Though the Bible is full of the awareness and appreciation of nature from the creation narrative up to the Psalmist's declaration, "The heavens declare the glory of God…" (Ps. 19:2), it does not profess a comprehensive doctrine of nature in relation to man and God. Nature is a testimony to the work of the Creator (Isa. 40:26; Amos 5:8; Job 38–41), not a subject for speculation. As opposed to the pagan world-view which endowed natural objects with divinity, the Bible makes it quite clear that the natural world was produced by, and totally subject to, God – not in any way part of Him. This, in sum, is its doctrine of nature.

In Rabbinic Literature

A similar lack of speculative interest in nature is apparent in rabbinic literature, though to a lesser degree. Contemplation of the majesty of the heavens or the myriad creatures on earth served the rabbis as a reminder of the wondrous ways of the Creator rather than as the starting point of physical speculation. Thus when R. Akiva considered the manner in which land and sea animals were confined to, and dependent on, their respective elements he would say, "How mighty are Thy works O Lord" (Ps. 104:24; Ḥul. 127a). On the other hand, the purely aesthetic appreciation of nature was played down in preference to the more centrally religious values. This is apparent in the (generally misunderstood) passage, "He who walks by the way studying, and interrupts his studying by saying 'How pleasant is this tree, how pleasant this plowed field'… it is as if he were deserving of death" (Avot 3:8).

The nearest to a conceptual discussion of nature comes in rabbinic consideration of cosmogony and of miracles. The ideas that God looked into the Torah and using it as a blueprint created the natural world (Gen. R. 1:1), and that miracles were built into the natural order at the creation (Avot 5:5; Gen. R. 5:5) would seem to reflect Stoic doctrine (see *Creation and Cosmogony; *Miracles).

The teleological argument, from design in nature to the existence of a Designer, is found in rabbinic literature, albeit in a philosophically naive form. Thus it is said of Abraham that he first came to know God by pondering on the comparison between the world and a palace. Just as a palace which is illuminated must have an owner so too must the world (Gen. R. 39: 1; cf. Midrash Temurah 5).

In Hellenistic and Medieval Jewish Philosophy

In their philosophy of nature, as in other branches of philosophy, Hellenistic and medieval Jewish thinkers were influenced greatly by the current general philosophical doctrines. Thus, for the most part, they adopted the view that the universe is governed by immutable laws; that all objects in the sublunar world are formed out of combinations of four basic elements – earth, air, fire, and water; that the celestial world consists of a fifth element; and that substances in the universe can be classified hierarchically as inanimate, vegetative, animate, and rational. However, the philosophical view of nature posed problems for the traditional Jewish view as expressed in the Bible and Talmud. For traditional Judaism the universe did not run according to set immutable laws. Rather God directly regulated the workings of the universe that He had created, ensuring that events would lead to the specific goal He had in mind. The medieval Jewish philosopher, unable to give up this view of nature completely, sought in his philosophies of nature to reconcile the biblical and talmudic concepts of *creation and *miracles with the theories of secular philosophy. For some of them, the design and order that they observed in nature constituted the evidence for the existence of a Creator – the teleological argument.

*Philo held that the world was governed by laws which were instituted by God at the time of creation. He maintained that all objects in the universe were composed of combinations of the four elements, interpreting the wings of the seraphim in Isaiah's vision (Isa. 6) as the four elements, one pair representing earth and water, and the second pair, fire and air. The third pair he interpreted as the forces of love and opposition which initiate movement in the other four elements (De Deo, 9–10).

*Saadiah, too, held that all objects are composed of four basic elements (Emunot ve-De'ot, 10:17; 1:3; 2:2), and that the world is governed by set laws. As a follower of the *Kalam, which accepted creation and advanced proofs for it, Saadiah had no difficulty with the doctrine of creation. Among the proofs which Saadiah advanced for creation was one based on the order existing in nature, a proof that he adopted from the Kalam. Saadiah argued that since all composite objects must be fashioned from their component parts by an intelligent being, so the world, which is itself a composite of many composites, must have been created (ibid., treatise 1). *Baḥya ibn Paquda employs a similar argument in his Ḥovot ha-Levavot (1:6).


Adopting the neoplatonic conception of the universe as a series of descending spheres, Jewish neoplatonists sought to combine the theory of emanation with the biblical concept of creation. In attempting to do so, Isaac *Israeli, somewhat arbitrarily, maintained that the intellect, which next to God is the highest being in the world, was created by God, and that all other objects emanate from the intellect (S. Fried (ed.), Sefer ha-Yesodot (1900), 69). Aristotelian influences are evident in Israeli's doctrine of the elements.

Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik, although generally a neoplatonist, adopted Aristotle's philosophy of nature. However, he deviated from it in his definition of matter and form, assigning to matter the position of the one real substance and to form a status similar to that of accidents (Sefer Olam Katan, 1:2).

*Judah Halevi, who was generally critical of Aristotelian philosophy, criticized the Aristotelian doctrine of the four elements on the ground that it has no basis in experience, for while we do perceive the qualities of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness, we do not perceive them in their pure form as primary elements (Kuzari, 5:14).


Abraham *Ibn Daud, the first of the Jewish Aristotelians, in his Emunah Ramah, adopted the Aristotelian concepts of form and matter, substance and accident, and the categories, finding allusions to the categories in the 139th Psalm. Unable to accept the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter insofar as it conflicted with the biblical concept of creation, Ibn Daud posited the existence of a formless prime matter which was the first stage in the process of creation.

