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

EcoShabbat 2021

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.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith

Judaism is always a religion for the future.   Adam and Eve are given the mandate by God to look after the garden of the world for the benefit of us today.   Abraham and Sarah are told to be a blessing to the world as their descendants increase like the stars of the heaven.  Moses and all the children of Israel journey forwards to a Promised Land which will be fertile and well able to sustain and feed them if they treat it, each other and God properly and caringly.    Our prophets look forward to a better future but are deeply fearful of the devastation that might be on our way if we do not act right as a society. In thousands of Rabbinic discussions and rulings over the millennia we are trying to build a better world for the future whether it be by environmentally sensitive land zoning in the Talmud tractate Bava Batra or in Midrashim that remind us of our human duty to preserve the earth in Kohelet Rabbah.  In every morning service we declare that we will declare God’s greatness, and the vision of a holy world fit for all to live in, from generation to generation, le’dor va’dor.

It is clear and obvious that Judaism and Jewish communities, at this point in human history, need to pivot towards exemplary environmental responsibility so that we pass on a liveable world to our future generations.   The prophet Isaiah calls us to be a ‘light unto the nations’, meaning that however small a people we are it is not enough for us to just preserve our Jewish communities. We must be leaders among the environmental needs of our day.   Our Synagogues and community buildings should be beacons of good environmental practice sustainable into future generations.  Our teaching should highlight the good environmental choices that a Jew can make.   Even our Kiddushim, where all generations meet to enjoy being a community, should show how we can come together in joy with minimal environmental impact.

Toldot D’var Torah for Eco Synagogue

The opening ceremony of the “Faith in Finance” conference, held in Zug, Switzerland told you a great deal about what was to come.

Representatives from eight world faiths were there, each faith group had one person come forwards, share a blessing and then leave an object which represented their faith in the monastery chapel where it took place.

The Sikh representative left a sacred cloth, the Shinto representative a sprig from a Japanese tree, the Christian representative a marquetry wooden cross, so on for the Buddhist, the Muslim, the Daoist from China and the Hindu.  I was privileged to be the Jewish representative and so along with the blessing I blew a Shofar, the Jewish symbol of a time for change and transformation – and then left it there.

The room and the conference which followed it represented faiths which span humanity, and span the globe that we all, like it or not, share.  Those who were there like it that we share the world.  We know that what we do in China will affect the rest of the planet, when China moves away from burning coal it will improve our environment here in Britain.   The decisions that America makes will cause climate change in Bangladesh.   Employment decisions from companies based in London will improve workers’ conditions in Nigeria.

The point of the Zug conference was to bring faith leaders from the various denominations of these world faiths together with bankers and investment houses from the world’s capital markets and with leaders of the United Nations Development Programme to see if we together can help to inspire the millions of small changes that will take the world on a path towards sustainable development.   We defined sustainable development as specified in the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 – noble and necessary – goals for the reduction of poverty, for equality of access to education, for making clean water and sanitation available to all, for halting man made climate change, for greening and cleaning energy and more www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals.

Why faiths and why finance?    Faiths because, in the words of Martin Palmer of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Faiths are ways “to communicate and effect centuries of experience in working with peculiarities of human behaviour within the context of a greater vision of the meaning and significance of life” (The Zug Guidelines, 2017, p5) – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism and Sikhism are investors in eternity.  We do not sacrifice the dream of long term human happiness on the altar of short term and temporary gain.  And we aim to do so as the larger part of the whole of humanity.

Finance because between all of the world’s faiths, their institutional might owns about 8% of the world’s habitable land surface, from the Church of England’s over 100,000 acres of Britain, including shopping centres, industrial estates and school premises (Independent 10/6/15) to the 5% of all commercial forests worldwide owned by faiths (Zug Guidelines 2017, p5).   Critically faith groups own an estimated 10% of the world’s total financial investment, through their endowments, pension funds, development funds, charitable funds, even burial funds like the £14 million managed by the Jewish Joint Burial Society to ensure that we can all have a decent funeral when the time comes.   But well beyond this – finance because faiths can, when effective, help their adherents make long term and future focussed decisions on what they do with their own investments for the good of their grandchildren, great grandchildren and onwards – and for the good of the whole of humanity and the planet for which we care.  This can have a huge impact.

One more question – in this conference and in these issues why bother with Jews?   As I said, in the paper I gave at the conference, Jews are a small people.  There are only 14 million of us in the entire world.    We are therefore well aware that any Jewish contribution to sustainable development has to be done together with other peoples and other faiths.

Just under half of the world’s Jewish population lives in the State of Israel, which is a highly developed Western style economy with low unemployment, decent education standards and high consumption patterns.   It is not always the best example of Jewish values put into action, but there are some very strong examples of sustainable development there such as the use of solar energy generation, both in Israel and by Israeli companies around the world, conservation of water resources and pioneering ways to enable fresh water to be as sparingly used as possible.   Encouraging Israel to be an example of sustainable development through investments in the country in businesses and social enterprises which encourage the wellbeing of all, is open to Jews and others around the world.

Outside of Israel, Jews are strongly represented in the economies of the Jewish diaspora.   They are investors, users of resources, professionals, members of governments, businesspeople.

Why Jews?  There is another reason why we absolutely cannot ghettoise ourselves away from the sustainable development of the world and the changes we are going to have to make if we are to be able to hand a good world over to our children and grandchildren.   It is because of our teachings.  We are a religion that values small changes just as much as the huge earth-shattering transformation.  Our Torah tells it both ways – yes sometimes we need the Red Sea to part to make progress, sometimes we need the presence of God to inhabit our sanctuary in a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire, sometimes we need Mount Sinai to erupt so that we hear the Ten Commandments.   But more often, our religion teaches, it is small changes and individual decisions that change the world.   Moses decides to intervene when he sees a single Israelite slave being beaten by a task master, Judah decides to save his brother Joseph from death in the desert and, in, our Torah portion today, Rebecca decides to substitute Jacob for Esau at a critical moment in Isaac’s life.   Because of these small decisions Moses becomes the first Rabbi of the Jewish people and our teacher for all time, Joseph finds himself in Egypt ready to make us into a people who know the heart of a stranger and Jacob becomes Israel and makes us who we are – the people who struggle with God and work in partnership to repair the world.

I believe strongly in the power of small changes and small steps that we can make towards a future worth living.  I also believe strongly in constructive, learning relationships between people of many faiths to magnify these steps.  I believe in partnership between religions and business and good causes to bring the steps onto a global level.

Saying what does it matter what my car’s emissions are if China is building coal fired power stations condemns us all to a downward spiral to destruction.    The people of Kirbati, a tiny island in the Pacific with a population of 103,000, just 3 meters above sea level, are reminding us of the cost of no change.   They have bought, from the Church of England, 20 KM2 on Fiji, 1500 miles away so that when their Island is sunk by rising sea levels they can all be evacuated there. (Guardian 30/6/14).  They hope never to use it.  Their future and that of what might become 700 million climate change refugees worldwide by 2050 in the most doom laden predictions, depends upon millions of small changes made by the majority of the worlds individual people.

Our portion is a story – Toldot – a story of the beginning of a people Israel – ourselves.   The story should be one of bringing good to the world and, in a globalised world, working with others who are not Israel to make the world liveable, sustaining and nurturing for all.  It’s a story where the selfish one Isaac and his selfish son Esau get’s his meat stew today but loses his future.  The ones who love because love is the real meaning of life, Rebecca and Jacob, hold the keys to the future.  (Avot de R Natan 5:19) May we ever be lovers of our planet and of humanity, making the small changes we need day by day.