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Judaism, Ethics And Ecology

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A rabbi, a Jewish farmer, and a young Israeli activist walk into a retreat center for a panel discussion on Judaism and the environment. This is not the beginning of a bad joke, but an image from my recent experience at the Kayam Farm just outside of Baltimore. Kayam (meaning "alive" in Hebrew) is a burgeoning environmental initiative that includes a five-acre organic farm, and offers a variety of agricultural and environmental educational experiences for Jewish and non-Jewish adults and children.

The retreat I attended was called "Torah, Land, and Agriculture," and included a full Shabbat experience, complete with prayer services, communal meals, study sessions, and recreational activities. The gathering attracted an impressive 150 participants from across the eastern seaboard, despite unusually heavy snowfall in the days leading up to the gathering. The majority of the retreat-goers were young progressive activist and educators, but others -- older and younger -- came from conservative political and religious backgrounds. All of us came together to explore what Judaism has to say about the current environmental crisis, and how we might construct meaningful Jewish lives that include traditional and contemporary values and sensibilities.

Significantly, Kayam is not an isolated phenomenon, but a part of a growing Jewish environmental movement that includes a new summer camp in New York (Eden Village Camp), an annual food conference in California (Hazon), a residential farming community in Connecticut (Adamah), and several other innovative programs across the country. There is also the production of new religious and cultural writings on issues of theology, ethics, and ritual practice (see, for example, articles in Tikkun an Zeek, and books published by Jewish Lights).

I do not know how widespread this American Jewish "green" movement is at present or where it is headed, but I am excited to be a part of it, because unless Jews are actively engaged in the great issues of our time, and doing so consciously as Jews, Judaism will stagnate and cease to be meaningful to its adherents and irrelevant to the world at large. And to my mind, the current environmental crisis is among the greatest issues (if not the greatest issue) facing humanity. To put it simply, if we do not develop patterns of sustainable living, the world as we know it may not survive.

Of course, the first step we Jews must take in engaging the environmental crisis is recognizing that we are a part of a much larger web of life -- human, animal, vegetable and mineral. We cannot worry only about our own community; we must also develop a global ethic in which we see ourselves as part of a vast, intricate, and interdependent cosmos.

I believe that the Jewish tradition has several key insights to bring to bear on the environmental crisis that will help strengthen both the Jewish community and the wider world. Here I offer but two examples.

The first of these teachings come from the heart of the Jewish liturgy (by way of the book of Deuteronomy): "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." The opening line of the Shema (meaning "Hear") has been the essential faith statement of the Jews throughout the ages. Traditionally, it is one of the first prayers we learn as children and these are the last words we hope to say before we die. As my teacher, Arthur Green writes, "The Shema is ... the proclamation of Divine Oneness. God is One, the Source of all being ... God's oneness includes and embraces all; everything exists within God" (These Are the Words, p. 102).

This means that all of life is sacred, that divinity animates and flows through all of existence, and that we must treat all of life with great respect and care. This is true of our fellow human beings, but also the rest of God's creation. This proclamation -- which is not prayer to God, but a call to the people of Israel -- is considered so important that it is a staple of both the morning and evening prayer services (among others). This call to spiritual attention -- to the interconnection of all life and the sanctity of all life -- is one that I think is important for all people to hear, regardless if they are members of the historic community of Israel, if they are "God-wrestlers" (the literal meaning of Yisrael) from other communities, or people for whom the words "God" or "belief" are not a part of their vocabularies.

A second Jewish practice that can serve as a guide for us in the midst of the environmental crisis is the Sabbath. To observe Shabbat means to cease from our daily routines every seventh day, and to set aside time to give thanks for the gifts of life, to reflect on the week that was, and to bask in the glory of creation. As the great 20th theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, the Sabbath is a "palace in time," built through a series of intentional acts and abstentions. Living as we do, in such a fast-paced world, in which far too may of us measure success based on productivity without thinking deeply enough about the impact of that productivity on ourselves, on others, and on the earth, Shabbat is great gift and challenge to live more thoughtful and reflective lives.

In the context of this article, it is important to add that ancient biblical agricultural laws include the institutions of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee, which compliment the weekly Sabbath. These periods of cessation for human beings, animals, and the earth are all practices that can positively inform a contemporary environmental sensibility.

What excited me so much about my time at Kayam was the experience of being among a group of people committed to the project of renewing Judaism by delving into the riches of our religious teachings and rituals, and asking how these insights might help us and others respond effectively to the current environmental crisis. These explorations were accompanied by an appropriate humility and openness, knowing that we must continue to learn from and work with other religious and secular communities to heal our shared earth.

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