Friends, thank you for inviting me here this evening on the occasion of your AGM, which is taking place during Interfaith Week. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you.
There are so many urgent issues to address. In the immediate future, Brexit still unresolved, we face a General Election in four weeks’ time. Meanwhile, the global refugee crisis continues, many countries around the world are in turmoil, and as winter approaches, we are reminded that homelessness remains a critical problem in Britain. But as forests burn out of control in California and New South Wales, and homes and fields are filled with floodwater in South Yorkshire and the East Midlands, we are all aware that we face an even greater and more urgent matter: the threat of environmental catastrophe. And so, I’ve chosen to speak this evening about Jewish teaching on the environment with the understanding that people and peoples of all faiths and none are challenged to participate in the great task of repairing the world and preventing irreversible climate change.
I would like to begin by reading you a poem by the contemporary Jewish poet, Danny Siegel:
Along with the endangered owls
And the snow leopards at risk of extinction
And the dying colours of so many species of butterfly,
Add this: the gold-winged human soul.
We have forgotten who we are.
We have become estranged from the movements of the earth.
We have turned our backs on the cycles of life.
We have sought only our own security.
We have exploited simply for our own ends.
We have distorted our knowledge.
We have abused our power.
Now the land is barren
And the waters are poisoned
And the air is polluted.
Now forests are dying
And the creatures are disappearing
And humans are despairing.
We ask forgiveness.
We ask for the gift of remembering.
We ask for the strength to change.
Danny Siegel’s poem paints a disturbing picture that I’m sure we all recognise. We know that human beings are responsible for the state the planet is in – and we also know that we are also responsible for doing something about it. The Jewish approach to this responsibility begins with the Hebrew Bible – which is also part of the Christian Scriptures – where we encounter a contradictory double-message about what it is to be human. On the one hand, there is the six-day hierarchical account in Genesis chapter 1, with humanity at the pinnacle of creation, empowered to dominate all the other creatures of the earth. On the other hand, in the second creation story, absolute mastery gives way to stewardship and guardianship.
So, we read in Genesis chapter 1, verses 26-28:
God said, ‘Let us make a human [adam] in Our image, after Our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over the animals, and over all that creeps upon the earth.’ / So, God created the human [ha-adam] in the Divine image, creating them in the image of God [b’tzelem Elohim], creating them male and female. / God blessed them and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth.’
And then in Genesis chapter 2, verses 7 and 15:
The Eternal God formed the human [ha-adam] – dust from the ground [‘afar min-ha-adamah] – and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life [nishmat chayyim], so the human became a living being [nefesh chayyah] / ………. The Eternal God took the human [ha-adam], placing (the human) in the garden of Eden to serve it and to keep it [l’ovdah u’l’shomrah].’
The evidence of the extent to which human beings assume we have a licence to dominate is everywhere – and it threatens the future of the planet. So, Jews and Christians, in particular, who have inherited theses sacred texts, have a duty to promote the alternative version of human beings as guardians, responsible for serving and keeping the earth – that is, for maintaining, guarding and protecting it.
Interestingly, rabbinic teachings – which were first developed in the centuries that followed the destruction of the last Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE – also express the understanding that human beings have been tasked by God with a special role as guardians of the earth. In his commentary on Psalm 115, verse 6 – ‘The heavens belong to the Eternal One, but God has given the earth to humankind’ – the 12th century mediaeval Spanish biblical commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, wrote:
This means that we are like God’s stewards on earth, charged to exercise responsibility in God’s name for all that exists.
So, what happens if we don’t undertake this responsibility? In a 6th to 8th century collection of midrashim – rabbinic commentary – we find this sobering passage:
After creating the first human, the Holy One Who is Blessed, took them round all the trees of the garden, and said to them: ‘See how lovely and excellent My works are; I have created them all for you. Take care not to spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it there will be no one to repair it after you.’
In Jewish teaching, the planting of trees represents a key way in which human beings can exercise their responsibility as guardians of the earth. We read in a 3rd century collection of rabbinic wisdom:
If you hold a sapling, ready for planting, in your hand, and they tell you, ‘The Messiah has come!’, Go ahead and plant the sapling, and then go to greet the Messiah.
For the early rabbis, the coming of the Messiah would herald in the future time of peace. This teaching makes it clear that, ultimately, the responsibility for creating the future lies in our hands here and now. A story in a 5th to 7th century collection of midrashim (rabbinic commentary), underlines the imperative of tree-planting for the sake of tomorrow:
Once, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian was walking along one of the paths that lead to Tiberius, he saw an old man digging trenches to plant saplings of fig trees. ‘How old are you?’ The Emperor asked him, and he answered; ‘A hundred years.’ ‘You are a hundred years old’, said Hadrian, ‘yet you are digging trenches to plant saplings of fig trees! Do you ever hope to eat of them?’ Then the old man replied: ‘If I’m worthy I shall eat; but even if not – as my ancestors worked for my benefit, so I will work for the benefit of my children.
The importance of tree-planting for the early rabbis is also reflected in halakhah, Jewish law. The very first paragraph of the tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah in the Mishnah – the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the year 200 CE – mentions the New Year for Trees (Rosh Ha-Shanah L’Ilanot) on Tu Bishvat (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat), which falls in the late winter – that is, any time between mid-January and the second week of February .
