Author Archives: Rabbi Yonatan Neril

About Rabbi Yonatan Neril

Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. He has worked with Canfei Nesharim for the past six years in developing educational resources relating to Judaism and the environment.

Sustainable Jewish Eating

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov identifies the desire for food and drink as the central desire of the human being, and the one from which other desires emanate. Jewish teachings can help us appreciate the food we eat and eat it in a spirit of holiness. Doing so can also help the environment, as we will explore.

What does it mean to eat in a Jewish way? First of all, we should eat when we are hungry. Rabbi Shlomo Volbe teaches that a person needs to distinguish between eating because of a healthy desire of the body (i.e., eating in order to be healthy), versus eating out of base physical desire. (Of course many people today also eat out of emotional desire.) It is therefore important to clarify, before eating, that what I am eating is for the right reason, rather than out of physical or emotional cravings. sustainability

Not only what we eat, and but also how we eat is important. A Jewish way of eating includes eating food slowly and consciously. While it is possible to eat a meal in a few minutes, Jewish teaching cautions against doing so. Rabbi Natan of Breslov states: “Be careful not to swallow your food in a hurry. Eat at a moderate pace, calmly and with the same table manners that you would show if an important guest were present. You should always eat in this manner, even when you are alone.”

Where we eat also matters. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish teach that a person’s table has taken the place of the Temple of ancient times in atoning for that person. One understanding of their statement is that when a person eats in holiness at their own table, they have made proper use of their table in a way parallel to the altar of the Temple (Chagigah 27a). This underscores the significance in Jewish thought of eating at a table, and not while standing or walking. Today some of our eating takes place at a desk or even in a car! We will eat more healthfully and with more holiness if we take wholesome meals at a table.

Finally, the act of eating with others–and sharing not only food, but also Jewish wisdom–bestows upon the meal an aura of sanctity, and elevates eating to a holy act. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 3:4) we learn that Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at God’s table… A shared opportunity for blessing before and after one eats also serves to connect the act of eating to a higher purpose. These practices elevate our bodily needs and can help transform our eating to become an act of holiness and devotion.

Genesis and Human Stewardship of the Earth

The first two chapters of Genesis contain teachings with profound relevance for ourselves and our world today. After creating Adam and Eve, G-d blesses them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” What does it mean for humans to subdue the earth and have dominion over other creatures?
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One of the central precepts of Rabbinic Judaism is that the Written Torah must be understood within the context of the 2,300 year-old rabbinic tradition (including the Midrash and other works) that interprets it. While on the surface the words of this verse appear to give people license to degrade and subdue the earth, the Oral tradition makes clear that a wholly different message is being conveyed.

Environmental Responsibility in Jewish Texts

The Midrash teaches, “Rabbi Chanina said, ‘if he [the human being] merits it then [G-d says] have dominion, while if he does not merit, then [G-d says] he will be taken down.’ This teaching links human dominion of creation to humanity’s righteousness: if humanity merits through its righteousness, then it shall rule over nature. But if it does not merit because it does not act in an upright fashion, then humanity itself will descend and not be granted rulership over nature.

Another Midrash makes clear that part of human righteousness involves being stewards of the earth. The Midrash says that G-d showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” Acting righteously thus involves treating the world with utmost respect; for this the human will merit dominion of creation.

Rabbi David Sears writes that the blessing to dominate “comprises a form of stewardship for which humanity is answerable to G-d. Both Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources state that it is forbidden to kill any creature unnecessarily, or to engage in wanton destruction of the Earth’s resources… The divine mandate for man to dominate the natural world is a sacred trust, not a carte blanche for destructiveness.”

Taking Responsibility for the Environmental Crisis

In our times we are beginning to witness the planet’s ecological balance weakening due to human influence: rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, hurricanes intensifying, the planet heating. What is driving the deterioration of the natural world? To be sure, there are physical reasons, yet to answer ‘fossil fuels’ or ‘wood use’ or even ‘consumerism‘ would provide only partial answers. In order to truly understand a problem, we need to look under its surface to understand the root causes. In regard to the great loss of the First and Second Temples, the Jewish sages focus not on the destroying armies but on the spiritual deterioration which made way for the destruction of the physical structure.  For many ecological issues, the root issues beyond the physical symptoms lie in the spiritual health of human beings. smokestack

If one only sees physical causes, one may incorrectly view them as the only reason for an effect occurring. The response to the problem, then, will also be limited to the physical level alone. Yet if we neglect the underlying spiritual source, the problem will keep reemerging in different physical forms, growing out of the underlying root. On the other hand, as Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (the Rashba, Spain, 13th century) taught, when you address the roots of a problem, the outer problems will naturally fall away.  

