My enthralling discovery that Henry David Thoreau’s ideas have their roots in Jewish consciousness.
Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve had a deep appreciation for Henry David Thoreau. Of all the great thinkers, the works of Thoreau, one of the main intellectual architects of America’s Transcendental Movement of the 1800s, rang most true. He was a man who strove with vigor to live each day in wonder. He was willing to test his ideals in the flesh and blood of life, and to fight for his beliefs.
Thoreau’s philosophy offers an unequivocal appreciation that our physical reality has infinite depth and meaning, and that much of our life’s task is to engage and experience the physical as a gateway toward a more transcendental connection to reality.
Unlike Hedonism, it does not take physical pleasure as an end in itself, but limits the value of physical pleasure to being within the terms of a transcendent and infinite Truth. And unlike Asceticism, Transcendentalism does not reject all worldly enjoyment as a distraction from Truth, but rather understands that the physical is a necessary part of human experience that serves as the means through which we connect to a higher reality.
If this sounds familiar to you – it should. The resonances with Judaism are unmistakable, and it is not by accident that they appear. The main intellectual founders of the Transcendental Movement, Emerson and Thoreau, both graduated from Harvard Divinity School where they were students of the Torah (what they called the “Old” Testament).
Spending a year learning Torah at Aish HaTorah, I have a greater appreciation of these connections. It is enthralling to discover that Thoreau’s ideas have their roots in Jewish consciousness. It turns out I was studying Torah all along!
Here are three spectacular examples of parallels between Torah and Thoreau.
Interweaving of Thought and Action
“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not yet stood up to live,”1 Thoreau wrote. He wasn’t just a philosopher; he was also an activist. During the Abolition Movement in the build up to the Civil War, he was an active participant in the Underground Railroad – frequently risking his life in order to help escaped slaves navigate through the forest at night. And when the United States waged war on Mexico to steal land, he protested and ultimately boycotted the U.S. government by refusing to pay taxes. When a friend paid his bail after being jailed for his activism, Thoreau was livid because it undermined the ultimate impact of his civil disobedience.
These are the actions of a man who did not merely intellectualize and pontificate. Indeed, he abhorred the intelligentsia. He understood that ideals must be rooted in action; we must stand-up and engage our beliefs.
Thoreau understood that ideals must be rooted in action; we must stand-up and engage our beliefs.
Jews have recognized this truth since our inception as a people. Taking ideals and putting them into action is part of the spiritual DNA encoded in our very souls. It is no mistake that a startlingly disproportionate number of Jews are leaders in movements for social justice, have positions as non-profit heads, philanthropists, and activists. Legislating ideals into impassioned action is part of who we are.
Perhaps Ethics of the Fathers states it most succinctly citing Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa who used to say, “Anyone whose [good] deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his [good] deeds, his wisdom will not endure.”2 In this passage Rabbi Chanina is emphasizing that wisdom unaccompanied by good deeds will necessarily deteriorate and that sustaining true wisdom requires real-life application.
Torah is not meant to be a one-dimensional intellectual endeavor. It is meant to be a Torat Chaim – a Living Torah – which calls upon us to transform both ourselves and the world through real change. The two come together. In Judaism, life is not solely about inward personal growth and it is not solely about external practical action. The marrow of life is attained through wrestling with the tension between the two, and synthesizing them.
In describing his two-year living experiment to establish a framework of life that would focus his efforts toward wholly pursuing the highest truth, Thoreau writes:
I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation [. . . .] I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. 3
This passage challenges the reader to appreciate the fact that each moment of life presents the opportunity to connect to a transcendent reality. Thoreau offers the moral challenge to live awake and with an enduring pursuit toward truth. It is all too easy to allow “non-essential” facts of life to creep their way in and supplant the true life we wish to uphold. As Thoreau explains, “For the most part we allow only outlying and transient circumstances to make our occasions. They are in, in fact, the cause of our distraction.” Instead of becoming mired in hollow business, we must “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
The ethic in this passage echoes the final speech from Moses to the Israelites when he says in the name of God:
For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it?’ [. . .] Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. See – I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil [. . . .] I have placed before you blessing and curse; and you shall choose life” (Deuteronomy, 30:11).
Both passages place us in a constant and direct relationship4 to truth, making it incumbent upon us that we strive to adhere to that reality. There is the overwhelming mandate to live with vigor and not get lost in falsity that is equivalent to a living death. Thoreau contends that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” because the majority of us have not dedicated ourselves to “choose life” – we do not abide by the truth we hold dear, and so we are, in a sense, not living to our greatest potential. For each of us, what it means to really choose life boils down to the most intimate and personal question possible. It is each person’s responsibility to determine if s/he is working whole-heartedly to grow and pursue truth.
We might ask ourselves such questions like: When we read the news are we genuinely seeking important facts, or are we following a routine and seeking distraction? When we sit down to a cup of coffee after a long day, are we using that time proactively or as an escape? Do we allow our lives to be focused on material and transient possessions, or do we focus on only the most important and meaningful aspects of life?
In his first chapter describing the proper structuring of one’s life, Thoreau discusses the problem of overemphasis on worldly gain:
What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun. . . or chained for life at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires . . . – even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes I daily witness. . . .
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of . . . . But men labor under a mistake. The better part of man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.
By drawing parallels between legendary acts of penance around the world and the townsmen’s toils to win luxury and comfort, Thoreau conveys the profound degree to which we become overtaken by the world of practical demands and financial success. He even goes as far as to call it a kind of slavery, writing, “[W]orst of all [is] when you are the slave-driver of yourself! Talk of the divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway. . . Does divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses!”5
Through simplicity, we are given the freedom and space to focus on what is truly important in life
In providing his definition of true wealth, Thoreau advocates for a life of simplicity writing, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone” (79). He refers to the luxuries and comforts of life as “positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”, noting that the great sages of history all lived humble and simple lives. The idea is that through simplicity, we are given the freedom and space to focus on what is truly important in life and to make those pursuits our real life priority.
This ethic is closely mirrored by Ethics of the Fathers when Ben Zoma is recorded as saying, “Who is the rich? He who is satisfied with his lot.”6 This pithy statement reminds us that true happiness is not to be found in money but in our appreciation of what we have. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “One who loves money will not be satisfied with money” (5:9).
The confusion that Ethics of the Fathers and Thoreau are warning against is the allure that worldly pleasures have upon us. Rather than using money as a tool to build the foundation for a good life, it is all too easy to treat money and the luxuries it affords as ends in themselves. The result is as described in Ecclesiastes that “one who has one hundred wants two hundred.” In other words, once we start to treat money as the goal, then the demands of physicality will never cease!
This message is especially important to us in our current era of consumerism where status and honor are often perceived as being gained through wealth and worldly achievement rather being based on the integrity of the actual person.
Before becoming an observant Jew and building my relationship to Reality through the framework of Judaism, these values presented by Thoreau rang true to me, but I always retained a certain reservation. Though I agreed with much of his philosophy and was inspired by his poetic style, one man’s personal philosophy was not something I could fully invest myself in. But upon discovering these ideals within the framework of my own heritage, that stretches back thousands of years to Sinai, a fundamental shift has taken place. These ideals now speak to me in a deeper way. My hesitation is gone and I can commit to striving to live-up to these ideals. These ethics are no longer just one man contemplating the good and the evil; they now carry the power of the spiritual heritage and ancestry to which I am inextricably connected.