Creating a Viable Eco-Judaism

Article excerpt

* 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. Also wonderful are Irene Diamond's personal musings on the intertwining of Judaism, feminism, and ecology.

A few minor annoyances could have been avoided. The footnotes to one essay lack page references. Another essay does not contain any references at all to sources which are not rabbinic. These oversights are rather limiting for a text that purports to serve as a sourcebook. Also unfortunate is the fact that some of the pieces are quite dated, as evidenced by their lack of citations to works within the last five years.

Given the diversity of essays and authors, it would be unfair to quibble over problems of interpretation, translation, or accuracy; many of the pieces clearly make better midrash than historiography, which is fine (historiography isn't always so inspiring). But even so, problems inhere in the eco-Jewish approach to the Jewish past which even this excellent collection does not escape. A division between shepherds and farmers recurs throughout these pages, for instance, but seems more mythic than factual, a product more than anything else of our need for generalizable handles with which to grasp immense entities such as civilizations. Because of the segmentation of the topical sections, "Rabbinic Judaism" seems to stretch from the authors of the Mishna and Talmud in the first centuries of the common era to Hasidic masters of the nineteenth century, which implies an unfortunate (and inaccurate) homogeneity and stasis.

Many of the authors mention and assume the importance of the principle that various halachot (laws, legal rulings) derive from the divine laws or order of nature. Such an order may indeed be eternal and unchanging, but our understanding of this natural order (which is all we can hope to access) has undergone tremendous historical change, such that we should be squeamish about upholding too literally "the biblical law of nature," regarding, for instance, the definitions of species taxonomy and their implications for grafting, mingling species, or even interplanting crops.

Another of the authors in this collection states that Halachah shows that "the environment, like man, has certain unalienable rights, and these rights are endowed to it by the Creator," But this is simply not true. While they may have existed in theory, the notion of rights for human beings did not come into practice until long after the Middle Ages and even later for animal or plant species (if ever-- witness the continuing controversy of the work of Peter Singer). The second half of the statement catches the truth better: the environment has no inherent rights (according to traditional logic, it is God, supernatural, who insists that humans need to be sensitive to that which is beyond them, to the non-human Other). Whether the notion of inalienable rights or divine command wields more power to curb human behavior I cannot say, but the error of this author, an error of basic philosophical language and concept, reveals the degree of retrojection involved in certain approaches to the eco-Jewish project.

The greatest limitation of this anthology is one shared by all of the writing that seeks to mine Judaism for a usable ecological past (and in this I may not be saying anything unknown to the editor). For example, one of the authors writes that "Rabbinic texts emphasize that communal concerns-- pollution, safety, ecology, public health, and so on-are a higher priority than `private property rights' or even `economic growth.'" But this reading promulgates wishful thinking, based mostly on non-binding Aggadah (loosely "storytelling") rather than binding Halachah. Indeed, the disjunction between the rabbinic worldview and that of this eco-Jewish author lays precisely in the definition of what constitutes "communal concerns" and an analysis of halachic history after the talmudic period would show that "private property rights" and "economic growth" almost always won the day, as perhaps was inevitable and proper given the overwhelming poverty of most pre-modern Jewish communities (though the bias continues).

The admirable religious or pragmatic sentiments of Jewish eco-tradition may indeed have helped guide Jews to avoid environmental despoliation, but if in fact Jews did refrain from such destructive actions the cause lay not in environmentally-conscious Halachah or Aggadah, but in the historical status of Jews as a minority population without autonomous geo-political power. The proof of this can be found in the deplorable environmental condition of the modern state of Israel, the sole post-rabbinic case of Jews existing thoroughly under their own governmental auspices. Though Israel operates in many ways according to the Halachah coined and enforced by the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinic institutional world within the state, not once, to my knowledge, has Halachah or even more diffuse Jewish sentiment effectively been brought to bear on commercial or governmental activities when the environment is concerned. Take the horrific litter plaguing Israel, the catastrophic pollution of its waterways, the proven harmful emission of air pollution (as a result of which one in ten Jerusalemites now has asthma), its lack of enforcement against environmental crimes, and so forth-never has the supposedly authoritative body of environmentallyfriendly Halachah been wielded by the orthodox or ultra-orthodox establishment to change if not to end these ongoing disasters.

