything other than Divine fiat; Rashi in Leviticus extends this notion to all of the hybrids. Yet Nahmanides,[vi] in a well-known comment, insists there is another reason at hand: “One who combines two species thereby changes and denies Creation, as if he thinks God did not complete His world as necessary, and desires to aid in the creation of the world by adding species.”[vii] Nahmanides posits that the unsullied natural order created by God needs no assistance, and further, that any attempt to further the program of Creation is an affront to its Creator.

Other sources, though, view nature as awaiting human completion. An oft-cited midrash[viii] cites a discussion between Quintus Tineius Rufus and Rabbi Akiva in which the Roman provincial governor asks the Mishnaic rabbi whether God’s acts are greater than man’s. When Rabbi Akiva responds that man’s achievements are superior to the Almighty’s, he qualifies his assertion by exclaiming that the heavens and earth are external to the question, since they are outside the scope of man’s creative abilities. Yet when confronted with the question of circumcision—why would God have male babies born with foreskins, if He desires that the Jews remove them?—Rabbi Akiva eventually offers two solutions. First, at least some natural phenomena are also ideally altered, as demonstrated by the necessary severing of the umbilical cord. Second, the commandments, circumcision included, are given to perfect the Jews.[ix]

Unpacking this dispute sheds some more light on the question than is gained by a cursory reading. The heavens and earth, claims Rabbi Akiva, are not subject to man’s dominion. The question of nature versus innovation is only interesting in cases where man’s achievements can affect Creation. Anything outside man’s reach may be subject to study, but such study only serves as a reminder of man’s non-Divine position. That which man cannot even fully investigate is even more subject to this principle.[x]

With the awesome essence of nature reaffirmed, let us analyze the two answers offered by Rabbi Akiva. In the first, he claims that without altering natural phenomena, human life would be impossible. Certain elements of nature pose a threat to humanity’s well-being, be they predatory animals, disease, or even a physical connection between child and mother which endures too long. Medicines, vaccines, protection from the elements—in the midrash’s presentation, these are unquestioningly accepted as good things, though they violate the “natural order.”[xi] But all of these merely prevent harm. The second answer, then—and here I acknowledge I may be reading more into the text than is licensed[xii]—defends improving upon the natural condition as a Divine ideal. Circumcision is not motivated by any specific physical need other than fulfilling the word of God. This positive attitude toward the alteration of nature might not be limited to specific fulfillment of commandments, but could argue for a range of human activity achieving great accomplishments with natural tools.

That the two sources disagree with one another is hardly surprising; the dilemma of whether to leave nature alone or to use it to achieve other ends is not one that is easily resolved. Certainly, God’s Creation is to be admired and respected, not destroyed without meaningful purpose. And certainly, halakhah occasionally calls upon humanity to transcend nature, both physical and behavioral. But the middle ground is frequently blurry and unclear, subject to any number of value judgments.

With the idea of nature called into some question, please take the time to interact with our writers’ strong work on this theme. Matt Lubin’s article on Abarbanel pushes the dialectic of this article to a much greater extent than I do here. Mindy Schwartz describes how Hanukkah comprises both historical and agricultural aspects. Ari Adler explains the contours of the Jewish intellectual responses to the theory of evolution. Judy Leserman explores the challenges of halakhah after man breaches the atmospheric barrier. And David Selis converses with Rabbi Ozer Glickman on art and aesthetics. Naturally, we believe you will enjoy reading, discussing, and responding.

Daniel Shlian is neither an ethicist nor a philosopher, but he does intend to be a chemist at some point. He is in his third year in Yeshiva College, majoring in chemistry and Jewish studies, and is an Editor-in-Chief of Kol Hamevaser.


[i] For a helpful understanding of these issues, see http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3324

[ii] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: University Press, 1903).

[iii] Interestingly, this extends to Divine commands: to say that God’s command makes something good is also a violation of the naturalistic fallacy, as it is not restricted to natural properties. It seems that the intuitive form of the fallacy need not yield this conclusion.

[iv] Leviticus 19, 9

[v] BT Yoma 67b

[vi] Ad loc. Others, including (but not limited to) Rashbam and Abraham Ibn Ezra, agree, though Nahmanides’ formulation is most striking.

[vii] Translation my own. Nahmanides also notes that this reason is a mystical one, not a purely logical one.

[viii] Tanhuma (Buber edition), Tazria 7

[ix] Though, of course, Moore would disagree with the assertion that Divine commands are automatically good. I believe we need not seriously set the two in dialogue.

[x] The nature of experience may be one of these epistemologically uninvestigable phenomena. For more on that issue, see David Chalmers, “Facing up to the Hard Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2:3 (1995): 200-219.

[xi] See Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishnah Pesahim 4:9 for an excoriation of opinions privileging reliance on Divine assistance over available medication.

[xii] However, it should be noted that the section of the midrash I omitted, on the comparison between unprocessed wheat and bread, may support this point further.

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