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Why Jewish Environmentalism

What is Jewish environmentalism?

1. The beginnings of a Jewish environmental ethic emerge out of Bereishit, – Genesis – through the two creation stories, which set up models of our relationship as human beings with the rest of creation, and which obligate us to tend and to protect the world.
2. Our agricultural roots, celebrated on holidays and in sacred texts, are intended to connect us to the land.
3. The cycles of the Jewish year are grounded in the natural world and our connection to it
4. Shabbat – stopping and resting on the Sabbath – teaches that there are higher values than production and consumption. Resting on Shabbat – one day in seven – lies at the heart of a healthy relationship with oneself, one’s friends and one’s family, and the wider world.
5. The biblical concept of shmitta – having the land rest on its seventh year – provides an equivalent model of rest for the land itself.
6. The biblical concept of peah – leaving the corner of the field unharvested for the poor to pick themselves – connects ecological issues with human values: our obligation to see that people live free of hunger and that their basic needs are met.
7. Protecting G!d’s creation is a theme throughout subsequent Jewish philosophy, literature, liturgy and law. Scholars and rabbis from Maimonides to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, and from Rav Kook to Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to Abraham Joshua Heschel have taught and written about this relationship.
8. Our liturgy is rich in natural imagery, from blessings that give us a framework for awareness and appreciation for the wonders and sanctity of creation to the image of the Torah itself as a tree of life.

Why Jewish environmentalism? Why not just environmentalism?

The Jewish environmental movement is part of a larger faith-based environmental movement, which has two key elements.

The first is that religions have something to say about the environment. For Jewish tradition, an environmental ethic grows out of the Torah, the Jewish calendar and festivals, and teachings by Jewish thinkers and philosophers throughout the ages. Jews from secular to orthodox may differ in how they relate to Judaism, but we can come together in recognizing our shared tradition and its contemporary relevance. From Native American tradition to Tibetan Buddhism, religious traditions, including Judaism, have had as a central concern the connection between humankind and planet Earth.

The second element is more practical. Many millions of people identify with different faiths. If each religious movement teaches its constituents about the importance of protecting the environment from its perspective, a huge number of people will potentially be mobilized to environmental activism. It’s a way of grass roots organizing.

Our Ride is one small part of this young and growing movement. It will clearly appeal mostly to Jews but is open to everyone; it is particularistic in that it is teaching about environmentalism from a Jewish perspective, but is universalistic in that raising environmental awareness benefits all of us.

I’m not Jewish. Why should I support Jewish environmentalism now?

For several reasons: The NY Jewish Environmental Bike Ride is intended not only to raise environmental awareness in the Jewish communities to which we are specifically reaching out, but also to raise environmental awareness in the wider community. Carl Pope, the (non-Jewish) Executive Director of the National Environment Trust, said “When environmentalist leaders speak, politicians often ignore us; when religious communities speak, politicians pay attention. Involving faith communities in environmental learning and action is important to all Americans.”

By sponsoring your friend or family member in the Ride, you are taking one small, but determined, step towards healing the earth and saving lives. Ignoring environmental concerns costs lives, now and in the future, whether it be lung cancer caused by asbestos in buildings or increasing numbers of children’s deaths due to asthma. Although we’re not raising money for individual people in need, we believe this work falls into the Jewish category of pikuach nefesh, saving lives. Protecting the environment must be a priority for all of us. (Another good reason to contribute might be simply to support your friend who’s riding…)

I’m Jewish. Why should I support Jewish environmentalism now?

For several reasons: The NY Jewish Environmental Bike Ride is intended not only to raise environmental awareness in the Jewish communities to which we are specifically reaching out, but also to raise environmental awareness in the wider community. Carl Pope, the (non-Jewish) Executive Director of the National Environment Trust, said “When environmentalist leaders speak, politicians often ignore us; when religious communities speak, politicians pay attention. Involving faith communities in environmental learning and action is important to all Americans.”

By sponsoring your friend or family member in the Ride, you are taking one small, but determined, step towards healing the earth and saving lives. Ignoring environmental concerns costs lives, now and in the future, whether it be lung cancer caused by asbestos in buildings or increasing numbers of children’s deaths due to asthma. Although we’re not raising money for individual people in need, we believe this work falls into the Jewish category of pikuach nefesh, saving lives. Protecting the environment must be a priority for all of us. (Another good reason to contribute might be simply to support your friend who’s riding…)

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