Jewish tradition is so old we easily take it for granted. But it’s quite an incredible thing: to have been one of the world’s indigenous peoples, more than three thousand years ago, to have maintained since then a continuous historical identity and existence, and still to be here, in the postmodern age.
We have gathered, in that time, what I think of as “treasures in the garden” – traditions and teachings of immense beauty and value, which we easily fail to notice, or take for granted, or perhaps never knew of in the first place. In this short piece, I mention seven of them.
For those who are from religiously observant backgrounds, these seven concepts will be mostly familiar; yet contemporary environmental challenges place them in a new light. For those not from a traditional background, these ideas may be new, or newly framed.
In either case, I believe that they’re well worth a fresh look. Though these are central ideas within Jewish tradition, the context in which we discuss them has often become stale. Yet these ideas truly are treasures. They have been at the heart of Jewish life for three millennia, and they bear every possibility of enriching and sustaining not only our own lives today, but also the broader communities and world in which we live.
1. Brachot and radical amazement
“Radical amazement” as a phrase is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, but the concept is far older: Rav Kook would have understood what Heschel meant by it; so would the kabbalists of Safed; so would the rabbis of the Talmud. Put simply, radical amazement is about being truly amazed by, and not taking for granted, the extraordinariness of the world we live in, and of everything in it.
Brachot are, in one sense, the Jewish practice which parallels what Buddhists mean when they speak of mindfulness. The tradition has brachot for waking up, dressing, going to the bathroom, different sorts of food, different times of the day, different times of the week, different times of the year…
The link with environmentalism is simply this: that we cannot wish to protect and preserve something if we do not love it and see it in its full beauty and value. Brachot help us to be radically amazed by the world; in so doing they are a key first step in environmental awareness and action.
(From a very different perspective: framing brachot in these terms cuts across traditional arguments about halacha. It allows non-halachic or secular Jews to see the value and meaning of brachot in a way which is accessible to them; it allows those who have grown-up orthodox and who may be in some ways over-familiar with the brachot to understand them in new terms.)
What are the things you’re amazed by? What are the things you bless in your life?
2. Cfiyat yetzer & halacha – focusing the will
The damage that we do to the world drives from two key fallacies: that the world is infinite in its resources, and that we therefore can take from it without fear of resource depletion (oil, gas, coal, rainforest); and that the world is infinite in its capacity to receive and can therefore soak up all our waste products without harm (CO2, pesticides, plastics, poisons, nuclear waste). It is becoming abundantly clear that the consequence of these two fallacies is that we are using up resources at a horrific rate, and are damaging the planet with our waste in ways that cause injury and illness for millions and which may well be doing irreversible damage to the planet overall.
Unlike previous fights, against Nazis and despots of all sorts, there is no external enemy in this project. Those of us who grew up in the West grew up with these fallacies. And a billion people aspiring to join the middle class in other parts of the world are learning the same values and the same fallacies.
Although there is clearly a need for governmental and inter-governmental action on these issues, and although there is also a role for citizens to play via the ballot box, the heart of achieving real change in these areas lies with understanding our fallacies for what they are. We need to take less, we need to make things more efficiently and with far less waste, we need to re-use and recycle what we take and make, and we need to be infinitely more careful with what we throw out and where we throw it. And the heart of achieving real change in these areas lies with changing our own behavior.
This is where, again, Judaism has much to teach. The phrase cfiyat yetzer comes from the morning prayers, and it means roughly, “focusing the will.” Halacha, from a root word that means “walking” is, in its essence, about focusing the will, about what we may do and what we may not do; it’s about our daily path. The challenges of self-control, the difficulties of it, the need for a balance between stringency and leniency, the ways we might inculcate it in the young, the balance between punishment and reward – all these things, and more, have been central to Jewish discourse for centuries. And they are about to become central to the generations growing up in the world today, of all countries and faiths, as they and we address the need for radical changes in personal behavior. Jewish teachers and writers can and should introduce Jewish experience to the developing conversation about how such personal change is to be accomplished.
What are the things you use but could use less of, or don’t need at all? What are the things you throw away that could be re-used? What are the disciplines you internalized as a kid that stand you in good stead – and what are the things you struggle with?
3. shabbat / shmitta / yovel – the cycle of rest
Judaism arose as a challenge to paganism, conceived Biblically as worshipping idols. Arguably the paganism of the world today is encompassed by a sign that’s common on stores in New York City: “24/7/365.” At face value we are all beneficiaries of a world of 24/7/365, but in reality we are all impoverished by it, and the world also. It signifies a world of no limits and no surcease, a world of deference to the contemporary “idols” of shopping, convenience, and the market. [It is not that shopping, convenience or the market are, in and of themselves, a form of idolatry or paganism; rather it is the extent to which they supersede all else that is potentially problematical from a Jewish perspective and perhaps, indeed, from a human one.] It is no wonder that we take infinitely and waste infinitely when we obliterate the distinctions of time and season that might give us pause.
