Sunday, June 29, 2008

Perek Shirah - Rediscovered!



The book Nature's Song on Perek Shirah has been out of print for some time. Funds are currently being raised for its republication, but in the meanwhile it is unavailable in stores. However a recent warehouse clean-out unexpectedly turned up a small quantity of books. You can order it online at the ZooTorah website here.

About Perek Shirah:

Perek Shirah, literally "A Chapter Of Song," is an ancient text that is at least a thousand years old; some ancient commentaries even attribute its authorship to King David! It takes the form of a list of eighty-four elements of the natural world, including elements of the sky and of the earth, plants, birds, animals, and insects, attaching a verse from the Bible to each. The concept behind Perek Shirah is that everything in the natural world teaches us a lesson in philosophy or ethics, and the verse gives a clue as to what that lesson is. The result is the "song" of the natural world, the tapestry of lessons for life that the natural world is telling us. Perek Shirah, a work of tremendous historic value, is itself extremely mysterious and cryptic. However, various commentaries have been written on it over the last five hundred years, which give an insight into what the verse is telling us to learn from the creature.

Thus, for example, Perek Shirah states that "The lion is saying, 'God shall go out as a mighty man, he shall arouse zeal, he shall cry, even roar; he shall prevail over his enemies (Isaiah 42:13)." The lion teaches us of the importance of might and power. This does not mean physical strength; true power is power over oneself. All big cats are aggressive predators and therefore cannot get along even with each other; it is only the lion that is able to somehow control its aggression and live in groups. The lion teaches us of the greatest power, that of self-control.

Nature's Song is the first English explanation of Perek Shirah. It makes use of rare ancient commentaries on Perek Shirah , as well as contemporary insights from the fields of meteorology, zoology and so on. The result is a Biblical encyclopedia of the natural world, synthesizing the ancient with the modern, that enables one to perceive new depths of insight into the natural world that surrounds us.

13 comments:

Toby Katz said...

I borrowed it from a friend and read it through -- it's a GREAT book, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Serious Question said...

"All big cats are aggressive predators and therefore cannot get along even with each other; it is only the lion that is able to somehow control its aggression and live in groups. The lion teaches us of the greatest power, that of self-control."

That's a very selective view of lions. For example, male lions kill all the cubs of a pride that they join. They slaughter babies. How is infanticide self-control? They can live in groups only when the group is their own kids, and they'll kill the children of any other lion in their group!

And if you concede that it isn't, then how are we learning from nature? You've already decided what to value and do and are only cherry picking post hoc examples from nature, not really learning from nature at all.

The Zoo Rabbi said...

SQ - you are correct that lions are not paragons of virtue. Nevertheless, they are curiously different from all other big cats in terms of their social structure.

In any case, the notion of learning positive traits from the animal kingdom raises the question that there are plenty of negative traits there too (parasitism comes to mind)! I explore this question in the book.

Serious Question said...

I've read the book, and while I found it interesting I still think the serious question remains. I have this question every time I'm told to learn ethics from animals, with examples usually given. It's always so post hoc, which undermines the claim of learning from nature. Worse, often the examples given to learn a lesson from are actually contradicted by the actual behavior of the animal (e.g. lion DON'T play well with others of their species). Nature is a terrible source for ethics. There's good reason Darwin said, "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!"

The Zoo Rabbi said...

My mistake, it's in my other book "Man And Beast" where I discuss this issue. The basic point is that we are using nature to reinforce moral principles that we know from other sources.
I agree that if the animal does not in fact display the trait at all then it is problematic. But I do think that lions display this trait, albeit not vis-a-vis the cubs of other lions. (Obviously the claim is not that animals deliberately make a moral choice.)

Serious Question said...

"The basic point is that we are using nature to reinforce moral principles that we know from other sources."

But you wrote:
"The lion teaches us of the greatest power, that of self-control."

Yet you admit that the lion teaches us no such thing! You revised your whole supposition.

