Tu Bi-Shevat, Earth Day, and Environmentalism

Tu bi-Shevat  – Winter 1993

Jews and Canaanites were at one time the same people. They lived in the same land. They spoke the same language. They worshiped the same gods. Even when the Jews became attached to the cult of Yahveh and abandoned all the other gods, many elements of the old religion remained.

One of the old gods was the goddess Asherah. She was a farmer’s god, a deity of fertility. She made crops grow. Her male counterpart was Baal, lord of life and rain. Baal-worship featured phallic pillars erected on high hills. Asherah-worship featured trees — sacred trees that grew in temple compounds. The chief festival of Asherah followed immediately upon the completion of the rainy season, when the sap in the trees rose to its fullness.

The festival of Asherah fell near the end of winter. When the moon calendar be­came dominant, it found its place on either the new moon or the full moon of the month of Shevat. The ritual of the day was dramatic. Sacred trees were worshiped. Sacred dances were danced around the sacred trees. Fruit and nuts, the offspring of trees, were eaten in this celebration of fertility. Apples, almonds, and carob, the gifts of the goddess, were eagerly de­voured. As a turning point in the seasonal cycle, the beginning of the dry season became a demarcation point between the old year and the new year. Like the Druids (the priestesses of the Kelts), the priest­esses of Asherah made the “fullness” of the trees an opportunity to dramatize the power of life and its divine connection.

Although the worship of Asherah disap­peared from Jewish life, the festival of Asherah has not. It survives as Tu Bi- Shevat (Hamisha Asar Bi-Shevat). Like most Jewish holidays it has a non-Yahvistic origin; and, like most Jewish holidays, it has been integrated into the Yahveh cult. I suspect that, because of its powerful con­nection to the Asherah cult, both priests and rabbis tried to eliminate it. They did succeed in reducing it to a minor holiday. But the power of folk attachment rescued it. The people were not prepared to give up what they deemed indispensable. And the authorities were forced to yield to their attachment.

In the rabbinic tradition, Tu Bi-Shevat emerged as one of four new years. Nissan 1 (April) is the new year of the counting of the months and the reigns of kings. Elul 1 (August-September) is the new year of tithing cattle. Tishri 1 (September-October) is the new year of divine judgment (Rosh Hashana). And Shevat 1 (January-February) is the new year of the trees. While Rosh Hashana is dominant, the other new years remain as minor holidays. The New Year of the Trees features the eating of fruits and nuts, the recitation of special readings from the Bible about trees and nature, and the creation of devotional poems.

The urban world of the Diaspora, far from Palestine and far from the agricultural cycle of its seasons, was hardly supportive of a nature holiday with which the rabbis were uncomfortable. But, in the twentieth century, the Zionist movement breathed new life into it. The Zionists loved a Jewish holiday that could be identified with the reclamation of the land. The land needed trees, and Tu Bi-Shevat was about trees. The holiday became a Zionist “Earth Day,“ when trees were planted as a dramatic symbol of the Zionist commitment to res­toration and rebuilding. The Jewish Na­tional Fund replaced Asherah. Little blue collection boxes reminded us of Palestine and the Zionist mission. Planting trees became a Jewish obsession. Israel and conservation made a happy marriage.

Zionism revived Tu Bi-Shevat. But its passion was divided after 1948 between this winter holiday and the more dramatic Israel Independence Day. In the end pa­rades won out over trees. As for the Diaspora, the holiday was ill-suited to Jews living intemperate climates. Planting trees in the snow seemed a bit odd. And Israel was far away.

At the end of the 1960s the true substi­tute for Asherah arrived on the scene. The environmental movement, with all its ro­mantic passion, made its debut. It was the ideal movement for the educated children of the middle class. No longer concerned with the struggle for survival, they now turned to issues of happiness and quality of life. Safe, clean, and beautiful environ­ments suited the tastes of a rising leisure class. And the rigorous demands of an environmentalist discipline, from recycling to detergent control, appealed to a permis­sive generation that could no longer find its moral structure in the old religion.

