Judaism and the Environment

This blog post is the text of a short presentation I made today to my Jewish community on the first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It is the beginning of a period of deep self reflection, culminating ten days later in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

It is a tradition in my community that members are invited to speak on major holidays, briefly of course, on a topic of their own choosing that may have meaning for the community. This year I was invited to speak on Rosh Hashanah and chose the topic Judaism and the Environment. These brief words may help to put into context many of my earlier blog postings.


Judaism and the Environment

This brief talk is given in the spirit of midrash, often called ‘drash’, which is commonly defined as the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah (the central reference of the religious Judaic tradition). In modern times Jewish communities have been called ‘communities of rabbis’ so while not a rabbi I feel free to comment.

My topic is Judaism and the environment. The bulk of my career has been devoted to developing clean energy technologies that reduce environmental stress and so the topic is one that is dear to my heart. Back in 2005 I was invited to present a talk on the topic ‘Why I do what I do’. An important part of my answer was ‘Tikkun Olam’, which had a mystical meaning in medieval times but in modern times is associated with the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.

Some people trace Jewish concern for the environment to the fundamental concept of Judaism that God created the universe and that only God has absolute ownership over Creation. This is a theocentric worldview, not an anthropocentric one that emphasizes, as stated in Genesis I, that humans exercise ‘dominion’ over the earth. Others point to the Deuteronic commandment ‘bal taschit’ that is an injunction against unnecessary destruction.

In the theocentric, God-focused, worldview the environmental implications are that humans must realize that they do not have unrestricted freedom to misuse Creation, as it does not belong to them. Everything we own, everything we use, even ourselves, ultimately belongs to God. We are to be stewards of the earth and the role of mankind is to enhance the world as ‘co-partners of God in the work of creation.”This implies that we must always consider our use of Creation with a view to the larger good in both time (i.e., responsibility to future generations) and space (i.e., others on this world). It also implies that we must think beyond our own species to that of all Creation. There is a midrash that builds on this concept of co-partnership:
“In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first man,
He took him and let him pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden
And said to him: “See my works, how fine and excellent they are!
Now all that I have created, for you have I created.
Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My World,
For if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.”

The anthropocentric view, the ‘dominance’ view in the rabbinic tradition, focuses on how mankind uses the fruits of Creation to meet its own needs. In 1967 Lynn White, in an oft-cited article, argued that the Judeo-Christian heritage arising from the ‘dominion’ commandment is responsible for the current ecological crisis. One response has been a Jewish and Christian environmental movement that was in many ways motivated by the revival of back-to-the-land values in the 1960s and ‘70s, augmented for Jews by interest in Zionist idealism.

The pioneers of environmentalism in the North American Jewish community were often deeply committed to vegetarianism. As with most things Jewish, a large part of Jewish environmental work has consisted of investing Jewish practice with ecological meaning through sermons, teachings, and books. In 1982, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, one of the first in this area of exploration often called Jewish Renewal, published ‘The Seasons of our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays’ which explains the Jewish calendar in terms of changes in the earth. In that same year a first-ever Jewish Environmental Conference was held at Rutgers University. A year later Rabbi Waskow founded the Shalom Center, now a leading organization in presenting an ecological understanding of Judaism. This was followed in 1988 by the founding of Shomrei Adamah, Guardians of the Earth, the first national Jewish organization devoted to environmental issues. And finally, in 1993, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life was formed to bring the Jewish environmental movement into the mainstream. Further developments have taken place in succeeding years.

What is apparent is that environmental justice is a Jewish value, and together with the commandment of Tikkun Olam leads to an active Jewish involvement in protecting the earth’s inhabitants and its environment.