David Nieto was a brilliant scholar, a wise doctor, a true community leader and a righteous man. But I doubt he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the post as rabbi of the Spanish-Portuguese congregation in London at the dawn of the 18th century. And who knows if he had any idea of the controversy he would spark.
Rabbi Nieto arrived in England to find a country obsessed with science. Sir Isaac Newton had established firm laws of nature, and Sir Robert Boyle was busy enforcing them. Indeed, Mother Nature had taken on a new life all of her own, and was touted as the heir apparent as supreme deity. Taking a cue from the writings of Baruch Spinoza, John Toland had coined the term “pantheism,” challenging the dualist nature of Christianity and proclaiming that nature alone and not G‑d was to be worshipped. The laws of nature were declared to be absolute and fundamental to reality. The old “Abrahamic” G‑d, with all His personal likes and dislikes, was to be retired in favor of a world run by nothing other than “natural law.”
So it happened that one November Shabbat afternoon in 1703, Rabbi Nieto stood on the podium in the grand Bevis Marks Synagogue and addressed the congregation. Something like this:
“My beloved brethren, listen to me clearly, and know that what I am going to say is a fundamental belief of our people, as it has been since we were founded. There is no such thing as nature. The word simply does not exist in the Hebrew language. About 500 years ago or so, some people took the word teva and decided to use it to describe what they called the laws of nature. But in truth, no such thing exists. King David writes in his Psalms that G‑d ‘covers the sky with clouds and prepares rain for the ground.’ Indeed, G‑d is nature, and nature is none other than G‑d.”
At which point one of the most prestigious members of that congregation, Joshua Zarfatti, began to fume. From that day on, he refused to even enter a building in which “the heretic rabbi” stood. “A pantheist in our midst!” he cried, rallying supporters against the rabbi. “We must rid our community of this evil disease!”
Rabbi Nieto did not back off an inch, and actually published his words in a book the following year, which he called Della Divina Providencia. London burned with that controversy until August of 1705, when Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, esteemed and respected halachic authority of Altona, responded to the congregation’s request to adjudicate the matter. His response came in the form of a letter cosigned by two other rabbinical judges of Altona, and it exonerates Rabbi Nieto entirely.
Rabbi Ashkenazi cites classic sources to support Nieto, such as the Kuzari of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, where he writes that “G‑d, blessed be He, is the one who is called nature in truth,” since G‑d is the one who (in the words of the Talmud) “nurtures every creature, from the largest horned mammals to the tiniest insects.” He points out that several Kabbalistic works have noted the numerical equivalence of G‑d’s name Elokim and the word used for the nature of things, ha-teva. In sum, he writes, “We must thank the consummate scholar R. David Nieto, whom G‑d preserve, for the sermon he preached to warn the people not to allow themselves to be led away by the opinion of the philosophers who talk about nature, because great injury arises therefrom, and he enlightens the eyes with the true belief, which is that everything comes from the providence of G‑d.”
Was Nieto a pantheist? Certainly not—and he makes that point very clear in his book. His G‑d, the G‑d of Israel, can not be equated with the Creation itself, which He transcends entirely. But neither was Nieto a dualist, nor a deist. G‑d is not separate from nature or the world He has made. Nature is G‑d working in consistent patterns, and limiting Himself, so to speak, to the parameters He has set for each thing.
In effect, nature is nothing more than G‑d playing within His own game.