Redesigning Nature

  • Rav Ezra Bick
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban
by Rav Ezra Bick

Ramban #10: Redesigning Nature 



In the last shiur, we examined the Ramban's attitude towards taamei hamitzvot, the rationale for the commandments. The discussion of the Ramban was found in his comment to the mitzva of shiluach haken, the sending away of the mother bird before taking the young. Today, as the first installment of our examination of several individual themes in the Ramban concerning the reason for specific mitzvot, we shall begin with one of the reasons he gave for that mitzva of shiluach haken.


The more obvious reason offered by the Ramban for shiluach haken has to do with inculcating the attribute of mercy in man. The Ramban, however, gave a second reason for this mitzva, which is unique to the Ramban and directly tied to other aspects of the Ramban's thought. He writes:


Alternatively, the Torah does not permit an act of destruction, to uproot an entire species, even though it permits slaughtering (of individuals from) that species. And one who kills the mother and children on one day, or takes them when they could have the freedom to fly, it is as though he were exterminating that species. (Devarim, 22,6)


While the first reason of the Ramban is moral, this second can only be termed environmental. The Ramban states that although the Torah does not mandate vegetarianism, and we are permitted to slaughter animals to eat them, there is yet a Torah obligation to maintain the existence of the species as a whole. The application of this principle is symbolic – it is prohibited to kill a mother and child on the same day since this apparently symbolizes the destruction of a species by cutting off the genetic line – but the principle itself implies an environmental obligation. The question remains, why does this obligation exist? If the natural world is given to man, and he may kill and exploit it, why is protecting the existence of the species a religious obligation?


The Ramban expresses a closely related idea in another mitzva. In parashat Kedoshim, he discusses the prohibition of kilayim, the prohibition on crossbreeding animals or mixing the seeds of different plants. The Torah states,

You shall obey My decrees ("chukim"); you shall not breed your animals in mixture ("kilayim"), you shall not sow your field in mixture, and you shall not wear a garment of a shaatnez mixture. (Vayikra 19,19)


The Ramban, after explaining that chukim are not mitzvot without reasons, but rather mitzvot without revealed reasons (which is the point we discussed in the last shiur), explains:

And the reason for kilayim is that God created the different species in the world for all the different kinds of souls, in plants and in those that have the animative soul, and he gave them the power of reproduction, that the species should exist for eternity, for as long as He should desire the existence of the world, and He ordered that that power should reproduce the species and never ever change, as is written (in Bereishit) concerning each (species), "l'mineihu" (for its species). And this is the reason that we breed animals in order to preserve the species, just as men come unto women for (the purpose of) reproduction. But one who intermixes two species changes and negates the act of creation, as though he thinks that God did not complete His world sufficiently, and he wishes to assist creation by adding creatures to it.


Amongst animals, different species do not reproduce when mixed, and even those that are naturally close, when they do reproduce, the offspring are exterminated as they do not reproduce. And for these two reasons, the act of mixing species is loathsome and nullified. And plants as well, when they are interbred, their fruit does not grow afterwards, and these two reasons explain their prohibition. (TC 19,19)


On first glance, the Ramban here is expressing what can only be described as a theory of environmental guardianship. God created a perfect world, and Man's job is to maintain and protect it. On the one hand, helping animals reproduce within the species ("this is the reason that we breed animals in order to preserve the species, just as men come unto women for reproduction") is a fulfillment of the purpose of the Divine creation – in fact, the Ramban appears to equate it with human reproduction, which, as we know, is a positive mitzva. On the other hand, creating new species is contradictory to the Divine purpose in creation, it "changes and negates the act of creation." The Ramban goes even further and imputes a kind of blasphemy to the one who is interbreeding animals. Not only is he acting against the Divine purpose, but he is implying that God failed to create a perfect world and he is completing and correcting God's work.


Combining this with our original mitzva of shiluach haken, we learn that it is prohibited to create new species or to exterminate an existent one, even though it is permissible to utilize or kill an individual member of an animal species. The species of creation are fixed and we are encouraged to preserve them in eternity, without change.


The positive aspect of this position is not insignificant. The Ramban specifically states that he has given two reasons for the prohibition of kilayim, the second being that the fruits of mix-breeding are sterile. Why is it prohibited to produce sterile animals? Presumably, this is another application of the general principle stated earlier. God ordered that each species reproduce in eternity, and encouraged Man to aid in that endeavor. By mix-breeding, one has cut off the line of that animal, and negated the "power of reproduction" that God granted each species. This is the same rationale the Ramban gave for the prohibition of shiluach haken (and oto v-et b'no – the slaughtering of the mother and child on the same day). Man must avoid any action that suggests the extermination of an existent species, for the same basic reason that he must avoid the creation of a new species. The existent species represents the perfection of God's creation and one must not change it; on the contrary, one is supposed to preserve it and encourage its perpetuation.


This appears to be a powerful religious argument for conservationism. In fact, it goes far beyond what normal modern conservatism would demand. It appears to be a blanket prohibition on any interference in nature, based on the theological assumption that the natural world represents perfection. Any interference in the natural order, even one that presumes to improve it, is illegitimate, as it is an affront to the perfection of God as expressed in the original creation of the world.


