Jewish Tradition and the Crises of Environmental Sustainability: a Unique Challenge and a Unique Opportunity.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Nigel Savage

A. Introduction:
Challenges, insignificance, clichés and Jewish intuition.

The challenges are clear and overarching.

Rising oceans. Pollution, and concomitant rising asthma rates. Loss of biodiversity. Deforestation. Urban sprawl. Depleted fish stocks. Drought. Soil erosion. “Small-scale” wars that take large numbers of lives, turn millions into refugees; and then in turn partially destabilize western democracies.

The challenges are overwhelming. So much so that these different slow-motion tragedies become background noise, which we mostly (try to) tune out. But then something punctuates our consciousness again, whether we want it or not – news, a headline, a documentary, a story, a picture.

To be clear: the tragedy of human insignificance is that these challenges are beyond the ability of any one of us to impact for good. Hitler and Stalin, in their individual and unique determination and evil, did indeed cause tens of millions of people to lose their lives. Churchill by himself played a key role in saving the West. Nelson Mandela, by the force of his personality, played a unique role in enabling South Africa to transition peacefully from apartheid to democracy. But these individuals who by themselves had an enormous impact – they are the exceptions.

For those of us reading this, on the big global issues… they are intertwined, they are supranational, and they hinge upon the collective daily choices of 7.3 billion people every day. It is hard enough to allow ourselves even to be fully aware of the big global challenges the world faces. But it is even harder to fully acknowledge our own seeming impotence in the face of them.

And so for you, reading this, and for me writing it: what are we to do?

First: I want in this little essay to go beyond clichés, but I will begin by noting that clichés are often a kind of truth that we take so for granted that we forget their essence and their value. In 2009 I found myself at Windsor Castle, representing the Jewish people in addressing a worldwide group of religious leaders, ahead of COP 15, the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. What was I to say? In addressing a non-Jewish audience, I was provoked afresh to think about what, if at all, might be a unique Jewish contribution to the issues the world faced. And in thinking about this question, I ended up not talking about, for instance, “bal tashchit” (an injunction not to waste which, in certain respects, is not uniquely Jewish, and which is reflected, directly or indirectly, in many world religions). Instead I talked about the centrality of hope in Jewish tradition. And I quoted (freshly) the to-Jewish-ears-often-cliched phrase, “we are not required to complete the task, but we cannot desist from it.” Not every tradition teaches this, or lives it.

On hope as a Jewish value: it is not just that, on Tisha b’av, we face each year, squarely in the face, death and destruction – and yet come back to life at mincha, and have a midrash that mashiach will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b’av. Much more prosaically: in 1945 a third of the Jews of Europe had been murdered, and we continue to learn (from Fr Desbois and Tim Snyder and others) the scale and ubiquity and determination of the violence meted out upon the Jewish people caught in central and eastern Europe in those years. No escape. No safe place. Murder and tyranny and brutality. And somehow, we bounced back: not just the state of Israel, and its creation and all that it has accomplished. But the Jewish contributions since then in the US, in France and England, in Australia; in the sciences and the arts and business. This is so central to the Jewish story that we don’t even fully notice it – but we should.

So hope is real and it is one of our gifts for the world, at this time of hopelessness. Our hope (ha-tikvah) is not a blind hope, not a rose-tinted hope, not a heads-in-the-sand hope. It is, rather, a cultural/historical/theological instinct that to have hope is possible, is rooted in our historical experience, and will help to summon up our best selves. Without hope we give in to anomie and apathy and we don’t get out of bed. We avert our gaze, and by our inaction we allow bad things to get worse. With hope and determination we get things done, and we contribute and we start to fix things.

So, hope and pitching in and striving to make a difference, even if we can’t complete the task: these are not bad places to start, and it is important to register them not as clichés, not as things we take for granted, not as words whose content we no longer hear, but rather as real injunctions; a daily kavannah to lean it towards the bad news, to acknowledge our sense of insignificance, and then to do all that we can.

And so then, after that: what?

I want to make two fundamental points.

First: as I have begun to sketch out thus far, that there really is a unique Jewish contribution that we can, could and should make to the challenges that face the world right now.

And secondly: that doing that should and will, in the process, strengthen Jewish life.

