A Responsibility To Defend A Fragile & Glorious World: Judaism & The Environment


photo: Jrwooley6/CC BY-SA
The following post is part of an ongoing series of posts briefly outlining how the world's major religions have traditionally viewed the environment and are putting those beliefs into practice today.

"A Jewish ecology is 'not based on the assumption that we are no different from other living creatures. It [begins] with the opposite idea: We have a special responsibility precisely because we are different, because we know what we are doing'." - The Conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book To Life! (ARC).

Dominion Over Earth Not An Excuse For Tyranny
That special responsibility is rooted in the belief that everything in the universe is the work of God and that, as it says in the book of Genesis, Earth has been given to humans to "use and protect" and that humans have "dominion" over "the fish in the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth."While that may be interpreted by some as permission to do whatever we please towards other creatures and to the land, Professor Nahum Rakover cites the nearly century-old words of Rav Kook giving a different, more tempered view of human's proper relationship towards nature:

There can be no doubt to any enlightened or thoughtful person, that the 'dominion' mentioned in the Bible in the phrase, "and have have dominion...over every living thing that creeps upon the earth," is not the dominion of a tyrant who deals harshly with his people and servants in order to achieve his own personal desires and whims. It would be unthinkable to legislate so repugnant a subjugation and have it forever engraved upon the world of God...as it is written, "the earth is founded upon mercy." (ARC)

Ultimately, as the Jewish declaration on the environment made at Assisi over 20 years ago states:

We have a responsibility to life, to defend it everywhere, not only against our own sins but also against those of other. We are all passengers in this same fragile and glorious world. Let us safeguard our rowboat, and let us row together.

That said, as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life says, in answering the question 'What's Jewish about protecting the environment?',

Jewish liturgy is infused with descriptions and images of nature as an expression and embodiment of the Divine. Yet for more than a thousand years, Jews--even Judaism itself--have been distant from nature. A reconciliation between Jews and nature is needed...

COEJL goes on to detail how to start doing this (holding services outdoors, organizing Shabbat programs in the wilderness...), noting that "'Finding God in nature'...isn't some 'new age' fad. It's an ancient Jewish practice."

Ancient Holidays Given New Environmental Awareness
Bridging ancient tradition and modern environmental awareness, organizations such as Canfei Nesharim encourage celebration of inherently nature-focused holidays such as Tu B'Shevat (falling in winter in the United States) and Sukkot (in the autumn) with a specifically ecological focus. If you can't plant trees yourself on Tu B'Shevat, you can plant virtual ones. On Sukkot, where water is celebrated through Simchas Beis Hashoeva, Canfei Nesharim urges an additional focus on water conservation.

Though a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, Tu B'Shevat has been seized upon by Jewish environmentalists. This video from Jewcology explains a bit more (the quality is a bit wonky...), linking theology and ecology:

Putting Jewish environmentalism to practice in the world there are many organizations at work. In addition to ones linked above, the Teva Learning Center, Teva Ivri, and Big Green Jewish are good places to start to learn more.

Jewish CSAs: Sustainable Agriculture & Money For Environmental Education
One particularly interesting one though is Hazon and its programs on food--publicized through its blog in The Forward, Jew and the Carrot.

Besides organizing a food conference ("the only place in the world where farmers and rabbis, nutritionists and chefs, vegans and omnivores, and foodies of every stripe come together to explore the dynamic interplay of food, Jewish tradition and contemporary life"), Hazon has set up an impressive community supported agriculture program.

Going back to 2004, the CSA serves over 2,300 households in the US, Canada and Israel through 56 farms. Through the program Hazon says the Jewish community has put over $1 million dollars towards sustainable agriculture, while supporting Jewish institutions in educating people about the intersection of Jewish tradition and modern environmental issues.

Community Building: "Jews Are The World Experts"
Summing up well this intersection, founding director of Teva Ivri Einat Kramer says,

As Jews, our solutions to the environmental crisis should be specifically "Jewish." Luckily for us it seems that this goal is pretty easy.  When we look at our own tradition, we see that it holds some beautiful & fundamental ideas and in this field.

Torah - The Jewish tradition holds the unique world view that while humans have control over the world, we also have the responsibility to take care of it. We are given the world, but are expected to interact with it in a spirit of humility and understanding that we are part of one Creation, with G-d as the Creator.

Shabbat - Judaism has given the world the concept of Shabbat - a day of rest, a day without shopping, a day of peace between man & nature.

Mitzvot - Judaism also contains practical ideas about the prevention of waste, about the ethical treatment of animals, about social justice. And not to forget our tenth commandment, "You shall not covet". Do not be greedy.

Communities - In the social field, the environmental movement is working these days on recreating strong and lasting communities in order to rebuilt solidarity among people and a concept of localization. I believe that we, Jews are the world experts in community building.


More on Religion & The Environment
Humans Are Trustees of Allah's Creation: Islam & The Environment
We Are An Instrinsic Part of Nature, Not Separate From Anything Else: Buddhism & The Environment

Tags: Green Spirit | Religion