Organic Torah: Tree of Knowledge–Tree of Life

By Rabbi Nathan Margalit

The Tree of Knowledge is what we have become used to in much of our Western education—it begins with breaking things apart into smallest components. Our education system is divided into discrete subjects: math, science, English—too often devoid of context and the vibrancy which comes from what Gregory Bateson called “the pattern which connects.” And if we go to college or grad school we might study a “discipline” like chemistry or history or economics.

We are taught to separate our emotions from our intellect. This type of knowledge has separated us from a sense of kinship with (and responsibility for) the natural world. It has us thinking of ourselves as free-floating individual units, “rational economic actors.” It even affects our relationship with our own bodies. This type of knowledge has also marginalized and misunderstood Jewish wisdom, chochma. For example, the Talmudic unit we translate as “Tractate,” a Latin word related to the idea of extending, is masekhet, a Hebrew word meaning a weave. The Talmud, Midrash and so many classic Jewish texts are organically woven, not linearly extended in a straight line. To the modern eye they can look like they need an editor—meandering, or worse—nonsense.

Yet, as this reductionist way of thinking (and being) has contributed to environmental, social, economic and political crises, the contemporary world has started to correct the imbalance and swing back towards more relational, non-hierarchical and contextual ways of understanding. Systems thinking, ecology, complexity and other fields reveal a turn in modern thinking toward a way of understanding that is much more in sync with the organic quality of Jewish wisdom.

Organic Torah is about seizing this moment and integrating our ancient wisdom with the cutting edge of modern, scientific thought. When we do so, Jewish wisdom—Torah in its broadest definition—becomes accessible and attractive to modern, educated people. Through classes, workshops, publications and conferences, Organic Torah works to focus on this amazing opportunity to bring the Tree of Knowledge together with the Tree of Life.