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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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):


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.)


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.

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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.