This could serve as the basis for an argument often heard in ethical discussions of different scientific or medical interventions, that there is a prohibition for Man to enter certain areas, lest he be said to be "playing God." Certain areas of the world are "off-limits" to mortal man. The history of this idea in the Western world goes back to the Middle Ages, and is most closely identified with different versions of the legend of Faust, especially later ones that emphasized less the deal with devil and more the inherent hubris of the scientific drive to exploit the inner secrets of the universe. The most famous literary warning against the hubris of human intervention is, of course, the story of Frankenstein. The example in that story, the attempt to create human life, is even today cited as an area that Man is not permitted to enter, for instance in discussions of the morality of cloning. The Ramban, by basing the prohibition of kilayim on the perfection of creation, seems to lay down a blanket prohibition on changing any area of natural life. It is impossible to improve nature, as it is already perfect, and the attempt to do so is not only fruitless (literally fruitless, in the case of crossbreeding), but also religiously presumptuous.


If this is in fact the position of the Ramban, it is atypical in Jewish tradition. There is a famous midrash where the Roman governor accuses R. Akiva of precisely the presumption the Ramban appears to be proscribing, in relation to the mitzva of circumcision. If God has created man with a foreskin, Turnus Rufus asked R. Akiva, how do you presume to change the divinely created form of man. The Romans and Greeks indeed thought the Jews barbaric for mutilating the natural form of man. The answer of the Jewish sage was to ask, what is better – wheat or bread? The whole natural world consists of creations which are waiting to be improved by man. It seems as though the point is the exact opposite of the idea found in the Ramban. Creation is by definition incomplete, deliberately so, so that Man can continue and complete the act of creation, and thereby become a partner of God. Is it possible that the Ramban is placing himself squarely in opposition to this position of the Jewish tradition?


In fact, the Ramban limits his application of this idea to the permanency of species. There is no other application in his writings, and, as we have seen in the quotation above, it is explicitly formulated in those terms, including the proof text from the repeated use of the phrase "limineihu" ("in its species") in the account of the creation. The Ramban explicitly states that there is a divine mandate to maintain and preserve the species in eternity, and that this divine desire is inherent in a special power, the power of reproduction. Read over the section quoted above – the Divine mandate to reproduce and preserve the species is directed at "that power," which "should reproduce the species and never ever change."


It seems that the power of reproduction is the single – and I believe exceptional – example of the perfection of creation. If this is true, it does not support the idea that creation is perfect in its static state. On the contrary, the perfection of creation is found only in the dynamic power of reproduction, in the continual recreation found in living things. Reproduction contains within it not a static created object, but the divine power of creating; it preserves the act of creation itself. Exterminating a species, even in the basically symbolic manner of taking the mother together with the children or killing a mother and child on the same day, is acting not against an object created by God, but against the power of God that is active in creation, and hence it is an act against God Himself. It is not the natural world that is being granted protection, but the working of the divine power of creation within the natural world. Not only would the Ramban not object to leveling mountains or damming rivers, he also would not object to killing an animal (as he explicitly states in his comment to shiluach haken). The protected phenomenon is reproduction, which because of its intimation of eternity, represents the power and presence of God within creation.


The Ramban in this mitzva of kilayim does not have the double structure of pshat explanation and a second, kabbalistic explanation. He does, however, bring an additional point, which I think explicates the pshat we have just presented.


And some of our friends add, concerning the reason for kilayim, that is in order not to mix the powers that cause the plants to grow, that they not draw from each other, which is based on what is written in Bereishit Rabba: "R. Simon said, no plant exists below that does not have a star in the heavens, who strikes it and says to it, Grow!"… Now, one who grafts kilayim or sows kilayim, whereby they draw from each other, negates the laws of heaven, and that is why it is written concerning (these mitzvot), "You shall obey My laws," for they are the laws of heaven…. I have already written in Bereishit that the foundations of the plants are in the upper realms, and from there God commanded the blessing of eternal life. Hence, he who mixes kilayim negates and mixes (up) the act of creation.


The Ramban is here referring to an idea he developed in his commentary to Bereishit 1,11, where he explains that the creation of plants was done by God commanding the powers of heaven to give growth to the plants. Growth, like reproduction, requires a direct connection to the upper world. It is clear that the Ramban is understanding this not only as imbuing the world with the power of growth, but rather in a kabblistic sense, of having spiritual emanations expressing themselves in the world of living things. Since in the kabbala of the Ramban the lines connecting the upper and lower world work in both directions, mixing the species in the lower world disturbs the foundations (יסודות) of the upper world. This is what the Ramban is hinting at in the expression "negates and mixes (up) the act of creation."


As we have seen in the past, kabbala in the Ramban is not meant to undermine the simple explanation of his words. So, it is correct that the Ramban has an ideology which requires one to protect and preserve nature. The context, however, should be understood as a particular ideology of power, influence, and divine emanation. In non-kabbalistic terms, we would call this a reverence for life. In the Ramban's terms, all life, even vegetative life, is a window on divinity, a pipeline between the inert world and the divine power of creation, generation, and reproduction. Straight phsat says one must respect this power, encourage it and not negate it. Negating it is an affront to God's creation. The kabbalistic addition says that negating this power has a negative effect on the spiritual roots within the divinity that imbue the growth of the different  species.