Creating a Viable Eco-Judaism: Torah of the Earth; Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought

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Creating a Viable Eco-Judaism: Torah of the Earth; Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought.

Ed. Arthur Waskow. 2 vols. Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000.

Readers unfamiliar with eco-Jewish thinking--a despicable term, but I have found no better--will learn a great deal from these creative, welcome pages, gaining both knowledge and wisdom. Readers already familiar with eco-Judaism will find some new gems here and a fresh motherlode from which to draw them. The anthology is divided into four more-or-less chronological sections: Biblical Israel, Rabbinic Judaism, Zionism, and Eco-Judaism. Each section begins with an introduction by Arthur Waskow, in which he frames the pressing eco-Jewish questions and the changes from the previous worldview concisely, thoughtfully, thought-provokingly, and with verve. (I find his various writings here as powerful as anything he has previously written.) Also prefacing each section are brief translations of selected texts exemplifying that worldview, wonderfully setting the tone for the essays that follow.

There are too many essays to summarize or even list here, but suffice to say that the breadth and depth of the collection live up to its promise. The diversity of authors--from the president of Yeshiva University to Reconstructionist rabbis--makes for a pleasurably varied trek and Waskow is to be congratulated for fostering such a multiple perspective. Given the limited number of textual sources available for study, some redundancy between the pieces is inevitable (particularly apparent in the Rabbinic Judaism section), and though irksome, is not as rampant as it might have been. Each volume concludes with a useful resource section. (Assuming that some people might not buy both volumes, the publisher placed in each the same resource section and also, oddly, the same introduction.) The collection will make a great tool for teachers.

One aspect of this collection to be particularly appreciated is the absence of defensiveness. While the seminal and anti-monotheistic 1967 essay of Lynn White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," is mentioned here and there, the tone of the anthology for the most part rises above the need constantly to "prove" Judaism's ecological wisdom, a reactive impulse that pervaded many earlier eco-Jewish writings. The general atmosphere is more aesthetic, holistic, and joyful, focused on teaching rather than preaching.

At the same time, published by Jewish Lights and coming after much of the eco-Jewish groundwork has already been laid, the vocabulary and spirit of some of the writing, especially that of editor Arthur Waskow, tend to address those already converted. This is, then, not an anthology seeking to sell environmentalism to the mainstream, Jewish or non-Jewish, but an effort to implant a more radical consciousness. These volumes do not push a superficial, feel-good environmentalism based on a sanitized version of a religious system artificially and unconvincingly daubed green for current psycho-social needs--as did much of the earlier waves of eco-Jewish thought--but come from a place of having taken seriously the imperatives of thinking globally and acting locally, of having internalized alternative modes of living, of having been truly informed by pre-modern, non-technophiliac cultural norms.

Among the more outstanding contributions, to my mind, is Jeremy Benstein's "Nature vs. Torah," an informative survey of the textual history of the rabbinic statement that one who interrupts study to remark on a beautiful tree or field forfeits his/her life. Alon Tal's sobering summation of Israel's environmental record--which he calls "a nonsustainable gallop toward ecological disaster"--comprises a must read for anyone interested in getting beyond naive eco-Judaism. Aurora Levins Morales contributes a luminous meditation on her family's plots of land in Puerto Rico and in eastern Europe, an exemplary exercise in tracing the meanings of place. …