Over the last decades we have seen and at some level addressed numerous environmental challenges, from reducing the depletion of the ozone layer to decreasing garbage through recycling campaigns. Still, environmental problems continue to spring up: climate change, deforestation, water insecurity.  This is because we have not addressed our environmental challenges at the root.

Our usual pattern today is to turn to scientists and politicians for technological solutions to our environmental challenges. If the problem is too much carbon in the atmosphere and too much fossil fuel use, the solution must be hydrid or electric cars, incandescent light bulbs, and other technological solutions. Yet these solutions are not sufficient to address today’s global problems. For example, a report from the McKinsey Global Institute cited how China relies on coal-burning power plants to produce as much as 85% of its electricity. The report estimated that were China to replace gasoline-powered cars with similar-size electric cars, it would only reduce the greenhouse emissions from those cars by 19 percent. This is because the electric cars would draw on electricity generated by burning coal. Scientists have stated that humanity must reduce its emissions by many times that amount in order to reduce the impact of climate change.

Countering Destruction: Lessons from Noah

Although the flood and the life of Noah occurred thousands of years ago, the story of Noah offers important lessons about how our actions affect the world. The Torah teaches that ten generations after Creation, all life on the planet had “corrupted its way on the earth” (Genesis 6:12). God gave humans 120 years to improve their ways, using Noah and his ark as messengers. Yet the people ignored the message and missed the boat. Noah built the ark, brought the animals into it, and lived on it with his family for the duration of the flood. After Noah left the ark, God made a covenant with Noah, designating the rainbow as the sign of the Creator’s commitment not to destroy the world.

What provoked God to carry out the most serious environmental catastrophe in human history and wipe away virtually all terrestrial creatures? The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that the judgment was sealed because of the sin of robbery (chamas). Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch teaches that “Chamas [wrongdoing] is a wrong that is too petty to be caught by human justice, but if committed continuously can gradually ruin your fellow man.” Apparently, people in Noah’s generation went to the market and stole a peanut here, a raisin there. With no one being tried for stealing miniscule amounts, store owners suffer significant losses and may have to shut down. No one desires or intends to cause such an outcome. It occurs due to the small-scale misconduct of many individuals put together. In response to this human wickedness, the Master of the World intentionally destroyed almost all terrestrial life by flooding the earth.

Today, perhaps the greatest risk of humans destroying the world comes not from those with the intent to do so but rather from the collective, unintentional actions of billions of people. Seemingly inconsequential actions are having a dramatic effect. We are little by little compromising the ecological balance on which we and future generations will depend for our survival. For the first time in human history, we now have the ability to destroy or radically alter all terrestrial life. 

Shabbat and Environmental Awareness

In modern society, we are running, speaking, and thinking at an exceptional rate, and oftentimes we continue all week long without slowing down. Constantly doing, always mobile accessible, habitually multi-tasking.

If being too busy is a malady of modern man, slowing down on Shabbat may be a key remedy. The Torah teaches, “These are the things that the Divine commanded to make. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to G-d…”  Achieving sanctity and complete rest is the stated goal of Shabbat. Yet how can this happen? 

The Prophet Isaiah says, “If…you call the Sabbath a delight (oneg), …and you honor it by not doing your habituated ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words, then, you shall delight with G-d…” According to the Talmud, ‘not doing your habituated ways’ means “that your walking on the Sabbath shall not be like your walking on weekdays.” The intentional weekly practice of walking slowly can help a person to focus their attention on how he or she feels while walking. Based on Isaiah’s continuation, “by not…speaking words,” the rabbis forbid speaking on Shabbat about work activities one might do in the future. Furthermore, on Shabbat we are encouraged to free our mind from its incessant preoccupation with thinking about doing. Encouraging this mindset, the great commentator Rashi (1040-1105 C.E., France) teaches “When the Sabbath arrives, it shall seem to you as if all your work is done, that you shall not think about work.”

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Every week, Shabbat can remind us that we are first and foremost human beings, not just human doers. Rabbi Daniel Kohn, who teaches at the Sulaam Yaakov rabbinical program in Jerusalem, states that “Our natural soul state is one of rest. By our spiritual nature, we are one with God, who is total Presence and Being. Shabbat is the place of constant access to the quiet, to the perfect rest in the bosom of G-d.” In addition to conscious movement, speech, and thought, Rabbi Kohn encourages the spiritual practice of meditation and quieting on Shabbat as a means of reaching true oneg.