(And – spoiler alert – one of the things that is slightly weird is that, thus far, we haven’t yet as a people made a hugely significant impact on the global challenges themselves; but the work that we have done to address those challenges has already had, and daily has, a significantly positive impact in strengthening Jewish life. This is a paradox to which I’ll return at the end.)

B. A distinctive Jewish contribution

For most people reading this essay I’m going to assume not merely a familiarity with Jewish thought and Jewish life but, arguably, an overfamiliarity. Part of the gift of the environmental challenges is that they can prompt us, and I would argue strongly that they should prompt us, to view Jewish tradition freshly. Not through the eyes of an educator, a rabbi, a “Jewish leader,” and thus not through the prisms of – for instance – “the Israel/diaspora relationship” or “the challenges of day schools” or “how do we engage our young people” – but rather through the prisms of our identities as human beings, as citizens of the world. And, perhaps, as parents or grandparents – those prisms are especially salient, because even if you or I may not be alive in 2100, the kids being born today should be. And what world will we bequeath to them?

When we break through our overfamiliarity, key elements of Jewish tradition appear to us in a new way. Here are just two more, in addition to what I’ve sketched out in relationship to hope and being willing to engage, even if we can’t complete the task.

C. Land and relationship to place

You would be hard-pressed to name any great “environmentalist” who was not or is not very firmly grounded in relationship to place. For John Muir (the founder of the Sierra Club, and one of the great 19th century naturalists) it was California and the Sierra Nevada. For Alfred Wainwright, 70 years later, it was the English Lake District. For Wendell Berry (arguably the greatest living environmental writer) it is Henry County, Kentucky, where he lives, on land that his family has farmed for five generations.

We have learned the hard way – not least from the French and Russian revolutions – that we should be wary of those who love “people” in abstract, but are not grounded in love and respect for the uniqueness of individual people in practice. Far too many people have been murdered in the name of a nominally idealistic or altruistic ideology.

And so too with relationship to land. For we may love “the world,” but the world is slightly too large a place fully to connect with. In some sense there is no “world” as there is no “humankind.” We learn love by loving someone, somewhere, sometime, and caring about them, and giving to them. We must love some patch of the earth, and be in relationship with it, in a not too dissimilar way.

And as soon as one thinks in these terms – as soon as one realizes how fundamentally true this is, and how important for the well-being of the world – we realize how remarkable is the Jewish commitment to the land of Israel. We understand rather sharply that we have more in common with the indigenous peoples of the world than we do with most citizens of Britain or France or the United States. And unlike any of the world’s other indigenous peoples – almost all of whom have been almost irreparably damaged by their confrontation with modernity and colonialism – we have traveled through all these countries, all these centuries, and yet 80 generations after the destruction of the second Temple we still love this land, face it, travel to it, care for it, visit Israel, live in Israel. That the state of Israel is the only country in the world to end the twentieth century with more trees than it began – this is not an obscure factoid. It is not “hasbara.” It is a deep and truthful and fascinating and significant reflection of what a deep connection to a particular place, allied to all that we teach in our tradition about trees, and reverence for land, and Choni haMagel, and the Torah as “etz chayim” – all these things weaved us into a people who really planted trees – by the millions. In an ironic postscript I learned from Dr Alon Tal that some of the earlier chalutzim planted the wrong trees – monoculture pine stands that were not well-suited to the land of Israel. But for the last twenty or thirty years Israeli tree-experts have been slowly fixing this. This is honest work and good ecology – na’aseh v’nishmah in a real way.

There’s a straight line from the JNF and KKL and the blue box and planting trees to the work of Yosef Abramowitz and Energiya Global. Israel is one of the densest countries in the world in population. It has not much land, even less growable land, and very little water. The environmental challenges that Israel has faced in the last thirty years will become chronic in a third of the world in the next thirty. And so, lo and behold, the work that Yosef did a dozen years ago, in founding Arava Power – to try to help fix Israel’s environmental challenges – is now being applied in Africa and elsewhere. This is precisely what it means to begin with love for a particular place – our people’s ancient homeland – and then apply it to make the whole world a better place. This is just one of the gifts of Jewish tradition, a profound and real one.