The numbers of Jewish tradition might begin “6/7” – on six days we work, and on the seventh we rest. For six years we work the land, and in the seventh we allow it to lie fallow. For seven cycles of seven we allow economic disparities to increase, but in the fiftieth year we declare a jubilee and restore freedom to those who have become indentured.
We call Yom Kippur “Shabbat shabbatonim” – the Shabbat of shabbatot, the quintessence of Shabbat. Those who have spent Yom Kippur in Jerusalem know what it is to experience such a quintessence of Shabbat. For 25 hours you are in a modern Western city that voluntarily switches off everything except emergency services; in which there are no sounds of TVs and hi-fis; in which traffic signs flash randomly as people throng the center of normally busy thoroughfares and kids skateboard and cycle down the middle of the road. It seems a remarkably healthy thing for a community to do, once a year. Visitors to Israel, of any denomination or background, are invariably amazed and delighted to experience it.
As with so many issues, contemporary differences within the Jewish world about what it means to “keep” Shabbat obscure the extraordinariness of the gift we have inherited and which we hold in trust for those who come after us. It would be a distinctively Jewish contribution to contemporary environmentalism, and to efforts to heal and improve our world, if we took our concepts of rest and offered them to the wider societies we live in as examples that might be adapted and expanded by others.
How do you rest? What does Shabbat mean to you? Think about inviting friends or family over for a great Shabbat meal, or taking a good long hike. And did you ever think about taking a sabbatical, for you or your family…?
4. kashrut – what’s fit to eat
Last year hundreds of thousands of animals were killed and destroyed in Europe in response to the outbreak of foot-&-mouth disease. Protests have caused Monsanto to delay the further spread of genetically modified foods. The McDonald’s share price is down because mad cow disease is causing consumers to boycott meat products, Big Macs included. Obesity in the United States has hit record levels and is growing rapidly across the developed world. Heart attacks and cancer – diseases of affluence, including a superfluity of unhealthy ingestion of all sorts – have replaced the ancient diseases as our leading causes of early deaths.
It is against this backdrop that we can understand that a traditional Jewish question – “is this kosher?” – takes on universal ramifications. Kosher means fit, and the question “is this fit for me to eat?” is one that millions of people are already asking, and which all of us in due course need to ask.
As with halacha in general, the very extent of Jewish experience with this question has value. We know about certification (and its occasional attendant abuses), about the value for both producers and consumers of symbolic labeling, about bringing children up to think about what they are permitted to eat and what not.
Fifty years ago Jews traveling would have been in a tiny minority in not eating “regular” food – meat from the local butcher, packaged goods at the grocery store, a meal in a restaurant.
Today, those who “keep kosher” share with millions of others the habit of checking labels, shopping in specialty stores or eating only in certain restaurants – vegetarians and vegans; those who eat organic; those who don’t eat dairy; those who eat only free-range eggs; those who don’t eat sugar; those who don’t eat fat; those who don’t eat chocolate; those on a wheat-free diet; those on a macrobiotic diet. . . and so on.
In California, Michael Oshman, an observant Jew, has founded the Green Restaurant Association, an organization which helps restaurants to reduce their overall environmental impact, and which then certifies them, just as Beth Dins have traditionally certified restaurants as kosher. The Green Restaurant Association is an environmental initiative that draws directly out of an extended contemporary awareness of “kashrut.” As such, it is significant not only for the work that it does, but also as a model for how traditional Jewish awareness can be extended environmentally.
Whether you’re observant or secular, Jewish or not-Jewish: what are the things that you feel are fit for you to eat? What are the things that you don’t think it’s ok to eat? Have you ever thought about buying more local and organic produce, and treating the extra cost as a voluntary gift, a sort of tzedaka, to help local and organic farmers?
5. lo tashchit / destruction, needless consumption
Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy prohibits the destruction of fruit-trees in time of war. The rabbis of the Talmud and their successors progressively expanded on this concept, so that “lo tashchit” – “don’t destroy” – became a halachic injunction. Like other parts of Jewish tradition, lo tashchit is not absolute. What “lo tashchit” might mean in practice is subject to expansion and contraction: expansion, as the rabbis expand the phrase to preclude other forms of “destruction,” such as wastefulness, needless consumption or the damaging of clothes or property; and contraction, as the rabbis limit its impact by allowing exceptions for personal pleasure or for reasons of custom.
he phrase “lo tashchit” stands today at an interesting junction point. Most Jewish people have probably never heard of it, and thus are unaware of traditional injunctions against waste, needless consumption and heedless destruction. On the other hand, some of those who have heard of it, have done so within the developing sphere of contemporary Jewish environmental education, and are less aware of the ways that Jewish tradition has delimited the broadest application of the phrase.
