Why it’s Jewish to be Green

Business woman holding the earth

When we revisit the basic rules of Judaism, it is clear where our duty lies.

By Naomi Tsur, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem

To many this may seem to be a stupid, or rather a redundant question: Should Jews support democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of worship? I am sure that no one will dispute the fact that climate change, alongside the dwindling of the world’s resources, constitutes one of the burning issues of our time. So let me rephrase the question: Should we be committed environmentalists because we are Jews, and does our faith and its practices prescribe our undertaking to address these issues, as part of our obligation to repair the world?

Tikkun olam is one of the most deeply entrenched ethical concepts of Judaism, to be achieved through the pursuit of social justice, by restoring the balance of our world, and by giving to those who are in need. If we simply apply this concept to our physical world, and not only to the moral and social spheres, we will find ourselves in the front lines of environmentalists in the world.

The basis for defining our obligation as Jews to take responsibility for our physical and social environment is to be found in many sources. When we revisit the basic precepts of Judaism, and examine them through an environmental lens, it is clear where our duty lies. The threat that climate change poses to life on Earth as we know it is in effect a threat to God’s work of creation, a clear call that we have failed in our duty as stewards of God’s work.

“The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who live in it.” (Psalms 24:1). In the Garden of Eden, where no work was officially required of Adam and Eve, they were enjoined to “tend and guard” the garden (Genesis 2:15). This is the first specific reference to the effort we must invest in preserving and sustaining our environment. In expansion of this theme, we find the famous exhortation in later exegesis of this verse. God said to Adam in the Garden of Eden: “Observe how beautiful is the work of my creation. Take care not to destroy it, for no one will repair it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

This last exhortation echoes down the corridors of time, some 2,000 years. Written at a time when there was no danger or threat to any of the world’s ecosystems, it takes on an eerie connotation in our time, when irreversible melting of the ice caps, loss of forest cover, loss of species and increasing desertification are part of our world, alongside horrendous weather episodes that cause a scale of loss of life and livelihood that are hard to grasp. Scientists are now convinced that human behavior has been a serious factor in climate change, and that the emissions caused by fossil fuels are one of the main causes of climate change because of the impact on and irreversible damage to the atmosphere.

Our sages recommended that we “walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) on the Earth, and this is in keeping with the understanding that one of the keys to preventing further deterioration of the global environment is the adoption of more modest habits of consumption.

Since we are the stewards of God’s great work of creation, and in view of the fact that our behavior is damaging the ecosystems that support life on Earth, it is undoubtedly our duty as Jews to cut down our consumption, using only what we really need, and to make every effort to use cleaner sources of energy that can provide for our needs without inflicting irreparable damage on the life-support systems of the world.

The case of the state of Israel, a Jewish and democratic state, is surely a special one in many regards, but perhaps also with regard to our responsibility for the environment. Many mitzvot—commandments—that apply to the land customarily are observed only in Israel. An excellent example is shmittah, the sabbatical year, when the land lies fallow, preventing overuse of agricultural land and allowing natural recovery. A major challenge for modern Jewry is to restore true observance of shmittah, since the modern state of Israel has not found a way of honoring the requirement to let the land rest, but has rather found ways around the law.

The mitzvot pertaining to agriculture are other examples of laws that traditionally only apply in Israel. And holidays such as Tu B’shvat, the new year for trees, take on special meaning in a country that lost nearly all of its original forest cover in Byzantine times, and where reforestation in the last century has had a positive climate impact.

During the years that I worked as director of urban centers for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, before being elected to the Jerusalem City Council and appointed deputy mayor, I came to understand that not only is it inappropriate to treat environmentalism as a secular subject, for all the reasons I have given here, but that focusing on goals of sustainable development for Israel can give a new and more relevant agenda to Zionism, while fostering an innovative environmental dialogue between Israel and the global Jewish community. The three pillars of sustainable development—economic, social and environmental strength—surely provide an excellent menu for future prosperity for Israel, and for Jews around the world.

The article above was reprinted with permission from the Green Zionist Alliance and Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). The Jewish Energy Guide is part of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy. The guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance. The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

About the Author

Naomi Tsur is the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, where she heads the city’s environment, urban planning and historic conservation committees. In her tenure, she has launched Jerusalem’s light rail system, developed a citywide bike path circuit, limited private car use in the Old City and initiated a dialogue with Palestinians about how best to handle waste. Tsur previously directed the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and founded the Sustainable Jerusalem Coalition, which successfully campaigned to protect the Jerusalem Hills. She speaks about Israel’s environment around the world. Tsur also serves on the advisory board of the Green Zionist Alliance.

One Comment

  1. ruth elise housman May 23, 2013 Reply

    SPNI: I just got their most recent newsletter in the mails, and haven’t even opened this yet. I fully support SPNI, and when people ask how they can give a charitable donation that matters to me, as I celebrate birthdays with friends, my answer has always been SPNI.

    The SPIN on all this, is the SPIN also in a man much reviled by Judaism, and that is Spinoza, who had a deep interest in the environment, seeing God within. This is a transcendental idea, and this idea goes back far into our Jewish roots. It can be found, as is beautifully articulated in this article, in Biblical writings, as sacred trust. We are deeply of earth and earth is of us, and we are constantly, in discovery, unearthing more truths about this soil that nourishes us all.

    I have, for the longest time, noted the word SOD, in Hebrew means, hidden. We talk about the hidden face of what is, Divine, of God. I see God’s not so hidden face everywhere. An immanent presence. And sod in English happens to mean soil. And surely, beneath the soil of our gardens, around the world, there are hidden treasures, and these the geodes we await in spring, the bulbs that pop open, and the minerals within the earth. Urth is the rearrangement of the letters of the name Ruth, a Biblical story, that is deeply about how the fields were left fallow, those corners, for the poor, the hungry, the weak, for gleaning.

    I am seeing and writing about a story, about a Master Storyteller, who has put us all into an evolving universe of story, that will bring us back, to Eden, in a very different way. Perhaps we never, really left.

    Perhaps the OZ and AWES of all of this, is a language-based story, that will sweep the world, that it’s ALL GOD.

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