Living an Environmentally Conscious Jewish Life

The Jewish spiritual tradition offers ways to think and act in harmony with nature and for the benefit of the environment.

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The created world is both bountiful and fragile. A Jewish environmental activist suggests that treating it with respect and care should be an integral part of our living out the Jewish concepts of Torah (instruction/learning), avodah (service/worship/work), and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness).

 "O child of Adam, when you return to Nature, on that day you shall open your eyes… You shall know that you have returned to yourself, for in hiding from Nature, you hid from yourself… And you will recognize on that day…you must renew everything: your food and your drink, your dress and your home, the character of your work and the way that you learn -- everything."

jewish environment

So wrote Aaron David Gordon, the pioneer-philosopher of Labor Zionism, at the dawn of the kibbutz movement in 1910.  A century later, with species disappearing and pollution rising and the globe warming, it's time to do what Gordon said, in ways he could not have imagined, and indeed "renew everything." We must bring our entire being to the sacred work of Creation care -- and in so doing Jews are blessed with millennia of thought and experience to draw upon.

Awareness

The Jewish tradition offers myriad opportunities for uttering a formulaic blessing. We've got blessings for seeing heads of state, Torah scholars, and ugly people. Blessings over sunsets, meteors, rainbows, reunions, and bad news. Blessings for bread and baked goods and fruit and vegetables, all different. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir suggests reciting 100 blessings each day (Menachot 43b) -- one every ten minutes of our waking lives. In other words, Jews should be constantly aware of the world around us, and should respond through gratitude and prayer.

But it doesn't stop there. Among the things to be aware of is our interdependence, that "one glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, [which] unites all living beings" (Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century Germany, Nineteen Letters, 4). And once we are aware of the bounty and fragility of Creation, we naturally become committed to protecting it, and making sure that others -- other people, other creatures, other generations -- get to enjoy its fragile bounty as well.

natural fieldThere is really no other way. Through mitzvot, minhagim and musar commandments, customs and ethics, Judaism makes ecological claims on us. A meaningful practicing Jewish life is by definition already an eco-conscious one. It works in reverse, too: Judaism, or any spiritual tradition for that matter, grounds and enriches our environmental commitments.

A.D. Gordon taught that everything must change when returning to Nature -- but as we know from Lao Tze, the Chinese teacher of Taoism, even a thousand-mile tiyyul (hike) begins with one step. Here, then, are a few easy steps we can all take, arranged in the three pillars upon which the world stands (Mishnah Avot 1:2):

Torah

Learning, law, ethics, stories, history, theology, psychology, cosmology, and more are all included in "Torah." Just sticking with the traditional etymology, "instruction," Torah covers a lot of ground. A fine example comes at the very beginning, which for ecological purposes is a very good place to start -- Genesis 1 and 2, the opening chapters of our sacred writings.

Some people try to justify ecocide through Genesis 1:28, where God blessed the first humans saying "fill the Earth and subdue it, and have dominion." Forget the obvious, that dominion and destruction differ -- tradition gives us three ecological interpretations of even these potentially problematic verses). First, Rashi (11th century French commentator) cites a midrash that links "dominate" and "fall" (yirdu /yer'du), so dominion becomes conditional on our doing a good job. Second, the very next verses dictate a vegetarian diet, so in context "dominion" doesn't even allow the destruction of one animal -- much less the wholesale extinction of thousands of species each year.

And Maimonides (12th century Spanish/Egyptian philosopher) says our verse isn't prescriptive, it's descriptive. (Guide of the Perplexed 3:13.) God made us a part of Creation, with DNA 99% identical to that of our orangutan cousins, while also making us apart from Creation. Small differences, like opposable thumbs and enlarged cerebella, mean we will rule -- but how? The verse in question comes right at the outset, so that the whole rest of Torah can help us figure out how to rule sacredly and sustainably.

