Shiluach ha-Ken

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deut. 22:6-7)

How often do you actually come upon a mother bird in its nest?

How often do you actually come upon a mother bird in its nest?

I was looking out the sliding door to our porch the other day and found that a mourning dove had built a nest in the basket of Emily’s bike and was sitting there on top of her rather scruffy-looking offspring. This probably says something troubling about the extent to which we make use of our bicycles, or our porch for that matter. That said, it made me think of this passage from the Torah and the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken, or sending away the mother bird.

What I find noteworthy about this passage, and about similar commandments throughout the Torah (such as the mitzvah of not yoking an ox alongside an ass, or sacrificing a mother animal and her offspring on the same day) is the way they seem to to give us grounds for questioning the somewhat simplistic criticism of Judaism and its sister faiths that they presume a worldview in which humans are essentially cut off from nature, existing in a completely separate ethical sphere from the rest of God’s creations.

The criticism stems at least in part from the famous passage in the first chapter of Genesis in which God commands the humans to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” (Gen. 1:28) The argument is that the biblical mindset regards humans as different in kind from the rest of created nature, set over and apart from the natural world. Where other faith traditions (the animistic practices of indigenous peoples are often mentioned in this context, as, for different reasons, is Buddhism) emphasize a continuity between humanity and the rest of the natural world, the overarching tendency within the Abrahamic faiths has been to establish a radical discontinuity between human beings and the rest of creation, grounded in a transcendent spiritual order in which animals, plants etc. do not participate.

I will not go so far as to argue that this point of view is entirely without basis in the tradition. Certainly Biblical Male and Female commanded by God to “fill the earth and master it” have a different attitude toward nature from that of the animist who looks to plants, animals and the earth itself as sources of spiritual insight. Nevertheless, I would argue that biblical commandments such as shiluach ha-ken and the rabbinical discourse concerning the ethical treatment of animals that develops out of them point to a sense in which humans and animals are seen to share certain important qualities in common which open up the possibility of an ethical responsibility grounded in our shared susceptibility to pain, disease, fear and all the host of other manifestations of the pathos of living as an embodied, sentient being in a world haunted by the specter of death.

Articulating a consistent, authentically Jewish theory of the relationship between humans and nature is the work of an entire book (or several). Nevertheless, I think it’s important to at least acknowledge that a worldview that sees the natural world as essentially the responsibility of humankind (and I feel like I’m in good company arguing that this is an interpretation consistent with the biblical understanding of possession) is not necessarily inconsistent with a recognition of important bonds of commonality between us and our fellow creatures that create a shared ethical space within which it is possible to talk about our obligations toward other species.

As for the mourning dove and her offspring in the bicycle basket, I’m afraid that when I opened up the door the next day to bring outside a mint plant which I’d received as a present, they both got nervous and fluttered away. I’m left feeling a little bad for having bothered them, and hoping that the mother, at least, turned out alright.