A spiritual backdrop for environmentalism

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By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Hyim Shafner thinks the starting point of Judaism’s holiest parchment tells us something about the priorities God has for human beings.

“It’s interesting that the Torah begins with creation,” said Shafner, spiritual leader of Bais Abraham Congregation in the University City Loop area. “It could have begun with the first commandment or when the Jews came out of Egypt.”

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But Shafner believes that starting at the beginning shows that Creation and the natural world are accorded special importance, something many rabbis echo today as environmental destruction and global warming are increasingly in the news. Often on the forefront of social action, Jews are finding themselves looking more and more at sustainability and green issues as the next opportunity to repair the world.

“Part of the message is that the Torah wants us to know that the world is a valuable place,” said Shafner. “The Midrash said that God told Adam and Eve, ‘Don’t destroy my world.’”

At Congregation B’nai Amoona in West County, Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose said that the Book of Genesis makes it clear that man is meant to both work and protect the planet given to him.

“Our mastery over the world doesn’t mean we use and abuse but rather that we are responsible,” said Rose.

Of course, this can be a vexing idea when dealing with environmental issues. After all, unlike some other good deeds, fulfilling a commitment to take care of the planet involves collective action.

“One of the teachings of our tradition is that you are not responsible for the whole job but neither are you in any way, shape or form absolved of responsibility to get it done,” Rose said. “That polarity exists all the time that we are doing the best that we can but we are always pushed to do more.”

Rose said that he feels this idea has come into sharper focus in recent years as “green” issues have become increasingly prevalent. Yet, conversely, the concept is still an ancient one. He points out that the Hebrew word for human is adam while the word for earth is adamah. The connotation, he said, is one of family.

“When we use the term in English ‘Mother Earth,’ we really mean it,” Rose said. “It’s no longer an abstract idea. It’s coming into practice in the Jewish world and seeping into all aspects of religious consciousness.”

Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth said that it is indeed ironic that this thought is considered new in the post-industrial age.

“The Jewish religion is grounded from the very beginning of the Torah in the idea that human beings are responsible for and entrusted with the care of this planet and everything on it,” he said. 

“It’s not a choice. It’s an obligation,” he added. “Human beings have no choice. The only choice is whether we choose to fulfill that trust with Creation or whether we betray that trust.”

That trust is even built into the laws of warfare in which God commands that the natural environment be protected during combat.

“In the laws of how the ancient Israelites are to engage in war, they are taught that when waging a necessary battle you are not permitted to destroy the fruit-bearing trees,” Bennett said. “You are not permitted to wantonly destroy nature.”

Still, an era defined by consumption can present challenges.

“The tension between using on the one hand and caring, nurturing and sustaining on the other hand is constant and no more so than in the current age,” Bennett said.

Rabbi Randy Fleisher of Central Reform Congregation said that environmental issues hits upon a key component of Judaic tradition – children and the Jewish future. He tells the story of an elderly man who is mocked for planting trees even though he will never live long enough to see them grow. He responds that he plants them because someone before him had planted today’s trees for him to enjoy.

“In Judaism, we always say L’Dor V’Dor,” Fleisher said. “We want a continuation of everything that was a blessing to us for those who come after us. To me, sustainability is all about preserving the planet that we share as our home so that those who come after us will have the same blessings, the same beauty, the same earth and sky and water that we were able to enjoy.”

But while adults may know it is necessary to conserve, Fleisher said sometimes a reminder from their children is helpful.

“Our kids know more about environmentalism than I did when I was a kid,” he said. “There’s more of a heightened awareness. That doesn’t always translate for all of us into action. That’s the next step.”

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, said that the Jewish commitment to a better world must run deep to be meaningful.

“Not only is it aesthetically pleasing to look outside and see the world God created for us but we are all stewards of the world,” he said. “In order to act responsibly with the gift He’s given to us, it’s a religious obligation to not waste things.”

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew said that Creation plays a central role in Torah. She believes it isn’t about big picture problems like melting polar ice caps but things that hit much closer to home.

“When we look at it from a Jewish perspective of what is our responsibility as human beings and as Jews in terms of being partners with God, that tends to help people take a look at it and think about it in a much different way rather than throwing at you this issue, this issue or this issue,” she said. “We first get to step back and look at it from a much larger picture and then we can look at it individually.”

It can also help drain the ideology out of the sustainability debate. 

“Unfortunately, when we talk about the environment and talk about individual issues, they sometimes become polarizing because people see them as political,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is not look at the polarizing political issues but rather look at how we tend to the Earth in general.”