The great contribution of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century (think Francis Bacon, Descartes, Galileo) has been to vastly increase humanity’s ability to understand and manipulate the world by breaking it down into ever smaller parts. This mechanical view of the world has given us great power, but dissecting a living thing kills it, whether we are talking about animals, eco-systems or ancient texts. We are now seeing the limits of this kind of thinking in the degradation of our eco-systems, instability in our economic, political and cultural life, crises of health and well-being.
We are discovering that some things can’t be fully understood by breaking them down to smallest parts. Rather, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and must be understood as well. In economics, culture, business, politics, social and hard sciences, many people are exploring ways of approaching the world which puts things together, looks at the emergent properties of the whole and not just the individual components. Ecological thinkers from Gregory Bateson to Wendell Berry to Michael Pollan have been in the forefront of this movement toward “solving for pattern” and seeing the hidden connections that make up our living world. In economics we are starting to see a similar trend away from simply looking at GDP and using more sophisticated statistical measures of happiness, well being and ecological footprint. Much recent work in the theory and practice of leadership and organizational behavior has focused on the group as a complex, organic system, rather than relying on the mechanical and top down assumptions of previous theories. These are only a few of the many examples of what may be seen as a major paradigm shift in the way we think about our world.
In thirty years of studying Jewish texts, living in Jewish communities and practicing Jewish living, I have found that looking for complex webs of connection makes Jewish texts and Jewish practice much more comprehensible and exciting. In contrast, breaking these texts up into their smallest parts has never seemed to fit their nature (nor mine). I believe Jewish textual thinking and Jewish culture in general has always favored an organic, relational, non-linear, approach. That’s one of the reasons that modernity has had a hard time “getting” Judaism. Traditional Jewish texts are not just in Hebrew, but they are organized in seemingly illogical ways. They seem to start somewhere in the middle, they repeat themselves, and go off on tangents. For sacred texts they go on endlessly about mundane things like pots and pans, oxen and ditches, bodily fluids and lost objects when they should be talking about elevated subjects like ethics, theology and philosophy. They seem like they need a good editor.
Organic Torah says: Don’t edit away those quirks in Jewish writing or Jewish practice. Instead, integrate Jewish learning with the modern insights from the study of complex systems, which gives us concepts such as emergence, nestedness and tipping points. These new insights can help us untangle the complexity of Jewish texts, helping us to recognize that these texts and practices are a treasure chest of wisdom that can be used to deal with the multiple crises of our contemporary world. The world needs a shift in focus – a shift to a more ecological, sustainable, and integrative approach to life. The “Organic Torah” of Judaism is at the cutting edge of that shift, and it may bring to bear three thousand years of experience – a sense of sacred mission tempered with humility, whether we are talking about clash of civilizations, ecology, economy, science, health or religion.