Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood: An Introduction

PP 14[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Jeremy Benstein

At first glance, the idea of connecting the concepts of sustainability and Jewish peoplehood might be puzzling; they seem to pull in different directions. Peoplehood is an inward looking idea about what it means to be Jewish and connected to a Jewish group, the survival and flourishing of that group, as well as threats and opportunities relating specifically to the Jews. In contrast, sustainability is a global idea: it’s about the survival and flourishing of the human race, even the whole planet, and in its universality is often “color-blind,” unconcerned with and often even dismissive of issues of identity and cultural values, in the face of threats to the health and well being of all people’s and the world in which we all live.

As we say in Hebrew – nahafoch hu! – On the contrary. The connections between the two are multiple, deep and run in both directions. In fact, they are the bread and butter of the five-year-old coalition of scores of organizations and hundreds of activists on three continents that make up Siach – A Jewish Environmental and Social Justice Conversation, which initiated this collaboration to explore these connections. The authors of the papers in this brief anthology are essentially addressing one or both of the following questions:

  • What do Jewish values/culture/group identity have to offer those who struggle and strive to further the agenda of sustainability in the world?
  • And conversely, how can the discourse of sustainability enrich and empower those who wish to promote Jewish peoplehood?

But, first, it behooves us to define our terms.

Sustainability can be a difficult concept to work with. It can mean many things to many people. In addition to its many legitimate definitions and uses, moving from mainstream and reformist to more radical, critical and visionary, it is also often pulled in different directions for political or commercial reasons. For us, “sustainability” refers to a broad social and political agenda that has at its core the vision of a just society with a robust democratic economy and a healthy environment, now and for future generations. It is important to emphasize that sustainability is much more than economic efficiency, or a cleaner environment. It’s about building a society that can sustain us and our children, materially and spiritually, now and in the future; together with the awe-inspiring world in which we live and of which we are a part.

This publication is dedicated then, to sustainability in the context of our collective ethos as a people.

This is not about narrow rubrics such as “Judaism and the environment,” or rehearsing familiar teachings on “tikkun olam.” Nor is it about sustainability as a personal value of individual Jews. It is about looking at the concept through the collective prism of our people’s mission in the world. Many consider sustainability – and the shockingly unjust and unsustainable nature of the society that we have built – to be the central moral challenge of our age.

One answer then to the questions above is that we as a people simply cannot remain indifferent to an issue as huge as sustainability: averting widespread environmental catastrophe in the form of the climate crisis and other threats, while simultaneously closing the ever-widening social gap, and working toward justice and fundamental rights for all. As Rabbi Michael Paley and Jina Davidovich write:

“If the Jewish narrative works it has to do more than simply keep us together as a people. It also has to guide us to practice restraint – in the way our laws command us – so that the earth can observe its cycles and renew itself.”

This can be done in many ways. One of them is through promoting environmental solutions, everywhere, but especially in Israel, as activist and entrepreneur Yossi Abramowitz writes below:

“There is no higher fulfillment of Jewish mission than to save the majesty of God’s creation and to do so as individuals as part of a global Jewish collective with a national platform called the State of Israel … we must transform ourselves from the misunderstood Light Unto the Nations, as Isaiah beckoned, to a Renewable Light Unto the Nations…”

Jay Shofet reinforces this point in his essay, emphasizing that sustainability is a unique portal into an inspiring Israel for Jews everywhere:

“[A] polluted, gridlocked Holy Land is no beacon to anyone. An exporter of solar energy and a clean-tech superpower, with open spaces for enjoyment and green belts around our livable cities –well, that is an Israel to rally behind.”

But of course, we’re not just talking about Israel. Rabbi Sid Schwartz writes forcefully about the challenges facing the American Jewish community:

“We need to confront the one “dirty” little secret of our community. There is no single bigger threat to ongoing environmental degradation than consumption and the affluence of the Jewish community makes us among the world’s most avid consumers… Jews cannot lead by example on the planet’s existential challenge unless we start addressing our community’s excessive rate of consumption … the key to following a more sacred and ethical life is the discipline that comes from accepting limits to indulging our voracious appetites for whatever we want, whenever we want it.”

