Rabbi Arthur Waskow 09/09/2001
Wheat, Eden, Pesach & the Song of Song
Recently, discussing chameytz, bread, and matzah, poet/ chronicler Rodger Kamenetz noted that some midrash says the Tree of Eden was a wheat plant. This comment stimulated in me some connections with an eco-theology of history.
Kamenetz wrote :
Some rabbis trace this fixation with bread to the Garden of Eden. In a midrash we read, "What kind of tree did Adam and Eve eat of? Wheat, according to Rabbi Meir." He explained that bread made of wheat symbolizes wisdom.. "R. Samuel put the following question to R. Ze'era: "How can you say it was a grain wheat? "Nevertheless it was so," R. Ze'era replied. R. Samuel argued: "But scripture speaks of a tree." R. Ze'era replied, "In the garden of Eden stalks of wheat were like trees, for they grew to the height of cedars of Lebanon." Perhaps Rabbi Ze'era was growing a tall tale, but R. Meir understood, that bread symbolizes wisdom.
What I'm about to say draws on two very very interesting books: One by Evan Eisenberg, The Ecology of Eden (Schocken), and Daniel Quinn's Ishmael.
The first is a brilliantly thought and written history/ philosophy of how ancient Israel saw its relationship to the earth, and encoded that relationship in the Bible. Eisenberg also draws us into the process of doing the same engagement today, as Jews along with all o0ther humans face a crisis in the relationship between human beings and the earth.
The second is a "novel" made up of dialogue between a human and a gorilla about the present eco-disaster the earth/ earthlings are facing.
What I'm about to say draws also on my own writing on Eden in Godwrestling - Round 2, where I draw deeply on a conversation with David Waskow & Shoshana Waskow, then about ten and seven years old, about Eden as a tale of growing up.
Between them, Eisenberg and Quinn suggest that we could see the Eden story as a tale told by West-Semitic non-farmers (shepherds or hunter-gatherers). At one level (there are obviously other levels, and they are non-exclusive), they suggest Eden and the Cain-Abel story are "about" the encroachment into Israelite (or pre-Israelite) lives of a great agricultural empire, Babylonia. Babylonia had become powerful precisely because it was one of the places where highly organized agriculture was invented.
This was a step "forward" in controlling the food supply, multiplying humans, and at the same time it was a step of alienation from and coercion of the earth by human beings. Like "the terrible two's" and "adolescence" in individual human lives, it was a step in growing up, rejection and rebellion toward Mama/Papa, and striking out on one's own.
From the standpoint of hunter-gatherers and shepherds who had a much more playful relationship with the earth, moving from place to place to avoid exhausting it, and thus also avoiding exhausting themselves, the agro- revolution was a disastrous and dangerous and oppressive event.
In it the human race tears itself from the womb of earth (or some relationship much more like that of gorillas) and separates itself into an increasingly alienated being. It creates great empires.
So from this perspective comes the story of Eden as a tragic mistake built around an act of eating, the results of which are war between earth and human- earthling, and also role differentiation and pain between women & men and between the generations, and between centralized power and the stubborn local cultures.
And from this perspective, the midrash that the Tree of Eden was a wheat plant makes good historical-anthropological sense, as Eisenberg points out.
And from this perspective also, comes the Torah's story of Cain the murdering farmer, who shatters shepherd Abel, Abel the first-born, earlier form of human endeavor.
Kayyin / Possessive-one, vs. Hevel/ Evanescent Puff of Breath.
Yet this newly alienated being, the farmer-human, is not an alien, but one of the results of the earth's own processes of evolution. The shepherd-Semites ultimately joined the agro-revolution and became also farmers. But they kept drawing on their own experience as shepherds and gatherers to build in such protections of the earth and of their own long-term vision as the Shabbat, the Sabbatical Year, & the Jubilee, during which humans become gatherers again 1/7 of the time.
And we, drawing on the experience of a number of revolutions like the agro- revolution, the industrial and techno-revolutions, most recently, can see BOTH the alienating and the maturing aspects of this continuing story.
How does the human race KEEP growing up?
That means. how do we create and renew and revitalize the OTHER aspect of growing-up, adding not only new ability to control and make and produce, but new ability to love, to commune, to Be?
Confronted by the agro-revolution, we tamed and gentled this outburst of sheer power by shaping Torah and Biblical Judaism, including Shabbat etc.
Confronted by the burst of Hellenistic civilization of new power to control people and earth, new science, etc, we responded by shaping Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Confronted by Techno-Industrial Modernity, we shape, what?????? Jewish renewal? Holistic Judaism? The Song of Songs (our other great Pesach text) as Eden for grown-ups? A new sexual ethic? A new earth-ethic?
Please note that embodied in this approach is NOT ONLY the historical/ political but ALSO the spiritual. All of Torah becomes a tale of the spirals of growing-up in power and love of the human race, and also of individual human beings. >From the greens of spring to matzah, the earliest, simplest bread of agro- human beings, to the playfulness of Song of Songs, and our own liberation into a new way of being with the earth and each other.
May our Pesach be a time for our rebirth and liberation and the healing of adam/adamah. ~ Arthur