At the People's Climate March in New York, 2014. (Courtesy Hazon)

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.

Commentary on Parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34

Bechukotai concludes the Book of Leviticus and details the blessings or curses that will befall the people as a consequence of following (or not following) “the commandments that the Lord gave Moses . . . on Mount Sinai.” A particularly strong link is established between the sabbatical year — the rest from economic activity — and the fate of the people.

A disobedient people, Bechukotai warns, will be scattered among its enemies and “then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years.” The Torah portion’s portrait of devastation could serve as a modern environmentalist’s worst nightmare. The skies will become “like iron, and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.” Armed enemies, pestilence, cannibalism — Bechukotai has all the ingredients of post-apocalypse sci-fi in which the social and natural order utterly break down.

From the biblical perspective, all of this is the outcome of unrestrained greed — of humanity’s yetzer hara, the evil or lustful urge, slipped loose from the yoke of the covenant. The power of this urge is held in high respect by Rabbinic Judaism as the motivating force underlying all economic development: “[W]ere it not for the yetzer hara,” says one midrash, “a person would not build a house, marry, create children, or engage in commerce.”

But for civilization to endure and justice to reign, the yetzer hara must be restrained, based on the fundamental understanding that the earth belongs to God. We are living as tenants with a lease, the terms of which include the weekly Sabbath and the sabbatical year, as well as the Levitical laws about not harvesting to the corners of the field, about sacrifices and tithes, about caring for the widow and the orphan, etc. Without these restraints, the yetzer hara engulfs the world.

Do we need a latter-day version of the sabbatical year to fend off environmental devastation? Rabbi Arthur Waskow argues as much in the book we edited, Jews, Money & Social Responsibility, when he suggests that “every seven years, we should give one year off to all of the people who specialize in research and development…Now, when the earth itself is endangered…when better to reconnect the liberation of humankind with the resting-time of the earth?”

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 Bechukotai’s blessings.

Reprinted with permission from


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