Animals act in their own self -interest. Every tree and bush, every cat and bird and ant works to maximize itself, without any consideration for others. These creatures compete endlessly, sometimes by themselves, and sometimes in cooperation with others of their species or their parasites. The idea of an animal deliberately and consciously favoring a different animal would be nonsensical. Man is not necessarily any better, of course. As Hobbes put it, the natural state of mankind without society is “”solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In a state of nature, man is merely another animal.
Natural justice is thus very easy to define: might makes right. This is hardly new or surprising, but it bears mentioning because a good society requires people to not act that way. And so it is troubling to me when people talk of imitating nature. “Natural” becomes synonymous with “good.” In the ancient world, people were more direct: they worshipped nature outright.
The problem with worshipping nature is that we also come to make what happens in nature into something that people ought to emulate. For example, if one worships nature and seeks to imitate it, then what arguments are there for altruism or kindness? What arguments are there for acting outside of our own natures, to choose, for example, to dampen our anger or encourage our empathy for others? If “natural” is good, then acting against our nature must be bad. More than that: it is against nature not to accept “might makes right.”
A key symbol of nature is the tree. Trees are the largest living things a normal person ever sees, and they reflect (or even lead) the seasons and the natural cycles. Trees are about natural life, from generation and growth to renewal. Trees (and poles made from trees) were also broadly worshipped in their own right in the ancient world, as representative of a deity, Asherah.
All of this is my way of getting to an answer to a question that biblical scholars have long wrestled with. And until yesterday, I did not have an answer that made sense to me. Here is the text:
The Torah gives us the following verses:
In all the communities which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes to administer true justice for the people. You must not distort justice: you shall not show partiality; you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes even of the wise and twists the words even of the just. Justice, justice alone shall you pursue, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD, your God, is giving you. You shall not plant an asherah* or any kind of tree next to the altar of the LORD, your God, which you will build.
The question, of course, is why is a tree or an Asherah antithetical to justice and impartiality? What do these verses have to connect them in any way?
The answer is given above: Justice needs to be impartial and blind. A judge cannot decide the winner of a case by choosing whichever party paid the bigger bribe. Yet a natural way to act would be in naked self–interest. If we worship nature, then we cannot pursue justice. If we put a tree in the place where we worship G-d, then we are accepting that nature is a deity, and acting naturally is emulating the divine.
The Torah is making a very important point, as relevant now as it was then: civilization and a just society must act in contrast against, not in consonance with, nature. If we worship nature, then we will seek to emulate it. And if we do that, then we will solicit bribes, blinding ourselves to what is good and right. A society that worships trees cannot be just.