Living an Environmentally Conscious Jewish Life

The Jewish spiritual tradition offers ways to think and act in harmony with nature and for the benefit of the environment.

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The created world is both bountiful and fragile. A Jewish environmental activist suggests that treating it with respect and care should be an integral part of our living out the Jewish concepts of Torah (instruction/learning), avodah (service/worship/work), and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness).

 "O child of Adam, when you return to Nature, on that day you shall open your eyes… You shall know that you have returned to yourself, for in hiding from Nature, you hid from yourself… And you will recognize on that day…you must renew everything: your food and your drink, your dress and your home, the character of your work and the way that you learn -- everything."

jewish environment

So wrote Aaron David Gordon, the pioneer-philosopher of Labor Zionism, at the dawn of the kibbutz movement in 1910.  A century later, with species disappearing and pollution rising and the globe warming, it's time to do what Gordon said, in ways he could not have imagined, and indeed "renew everything." We must bring our entire being to the sacred work of Creation care -- and in so doing Jews are blessed with millennia of thought and experience to draw upon.

Awareness

The Jewish tradition offers myriad opportunities for uttering a formulaic blessing. We've got blessings for seeing heads of state, Torah scholars, and ugly people. Blessings over sunsets, meteors, rainbows, reunions, and bad news. Blessings for bread and baked goods and fruit and vegetables, all different. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir suggests reciting 100 blessings each day (Menachot 43b) -- one every ten minutes of our waking lives. In other words, Jews should be constantly aware of the world around us, and should respond through gratitude and prayer.

But it doesn't stop there. Among the things to be aware of is our interdependence, that "one glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, [which] unites all living beings" (Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century Germany, Nineteen Letters, 4). And once we are aware of the bounty and fragility of Creation, we naturally become committed to protecting it, and making sure that others -- other people, other creatures, other generations -- get to enjoy its fragile bounty as well.

natural fieldThere is really no other way. Through mitzvot, minhagim and musar commandments, customs and ethics, Judaism makes ecological claims on us. A meaningful practicing Jewish life is by definition already an eco-conscious one. It works in reverse, too: Judaism, or any spiritual tradition for that matter, grounds and enriches our environmental commitments.

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Rabbi Fred Dobb

Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, serves on the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Shalom Center, Religious Witness for the Earth, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.