My problem is not with the virtue of self-control, but with the claim that you can learn ethics from nature. You can't, as you just admitted, and yet it's ALWAYS framed that way.

And frankly, if they're moral principles that "we know from other sources," what does it add to find examples of it in nature (particularly when counterexamples are even more abundant)?

"But I do think that lions display this trait, albeit not vis-a-vis the cubs of other lions"

That makes no sense. How can you say that "it is only the lion that is able to somehow control its aggression and live in groups" when they kill the babies of other lions in their group?! It's like saying serial child murderers are models of self-control because they don't kill their own kids.

The Zoo Rabbi said...

When I write that "the lion teaches us," this does not mean that the lion consciously or objectively makes a didactic point, but rather that we can use the lion as a means to reinforce that lesson within us. But it's easier to write it concisely as "the lion teaches us," and explain the meaning of this phrase elsewhere.
You ask that "if they're moral principles that "we know from other sources," what does it add to find examples of it in nature?" The answer is that when we focus on an example in the flesh, it makes it more vivid. Look, the fact is that I know from myself and others that people are indeed using the animal kingdom to grow, spiritually and ethically!
And, yes, I reiterate that lions do control their aggression much more than other big cats, because they can at least live socially with other adults of both genders. This is a remarkable aspect of lion behavior that has been marveled at by zoologists. If they can marvel at it, why can't we use it to remind ourselves that we should act this way, too?

Serious Question said...

You're not addressing my question. It's more fundamental than just finding examples to inspire. I can make a painting that makes a lesson more vivid, but it's obvious that I drew the painting, and that oil and canvas are not sources of ethics.

My point is that the entire premise of the book (and a lot of other such sources, Jewish and otherwise) is deeply, deeply flawed. Unless forced to rephrase, the claim is always put that we can learn the ethic from nature. I'll bet that you, with your knowledge of this subject, can demonstrate that a lot better than I can, and bring better examples too. But it's wrong, we can't. As you said, we can only have already known these morals from other sources.

And finally, I think your continued defense of a lion's "marvelous" control of their aggression is crossing into absurd by now. They commit infanticide. They only kill almost everything in sight? Mamesh inspiring self-control.

Daganev said...

"That's a very selective view of lions. For example, male lions kill all the cubs of a pride that they join. They slaughter babies. How is infanticide self-control? They can live in groups only when the group is their own kids, and they'll kill the children of any other lion in their group!
"

One can learn from this as well!

What we learn from lions living with other lions is self restraint, a form of power.

What we learn form lions removing the children of other male lions is that part of the process gaining self restraint is is to first remove the temptations one might have. (i.e. the Toldah of the av of your temptations)

Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbi Slifin, I really like your website. I just have a question about your description of the origins and ancientness of Perek Shirah. A Rabbi of mine who is very knowlegable once told us that he researched the origins of Perek Shirah and was unable to find any sources older than a century to reference it. Would you mind providing sources that verify it being at least 1000 years old? Thank you in advance, because I think my Rabbi would also be interested in finding out.

-Gil

Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbi Slifin,

Where is the source that Perek Shirah is Ancient?

The Zoo Rabbi said...

SQ, I think that one just has to realize that the rephrasing is necessary. But this does not mean that there is nothing of value.
Also, I did not say that what lions do is "marvelous," as you imply. What I wrote is that zoologists marvel at their ability to control their aggression and live in groups. I'm sorry if you find this an absurd reaction, but it seems reasonable to me.

The Zoo Rabbi said...

anonymous - The earliest mention of Perek Shirah is in an attack on its legitimacy by the tenth-century Karaite Shlomo ben Yerucham. The thirteenth-century German Tosafist Rabbi Moshe Tachau explicitly mentions Perek Shirah in the context of an attack on its authenticity (Kesav Tamim p. 62). Ramban also mentions it in his commentary to Job 38:36.

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