Environmentalism became a new “reli­gion” for many young people. By the 1980s it was the most important issue for the youth generation. After the demise of socialism and the New Left, it had no rivals. Nature had won out over revolu­tion. Earth Day triumphed over May Day. Pollution, rather than capitalism, became the ultimate enemy. Schmutz took on the evil face of exploitation.

With the arrival of Earth Day as an environmentalist celebration, Tu Bi-Shevat developed real possibilities for the Diaspora. A Jewish holiday attached to trees seemed a perfect connection between Judaism and youthful idealism. Gradually Tu Bi-Shevat moved out of the narrow Zionist world into the broader sphere of universal values. An ethical idealism that touched every inch of the planet embraced the holiday and gave it a powerful significance that it had not enjoyed since the heyday of Asherah.

Tu Bi-Shevat, as the Jewish Earth Day, has enormous potential. It can mobilize Jewish people to fight pollution and to resist the forces that destroy the beauty of our environment. It can also reinforce Jewish identity by marrying a Jewish holi­day to an overwhelmingly important social concern. The discipline of keeping the environment clean is almost as satisfying as kashrut, especially if it is done with Hebrew words.

But the Earth Day theme can be danger­ous, especially if environmentalism is con­fused with the currently fashionable nature mysticism. Historic environmentalism is rational. Nature mysticism is irrational.

What is nature mysticism?

It is the worship of nature, as though nature were a goddess like Asherah. Asherah’s modern name is Gaia, and Gaia-worship is growing.

Rational environmentalism does not worship nature. It seeks to control it. It strives to use human ingenuity to make the world safer, cleaner, and more beautiful for human beings. It is not the enemy of science and technology. It knows that it needs science and technology to do what it has to do. Cleaning up the environment requires more scientific know-how than making it dirty.

Rational environmentalism avoids the three irrational premises of nature mysti­cism:

“Nature is a harmonious whole.”

Nature mystics imagine that life has a single agenda. All of life is a single organic whole. It is like a single giant organism that covers the surface of the planet. The name of this giant organism is Gaia. Gaia has an unconscious intelligence or mind. This unconscious intelligence has a pur­pose. This purpose is the purpose of life.

But is it true that the fish and the fisherman have one purpose? Is it the secret dream of every little fish to end up as fried fish on a human dinner table? Is it the unconscious intention of every fisher­man to avoid catching any fish? What is their shared agenda? Gaia means coopera­tion. And very often two living species — or two living individuals — cooperate. But they also compete. A world of competition means many agendas, not one. That is the story of life’s evolution. That is the story of natural selection. There are as many Gaias as there are living creatures striving to survive. And none of them is a goddess.

The agenda of cancer cells is not the agenda of the people they invade. The agenda of viruses is not the agenda of the victims they infect. The agenda of the species may not be the agenda of the individual member of the species. The agenda of human survival may not be the agenda of human happiness. Floods may be wonderful for fish, but they tend to be disastrous for people. Disease is marvelous for population control, but it does not do very much for the quality of life. The harmony of nature is an illusion.

“Everything natural is good.”

Nature mystics maintain that whatever nature produces is good, even if we cannot figure out why it is good. If nature pro­duces a phallic foreskin, it should not be cut off. If nature’s lightning starts a forest fire, it should not be put out. If nature’s evolution produces a living species, it should not be exterminated. Nature is sacred, just as Asherah was sacred. When we interfere with nature, we incur the “wrath of the gods.”

But not everything natural is good. Moral good relates to the human agenda, to what is good for the satisfaction of human needs. Neither the evolution of the universe nor the evolution of life is concerned about human happiness. They are not even con­cerned with the pleasure and survival of other living beings. Natural selection is a blind and grim force. Most of its inventions are useless mutations. The fact that human beings did not invent them does not mean that they are good.

If we want to save baby seals, it is not because they are “good.” Human beings are “turned on” by other animals that look like them, can suffer like them, and appear beautiful in their eyes. Cockroaches do not qualify. They do not “turn us on,” and we squish them mercilessly. The choice is quite arbitrary. But I have known many cockroach squishers who are very good environmentalists.

Revering all of nature makes no more sense than worshiping Asherah or Yahveh or Gaia. Understanding nature makes a lot more sense than worshiping it.

