Opinion: How we get to a Jewish environmental ethic

It is cliché to call a catastrophe of “Biblical proportions,” but the consequences of global warming, climate migrations, pollution, species and habitat extinctions, and ocean degradation portend catastrophes of such proportions.

Jewish faith and culture have long addressed our responsibility to the Earth and again invite a Jewish response. Torah, their source, is fundamentally about the sanctification of life, so that the preservation of “creation” should be a Jewish imperative.

In Genesis, Adam is charged “to tend and to till” the Garden. Psalm 24 instructs that “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness therein” — the Lord’s, not humankind’s. In Job, the voice from the whirlwind chastises Job that man is not so special as he conceives himself to be, standing morally apart in God’s sight from all of Creation which preceded him.

Peter Goldberg, Milwaukee, has spoken on Jewish environmentalism at Congregation Shir Hadash and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s Jewish Day of Learning. His environmental meditations for the High Holy Days were included in a national Jewish environmental anthology.

According to Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, God said, “Look at my works; see how beautiful they are…. Do not spoil or destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” In that vein, while Genesis charges humankind “to fill and master the world,” Rabbi Arthur Waskow wryly asks what we are to do today, now that the Earth is full and subdued?

Peter Goldberg. Care for the Earth is connected with the Jewish tradition, our op-ed columnist writes.

Jews have a rich tradition on which to build a responsive environmental ethic. Our sacred lives are rooted in natural cycles of the year. Torah entails pertinent doctrines such as bal tashkhit, prohibitions against waste; ahavat habriot, responsibilities to other creatures; and l’dor v’dor, responsibilities to future generations. “Pirke Avot” sets forth the values of the good life, transcending the material alone.

Torah even prescribes a “Green New Deal,” Shmittah and Yovel, the sabbatical and Jubilee years, meant to rebalance the economic world. Earth and society alike are to be renewed, the Earth through its own Shabbat and society through economic liberation and equalization. Tanach tellingly ends warning Judea would not thrive again in the land until the Earth has been allowed its sabbaths, denied it by the corrupt, materialistic society Judea had become.

The ecological tradition continues in modern Judaic thought: environmental Tu B’Shvat seders; the Zionist vision of a life again close to the land and responsive to nature; Jewish Renewal’s “eco-kashrut,” defining new life disciplines commensurate with the ecological health of our world; vegetarianism discussed by Rav Kook or veganism advocated by the Jewish environmental polemics of Jonathan Safran Foer.

Our environmental challenges seem overwhelming, so we avoid confronting the apocalyptic realties of our day. But another midrash teaches persistence nonetheless: although when planting a tree, if you hear that the messiah has arrived, you must finish planting the sapling.

We are called today as Jews to wrestle with how to cease feverishly exploiting and rather to repair our cities, society, and the Earth itself. In that spirit, we must approach Torah with a different vision, as an ecological Tree of Life still to be tasted in the midst of the Garden which our world remains.