Opening Our Eyes, Celebrating Interdependence, and Evolving Jewish Ecological Wisdom
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh
Many years ago I worked with science teachers who were encouraged to get their students exploring stream ecology by using a curriculum focused on ‘water chemistry.’ I have met very few middle school students whose hearts sing when they hear the words water chemistry. I have met thousands of kids and adults who were excited to learn about ‘mountains’, ‘forests’, ‘rivers’, ‘nature’ and ‘the farm’. Language matters.
As someone whose primary work for the last 25 years has been creating experiences that foster as sense of awe, ecological interdependence and responsibility, I have long been in search of the right words to use. What language invokes and inspires unity with all life, connection with the sacred whole?
Before the term ‘sustainability’ came into wide use, ‘environment’ and ‘conservation’ were common language. Yet environmental protection and conservation of natural resources are cold and technical terms, seeming to refer to things outside of ourselves, outside of culture and the human search for meaning. They suggest technical and managerial solutions to what is a deep crisis of values. These words, like ‘water chemistry’, do not have deep resonance in our souls.
In the 1980s the United Nations helped give shape to the environmental movement by defining ‘sustainability’ in a holistic way; using the three nested circles of economy, society and environment. Sustainability is by definition holistic. For example, sustainable agriculture includes resting and rebuilding exhausted soils, providing living wages for farm workers, and enacting policies that foster equitable and affordable land ownership. Torah scholars and students of Jewish texts, does this last example ring any bells for you? Our religious lives center around a text that describes an ancient holistic agrarian society. Laws about Shabbat include giving rest for the soil and our workers, and are linked to the cyclical redistribution of land. In this context, the interdependence evoked by the concept of ‘sustainability’ seems ‘kosher’, literally a good fit.
I am offering awareness, interconnectedness and evolution as three frames of Jewish wisdom for sustainability. By awareness I mean the ways in which our stories and our rituals encourage us to open our eyes and see beyond our limited perception of reality. Interconnectedness reflects the ways that Judaism sees soil and soul, ritual life and food, land ownership and business conduct as part of a sacred whole. Evolution refers the ways in which we are constantly adapting to the changing conditions around us as individuals and as a community.
The stories from the Torah that I find most compelling are those about a shift in perception: Hagar in a moment of desperation lifting her eyes and seeing a well, Moses stopping to see a bush burning but not being consumed, Jacob’s post-dream realization that ‘God was in this place and I did not know it.’ I think about the morning blessing “who opens the eyes of the blind” and all the ways that we are blind; to the deeper emotional and materials needs of our family members and neighbors, to the web of life – maple trees, spiders and fungus and soil microbes – that keep the water clean and make the soil fertile. Part of the crisis we find ourselves in is a crisis of how we see the world; a crisis of selective blindness.
Here at Adamah and Teva we have been reviving traditional blessings for seeing mountains, smelling fragrant plants, and hearing thunder, and creating new blessings for everyday wonders of the forest and farm where we live. When we run environmental education programs we hang a large poster in the main hall which reads “Ma rabu ma’assacha ya” (“How great our your works Yah”) and has a large blank space for students to write or draw their discoveries of the day. I agree with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who taught that the sense of wonder is the root of all religion. We need to cultivate radical amazement to become spiritually and ecologically whole.
One way of understanding the toxins in our water, rising inequality and a destabilized climate, is as a crisis of fragmentation. It is because we have lost the belief and understanding that the world is connected by a complex web of relationships: human, God, neighbor, land. In other words, it is because we see cheap food products, industrial agriculture, human health, and the disappearance of monarch butterflies as separate issues that we find ourselves in this bind.
The iconoclastic philosopher Ivan Illich, the poet farmer Wendell Berry and many others have critiqued the culture of fragmentation, specialization and commodification in which we live. As we hand over large parts of our lives to specially trained professionals we become passive consumers of food products, entertainment, education, and spiritual programming. We loose touch with the trees and birds, with our own learning and personal growth, and with primary experiences like harvesting and cooking food, singing, and teaching ourselves and others new skills. When we grow or cook food, gather community in prayer or song, or learn to use hand tools we become empowered to make connections.
As an ancient, land-based tradition equipped to govern all aspects of life in a pre-modern society, Judaism has many tools to combat fragmentation with interconnectedness. In the garden of Eden we learn that we humans, b’nei and b’not Adam, children of Adam, were formed from the dust of the earth, the ‘Adamah.’ Our very name and identity as humans is from the earth. Our burial customs ensure our bodies get returned to the earth.
Our Shabbat practices dictate rest for the animals, servants and strangers among us. Laws governing agriculture such as ‘peah’ and ‘leket’ address greed, land ownership, poverty, and the idea that the land ultimately belongs to God. Our actions, both as individuals and the policies and directions that we adopt as a society, have far-reaching consequences that demand our attention.
After questioning the nature of God’s justice, the prophet Job is taken on a whirlwind tour of all creation. He is left in humbled awe of the great circle of birth and death, drought and rainstorms, vultures, ostriches, and the singing stars of morning. Job gains a new perceptive on the place of humans in the big world. In a similar vision, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold spoke of ‘thinking like a mountain’; understanding – as much as us small-minded humans can – the complex long-term interconnectedness that governs life on the planet.
Evolution By evolution I am referring to our ability to survive thousands of years of historical change through adaptation, developing new streams of Jewish theology, and the learning and personal growth that each of us goes through every day. Arthur Green in his book ‘Radical Judaism’ does a beautiful job of putting the God of creation at the center of a simultaneously new and old Judaism. He suggests that the unfolding evolution of life on the planet is the great story of revelation, and that we can understand God as the inner being of that unfolding. This expression of Jewish theology helps us remain rooted in the tradition while responding in meaningful ways to the new understandings of the ecological age in which we live.
Judaism as a religion and culture has embedded within it the wisdom of adaptation. We have evolved as a culture to survive the destruction of the Temple, the Diaspora, and the emergence of science. We are a resourceful people. We need to call on our resourcefulness to respond to the great challenges of sustainability. I think Green’s vision of evolution and revelation is one of these key adaptations.
And we are a tradition that believes in learning, growth and transformation. Rabbi Nachman taught that each of us makes the journey our ancestors did: from slavery to liberation to revelation. We each have a personal journey to travel as our communities are evolving. God as the unfolding being of the world is our partner in the process of spiritual transformation.
For the past 10 years I have directed the Adamah Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Awareness, interconnectedness, and evolution are not just conceptual musings but are based on my experience working with young Jews at Adamah and at Teva. We use a progression of experiences to build spiritual practice, intentional pluralistic Jewish community, and ecological and leadership skills. Hoeing beets, climbing a mountain, and praying are ways we become more present and open our sense of awareness to the world around us. To learn interconnectedness we bless and eat food we have harvested, we study permaculture and shmita, learn our creation myths, and how to get along in community. Once we have practices that help us to see more clearly, and we understand our place in the web of life, we can rise to meet our emerging selves, and to offer our contribution to our evolving tradition.
Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh co-founded Adamah and has farmed, sung and taught there since 2004. He appreciates the daily hands-on life in community and getting the chance to think and learn big picture in terms of Judaism, sustainability and spirituality.