Parashat B'hukotai

Science Vs. Sabbath?

The environmental destruction intended as a punishment for failing to observe the sabbatical year raises contemporary questions of how to prevent environmental devastation.

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Waskow expands on this in his two-volume collection, Torah of the Earth: "Today, when ecologists say, 'If you insist on pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and never letting the atmosphere rest from that overdose, there is going to be global warming and your civilization is going to be knocked awry if not shattered,' they are simply saying what Leviticus 26 said."Faith-based environmentalism, however, raises thorny issues of its own--particularly when it leads to a "deep ecology" sensibility that regards material progress itself as the enemy.

Norman Levitt notes this in his 1999 book, Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture:

"[E]nvironmentalism," he writes, often "harbors a strong edenic strain, the desire for the whole of humanity to revert to a purportedly 'natural' lifestyle...the practical implications of this propensity are serious and unsettling. Consider...the changes necessary to meet the global-warming threat. It is unlikely that these will be accomplished if we insist at the same time that human values worldwide have to be made over in the image of the ecological ideal."

Our challenge may be less to grant a "rest and recreation" sabbatical year for scientists than to adopt measures that would increase their independence from corporate power structures. Only by granting scientists this autonomy, Levitt argues, will society start to measure environmental impact realistically--motivated not by the possibility of profit, nor by the biases of politics or religion, but by the objective, expert opinions of scientist-citizens. In the U.S., some sort of extra-constitutional authority, similar to the Federal Reserve, might serve.

Levitt's proposal will no doubt push many alarm buttons, as we of the post-bomb generations too easily conflate science with corporate malfeasance and hold a Frankensteinian, rather than a Promethean, view of scientific progress. Yet our environmental future certainly depends as much upon the ongoing ability of scientists to increase the carrying capacity of our planet as it depends upon the ability of our religious leaders to awaken the Sabbath-consciousness of humanity. Perhaps a meaningful dialogue between the "Waskowites" and the "Levittites" would lead to renewal of Behukotai's blessings.

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Lawrence Bush

Lawrence Bush is author of several books of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.

Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro is the senior vice president at the Jewish Funds for Justice.