D. Shabbat, shmita, and cycles of rest in Jewish tradition.

I will not labor this point. I hope it will have become gradually obvious to readers of this essay these last ten or fifteen years. But the intra-Jewish conversation on Shabbat (“I keep it;” “I don’t;” “I do this;” “I do that”) is far too small, and it misses the larger and more significant point. And shmita as an idea isn’t for most people even part of an intra-Jewish conversation; for most people it has been ignored in any serious way until the last shmita year in 2014-’15.

But it is now clear that “24/7” is overconsuming the world and burning us out and damaging families and communities. So, again, when we think about the potential Jewish contribution to the world, and we think about the twenty centuries’ experience we have of living and engaging with these ideas; only then, only through those ideas, do we even begin to have a glimpse of the gifts we might offer the world, the teaching we might do, the models we might suggest, in the coming decades.

E. The paradox of Jewish impact.

Hope is a potential gift to the whole world. The teachings of Hillel are a potential gift. Our relationship to Israel and trees and Shabbat and shmita – these are all potential gifts for the world. I hope and believe – and intend, by my work and Hazon’s work and that of a growing number of our friends and partners in the world of Jewish, Outdoor, Food, Farming and Environmental Education (ie “JOFEE” for short) – that in the coming years and decades we will really contribute to the world in material ways. This is slowly happening, and Yosef and some of the Israeli water – and clean-tech entrepreneurs are part of it.

But the greatest impact of this work, these last two decades is not, paradoxically on the world; it’s on the Jewish community. Not everyone cares about the world or the environment or sustainable food systems. But of those who do – including many of the best and the brightest of our teens and 20-somethings – these passions are leading them through the doorways of new institutions. In North America Hazon (including Adamah and Teva and our Hazon Seal of Sustainability and our work catalyzing the Jewish Food Movement) but also Eden Village and Milk and Honey Farm and Pearlstone and Shorashim and Urban Adamah and a wonderful proliferation of projects all over the place. And in Israel the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and Chava v’Adam farm, and Harduf and Heschel and Teva Ivri and a bunch of other projects and people and initiatives.

The paradox was evoked by Hamlet, when he said that he must “by indirections find directions out.” The positive impact of these initiative on the Jewish people is dependent on the seriousness of their sincere and serious environmental commitment. If they are instrumental – merely a step towards strengthening “Jewish identity” they will not succeed. If they are not truly grounded (as, happily, they are) in a serious commitment to effecting change in the world then they will not also have the Jewish impact that in fact they do have.

And the final paradox, is that it may yet be that the greatest contribution of the Jewish people is not in clean tech or planting trees, but rather in sharing core Jewish teachings much more deeply and widely across the world. Because now we all need hope, and we all need Shabbat, and we all need halacha as a form of voluntary self-restraint, and we all need to learn that it is not our responsibility to complete the task – but nor can we ignore it.

F. And so, in conclusion

I don’t know when you will be reading this. But I’m writing this during sefirat ha’omer. This is the annual journey in which we start with an ancient (indigenous) agrarian cycle, the growth of the barley harvest. But then we overlay a rather different psychological journey from Pesach to Shavuot – from “freedom from…” (want, oppression, hunger), to “freedom to….” (receive the Torah; self-limit ourselves; keep kosher; keep Shabbat.)

I want to end by noting that this core challenge – that not everything we can do, should we do – lies at the absolute center of the environmental crises, and of our potential responses to them. We cannot legislate by government fiat all the restraints that we actually need, and nor should we. So “religion,” widely construed, will have a vital role to play in trying to help the world’s people build a better future in the coming decades. We are all too familiar with the negative role that religion has played and can play in recent years. But we too easily forget – or didn’t notice in the first place – the gifts of religion in general and of Jewish tradition in particular.

I hope and pray that, as each year goes by, we learn our tradition more deeply; we deepen our sense of being part of the Jewish people, with unique gifts to share in the world; we address environmental challenges more directly; we see the actual and potential significance of Israel through fresh eyes; and so we thus, in aggregate, add a new chapter to the history of the Jewish people. This is what it is to take Torah from Zion out into the world – making a better world for everyone, and in so doing also strengthening Jewish life and the Jewish people. Kein yehi ratzon.

Nigel Savage is the CEO of Hazon, the Jewish Lab for Sustainability.