Toward a cosmology of continual creation: from ecofeminism to feminine ecology and umbilical ties.
It is neither customary nor wise to tell an audience, and least of all a learned audience, about the incidents and stories around which the thinking process describes its circles. It is much safer to take listener and reader along the train of thought itself, trusting to the persuasiveness inherent in the succession of connected things, even though this succession hides as well as it preserves the original source out of which the thought process arose and from which it flew. --Hannah Arendt (1)
Hannah Arendt would likely be appalled by an effort to employ her to argue that Jews need to reclaim their tribal or in contemporary parlance--their indigenous heritage--so out of respect for her memory and to be true to the experiences that provoked me to take this position I will not invoke Arendt to bolster my case. The questions I want to explore here emerged from experiences that predate my awareness of Arendt's willingness to name the circling process of thinking. Nonetheless I do take heart from the fact that this incredible thinker of the twentieth century--who defied ideological categorization--used storytelling to critique the Archimedean vantage point of Western philosophy. Her rejection of the position of the "professional thinker" and her choice to write from the position of the pariah who is not fully at home anywhere in the world is one I find especially inspiring writing as a Jewish women engaged by the subject of gender and the natural world, yet an outsider in the professional worlds of Jewish feminism and Judaism and ecology. (2)
Questions regarding women, gender, sex desire, and embodiment have been important lines of inquiry in contemporary Jewish Studies. Scholars influenced by feminism and the methods of contemporary cultural critique introduced the notion that Jews are not simply a "people of the book" but also a "people of the body." In 1992 this notion was formalized with the publication of an edited collection by Howard Ellberg-Schwartz entitled People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective. (3) Yet what was strangely absent in this collection, and indeed in much of the vast literature on women, gender and sex desire, is consideration of human bodies in relationship to earth and cosmos. The stars, moons, plants, winds, waters, animals, soils and rocks that were integral to the landscape in which the biblical covenant was articulated are not to be found. Bodies, desire, and subjectivity are primarily interpreted with respect to power relations in the human world. Following Freud, erotic sexual desire is assumed to be the animating, generative force in human affairs. Desire and intimacy are understood in terms of relations with other humans or between humans and texts. The natural or "more-than-human world" that was surely a key element in how ancients heard words of torah is simply not considered.
Interestingly in the much smaller literature that explores Judaism's relationship to the natural world--generally termed "Judaism and ecology"--questions concerning human embodiment have been largely absent. The effort to bring ecological questions to the study of Judaism has generally accepted the environmental movement's apocalyptic sign of a planet in crisis and has focused most of its attention on finding Jewish textual sources that support the historically unique way environmental movements have conceived of environmental protection and conservation since the time of Malthus. The subject of sentient human bodies, when it enters, is typically clothed in the neutered, modernist, and objectifying machine language of "population," "production," and "reproduction." The corporality of bodies--the stuff of skin, breath, bodily fluids, and blood--the body language of the bible and Talmud is simply not present and the abundance, exuberance and boundless qualities of life are typically not given their due.
In the spring of 1997 I embarked on an effort to open up a Jewish discussion of human desiring bodies in relationship to the earth by exploring the possibilities of Jewish ecofeminist practice. Having been intimately involved with ecofeminism for more than a decade, this seemed like a fruitful way to both enrich the discussion of Judaism and ecology and address some of the problematic assumptions regarding Judaism within ecofeminism. I drew on the joys of Shabbat observance, contemporary fractal theory, and the philosopher, magician, and naturalist David Abram's innovative use of phenomenology to develop the concept of a sensuous mind that knowingly lives in the embrace of non-human creatures and the more-than-human world. (4) In a Jewish context, rituals such as mikveh and the prohibition of sexual relations during a woman's bleeding time are profoundly troubling for feminists primarily attuned to men's power over women. Yet these practices--residues of our tribal roots--take on very different meanings when understood in relation to the cosmology of continual creation. The transformative power of the living waters of mikveh and attention to how the mind's attunement to the flows of the body enable opening to the energetic forces of the more-than-human world.
