Inspiration from our Rabbis
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Protecting the Earth in Judaism
The Hebrew Bible opens with a magnificent poem to the wonder of creation over which human beings are given the prerogative of stewardship. We are granted the privilege of working the earth, but in a spirit of respect and reverence, with a concomitant responsibility to preserve all life dependent on it.
The rabbis expanded the Bible’s commandment not to destroy to include all forms of waste and wanton damage to the environment, warning that if we harm God’s earth there may be no one after us to put it right. On the contrary, we are required to do our utmost to ‘repair the world’ and seek the healing of humanity and nature in all our conduct.
Judaism teaches that every species matters; all life is interdependent, nothing exists in vain. We are responsible not only for other human beings but for the rich biodiversity of our planet. The daily prayers remind us that ‘the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’
Judaism requires us to teach our children God’s ways. This is futile if we fail to leave them a viable, sustainable planet. Therefore, we must demonstrate to them through our behaviour that we truly care for God’s world, entrusted to us today for the sake of generations to come.
Judaism is an activist religion, demanding engagement with the world and the courage to challenge wrong. The Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power unflinchingly. They understood the urgency of action; in the words of the sage Hillel, ‘If not now, when.’
The Holiness of Creation
It’s told that the Rebbe of Lubavitch was walking through the fields with his son, the ripe corn swaying in the wind. ‘Behold divinity,’ he said to him. ‘The movement of each stalk is known to God who sees to the end of all generations, and divine providence guides each and every one.’
They entered a forest. Absorbed in his father’s words, the son unthinkingly plucked a leaf from a branch and, unawares, pulled it apart.
His father chided him: ‘How can you behave so mindlessly towards God’s creation? You take a leaf, created for its unique purpose, tear it in pieces and scatter them all over the place! In what way is the ‘I’ of the leaf worse than the ‘I’ of you? True, the leaf belongs to the domain of vegetation, and you are part of the domain of humanity, and there’s a big difference between them. But each has its particular sacred purpose which it was created to fulfil…’
I don’t subscribe to all aspects of its theology, but I believe deeply in the message of this story. Creation is sacred; we are not entitled to ‘tear it up’, neither deliberately, nor heedlessly by paying too little attention to the ecological effects of what is done in the name of our economy or civilisation.
We are interdependent with all life. Respect for creation, reverence for life, and justice towards the dispossessed whose homelands have, or soon may, become uninhabitable due to climate change, require us to rethink our footprint over the earth.
We need to act personally and communally in small but significant ways, reconsidering what we consume, what we waste and how we heat our homes and travel. At the same time we should participate in local, national and international work to restore biodiversity, share the earth’s resources more fairly, minimise and, where necessary adapt to, climate change.
Far from impoverishing us, this can enrich our lives physically, mentally and spiritually. It will increase our respect and deepen our reverence for the privilege of life.
This is our urgent responsibility to future generations.
Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich
November 5-6, the first Shabbat in November, presents a fantastic opportunity for us, the family of Liberal communities, to show our support for the COP 26 conference and celebrate our achievements in becoming an eco-friendly and sustainable Movement.
EcoShabbat is an EcoSynagogue’s initiative, which brings 4 different denominations of Judaism together (Masorti, Orthodox, Reform and Liberal). This unique intra-faith cooperation manifests the importance and urgency of the current climate change but also calls us to action as the Jews. Climate change, pollution and the death of natural habitats- to mention just a few – have started having a direct effect on our being, if not on our conscience.
When I listen to my conscience it tells me to do my best to preserve the beauty and health of the trees, grass, animals, and the air around me so that the silver birch tree outside my balcony can bring joy to and be used as a football post by local children for many more generations to come. I know I can’t change the world on my own but together we can.
Please join EcoShabbat to show your support and a commitment to leading our community towards sustainable and eco living thus fulfilling one of the most important ethical principles of the Torah – בל תשחית – do not destroy.
Benita Matofska, the founder of the charity “The people who share” and the member of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, finished our last Green Shabbat with the words of her poem: “lets us act together to survive” and I would add “and to continue to live in harmony and peace with the Planet”.
Rabbi David Mason
The Creation and Preserving our World
Looking after our world, is rooted in the story of Creation. There God makes Adam, the first person, and places Adam in the Garden of Eden. We are told that Adam is placed there ‘l’ovda ul’shomra’. This means that Adam was asked to do 2 things – to work the garden, but also to guard it or preserve it. The world and its abundance are given over to humanity. We are permitted to work the land, and extract what we need from it. But that extraction must be balanced by an obligation to protect the world, and to allow it to sustain itself. For much of human history, these two concepts could live in harmony. It was put so well by the 18th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsh who said in his Torah commentary that ‘Nature itself finds its appointed purpose promoted, as well as the necessary condition for its continuance, in Man’s conscientious dutiful use of the bounties of nature, as expressed by Avoda and Shmira’. People would find their nourishment from the land and sea, but always allow it to regrow and recultivate. Over the last roughly 200 years, from the Industrial Revolution and onwards, we have been extracting for mass production, and often for profit with less awareness of what this would do to the planet. Now we know that overextraction is threatening the stability of our planet. We need to return desperately to this Biblical statement and reflect on how we can bring our benefiting from the planet, back into line with its protection.
Responsibility and Climate Change
What motivates me so much to be passionate about preventing Climate damage, is my belief in the importance of humanity and its future. That is a Jewish belief. We have a role to be responsible for bringing about a better world and leaving it in a better place. If we allow the Climate to become damaged, humans will suffer, across the world. Some parts of the world will become uninhabitable causing new flows of climate refugees. Agriculture will be affected, causing new food poverty. So, what we need to reflect on is a sense of responsibility. In a Jewish text known as Midrash, there is a discussion between two Rabbis as to how to model the nature of the Jewish people. One compares the Jewish nation to a sheep. It has a many separate organs that work together to create a unit. So, with the Jewish people. In fact, this idea is followed up by a story where a number of people travel together on a boat. One traveller decides to bore a hole under his or her seat. His fellow travellers berate him for this – you are causing us to drown. To which the traveller replies – it is my seat, so I can do what I want under it. Here we are all individuals with our own needs. What we must be aware of is when our needs cause damage to others. We say ‘All Israel are guarantors for each other’. This could itself apply to the world and to humanity. The second model is that of the soul. Here we emphasise how we are all thrown together, sharing fate together, sharing our world and climate together. That should surely be a positive motivation for wanting to protect our world, our joint human mission on this planet. So, whether you are focussed on the damage individuals should be careful not to cause; or the sense of common mission, our religion has resources to understand how we must be part of a movement to protect our environment.