And there are also other reasons and approaches. Micha Odenheimer, of Tevel Be’Tzedek, working in communities in the developing world, writes about how Judaism has positive models and content to offer people there, struggling for their own identities, as well as for justice and general well-being:

“Jewishness provides, for many of the groups we work with, a model for integrating particularism with universalism, the sustaining of identity with the skillful navigation of the new global world, drawing on our prophetic teachings and ethical precision in order to make the world more sustainable and equitable.”

Sandy Cardin of the Schusterman Foundation tackles the issue from the other direction, emphasizing the need to appeal to younger generations of Jews in compelling, relevant and inspiring ways:

“Our future depends on our ability to inspire generation after generation of young people to take an active role in making the world a better place. Achieving this vision relies on our ability to help young Jews embrace their Jewish identity and ultimately link the values they hold as global citizens to Jewish values. Indeed, we have seen how eye-opening it can be for young Jews to learn that Jewish text and teachings implore us to work toward a sustainable future for all humanity by enacting the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), derekh eretz (civility and humanity), chesed (mercy and kindness) and others.”

It’s no accident that this collection of essays features one particular “mitzvah” that has become the dominant socio-environmental frame for Jewish discourse in our generation: shmita, the year of release. Einat Kramer, spearheading the Israeli Shmita movement, writes that current shmita work:

“[B]y creating new connections with the roots in ancient customs, is reviving the fundamental spirit of the Law as it widens its interpretation. Furthermore, this creative effort contributes to Jewish peoplehood as it furthers values and actions that are equally relevant to Jews in Israel and around the world. Thus shmita, classically defined as part of the category of mitzvot that are only applicable in the Land of Israel, may now be viewed as a growing set of practices and commitments developed every seven years in Israel, a place that will serve as a laboratory for sustainability ideas and practices that may radiate across the globe.”

Yedidya Sinclair echoes this sentiment forcefully:

“[T]here has clearly been a resurgence of interest in shmita both in Israel and in the Diaspora. While these movements have emerged in parallel, they have benefited from a cross-pollination of ideas through the recent Siach conferences, which brought together social justice and environmental activists from Israel and the Diaspora for annual discussions. Shmita is simply an idea whose time has come, and with its creative growth both in Israel and the Diaspora, has unique potential to promote the value of peoplehood that spans geography, politics and other axes of division.”

And Robin Moss sums it up nicely when he writes:

“Sustainable development occurs at the intersection of social justice, environmental protection and a fair economic system … the genius of the shmita vision is that it says that only when all three of these actions are carried out – only at the intersection of these three kinds of justice – can there be a real, holy sense that we are living out our Jewish values.”

Finally, as the 2013 Pew study states, as quoted by Sandy Cardin in his essay: “being Jewish was most attractive if it spoke to and connected with another part of someone’s identity.” To put it another way: to be authentically true to ourselves we must be true to something greater than only ourselves. Mirele Goldsmith expresses this eloquently, when she writes:

“Jews may disagree about the application of Jewish ethical teachings to various problems, but all streams of Judaism hold fast to a few key moral principles; that life is sacred, that every person has dignity and value, and that it is our human task to contribute to the redemption of the world. There is a purpose to Jewish life that goes beyond pursuit of our self-interest as individuals and even as a collective.”

More answers to these questions and more follow in this collection of papers.
Read on.

Jeremy Benstein is a founder and deputy director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Israel, and active in the Siach collaboration. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s degree in Judaic Studies and a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the Hebrew University on social-environmental activism. He is the author of “The Way Into Judaism and the Environment” (Jewish Lights, 2006), is married to Dr. Annabel Herzog, and lives in Zichron Yaakov.