My own engagement with ecofeminism began in the city where artifice and nature routinely collide--Los Angeles. This culturally and spiritually diverse megalopolis, ensconced between sea and mountain canyon, where water harvested from distance rivers is used to grow lush green lawns in a desert landscape, while poor black women fight to defend their need for clean air, was an important birthing ground for this movement that links the human concerns of feminism with the health of non-human nature. Ecofeminism surely provides an important counterweight to the deeply anti-human and dualistic theory known as deep ecology, often articulated as the philosophical foundation of the contemporary environmental movement. The Indian ecofeminist Vandana Shiva has provided some of the most powerful and incisive critiques of how the elements of creation are all too often commodified by capitalist technological processes that transform abundance into scarcity. The spiritually based strains of ecofeminism that embrace the pagan have been especially helpful in fostering sensuous languages and practices that attune human speaking creatures to the intricate inter-twining between our sentient bodies and the more-than-human world.
Nonetheless today I worry that the defining metaphor of ecofeminism--the linkage of the domination and oppression of women with the domination of the earth--creates barriers to moving beyond dualistic conflict models and is tied to a praxis that does not acknowledge the power of stillness, the unfolding of the cosmos, the human suffering that cannot be explained by materialist accounts of the world, or the abundance, wonder, and exuberance intrinsic to the circle of life. In short ecofeminism is constrained by modernist assumptions regarding history and the separation of sentient humans from the energetic flux of the cosmos. The Pacific Northwest writer Brenda Peterson provides a poetic reminder that deeper than the concept of conservation or stewardship or environmentalism, which is rooted in humans heroically going outward and "saving" the Earth, is the simple love of the natural world.
Loving nature in return for her abundance and support is what every child does when he or she stretches out her arms to the ocean, climbs a favorite tree, explores a cave. Love of nature implies intimacy and relationship. Instead of saving, we might consider surrendering to this wondrous Earth ... In giving ourselves to a nature that is so much greater than ourselves, we remember our early ancestors' devotion and spiritual embrace of this Earth and all her creatures. (5)
In this vein Jews might remember the intimacy of The Song of Songs, assuming their Tanakh is not the Stone edition where this paean to the many wondrous ways humans open to the world has been excised and an "allegorical rendering following Rashi" substituted.
Peterson's words echo my current disquietude about versions of feminism and ecofeminism that adhere to the privileged status collective political activism has held among change-oriented visionaries since Marx. The modern credo that the point of understanding is to act on the world emerged as nature became a field for mastery. Feminism and other radical ideologies have typically scorned the individualist focus of liberalism, but for both liberalism and its critics, instrumentality, rather than intimate relationship, is the operative posture. Thus neither side avoids the dualist trap that humans are separate from nature. Opening to the natural world with the love of contemporary naturalists such as Peterson soon frays the modernist perception of being non-separate. Ancient Hebrew naturalists of the Tanakh (whose understanding of body, earth and cosmos didn't even contain a word for nature), or chasidic naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the Baal Shem Tov, Shneur Zalman of Liady and Rebbe Nachman, can also provoke us to question our isolation from creation. The awe and wonder evoked by the majesty of continual creation typically brings silence, surrender, stillness, or the movement of dance, prayer, and song. Not surprisingly, joyous, totally-lacking-in-decorum dance and song, have been integral to the practice of chassidim from its founding to its resurgence in the contemporary world known as neo-chasidism. (6) Acts of doing distilled via states of being where the human ego-self is submerged are infused with a humility, inner-discipline, and compassion, foreign to action evoked by to talizing ideologies where there is a clear and distinct other. The wisdom contained in the Hebrew Bible's practical guide for achieving a good life, "Trust in Elohim with all your heart, And do not rely on your own understanding," (Proverbs 3,5) offers a helpful corrective to the illness of ideological thinking whether in political or religious garb.
