August 4, 2005
Sacred Words Come Naturally
Ellen Bernstein has been called the birth mother of the Jewish environmental movement. In 1988, she founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), the first national Jewish environmental organization, and since leaving the group in 1996 has been an educator, consultant and writer. Her new book, "The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology" (Pilgrim Press), is a gem, beautifully written and produced. While it is inherently a narrative about ecological issues as framed by the first chapter of Genesis, it is really a deeper poetic work about being alive to life's wonders, feeling connected to creation and to the Creator.
Although Bernstein is a person of action, her goal is not so much to foster activism as to help people gain appreciation of the environment as well as Judaism. Readers will learn about nature and experience what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called "radical amazement." Bernstein, one of the few Jewish authors besides Evan Eisenberg who writes lyrically about nature, describes seeing with the soul and cultivating intimacy with the earth.
"Genesis I is particularly beautiful and poetic," she says. "I was inspired ... to contextualize environment in a totally different way."
In seven chapters, each devoted to a day of creation, Bernstein weaves biblical text, midrash, the writings of naturalists and autobiography. In her chapter "Water, Earth and Plants: The Third Day," she gracefully slips from talking about the physical qualities of water to its natural flow to open-heartedness in a few paragraphs.
While growing up in what she describes as a lackluster Jewish environment in New England, Bernstein sought solace and adventure in the woods. After pursuing environmental studies at Berkeley, she studied Eastern religions but revisited the Bible in search of wisdom she might have missed. She came to realize that "ecology and the Bible were using different languages to describe the same thing.... Both teach humility, modesty, kindness to all beings, a reverence for life and ... that the earth is sacred and mysterious," she writes.
In the 10 years it took Bernstein to complete "Creation," she studied theologians such as Nachmanides and the 19th-century German Orthodox Rabbi Raphael Hirsch, "who expressed an uncanny ecological perspective," she says.
As she was writing, she heard the words of the 11th-century philosopher Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda: "Meditation on creation is obligatory. You should try to understand both the smallest and greatest of God's creatures."