The late great John Muir is quoted saying, “If you pull on one thing, you find it hitched into everything else in the universe.” This may at first glance seem like an impossible idea, perhaps too poetic to be true, or even a bit tree-hugging at the end of the day. He would indeed be found holding onto a tree in a wind storm to get a sense of the massive Sequoia’s threshold, how the biggest organism in the world held its ground in the midst of a katabatic vortex. As a “forest ecologist always searches for clues to the vast systems and structures beyond the cycles of nature” so Muir had a belief about the “great economy” having a common source. He could envision wild nature as a whole, a web of interconnected forces and influences that were the base-note of universal existence. What the rabbling botanist was on to back in the 1920s is what philosophers, scientists, educators, environmentalist, farmers and even theologians have been stumbling upon in more recent years.
Among the continentals, Slavoj Žižek affirms the impossibility of fully accounting for one’s intersubjective context when he speaks of neighborliness. Nancey Murphy, a pioneer in philosophies of science makes it clear in holist terms that we are interconnected webs of experience pushed along in time. Umberto Eco accounting for the phenomena of literature notes, “From a certain point of view everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else.” Closer to Muir in occupation, Barry Commoner makes clear that the first rule of ecology is that everything is related to everything else. The world, as it turns out, is not a passive recipient of human industry nor are humans above or outside of the ecological community. Human existence is hitched into the community of creation.
The ancient rabbis, in trying to account for the whole of what it is to live before God and humans, started counting the commands of Torah. The teaching holds the Mitzvot or (613 commands) as the vision for how one responds to the covenant faithfulness of YHWH. Over time the Ten Commandments became central, so much so that one rabbi counted the number of Hebrew letters between “I” and “neighbor.” The total just so happened to be, 613 – its like the author had help. The Mitzvot is summarized in the ten. Later, Rabbi Hillel spoke of the first five commands of the ten dealing with God and the rest dealing with people, so he says, the ten is summarized in the two – love God and people. But then Jesus announces a new command in John 13.36, that is, “Love one another.” We take this not to mean another command, as if Jesus was calling for a 614th, but rather everything is hitched into this deep mutuality.
This is Jesus’ vision of shalom (or sustainability as the term is best translated) and is extended not just to one another in the Bible, but to earth and animal as well. The way the story of Scripture runs is from eden to eretz (land). This is crucial to understand, as literary theorists and anthropologists are quick to point out. The human (adam) is intricately bound to the plight of the land (adamah). That’s how the words run. It’s no coincidence that the messiah, whose title sounds eerily like the meek Rabbi Moses (m-sh-h), is named Joshua – the one who inherits the land! Taking up this theme in the first gospel, it is a meek Joshua who leads a large crowd through the Jordan to Jericho, inherits the land and then sends his disciples to cultivate the whole earth. All of this can be imported when we set our thinking on a text like Leviticus.
Leviticus thinks in analogy, as does all meaningful religious talk. Analogy inside of analogy pointing to analogy shapes even the structure of the butcher manual. The second half of the book – the part that refers not just to priest but the people as a whole – democratized, or gives thicker meaning to the former. But again, we are seeing analogical imagination at work when, for example, Leviticus 19 speaks of not trimming the edges of your field and on the other side of the chiastic structure of that chapter you have the line Orthodox Jews to this day obey quite devoutly, “Do not trim the edges of your beard.” What are we to take of this? Well, the edges of the field are for the poor, widow, orphan and resident alien. By having some kind of daily, better bodily, reminder of the plight of the most vulnerable in society the faithful are more available to see the interrelatedness of their lives with the earth and others.
Working backwards, Leviticus 17 is a dramatic shift in the flow of the text, we are no longer in the temple but in a field with a person killing an animal (one of the animals okayed for sacrifice). The person is probably 80 miles away from the temple and the text says that the person is guilt of murder if they do not treat it as a sacrifice (i.e. give the lifeblood back to God). What a strange and impractical situation. And murder? Really? An analogy is at play, as Jacob Milgrom points to clearly, the common table is to be an altar. Altars and tables are inseparable realities. Table ethics matter, not only because it is Eucharistic, but the table exists as God’s altar in the world. Because when you pull on one thing you find it hitch into everything else in the universe.