Waskow and Alon Tal admit the poor environmental record of Zionism, a movement whose thought and action, it is also acknowledged elsewhere, often stemmed from specifically anti-religious motivations. Yet, readers will learn from David Brooks that the Jewish settlements in the territories claimed by Palestine which represent a predominantly religious orientation and are usually situated on hilltops continue to release untreated sewage onto nearby Palestinian farmland. In the course of Intifada 2000, if not before, the Israeli military has routinely uprooted Palestinian olive tree groves as an alleged tactic for eliminating hiding places for snipers, despite the fact that the destruction of fruit trees during warfare comprises an act specifically forbidden by the Bible and later halachists, indeed comprises a prohibition repeatedly held aloft as an example in eco-Jewish writings such as this anthology. I am still waiting for a rabbi brave enough to declare Me'ah She'arim unfit for human habitation until something green and growing is planted there. Eco-Jewish thought suffers, in short, from a certain Pollyanna-ish myopia, which comes across in the unresolved tension between the Zionism section of the book and the rest of its pages.

This is not to gainsay the potential power of neo-traditional Judaism to inspire change in personal and even collective ecological behavior. Some of the specific proposals (I was about to write "concrete," how telling!) in the Eco-Judaism section offer tantalizing possibilities. But the problem, perhaps as always, would seem to be how to get the popular majority, the elites and the institutions of governance, to take this demanding and difficult system of alternative priorities seriously. Here eco-Judaism forgets that rabbinic discourse has always been a counterculture with more or less limited reach, even within Jewish society; or, rather, eco-Judaism remains stuck in the same position as marginal gadfly. If recent history teaches us anything regarding progress on stemming environmental destruction, it is that whatever small improvements have been made in environmental consciousness and behavior in Israel and elsewhere came almost wholly from secular sectors of the population, using eminently "modern" tools such as scientific argument, legal action, and political protest. While religious groups jumped on the bandwagon at the end of the twentieth century, their contributions so far have not quite proven the efficacy of their tradition-thumping rhetoric. (I write all this as an observant eco-Jew.) Spiritless environmentalism may not ultimately be enough-but spirit-based environmentalism needs to act quickly if it is to show that it has the power to turn swords into ploughshares. May it be soon in our day.

And this, ultimately, is the conundrum; how to instill the most difficult understanding of that which is most simple and not necessarily new? One of the authors cites the never-truer words of The Ethics of the Fathers: "Jealousy, desire and pursuit of glory remove man from this world." In our own time, Theodor Adorno refashioned this insight by speculating that the mature society of the future would refrain from storming out in the conquest of strange stars. As the rabbis said: If everyone in the world observed even a single shabbat in a deep and true manner, we would have already brought in the messianic era. May it be soon in our day! Yet, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a piece included here, eco-Jewish global consciousness seeks "not to reject but to surpass civilization."

Torah of the Earth offers students and teachers of these matters ample food for healthful digestion; food which will no doubt provide energy for many further projects, hopefully for nothing less than a refashioning of the intellectual and institutional landscape of the (Jewish) world. Enough with consumerism as a means of filling emptiness! Enough with the false idol of limitless economic growth! Enough with the insatiable god of through-put economies (where natural resources are slated and valued only for use and then disposal)! Even if we suspect that we know the answers, however, no magic shortcuts await us on the path. As at least one of the rabbis of The Ethics of the Fathers knew, "study is not the central thing, but action." To work, to work.

[Author Affiliation]

Jonathan Schorsch is TIKKUN's book editor


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