Monday, May 16, 2016

Weeping for the Land: Jewish Spiritual Solutions to Healing the Environment

I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action's one-day symposium "Weeping for the Land: Spiritual Perspectives on and Strategies for Healing an Ailing Planet" on May 12. My topic was Judaism and spiritual solutions to healing the planet. Below is the text of my talk, and the video from it.

Environmental Justice is a Jewish value.

First of all, I want to clarify that I am speaking as an individual. I am not a rabbi and I am certainly not a scientist. I am an activist, and much of what I will present is from that perspective.

Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world, and as such as ownership of the land, and it is our job, as stewards of the land, to protect and preserve it. This is a value that is common to other faiths, particularly Abrahamic ones, but there are some specific Jewish teachings that deal with Judaism and the environment. I am going to examine just a few of these that are based in the Torah and Talmud.

Much of what I am going to discuss comes from and is written by Rabbi Lawrence Troster ("Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and the Environment"). What follows are either his words or my paraphrases of them:

The Torah has numerous laws, which attempt to redress the power and economic imbalances in human society and Creation. Examples are the Sabbatical year (Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:2-5, Deuteronomy 15:1-4) and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-24). There is a whole program in the Torah for creating a balanced distribution of resources across society (Exodus 22:24-26, Leviticus 25:36-37, Deuteronomy 23:20-1, 24:6,10-13,17). This is an expression of the concept of Tzedek, which means righteousness, justice and equity. It is the value, which tries to correct the imbalances, which humans create in society and in the natural world. In the modern world globalization has strived to achieve the free movement of people, information, money, goods and services but it can also create major disruptions in local cultures and environments. While globalization has created great wealth for millions of people, many millions more have been bypassed by its benefits and it has had in some cases a negative impact upon the environment and human rights. The Jewish concept of Tzedek demands that we create a worldwide economy that is sustainable and that is equitable in the distribution of wealth and resources.

Torah: Prohibition of wasteful consumption
Deut. 20_19-20 “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.” This law was expanded into a mitzvah (commandment) of Bal Taschlit – Do Not Destroy, and includes the wanton destruction of household goods, clothes, buildings, springs, food, or wasteful consumption of anything.

“Modesty in consumption is a value that Jews have held for centuries. For example one is not supposed to be excessive in eating and drinking or in the kind of clothes that one wears (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Discernment,chapter 5). Jews are obligated to consider carefully our real needs whenever we purchase anything. We are obligated when we have a simchah (a celebration like a wedding or Bar Mitzvah) to consider whether we need to have elaborate meals and wasteful decorations. We are obligated to consider our energy use and the sources from which it comes.”

Torah: Prohibition of the Extinction of Species and Causing undue pain to non-human creatures
This is an underlying reason for certain laws pertaining to Kashruth – kosher – food, in terms of the procedure by which to kill an animal in a way that causes as little pain as possible (supposedly, although some Jewish people, like in the general population, have taken this one step further by becoming vegetarian).

“If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

Ramban (Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, 1194-1270) in his commentary to the Torah wrote: “This also is an explanatory commandment of the prohibition you shall not kill it [the mother] and its young both in one day (Leviticus 22:28). The reason for both [commandments] is that we should not have a cruel heart and not be compassionate, or it may be that Scripture does not permit us to destroy a species altogether, although it permits slaughter [for food] within that group. Now the person who kills the mother and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly, [it is regarded] as though they have destroyed that species.”

The spiritual solution for environmental issues is, like other issues of social justice:

Tikkun Olam: The perfection/fixing of the world is in our hands.

There is a midrash (Rabbinic commentary on the Bible) which Jewish environmentalists are fond of quoting:

“When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13) In the Jewish liturgy there is a prayer called Aleinu in which we ask that the world be soon perfected under the sovereignty of God (le-takein ‘olam be-malkhut Shaddai). Tikkun olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world, has become a major theme in modern Jewish social justice theology. It is usually expressed as an activity, which must be done by humans in partnership with God. It is an important concept in light of the task ahead in environmentalism. In our ignorance and our greed, we have damaged the world and silenced many of the voices of the choir of Creation. Now we must fix it. There is no one else to repair it but us.

My addition: Tikkun Olam is a way that many contemporary Jews express their faith, even if they are not religious or observant in the traditional sense. It is a call to action in a practical sense, with a spiritual undercurrent. But in what I just read from Rabbi Troster, I think this is a collective “us” - all of us, in our different traditions have a responsibility to protect Creation.