(This article is based on Rabbi Ramon’s recent publication, A New Life: Religion, Motherhood and Supreme Love in the Works of A.D. Gordon, (Carmel Publishing), which describes A.D. Gordon’s philosophical and religious attempt to examine modernity from a traditional viewpoint, and tradition as it faces the challenge of modernity. This article first appeared In the Faculty Forum distributed by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and appears here with the author’s permission.)
One of the modern Jewish thinkers whose philosophy may shed light on the connection between People and Land in the wake of Zionism, for us who live in Israel, is Aharon David Gordon, a founder of the Labor Movement and a giant of the Second Aliya (1856-1922). Gordon, in his concise but rich writing, comes to grips with the spiritual implications of living in the Eretz Yisrael habitat in modern times.
Gordon did not perceive any hierarchy in nature; to him, the cyclical characteristics of nature exemplified the philosophic principle of lack of hierarchy. He maintained that this principle provided a replicable model. Against nature, he claimed, stands modern urban culture, which is mechanical, competitive and therefore also alienating.
Urban relationships are not broad – they are intricate, like the spider’s web, in which human beings are trapped. Attempting to broaden one’s space in the web causes a deeper enmeshment and strangulation of others. Only by trampling on other people, physically or spiritually, can one raise one’s position in the web. We should take a lesson from the sky, the sun, the wind, and mountains, who occupy no comparative size or importance. Man, worm, and the entire world are one.
Gordon’s environmental philosophy was born out of a respect for untamed nature, for the world of living plants and animals. These he perceived to be driven by an organic, not hierarchical, principle. He, first among the revolutionary Jewish philosophers, stood opposed, from a religious Jewish viewpoint, to the various expressions of humanity’s destruction of nature resulting from man’s arrogance and pretensions to unrestrained dominion over it. In the following section taken from the latter part of “Man and Nature,” apparently written during or after his journey to Vienna in the summer of 1914, Gordon articulates his critical and visionary environmental stance unequivocally:
How did the human being act vis-à-vis Nature from the moment that he began to treat Nature as his own? Is there, in reality, a spiritual relationship to the plant, to the field, to the garden, and to the forest as they are? Isn’t there a movement for deforestation of entire forests, even eternal forests that are not only the magnificence of Nature, but also sketches of nobility and Divine inspiration on Nature’s? These forests are also essential for the health of both humans and plants. Don’t we destroy them for the sake of money, as a result of our limited and narrow calculations? Even the most decent governments do not regulate such actions. This is all an outcome of short mindedness and not an account of Nature . . . Where is the Biblical forest of Lebanon? Or a waterfall that becomes a power engine, what does it say? And so on. (Do not respond to these questions by blaming it all on capitalism. This destruction of Nature has existed since the dawn of civilization. A social revolution adds nothing in this regard. In a different social order we may find a more just distribution of material and natural resources, yet the path to a different relationship with Nature is still very long.
Gordon’s revulsion to the material, utilitarian and voracious approach to nature surfaces in his writings recorded on a train journey from Trieste to Vienna. He was mainly upset by the surfeit of advertisement “of all kinds of fabrications fabricated by fabricators and all kinds of merchants selling their wares in shops, and notices glued to trees or rocks, splicing the eye’s view – and, moreover, the soul’s view – of more beautiful and lofty sights.” 3 Thus when asked by a friend, “Would you like to see cities such as these in Eretz Yisrael?,” his answer was a strident “No! No!”
His respect for the ancient landscapes of Eretz Yisrael, which in those days had not reached the height of development that existed in European countries, and his awareness of the potential destruction that the Zionist development plans could wreak, are unique in Zionist discourse. Gordon did not elaborate on how one should lead one’s private and public life on a practical, day-to-day basis in accordance with the vision he formulated. He did not enter into the question of which contacts between man and nature are desirable and which are destructive. Although he warned against human oppressiveness and alienation that could potentially damage the environment, he did not attempt to set the ground rules for good ecological behavior that he endorsed so strongly.
Gordon’s approach to Eretz Yisrael as the ‘Mother of Nations,’ whose image is reflected in Jewish culture and the Hebrew language (and therefore also in each Jewish soul), contains a great spiritual potential for a profound understanding of the link between the Land and the People of Israel. His thinking allows us to ponder the concept of National Homeland in a non-fanatical way. Eretz Yisrael in Gordon’s view is an ecological realm to which the Jews are deeply connected and for which they feel a great responsibility. As a result, part of the moral test of Zionism is the ability to treat the ancient landscape that we have inherited from our forefathers and foremothers with love and great care, so that it can infuse our children and children’s children will both physical and spiritual life.
English Translation: Penina Goldschmidt