Facing an Environmental Crisis. (Reviews)

By Peterson, Kelly | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Facing an Environmental Crisis. (Reviews)


Peterson, Kelly, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader. MARTIN D. YAFFE, ed. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001.

When a well-known scholar and wellread environmentalist criticizes the assumption that humans exist to play "the conqueror role" and demonstrates this assumption through the biblical Abraham, our ears perk up. "Abraham," Aldo Leopold claims, "knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drop milk and honey into Abraham's mouth," (1) Leopold's condemnation of the view that identifies human beings as conquerors over the natural environment is not new. And the move to locate the roots of this view, and of the present environmental crisis, in Judeo-Christian beliefs is, by now, familiar. Indeed, the environmentalist often learns to look at Judaism and Christianity with uneasy suspicion and a critical eye that sees in these traditions the sign of a devastating rupture between the human and the non-human world.

It is precisely this environmental crisis and accusation that Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader works to address. Martin D. Yaffe does a line job presenting a collection of essays by various scholars that together offer a muchneeded meditation on Judaism as it faces an urgent, world-wide environmental crisis. Including five pieces originally published in JUDAISM (2) and an array of articles by contributors from various disciplines, the collection complicates what has become a commonplace focus on Genesis 1:28 and its assertions of human "dominion" and obligation to "fill the earth and master it." This focus has historically resulted in the debate between an interpretation of absolute domination and that of stewardship, a dichotomy that the essays in this anthology transform into a much more nuanced discussion about the relationship between the human being and the natural world. In this collection, this relationship becomes a debatable, many-sided issue with which the Jewish tradition has consistentl y concerned itself. It becomes a discussion not ending with domination nor stewardship, but rather moving to ask what these terms might indicate and what alternative perspectives might be more useful.

This discussion takes place with an acknowledgment of what Yaffe calls "rhetorically opportunistic" interpretations of Genesis 1:28 that use the biblical text as an explanation for the origin of environmentally destructive behavior (8). In this sense, the Bible becomes a site of blame through false and unexamined, and we might say convenient, use. It is this rhetorical abuse that Judaism and Environmental Ethics clearly combats as it reveals potential points of connection, agreement, and disagreement among the arenas of Judaism, ecology, and philosophy. Weaving together these three the-matic approaches, the essays in this book result in a testimony to the urgency of an environmental crisis that asks Judaism to revisit and reexamine its beliefs and to articulate how it does indeed speak to the current situation.

In particular, the anthology uncovers these misinformed rhetorical moves as opportunistic by offering a series of essays that take interpretation of biblical and rabbinical sources very seriously. The essays participate in an interpretive dialogue, often referring to one another, that includes various views in the attempt to work out an appropriate relationship between the Jew and his! her natural environment. Together, then they also give testimony to an immensely rich interpretive tradition. Jeremy Benstein, in an essay originally published in this journal, (3) places pointed value on this tradition as one of interpretation: "Part of the richness of Judaism--and the excitement of Jewish learning--is the ongoing dialogue between the frequently disparate voices of that tradition" (210). It is these voices that make interpretation a living force as they call out to contemporary moments.

Indeed, Yaffe successfully organizes the reader as such a dialogue among voices. …

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