Michel Foucault has been one of the most astute critics of the effects of totalizing ideologies and in Fertile Ground, I drew on his analysis of the operation of power/knowledge and ecological feminist work to question the feminist view that women's freedom resides in our gaining control over our bodies and sexuality. (7) My interest was the contradictory underside of feminism's immersion in the twentieth century's discourse of sexual desire and the myriad ways technologies that insist on constant productivity diminish access to the sensuousness of life's ebbs and flows. A particular focus of concern was how the contemporary ethos of sexual freedom becomes entailed with consumerism and the neo-Malthusian population discourse of the environmental movement that blames environmental degradation on women's fertility. My critique of population thinking had often put me at odds with friends in the environmental and feminist movements of the North who imagine that the concept of population is intrinsic to apprehending the world. Yet until a Holocaust remembrance day in 1995 I had no sense that my views had anything to do with my Jewish background. Listening to the chilling story of a mohel whose hand froze in mid-air upon the approach of Nazi storm troopers as he was about to perform the traditional brit millah, I gasped. The family had managed to locate an apartment next to a factory so as to muffle the sounds of the prohibited Jewish baby they were daring to bring into the world, thus the sound of the marching suggested that the plan had been foiled and that death would supplant celebration. I knew that sterilization laws in Germany had been modeled on racist laws in the state of Virginia, but I had had no knowledge that Nazi law had attempted to prevent all Jewish women from birthing. Was it these buried memories that had fueled my critique?
My insistence on the wrong-headedness of viewing the world through a population lens took yet another turn when I learned of ancient Jewish strictures that strictly curtail how one is allowed to count humans. These admonitions designed to prevent the objectification of humans made in the image of G-d are still followed today in orthodox circles, for example, when one needs to ascertain whether the required minyan of ten adult men for reading from the torah is present. Rather than simply affix a number to each person, a song with ten phrases is sung and if one reaches the end of the song one knows that the goal has been achieved. Such practices are strikingly similar to the resistance of tribal women who refuse the interrogations of family planning experts because of taboos about uttering the number of children one has or desires. Objectifying populationist discourse that takes no heed of the sentience of each human is a most effective mechanism for the dehumanization of peoples--most especially women--who are members of the wrong gender, class, race, or tribe.
In the Judaism and ecology literature, Jeremy Benstein, Alon Tal and others, writing under the sign of linear apocalypse and scarcity, continually plumb Jewish texts for rabbinic sources supportive of limiting human fertility as the dichotomous population/resources model with its static view of the natural world demands. This search typically leads to the reductive conclusion that the contemporary era in its entirety can be likened to the particular needs of ancient periods of famine where people were cautioned not to have sexual relations. (8) Sharon Joseph-Levy and Chavah Tirosh-Samuelson, in contrast, argue that because of the holocaust and other genocides through Jewish history, population control ideas are inappropriate for Jews. For these Jewish exceptionalist analysts, the case against population control only extends to Jews for they uncritically accept the population/resources paradigm, ignoring Judaism's moral imperatives regarding the counting of humans made in the image of G-d. Simply put, the entire population resources paradigm, whether in its modern capitalist version or the static forms of ancient Greece, is a product of historically specific mechanistic understandings of the natural world that obscure the novelty and wonder of continual creation intrinsic to life. My contention is that this limited, superficial, yet politically powerful, model can and should be challenged from within Jewish and other indigenous sources. Moreover Jews as a people, who were expressly forbidden by Nazi law to procreate--before the final plan for extermination was even devised--may be uniquely qualified to speak of the dangers of demographic reductionism whether in the anti-natalist forms of Pharaohs or the pro-natalist forms of nationalists who see women as little more than baby machines.
