by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
In these monthly articles I have been offering readers some background history on the Jewish sources of the values and ideals that motivated me to develop the vision that became Kehilla Community Synagogue. In this six-part series, I turn to the legacy of Reb Zalman for our community.
During my interview with Reb Zalman in 2005, I asked him which of the Ba’al Shem’s teachings he felt held the greatest spiritual wisdom for seekers today.
“You know, if the Ba’al Shem were living today,” he replied, “he would be concerned about the future of our Earth. God so loved the world that She gave herself to it and became the Earth. Therefore, we must love and care for the Earth because She is an embodiment of the Divine.”
“That’s really a powerful way of reframing the Besht’s experience for our time, Zalman,” I responded, “If we were really going to take the Ba’al Shem’s vision of God’s radical presence seriously, we would be forced to place the environment at the head of our spiritual and moral agenda!”
When I re-read my transcript of the interview sometime afterward, the word “environment” didn’t seem quite right to me. My Encarta online dictionary gives three definitions for the word environment: 1. The natural world, within which people, animals and plants live; 2. All the external factors influencing life or organisms, such as light or food supply; 3. The conditions that surround people and affect the way they live. All three of these definitions characterize the world “out there”—that is, the environment—as an entity that is separate from human beings.
But is it conceivable for humans or for any living things to exist outside of their “environments”? Organisms exist only in relationship with one another and with the inorganic world. And if humanity and animals and plants are actually one with the earth, and the earth is one with God, as the Besht believed, then there is no “environment.” There are no ultimate boundaries between things.
Reb Zalman would have accepted this understanding of God, for he wrote, “God does not occupy a portion of existence over and against us, a divine territory in what we call existence or the universe; God, quite simply, is existence. When God is existence, then all is God and everything that we encounter is but a symbol ‘transparent to transcendence.’ . . . God simply is. God is all in everything.”
Reb Zalman embraced the “Gaia Hypothesis,” originated by geophysiologist James Lovelock and macrobiologist Lynn Margulis. The theory states that the earth itself is a living organism and possesses a planetary intelligence of her own that is innate, self-governing, self-sustaining, self-regulating and self-healing. Zalman wrote,
“More than I want to talk about serving God, I want to talk about serving the planet . . . Strengthening this whole-Earth cooperation is to me the most urgent and important way we have of serving God, the holiest and most pressing invitation of our time.”
In other words, if the Earth is Divine, then we must treat Her with the love and reverence due to God.
Reb Zalman writes eloquently about our responsibility to the planet we are part of:
A vision of Earth that respects but transcends national and religious boundaries is part of the Torah of the future. We humans have the potential to be the global consciousness of a living planet, with every individual conscious cell and every group a contributing organ of . . . that vast living being. Gaia has already seen herself through our eyes: she’d been waiting so long to see her own face! Now we have a choice: we can act like cancer cells, rogue cells sowing the seeds of the organism’s destruction, or we can become Gaia’s most flexible digits for healing Herself where she hurts.
In Zalman’s vision, the future of humanity, the future of the earth, the future of God in this corner of the universe lies in each of our hands, and collectively in the hands of the human race.