That's just the beginning. In the next chapter (Genesis 2:15), human (Adam) enters ecosystem (Eden) l'ovdah uleshomrah, to work/serve/till and to guard/tend it -- that is, we can improve or maintain the Earth, but are forbidden from making it worse. And Torah wisdom goes on from there. All of Torah, meaning all of our Jewish learning, is filled with ecological insight. (See the bibliography, accessible in the toolbar to the right, for some suggested reading.)

Avodah

jewish environmental issues

Another tough-to-translate word, avodah means work, prayer, and service. How can we "green" these aspects of our lives? At work, we can both prevent the worst and push for the best. For instance, at minimum we can recycle, while also working on purchasing only recycled products (paper, carpet, bathroom supplies, bookshelves, etc). As A.D. Gordon often said, "to Labor, to Nature!" Work/avodah is inextricably linked with Creation -- our economy will outlive Greenspan [Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve], but can't live without the green chlorophyll on which our food chain is based.

Avodah also means prayer, and through our prayer book we get most powerfully in touch with the Creator and with Creation. In the daily morning liturgy God is called "the one who in goodness every day renews the work of Creation"--a renewal in which we have been made co-partners. We are warned not to turn away and serve false gods (idols, or limitless growth perhaps, or pop stars and sports "heroes?"), lest nature turn against us and we "be speedily evicted from the good land God gives us" (second paragraph of Sh'ma, from Deut. 11). The entire liturgy cultivates our humility before God and the world, something this ecological age desperately needs to learn. Prayer/avodah is just what the Doctor-on-high ordered.

And as "service," avodah can be all about helping others and the community by adopting a more ecologically conscious lifestyle. We can best be "of service" to those in poverty or in developing countries by using less, and helping them attain better lifestyles in less destructive ways. We can best be "of service" to future generations by not killing off too many species, or changing the climate too much, so they can enjoy Creation as we do. This is "environmental justice," where pursuing justice (Deuteronomy 16:20) for people means safeguarding their/our environment, now and forever. And what about being "of service" to Creation itself?

Gemilut Hasadim

Literally "acts of loving-kindness", gemilut hasadim brings us to concrete actions. If Eco-Torah means "learn it", and Eco-Avodah means "love it", then Eco-Gemilut-Hasadim means "live it!" There's no shortage of specific things we can (and in the language of Jewish law, halacha, should) do to live that ecologically conscious Jewish life:

* Tza'ar ba'alei hayim, kindness to animals: Judaism teaches us to put the needs of our animals even before our own. It starts with pets and domesticated animals, but can also include wildlife. Today this and related values might even suggest vegetarianism (see Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name).

* Eco-Zionism, protecting the Eretz (land) of Yisrael: That small, densely populated, sacred land is being overused and abused. Our love for Israel and passion for Creation can unite through supporting environmental efforts in our homeland.

* Eco-Kashrut, a meta-ethics of Jewish consumption: Items are either "acceptable" (kosher) or "not OK" (treif), based on a set of ritual-ethical-spiritual laws. Yet narrowly speaking, styrofoam plates are kosher. We can apply kashrut to how food was produced and how it's served, and from there expand it from food and drink to oil, forest management, corporations and governments.

* Bal Tashhit, forbidding wanton waste: a wartime prohibition against cutting down enemy's trees (Deuteronomy 20:19) suggests that all needless waste is an affront to God. In a 13th century text (Sefer Hahinukh 529), righteous people grieve when even a mustard seed is wasted. Does our waste -- greenhouse gas emissions, non-composted garbage, vacuous TV programs -- pass "the mustard seed test?"

Next Steps

We've hardly scratched the surface. Though Judaism has offered ecological wisdom for millennia, only now is there a Jewish environmental movement, with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (which brings together dozens of national Jewish agencies, including all four major religious denominations) at its center. Their website, www.coejl.org, is the top resource among many for further learning, service, and action.

There's so much more -- in the worlds of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim, together -- that we can do to live an environmentally conscious Jewish life. "One who lives in this way shall never be shaken" (Psalms 15:5). May we all learn to live this way -- simply -- so that others may simply live.

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Rabbi Fred Dobb

Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, serves on the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Shalom Center, Religious Witness for the Earth, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.