Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Haftarah Shemot: Jeremiah’s Kinship with Darwin

In the Disney film, Pocahontas, the lead character sings a song to her lover, John Smith, while frolicking through the untamed wilderness of early America. The song is “Colors of the Wind,” and Pocahontas sings: “How high does the sycamore grow? If you cut it down, then you’ll never know.”

How high does it grow? I wish that were my question. In fact, I don’t even know what a sycamore tree looks like. Do you?

Different types of trees are often referenced in day-to-day speech. One may use “the mighty oak” as a metaphor or insist that his word is as strong as oak. But this does not necessarily mean we can identify an oak tree if we are staring right at it. We all know that maple syrup comes from a maple tree, but many of us would have difficulty pointing one out. Isaac Newton sat under an apple tree, and George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but do we know what an apple tree and a cherry tree look like? And no, the answer that they look like trees with apples and cherries growing out of them, is not sufficient.

I spent much of my adult life not knowing what an oak tree looks like. Well past the age of 30, I finally figured it out. I did so by downloading an app which could identify trees just by taking pictures of their leaves. I found the oak. And yes, it is very big, far bigger than other trees. I still don’t know what a sycamore looks like and I probably never will. Maple trees I can identify because they have their leaves are the same shape as the maple leaf on Canada’s flag. Cherry and apple—I’m still not so sure.

It’s worth taking the time to know which trees are in your yard, which trees are at your university, which trees grow in your local park. Trees are, as mentioned, deeply rooted—no pun intended—in pretty much all cultures, including ours. The moment you learn the name of a tree and can point it out to a friend, a lost world opens up to you. You suddenly better understand why there are so many roads called “Mulberry Street” or why pine nuts are so thin.

But this is really just the beginning of why it’s important to understand trees. This app which taught me what an oak tree did not stop there. It also identified the fruit each tree produces. What? All trees produce fruit? I didn’t know that. I thought only fruit trees like apple and peach and all the main ones made fruit. The other trees I thought were just, you know, trees. No. All trees produce fruit. In fact, all plants give forth fruit. This does not mean that the fruit belongs in your morning parfait. Here, fruit is a very general, loose term, which refers to the substances the tree or plant gives off in order to allow it to reproduce itself. And so, when you learn more about trees, you realize that nature is a highly sexually active sphere.

If we do not know what a pine tree looks like, it is all the more probable we don’t know how a pine tree reproduces. And once you discover how plants reproduce, you see how similar if not identical the sex lives of plants are to the sex lives of humans. Trees have flowers which need to be fertilized by a male. In order to fertilize the female flower, the male has to penetrate deep into the flower and leave behind a seed. Sound familiar? Not only that, but the male is highly promiscuous, sending off his seeds in all directions heedlessly. The female, by contrast, has to be very protective of her ovaries and discriminate as to what she lets inside. Mind you, I am not talking about humans—I am talking about trees. As just one example, the pine tree has two types of pine cones—a male and a female. The male pine cones let their seeds be spread in all directions, far and wide, by riding atop the blowing wind. The female pine cones, by contrast, are like armored tanks. Nothing gets inside. Except, once in awhile, they open up their scales to let this sperm—this pollen—in. Then, the female pine cones close back up and allow the seeds to mature. Once the seed has grown into a little seed baby, ready to survive on its own, the woman’s scales flex and stretch and release the seeds. The next generation of pine trees is born.

In the popular imagination, Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species appears to be some kind of atheistic manifesto on how humans are monkeys, and God doesn’t exist, and we should fight to the death because only the strong survive. Actually, the book isn’t about these topics at all. Much of it is just about animals and plants having sex. Darwin doesn’t discuss the human animal in Origin of Species. Darwin probably did this intentionally, not wishing to clash with the authorities. Nevertheless, the human still hangs over the entire book. This is because Darwin discusses animals and plants as though they are entirely interrelated, as though they are just one giant species which has branched out into various directions over the epochs of time. He shows that, at a core level, there isn’t much of a difference between a flower and a lion, a dog and a giraffe, a bee and a tree. The obvious implication is that humans are part of this vast system, too.

The authorities saw through Darwin’s attempts to mask the explosiveness of his theory behind dragonflies and oversized turtles. In Darwin’s era, to equate humans with animals was radical and threatening. During this time, humans wished to think of themselves more as angels than as orangutans. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment gave Europe a worldview in which humans were chosen creatures, capable of reason, sophistication, elegance, godlike thinking. Moreover, this prizing of the human was already deeply enmeshed in Europe’s culture through Christian dogma. Christianity, and Judaism, too, to some degree, envisioned a distinct separation between human and animal, in which humans were, or at least should be, moral and pure, in contrast to the baseness and filth of the lowly animal.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his philosophy in the wake of Darwin’s theories. Darwin’s impact on Nietzsche cannot be understated. In many ways, Nietzsche took Darwin’s biological theories and philosophized them. In this sense, Nietzsche was just as controversial and explosive a philosopher as Darwin was a biologist. Before Nietzsche, philosophers worked under the assumption that humans were different from animals and should not even be compared to animals. Previous philosophers started from the assumption that humans were, at their core, akin to angels; Nietzsche, by contrast, recognized that, at their core, humans are just animals. And he got this idea from Darwin. Nietzsche provocatively refers to humans in his philosophy as “the animal man.” He writes of the “human, all-too-human,” tendencies we have. In Beyond Good and Evil from 1887, Nietzsche wrote: “O Voltaire, O Humanity, O Nonsense.”

The haftarah for this week in Sfardi synagogues throughout the world is the first two chapters of the Book of Jeremiah. (Ashkenazi synagogues read from the Book of Isaiah.) Jeremiah was a prophet active in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He was called to prophecy by God in 626 BCE to proclaim Jerusalem’s coming destruction in 587 by the Persian Empire. Like many prophets, Jeremiah at first resisted God’s call, telling God that he is still a mere boy, a mere lad. But God insists. And in order to demonstrate to Jeremiah that God has chosen him specifically, God provides him with the vision of an almond tree. God asks Jeremiah: What do you see? Jeremiah responds: “I see an almond tree.” And God answers: “You have seen correctly.” Now, there is no turning back. Jeremiah is entered into God’s service.

Notice how quickly and confidently Jeremiah identifies this tree as an almond tree. He doesn’t say to God, “I see a tree.” He doesn’t say “I see a tree with pink flowers, but I don’t know what kind of tree it is.” Instead, he says: “I see an almond tree.” In the ancient world, people would have been able to identify trees with the same certainty as if they were identifying their own children. Trees were not just ornaments but rather providers of food, of shade, of wood, of homes.

More importantly, if Jeremiah could so readily identify this tree as an almond tree, we can make a few other assumptions. He probably was not just familiar with the appearance of the almond tree but also, perhaps, how it functioned. He would have seen the bees flying into the pink flowers, pollinating them, and then flying back to their hive. While he may not have understood all of the complexities of biological reproduction, he would have witnessed, far more than we do today, the active sex life of the almond tree, of all trees, and of the natural world. His familiarity with nature might have allowed him to reach the same conclusions as Darwin, albeit in a less certain, less scientific, less provable way. If you told Jeremiah that trees have sex with each other in ways not unlike those of humans, I would guess he would be far less surprised than Darwin’s contemporaries. Moreover, he would be far less shocked even than we are today. After all, Jeremiah could identify the almond tree; we can assume that, in some sense, he knew what nature was up to.

Learn from the great Jeremiah. The next time somebody asks you what kind of tree that is—and I assure you, it will happen someday—be ready to answer without the slightest hesitation.

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven lives in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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