The notion of a Jewish feminine ecology that foregrounds the umbilical ties sustaining life in all its dazzling variety takes up from where Fertile Ground came to rest--with the burial of my mother. With Esther Frieda's death, I found myself immersed in the intricacies of Jewish burial practices and began to see traces of a worldview that contradicted the central narrative of ecofeminism in which Judaism with its transcendent male G-d is associated with the demise of the Goddess and seen as totally antithetical to the pagan, indigenous, and feminine. My textual and conversational journeys since suggest that the boundaries between the idolatrous and non-idolatrous, or pagan and not pagan, are not nearly as fixed as gatekeepers in different historical moments of our Jewish journey have declared. It seems to me that once the term Judeo-Christian became part of academic and religious discourse in the post-Holocaust era, many Jews were delighted to be finally accepted and eagerly sought to distance themselves from archaic tribal practices. With the rise of Jewish feminism and its premise of the full interchangeability of women and men, the popularity of Freudian ideas of sexual repression, and the acceleration of mechanical understandings of the body divorced from experiences of creation and the holy, this distancing process intensified. In the midst of these tumultuous processes Judaism's strange practices around women's menstrual cycles became emblematic of the reputed women hatred of patriarchy and monotheism.
One of the strengths of good ecological thought is that it pushes us to think beyond the patterns of the moment. I find it instructive that the very term monotheism and its denigrated other, polytheism, came into usage as European colonizers were discovering new worlds and Jews were being expelled from Spain. The fate of Jews and other feminized peoples with flourishing oral traditions have been curiously intertwined for many years. This history is integral to why I no longer have qualms about reclaiming the ancient vision prophesized by Jeremiah and various midrashic and kabbalistic stories that speak of the rising of the feminine and the eventual restoration of the diminished moon.
Now to finally tell the story of why I have been speaking of a feminine ecology that foregrounds the umbilical. For over a decade I was enough of a postmodernist that I confidently accepted the diversity and tensions within ecofeminism as evidence of it being particularly fitting for the complicated contours of the era in which we find ourselves. I was not consciously seeking an alternative to a term that engages the imagination of many theorists and activists across the globe until the term "feminine ecology" welled up from the depths of my belly in a prophetic moment. This happened minutes after a wrenching encounter with a fierce-looking, white haired male lawyer playing the role of judge as I was being prepared for a custody trial. Consumed by the need to protect the well-being of my daughter, as I burbled verbal responses to his harsh inquiry, "what is this thing ecofeminism?" I suddenly felt a voice in my belly insisting that my actions in the world always had to do with Maya. His demand that I had better defend myself, had prodded me, in the way no political or intellectual debate could, to see the conflictual resonances of ecofeminism in mainstream culture.
Between not arriving at feminine ecology through the purely cognitive means I had been taught to trust, and daring to embrace the term "feminine," so deeply troublesome for many feminist intellectuals because of its associations with a reputed essential female nature that is eternally passive, inherently nurturing or irredeemably sly and manipulative, defending the term to myself and sister-intellectuals of my generation has been a source of anxiety and turmoil. Today I would contend that feminine ecology holds the potential of shifting attention to the sensuous ground that sustains all life and challenging the notion of ecological science as the master narrative for saving a planet at the brink of destruction. Respectful of both ancient cosmologies and emergent forms of non-mechanistic science that attest to the dynamic, non-linear flux, abundance, and exuberance of the natural world, it foregrounds the errors of modernist approaches to history, politics, and science.
My contention is that thinkers with such diverse agendas as Locke, Hobbes, Newton, Malthus, and Darwin all assumed that conflict and competition among independent, discrete, and bounded entities is what moves the world. Yet rather than abjure science as often happens with deep ecologists and ecofeminists whose passions are galvanized by the excesses of the modernist project or the converse where ecological science is the master narrative for saving a planet at the brink of destruction, feminine ecology would foster a dynamic, non-utilitarian ecological science in which technological creativity is inseparable from the unfolding creation that returns humans to dust. The inherent humility of such practices of investigation nourishes an environmental paradigm in which ecological science is but one tool in the conversation of how to serve creation. Bringing the pulsating umbilical into view deepens the meaning of a focus on the feminine, providing a counter to the reign of the phallus and its narcissistic obsession with permanent erection, male seed, and copulating couples. The unraveling motion of the spiraling umbilical permits a clear break with a troublesome, static binary in which the eternally passive feminine is continually counterpoised to the privileged and more active masculine.