The two pieces together – the prohibitions and the exceptions – reach to the heart of contemporary debate on these issues, which has barely begun. Is it wasteful to buy many new clothes when your old ones, still in good condition, go “out of fashion?” How large a house is “reasonable” from a Jewish perspective? How large a car, and how many?
Contemporary society understands these questions to be in general beyond the role of the state, and our first instinct would be to view attempts to legislate such limitations as a serious encroachment upon our personal liberty. Yet the relationship between rights and responsibilities is complex. My right to listen to whatever music I want to is limited by my responsibility not to play it at 3pm at full volume if to do so would wake all the neighbors. My right to the convenience of an aerosol can may so sharply conflict with the impact of that can on our atmosphere that in due course we do legislate to prohibit its use. Our right to consume as we choose increasingly conflicts with our responsibility to minimize the deleterious consequences of our consumption. Against this backdrop, the traditional Jewish conversation about lo tashchit becomes an important framework for renewed contemporary discussion about consumption and destruction.
One small specific example of this in practice: at the Teva Learning Center in New York, Jewish middle-schoolers learn rabbinical teachings about waste, and then apply them to their own “psolet” – the food they leave after a meal. As they seek to reduce the amount that they waste, they align ancient Jewish teaching with contemporary behavior, and in so doing they gain respect for Judaism while eating more sensitively.
6. “that which is hateful to you, don’t do to others”
The phrase is Rabbi Akiva’s, from the Talmud. It is often contrasted with its positive twin, “love thy neighbour as thyself,” and teachers make the point that in Akiva’s double negative formulation a deep human truth is emphasized: that even if we don’t know what it means to love someone as we love ourselves, we can at least know what we would hate to be done to us, and in so knowing we can know what not to do to others.
But one similarity that both formulations share is that they are understood in terms of the individual, of me and you.
But what if we apply Akiva’s formulation across time and space? What if we apply it to today’s physical world and to the generations yet to come?
Suddenly it’s a new question, with new implications. If I hate the way that the Hudson and the Yarkon have been polluted, shouldn’t I strive especially hard not to pollute other rivers that are yet clean? If I can enjoy the wilderness of Alaska, untrammeled and undrilled, and would consider it hateful for that not to be the case, am I not under an obligation to enable my grandchildren to enjoy a pristine Alaska also? How would we feel if the snows of Kilimanjaro had been melted by a previous generation? Or if we couldn’t see a panda or a tiger or a particular sort of whale because previous generations had driven them to extinction?
7. tisha b’av / jewish responses to destruction
Most people in the world today don’t seem to spend much time considering these issues. Of those who do there is some evidence of burn-out and depression, and for understandable reasons. It is unbearably hard to think about the multiple destructions we daily mete upon the world, and unfathomably difficult to imagine how any of us might make any difference in any case. No wonder we retreat into anomie or depression.
Here again Jewish tradition, reframed, has wisdom worth sharing. We of all people know about facing destruction. We have seen two Temples destroyed and our people twice exiled. We have been killed in the Crusades in the eleventh century, expelled from England in the thirteenth century, tortured and killed and expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century, massacred in Poland in the seventeenth century, murdered in Kishinev at the turn of the twentieth. Sixty years ago the Jews of Europe were in the midst of barbarism that, still, we truly can’t comprehend.
And even after – after Hitler, race laws, concentration camps, murdered babies, entire extended families, villages, wiped out – after all this yet more: pogroms in Poland in the late 40s; Israeli athletes murdered in Munich; children blown-up and maimed by bus bombs, students killed at the university.
In the face of all this we have developed, as a people, mechanisms for coping with destruction and for transcending it. Over three millennia we have learned how to face destruction and the fear of further destruction, how to maintain our sanity and our determination to make a better world. These are the key elements of our method:
- on the one hand, that we should remember, and mourn (Tisha B’Av; Yom Hashoa; leaving the synagogue building incomplete; breaking a glass at a wedding);
- on the other hand, that we should never lose faith in the possibility of improving the world, and that we should act to bring about such improvement “next year in Jerusalem,” Pesach; Simchat Torah; Tu B’shvat; ongoing obligations to do justly.
It seems obvious to say that to respond to destruction one must both face it honestly, and yet not be sunk into despair by it. Yet much of the world today is divided between hedonistic consumption on one side (not facing the issues) or else becoming gloomy and pessimistic (losing faith in the possibility of, for instance, reversing the impact of global warming). So in this, as in other areas, I believe that we have a distinct and necessary contribution to make. What’s the contribution you hope to make to leaving this world, or your little part of it, in even better shape than you found it?