Our contemporary Jewish lives are largely lived in sanctuaries, social halls, classrooms and homes.
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield
In Genesis, God places humans in the Garden of Eden to till and tend the land. Yet we the descendants of Adam and Eve spend 90% of our time indoors. In fact, one of our first undertakings when exiled from the Garden is to lay brick and mortar. The construction of the Tower of Babel demonstrates profound moral failure as we exhibit a lack of humility and humanity, building a tower that reaches God’s heavens while, according to Midrash, caring more if a brick falls from the tower than a human being. Perhaps we are ultimately punished for this action not only for our hubris and disregard for human life, but also for our failure to till and tend, for carelessly exploiting the resources of the created world.
There is clearly a wrong way to build. But we are also shown a right way. God’s instructions about how to build the mishkan (tabernacle) demonstrate creativity parallel to God’s own. In fact, rabbinic interpreters have noted the linguistic parallels between the creation narrative and the description of the building of the mishkan. Construction can be inspiring, participatory and holy, and as builders and stewards of constructed environments we can fulfill our promise as creators in the Divine image. When we build right and well, God dwells among us – our spaces are elevated in holiness.
Our contemporary Jewish lives are largely lived in sanctuaries, social halls, classrooms and homes. What does it mean to build dwelling places “right” today? In addition to the mishkan, our tradition offers us several paradigms related to building, such as mezuzah and parapet, from which we might derive an ethical framework for environmentally sustainable and just spaces – a framework that also applies to the sustainability of the Jewish life within their walls.
Jewish and environmental sustainability are both sweeping, generation-crossing pursuits that require daily vigilance. Sustainability is about living our most profound and dynamic values repeatedly, visibly and out loud: not just caring for the world or our community for the sake of our children, but demonstrating along the way how and why we are doing so. A commitment to sustainability, whether Jewish or environmental, prompts a dynamic, evolving and daily conversation with our children in words and actions.
Our tradition recognizes the importance of engaging in such enduring conversations, symbolized by the mezuzot that we affix to the doorframes in our homes and expressed in the words of the Shema and V’ahavta rolled up inside. The rituals associated with this prayer, and the content of the text itself, remind us that Jewish values should permeate our day-to-day actions. The prayer instructs us to affix its words to our body (which we do in the form of tefilin) and to our doorposts (mezuzah). But these physical talismans are not enough; we need to recite the words within them, in the evening and in the morning, when we lie down and when we rise up and as we walk through the world. Nor is reciting these words to ourselves enough: we must teach them to our children. In other words, this central tenet of Judaism should be integrated into every aspect of our lived experience through physical symbols, ritual objects, and words of prayer, study, and relationship. Through writing, posting, acting on, and living our values they become enduring.
The presence of mezuzah transforms our built spaces into places of embodied values. Our buildings are not complete without mezuzot. Mezuzah is not an accessory; its presence and its message are fundamental to Jewish life. Now picture a recycling center established at the entrance to a Jewish communal space with the words of Ecclesiastes 1:4 inscribed on the wall above, “One generation goes and another comes, but the earth remains forever.” This installation serves as an “eco-mezuzah,” expressing the commitment of those who dwell within to be attuned to the daily choices we make within our homes and institutions – the food we buy, the temperature we keep our homes, the waste we recycle – and inviting others to be part of this conversation. Our living spaces should embody our values and engage the participation of those around us.
However, we should not think that our buildings end at the doorframes, walls and roofs. The built spaces where we live as families and communities do not exist in isolation; they are part of any expanding urban forest. Our buildings make demands on the planet, which provide material for their construction. They also make demands of the communities that live in their shadows. How we construct and maintain these edifices are not merely a matter of caring for, educating and demonstrating our values to the people within their walls. These decisions are a matter of protecting and sustaining human life.
What is the responsibility of a community for the health and safety of its neighbors? A biblical building code offers us guidance:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet (fence) for your roof, so that you do not bring the bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall (ha-nofel, lit. the faller) from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8).
This code is concerned for the person who might inadvertently get too close to the edge of a roof and fall off (ha-nofel). The very notion of parapet acknowledges an interactive and potentially hazardous relationship between buildings and the world beyond. The parapet protects by creating safe boundaries.
However, in today’s urban environments, there are hazards that cannot be contained by walls. One such danger is the “heat island effect.” The mostly blacktopped buildings that make up our cities, and the asphalt pavement that lines the avenues between them, make our cities hotter and the air dirtier. Whenever we replace a patch of green with a built space we eliminate the capacity of that soil to absorb excess rain, those trees to filter and clean the air we breathe, and that grass to cool the ambient temperature. In places where the air quality is further diminished by the emissions caused by heavy traffic, asthma and other pulmonary disease rates increase.
As we consider human health and safety in light of such uncontainable impacts, we recognize that the physical parapet in the form of a wall, no matter how high and thick, cannot contain this hazard nor protect people from its effects. When we apply the concept of parapet to the contemporary built environment, the idea of a physical barrier around the parameter of the roof seems inadequate. Parapet embodies a more expansive responsibility to mitigate the negative impacts of our buildings on the communities surrounding them and beyond. Ha-nofel is not just the person who might fall off the roof; she is the asthmatic child who inhales the air that our buildings exhume.
As Jewish communities, we need to cultivate a heightened awareness of our responsibility to ha-nofel and the part we might play in preventing injury. Painting our rooftops white or planting green roofs is a beginning. When fully realized, the directive to construct a parapet also touches on decisions about the raw materials we use to build and where we send our physical waste. In addition, this expanded understanding compels us to advocate for policies that will ensure the health and safety of humans and the planet. Building such a parapet begins with heightened awareness of the impacts of our buildings, the plight of ha-nofel and our responsibility to act.
Our tradition offers us paradigms for stewarding the built world justly and humanely. Imagine if Jewish communities embraced these principles in the spaces in which we live and congregate. What if we asked ourselves as a matter of course: How are we living out our values as stewards and builders on a daily basis? How are we making these choices part of the deep exchanges we have with our children? How are we acting to ensure health and justice beyond our walls? In answering these questions with integrity and purpose, we will establish dwelling spaces and sustain communities elevated in holiness.
 The US Green Buildings Council reports that people in the US spend 90% of their time indoors. www.usgbc.org
Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield was the founder director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship and currently serves as director of Experiential Education at the American Jewish World Service.