My interest in the umbilical was born out of trying to make sense of a powerful image of young babies connected via an umbilical-like cord. I kept visualizing this strange tree-like image shortly after luxuriating in the embrace of stimulating conversation about the cosmos with dear friends amidst steaming natural hot pools in a magnificent cathedral forest in my home state of Oregon. The gripping image was prompted by the uncanny movement of a young man who while listening intently to our conversation abruptly jumped up and pointed to his navel, emphatically declaring, "The center of the cosmos is right here."
And yet for both men and women, in order for there to be life in this world, the no-waste environment of being fed continually through the umbilical cord must come to an end. The state before the cutting must indeed be wondrous and the Alter Rebbe in Torah Orah says that in the navel enters the inner parts of the torah. (9) I would suggest that the fixing for both men and women of this terrible loss is to attach to the invisible cord provided by g-d, the devekut that traditional kabbalists talk about. In Proverbs we are admonished not to rely on our own understanding. The promise is that if we acknowledge G-d in all our ways, and not try to be wise in our own eyes and fear the Lord and shun evil, then "there will be a fixing of the navel." (3.8)
The sad irony, in our era, is that this possibility of the fixing of the navel is all too often erased from our horizons by activists for global justice with thin, presentist memories, still in the grip of dualist conflict models. My argument is that the strange and wandering Jewish tribe has served as the cultural umbilical tie between traditional tribal cultures that acknowledge the power of birth, magic, and a living, unfolding cosmos, and the belief in human agency, compassion for the oppressed, and continual learning and questioning that permitted the flourishing of Western science, tolerance, and human rights. Activists for justice across the globe, whatever their agenda, would have no vocabulary for speaking beyond particular isolated communities, in the absence of their reliance on this moon-like tie that has been integral to the human spiritual and political journey. Rather than scorn the promise of Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike, might well remember that since Greek and Roman days when Jews were first ostracized or tortured for being too feminine--through the Crusades, the Spanish inquisition, European pogroms, Nazi death camps, expulsions from Islamic lands, and suicide bombers--Shabbat-observant Jews have prayed for the end of their exile, the return of the shechina, (the feminine presence of g-d) and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, imaged as the navel of the world.
1. Cited in Lisa Jane Disch in Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy, (Cornell University Press, 1994)
2. Lisa Jane Disch in Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy, (Cornell University Press, 1994) beautifully explicates how Arendt's attack on Archimedian thinking and use of storytelling to train the imagination to go "visiting" differs from the storytelling of poststructuralist and feminist critical theorists.
3. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, ed. People of the Body (State University Press of Albany, 1992).
4. The initial stage of this process is indebted to collaboration with Rabbi David Seidenberg and was published as Irene Diamond and David Seidenberg, "Sensuous Minds and the Possibilities of a Jewish Ecofeminist Practice," Ethics and the Environments 4(2) 185-195, 2000.
5. Brenda Peterson, Nature and Other Mothers (Fawcett Columbine, 1995).
6. The term "neo-chassidim" is generally only used by those segments of the Jewish world who are drawn to the mystical and joyful sensibilities of traditional chassidut, while also trying to integrate these teachings with the aspirations of contemporary feminism. Natan Margalit organized a historic conference on neo-chasidism, sponsored by the Jewish Spirituality Institute, Bard Institute of Religion and the Westside JCC, March 2002.
7. Irene Diamond, Fertile Ground: Women, Earth and the Limits of Control (Beacon, 1994).
8. The nature of nature, from the microcosmic to the cosmic, is abundance, extravagance, flux, and movement rather than scarcity, stability, and equilibrium.
9. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, born in 1745, and founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch strand of chasidim.