Judaism and Ecology

Only human beings, who are created “in the image of G-d” (Gen. 1:28), are able to perfect the world by acting in accordance with divine command.  At Sinai God revealed His Will to the Chosen People, Israel, by giving them the Torah (…) which specifies how Israel is to conduct itself in all aspects of life, including conduct toward the physical environment.” Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Arizona State University

Jewish faith is fairly unique in the world, because it refers to a specific people, from ethnic or cultural perspective or both, therefore being Jewish and secular do not contradict each other in Judaism. Moreover, this religion and people have probably been the most resilient in history with a strong capacity of adaptation to circumstances which made the expression of this faith to be, on the one hand extremely practical, flexible and pragmatic and on the other very mystical and esoteric to some extent. This preface was necessary in order to understand the grounds on which eco-Judaism came into existence today. One final note to the preface is a historical one, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire, the Jewish people were mostly (like the majority of humanity until not so long ago) farmers, herders and to some extent possibly with nomadic elements. The destruction of the Temple began what we know as the Diaspora and the migration of Jewish people to large urban settlements, therefore abandoning the millennial rural culture to gradually transform into an urban one; that combined with the discrimination and segregation they were subject too in both Christendom and Islam (to a much lesser extent) including prohibition of land ownership and limit of professions allowed consolidated the urban nature, and being, as mentioned, an extremely pragmatic and hands on religious practice, it also adapted to circumstances, on the one hand switching the focus towards society and social responsibility, on the other further developing mysticism such as the Kabbala inherent to the human-divine relations.
The establishment of the State of Israel started to revive some of the connections between Judaism and nature, as extensive tree plantation occurred, outdoors programmes for youth and reawakening of ancient rites connected to the natural cycle as it was attempted to return to the original Jewish farming tradition, which clashed with the over 1000 years urban culture leading also to disasters such as the irreversible drying up of the Dead Sea, massive urbanisation and of course the regional conflicts.
Nonetheless, stressing once more the highly adaptive and flexibility of Jewish culture and religion, the present threat to survival coming from the environmental and climate crisis has brought an internal debate concerning humans’ responsibility towards the environment, which was at first fairly timid. When Academia in the 1960s openly blamed Christianity and the Bible for the present threats for the natural environment, Christians felt a need to defend themselves, and since the Old Testament is practically based on the Torah and Jewish faith, Jews too felt they had to give an answer. Basically the main monotheistic religions were accused of promoting a concept that humans were owners of the world and could do with it whatever pleases them. That was when Judaism, Christianity and Islam stressed out (or rediscovered) from their own Holy Texts that humans were presented with Earth, true, and while for Christian and Jews Earth is a punishment after being banished from the Garden of Eden, in Islam this plain of existence is not a punishment at all. Most importantly all three religions have agreed that G-d never meant to give Earth as a present and make humans the owners of the biosphere, rather G-d is the owner of everything and humans are appointed as stewards, gardeners and guardians of all life on earth, while this point of view is still human-centred it is a radical change of perspective from the past beliefs. Almost in parallel with Christian communities Jewish scholars and rabbis also began to explore the concept of Eco-Judaism around the 1980s.

Jewish environmentalism is growing, and owes much of its roots and content to secular jewish scholars and professionals who embraced ecology, environmentalism, and non-religious spirituality for the more religious Jews in order to identify ecological ethics within the religious principles and practice. Moreover, the environmental and ecological stand are re-attracting the secular Jews to reapproach the religious and faith community, as this new approach to the natural world resonates better with their own values, thus rediscovering faith, values and belonging with the observant community. Moreover, Jewish environmentalism implies taking the ethics of the religious teaching to include the non-human world and environment, by including ecological consciousness within spirituality and implies to bypass divisive dualism implied in the Torah, Zahir and Talmud concerning the division between matter and soul, Earth and Heaven, to a more inclusive and holistic approach.

Published by Lorenzo Nava

Consultant, Trainer and Coach, on participatory learning processes, experiential learning dynamics, non formal education and NLP certified practitioner

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