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A Jewish Eco-Theology

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For the past year, I have had the privilege of developing my thinking in religious environmentalism as a member of GreenFaith's Fellowship program. The program brings together leaders from multiple faith traditions to develop religious and moral voices in safeguarding the environment. Three pillars of study are Spirit (the sanctity of the earth and the natural world found in all religious traditions), Sustainability (harnessing the teachings of respective religious traditions to safeguard our planet) and Environmental Justice (adapting religious teachings of social justice to ensure clean, safe environments for all people wherever they live, work, study or pray). During the course of the program, I wrote a personal eco-theology that I am now sharing.

In reflecting on my commitment to safeguarding our environment as a mitzvah (sacred commandment) in Jewish tradition, three foundational verses in the Torah come to mind:

1. Genesis 1:26-27: Humanity is created in the image of God. While I understand the desire by some environmental theologians to reject an anthropocentric approach to environmentalism, I embrace it. I cannot imagine a world without human beings. I believe our purpose on earth is to act as partners with God in the betterment of the world.

2. Leviticus 25:23: "[God said], 'For the Land is Mine. You are but strangers and sojourners with Me.'" While humanity is unique among all creation, in the final analysis, we are mortal, finite beings. We come from dust and return to dust. We must resist the temptation of hubris that we own the planet and can do anything with impunity.

3. Deuteronomy 16:20: "Justice, justice you shall pursue." Bringing justice and righteousness into the world and fighting against injustice resulting from human inequity should be at the fore of our actions. Environmental justice speaks to me because it calls for us to create a just and equitable environment wherever we are.

Jewish religious teachings that have influenced my eco-spirituality

1. Abraham Joshua Heschel's notion of radical amazement is a compelling concept for me because it calls to mind the divine spark found in all of creation. It also calls for a sense of awe in the universe that is sorely lacking in an age of massive oil spills, nuclear reactor meltdowns and human trafficking of tomato pickers. If more people would have a sense of this radical amazement of nature, there would be greater appreciation of the limits of nature and risks posed by pushing nature beyond its limits.

2. Martin Buber differentiation between "I-Thou" relationships and "I-It" relationships is central to my eco-spirituality. In a consumerist age, we are inundated with goods and services, but meaningful relationships have suffered. I believe that cultivating a greater sense of human dignity for people in our midst is vital to comprehensive ecological stewardship.

3. A high point of the High Holiday liturgy is the liturgical poem "Un'taneh Tokef" that spells out the decrees to which every person will be subjected in the coming year: Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. The poem then adds: "But repentance, prayer and righteousness can help the harshness of the decree pass." There are bad things that happen in the world over which we have no control: illness, death, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. We can't prevent these things, but it is in our power to take away the sting. We can't prevent earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, but we can rally to help those who suffer, and we can alter our consumption habits so that energy sources (e.g., nuclear reactors) do not pose threats to entire cities.

Challenges to my eco-spiritual development

The false god of consumption plagues America and the American Jewish community in which I serve as a rabbi. Our society's culture of consumption challenges the Torah's values of humility and justice and promotes an ethos of hubris and self-interest. I rejoice that America has allowed my people to escape tyranny and persecution in Europe and elsewhere and to prosper here. I cannot take for granted that my great-grandparents came to America to escape pogroms and vile treatment in Russia. Their values of hard work, sacrifice and delayed gratification continued with the generation of my grandparents, the "Greatest Generation" who fought WWII and built our country into a major power. My generation to a great extent has lost these values and our nation and the world suffers as a result. Eco-consciousness reintroduces these values in what for me is a compelling way, but many in the broader community feel threatened and their sense of entitlement under assault. I see the current economic recession as an opportunity re-engage with time-honored values and to begin to reverse the damage that conspicuous consumption has wrought on society.

Another challenge relates to public policy. As an adult, particularly after the seminal moment of 9/11, I was drawn into environmentalism through my desire to achieve energy independence. Our society is dependent on petroleum from totalitarian countries that sit on most of the world's oil reserves. Because of principles I hold dear regarding democratic freedom, I knew America needed to wean itself off its dependence on foreign oil. Until the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I wasn't totally convinced that exploration of new domestic oil fields was a bad thing. I'm now totally convinced. I've felt challenged again recently regarding oil exploration in Israel. The State of Israel, whose existence and security is vital to modern Jewry, has a lot to gain through energy independence and is a light unto the nations for its efforts to do so through sustainable means. Indeed, Better Place's leadership in developing infrastructure to support electric cars throughout the country is most inspiring. At the same time, efforts are hastily afoot to introduce fracking in Israel based on the discovery of rich oil and gas deposits in rock. This process has already poisoned water systems in the United States. I fear that Israel's adoption of this system will lead to environmental disaster in an area where water is already in deep shortage. Whether in America, Israel or around the world, I believe it is essential to keep the dual values of environmental stewardship and energy independence in sync with each other rather than in conflict with each other. We will be most successful fulfilling the precepts of the Torah described above when we reduce and hopefully someday eliminate our dependence on fossil fuel.

Ritual practices that strengthen my connection with Creation

As an observant Jew, I pray daily, and the discipline of prescribed daily prayer reinforces the concepts outlined above: We're created in the image of God, yet the earth is ultimately God's; our task is to help God maintain justice and repair the earth. Other specific Jewish rituals ground me with appreciation for creation. Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, provides me with a framework of mindfulness in how I eat. The various blessings said before and after eating various foods remind me of the ultimate Source of the food. Shabbat is a weekly set of rituals geared toward slowing down and appreciating creation rather than creating. My increased involvement over the years in environmental activism has seemed to make so much sense because it flows seamlessly out of rituals that I was already observing and, in turn, breathed new life into the rituals.

Power tempered by humility

In conclusion, a piece of Hasidic wisdom instructs people to hold in each hand a slip of paper: on one is written, "For my sake was the world created." On the other is written, "I am but dust and ashes." The teaching flows out of the principles in the Torah I outlined above. We are created in the image of God, but we are not God. Humanity's unparalleled wisdom and power needs to be tempered by humility. Together, we are channeled towards a life of purpose in restoring justice and repairing the world.

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