“Everything humans make is artificial.”

Nature mystics maintain that deliberate human creations are not natural and are, therefore, inferior to what is natural. Cities are inferior to wilderness. Modern medi­cine is inferior to herbs. Living with hu­man artifacts is inferior to living with what grows. Humans are the inventors of the unnatural, alien invaders and intruders into the realm of nature.

But human beings are not outside of nature. They are part of nature’s evolution. And what they create is not outside of nature. It is an expression of natural power. Robins make nests. Beavers make dams. And people build cities. Cities are no less natural than nests or dams. They are made from the materials that nature provides. Quite simply, everything that exists is nature. And everything that happens is natural. When people farm, that is natural. When people heal, that is natural. When people erect buildings, that is natural. Sometimes cities are better for people than poisonous swamps. Sometimes medicines made from factory chemicals are better than medicines made from plant chemi­cals. Sometimes living with cats may be more dangerous than living with couches.

As you can see, nature mysticism de­tracts from a rational environmentalism. But it is not the only ideological danger. It shares this distinction with Pollyanna mysticism.

What is Pollyanna mysticism?

Pollyanna mysticism is the cult of eter­nal optimism, the worship of “progress.” It is just as irrational as nature mysticism. Here are two of its irrational premises:

“There are fewer environmental dangers than we imagine.”

Pollyanna mystics practice a lot of de­nial. They prefer to be optimistic. They resist voices of doom. They are suspicious of anybody who predicts natural catastro­phes. The Religious Right believes that the ozone threat is an illusion, a dangerous illusion invented by atheists to subvert American industry and the Christian work ethic. They said so at an evangelical meet­ing held just after the Republican Conven­tion in August. Pollyanna mystics believe that nuclear power is perfectly safe, that the disaster at Chernobyl has been exagger­ated. A major potential source of industrial power and human enhancement (they say) is being destroyed by environmental fanat­ics, who have become a new “clergy,” eager to regulate the lives of conscientious entrepreneurs and to undermine techno­logical and human progress. Pollyanna mystics have found their counter-scien­tists — men and women who battle with the scientific establishment and press their own counter-statistics.

But the environmental dangers they deride stare us in the face. The tobacco industry can maintain that the connection between smoking and lung cancer is still uncertain. Yet the evidence for that con­nection is overwhelming. The spray com­panies can maintain that ozone blight is an illusion. But the rise in the evidence of skin cancer has a compelling relationship to the increasing presence of harmful radiation. The nuclear power industry can maintain that the Chernobyl disaster is only a propa­ganda triumph. Yet the distressing statis­tics from the Ukraine and Belarus are stark reminders of disaster.

“Environmentalism stands in the way of human advancement.”

Pollyanna mystics believe that environ­mentalism means excessive regulation, that excessive regulation means big govern­ment, and that big government means the disappearance of ambition and invention. The government, they say, is now choos­ing to defend strange birds and even stranger fish against the legitimate demands of thousands of Americans for jobs. It stands as a barrier to economic development.

There is some truth to this accusation. But not a lot. It may be true that trying to preserve every rare species simply kills necessary jobs and does little or nothing to preserve the beauty and health of the environment. It also may be true that mem­bers of the prosperous middle class now want the wilderness for their playground and, having “made it” themselves, do not care whether the people below them have a chance to make it too. But the most im­portant truth is that enormous progress has been made in recent years in the Western world to clean up and beautify the environ­ment. Pollution has declined. Conserva­tion has been enhanced. Personal habits and discipline have altered for the better. Lakes, rivers, and urban settings that were unusable and dangerous have been ren­dered fit for human pleasure. Many human lives have been saved. And many more will be saved. And that is progress. The pollution hell created by overzealous in­dustrialization in Eastern Europe is not human advancement. If you cannot breathe, having a job is meaningless.

Jewish Earth Day is a wonderful time to celebrate our commitment to a rational environmentalism. We do not want to be either nature mystics or Pollyanna mys­tics. We do not want to worship either nature or technological progress. We just want to celebrate the power we have to create a healthier and more beautiful world to live in.

Tu Bi-Shevat does not need either Asherah or Gaia. It has the dream of human happiness