*Maimonides, while he totally accepted Aristotelian physics, differed with the Aristotelian view that the world is eternal. Maintaining that neither eternity nor creation could be proved, he chose to accept creation as the theory advanced in the Bible. He held that miracles were predetermined at the time of creation, and that they were not abrogations of natural laws, but occurred through the exertion of one natural force upon another.

*Levi b. Gershom disagreed with the Aristotelian notion that time and motion are infinite (Milḥamot Adonai, pt. 6, 1:10–12). Levi proved that the world was created from the teleological character of nature. Just as every particular object in nature moves toward the realization of its own particular goal, so the universe, the sum total of all the things that exist within it, moves toward an ultimate end. He is unique among Jewish philosophers in that he rejects the idea of creation ex nihilo, maintaining that there existed an eternal absolutely formless matter out of which God at a particular point in time created the universe (ibid., 1:17–28). He interprets the biblical story of creation to coincide with this theory.

*Crescas criticized Aristotelian physics, especially his doctrine of space, maintaining that, in opposition to Aristotle, a vacuum was possible (Or Adonai, bk. 1, pt. 2, ch. 3). Crescas believed that it was inconsequential whether or not the world was eternal; what is important is that God created the world ex nihilo, but not necessarily at a specific moment in time.

[Alfred L. Ivry]

Modern Period

Scientific philosophy entered a new phase with the doctrine of Kant that the natural world was phenomenal, being the manifestation, through the categories, of the noumenal world – the unknowable ding an sich. The development of this doctrine in Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling and the bifurcation of spirit and nature influenced Jewish philosophers of the school of idealism.

Solomon *Formstecher gave Schelling's doctrine of the nonconscious world soul a theistic interpretation. The world soul is the essence of the natural world though separate from and independent of it. Nature, in turn, is totally dependent on the world soul, being but one aspect of its manifestation. Formstecher makes a distinction between the religion of nature – in which the world soul is merely the highest principle of nature, and the religion of the spirit – in which the world soul is independent of nature and is the essence of ethics. The former is paganism, the latter Judaic religion.

In the philosophy of Samuel *Hirsch the central problem is more anthropocentric, namely, the relationship of man to nature, and the framework of his solution is Hegelian. Hirsch relates man and nature to God by regarding Him as the ideal to which man strives in asserting his freedom against nature. For in such ethical striving man is supporting spirit against nature, and spirit is the common element between man and God. Hirsch too distinguishes between the ethical religion of the spirit (Judaism), and nature religion.

Nachman *Krochmal does not, like Formstecher and Hirsch, start from the assumption of a split between spirit and nature. For him nature is merely an end point on the scale of spiritual development, which rises in degrees from primitive religion up to the Jewish world view. This leads him near to a pantheistic position in that he claims that all existence is immanent in the Absolute Spirit, God.

In the early system of Hermann *Cohen, which while accepting Kantianism rejects the unknowable ding an sich, the idea of God plays the role of a bridge between ethics and the natural world. It is the guarantee that ethical fulfillment is possible in nature. Since, however, God is ideal rather than real, Judaism is in essence ethics as religion. His later philosophy, however, represents a complete volte-face. There it is God who has prime ontological status, and the natural world is the vehicle of God's manifestation with no independent being of its own.

A.I. *Kook, whose philosophy has been summarized by Hugo Bergman as "mystic pantheism," believed all reality to be a manifestation of God in a myriad of individual forms which in turn have no reality without Him. The plurality of the natural world is unified in God, the source and ground of its being. Adapting a kabbalistic notion, Kook believes that holy sparks are everywhere in nature, for it is shot through with a harmonious divine force. This "life force" of nature is not, like Bergson's élan vital, blind, but rather purposive. Evolution of nature is interpreted to mean that all creation, striving to be reunited with God, moves toward the Divinity. Judaism is thus, for Kook, the preeminent attempt to see nature in its total harmony and to sanctify, rather than reject, the material world.

A similarly positive approach to nature is apparent in the ideology of the early Labor Zionist Movement, especially in the work of A.D. *Gordon. Here however, there are clearer heterodox tendencies toward pantheism. Life's ideal, for Gordon, is a form of cosmic harmony of the human and material worlds. This harmony has been interrupted by the unnatural urban life of the Jew in the Diaspora, and in order to reestablish it he has to return to the soil to be as near to nature as possible. Gordon's ideal of unity with nature is not simply an ethical goal but is based on the metaphysical belief that man is organically united to the cosmos, and that it is the unbalanced emphasis on the intellect rather than on man's intuition which is at the root of human alienation.

In the dialogic writings of Martin *Buber, particularly in I and Thou, there is an echo of the belief in the existence of "sparks" in all things. It is possible, according to Buber, to enter into an I-Thou relationship even with inanimate objects, and this relationship need not be simply passive but may be one of full mutuality. In answer to criticisms of how one can enter into what seems an essentially personal relationship with non-personal nature, Buber remarks that in such a relationship the natural object reveals its being. There is a reciprocity of being between the person who addresses the object as "Thou" and the object so addressed, for the world is potentially a revelation of the divine (I and Thou, postscript, rev. ed. 1958).


Guttmann, Philosophies, index S.V. nature; law, natural; and science, natural; Husik, Philosophy, index; I. Efros, Philosophical Terms in the Moreh Nebukhim (1924), 50, 134–5; H. Malter, in: Festschrift… Hermann Cohen (1912), 253–6 (Eng.); Zunz, Poesie, 634; S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason (1963), 27–54, 81–97, 98–120; I. Epstein, Judaism (1954), index; N. Rotenstreich, Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times (1968), 52ff.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.