The New Year for Trees is not just a date for acknowledging the life of trees. Every year, on Tu Bishvat, trees are planted in Jewish communities around the world – not least, in Israel. Of course, the experience of planting trees in Britain in late winter is rather different from the experience of planting trees in the land on the eastern seaboard of Mediterranean. I’ve had experience of both. I can recall winters in this country, when we’ve had to boil kettles to unfreeze the ground in order to plant a tree. I can also recall being on a kibbutz in the Western Galilee in 1979, where we planted trees on Tu Bishvat in glorious warm sunshine.
So, Jewish teaching, both biblical and rabbinic, is very clear about our responsibility to care for the world, and we even have a special annual tree-planting festival. There can be no doubt: We must plant trees! A couple of months ago, one of my God-Sons, Elliot Cohen-Gold, contacted me, asking me to support a new project he had initiated with his older brother, Aaron, to plant one million trees by Tu Bishvat, which will coincide this Jewish year with 9th February 2020.
Alongside positive action like tree-planting, rabbinic teaching also includes the principle bal tashchit, which is Aramaic for ‘do not destroy or waste’, and developed from a Biblical prohibition found in Deuteronomy chapter 20 (:19) against cutting down fruit-bearing trees during war-time.
The rabbinic sages expanded the prohibition bal tashchit to include the careless destruction of trees at any time and all unnecessary destruction or waste. And so, we read in the Talmud – the compendium of rabbinic teaching edited around the year 500 in Babylonia, which includes, both, the Mishnah and the commentary on the Mishnah by later generations of rabbis (Kiddushin 32a):
Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs, or a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah (commandment) – of bal tashchit (do not waste or destroy).
The Talmud contains a number of stories and rules that relate to the prohibition of bal tashchit. In one, it is related concerning a sage called Rav Chisda (Bava Kama 91b), that whenever he had to walk between thorns and thistles, he would lift up his garment and rip his skin rather than his clothing, since nature would cure his skin but not his clothes. This might seem to us an extreme response on the part of an individual determined to avoid damage to their clothing. But in the more sober context of the custom of k’ri’ah, tearing an item of clothing in mourning, the principle of bal tashchit is also applied. The Talmud teaches (Bava Kama 91b) that tearing silk garments when performing k’ri’ah violates the prohibition unless the tear is in the seam.
The prohibition of bal tashchit also extends to taking care to ensure energy efficiency. It is recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 67b) that a sage called Mar Zutra taught that whoever covers an oil lamp or who uncovers a paraffin lamp transgresses bal tashchit since these acts cause the lamp to burn too quickly – and hence, waste energy.
Clearly, the principle of bal tashchit is very relevant to the contemporary challenge of preventing irreversible climate change. In January 2018, inspired by the development of Eco Church, a Christian response to the task of taking responsibility for caring for the planet, Eco Synagogue was launched with the aim of changing the relationship of synagogues with the environment. I’m delighted to say that at the festival of Shavuot, ‘Weeks’, on June 8th/9th, with our all-night programme on ‘climate change and our responsibility to repair the world’, my congregation, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, began the process of becoming an Eco Synagogue.
Eco Churches and Eco Synagogues – and Eco Mosques and Temples – have an important role to play in efforts to combat climate change. Jews and Christians and members of other faith groups are also participating in a global initiative that has the potential to transform how we live on this planet and how we connect with one another by generating a ‘sharing economy’ as an alternative to an economic system rooted in excessive consumption and waste. As it happens one of the members of my congregation, Benita Matofska, is a major champion of the sharing economy and for the past couple of years, she has travelled all over the world meeting with people engaged in sharing projects. What Benita discovered is recorded in her wonderful book of testimonies and photographs, entirely made from recyclable materials, Generation Share. Importantly, the proceeds of the sales of the book are going to fund an amazing sharing project in a slum in Mumbai, India, where a young teenage ‘sharer’ has started a school for girls in her one-room home. A sharing economy is exactly that. Clothes can be shared – we hosted our first clothes-sharing event at the synagogue in the past year. Cars can be shared – a way of dramatically reducing the number of cars on the road and their toxic emissions. Just think of all those electrical items that you only use once or twice a week – hoovers, lawnmowers – they can all be shared between neighbours. And then, imagine what a difference sharing rather than, consuming and discarding could make to the planet.
Jewish teaching on the environment begins and ends with our unique responsibility as human beings amongst all God’s creatures for serving and guarding the Earth, which is our only home. Ultimately, Jewish teaching conveys a message of hope. We have done so much damage to the world in our drive to dominate and control, but we have the capacity to repair that damage. And now, the need to engage in the work of repair has become urgent. We all know this. I’m sure we would all say with Danny Siegel in the closing anguished words of his poem: ‘We ask forgiveness. / We ask for the gift of remembering. / We ask for the strength to change’. May we all rise to the challenge.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Crawley Interfaith Network AGM, 13th November 2019
Danny Siegel, A Hearing Heart, Town House Press, 1992, p. 54 (included in Siddur Lev Chadash, the Sabbath, Festival and Daily Prayer Book of Liberal Judaism, 1995, p. 168). ↑
The following four texts I quote here are included in the themed sections on ‘Conservation’ and ‘Tu Bishvat’ in Siddur Lev Chadash, Liberal Judaism, 1995, pp. 165-168 and pp. 402-405. ↑
Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain). ↑
Kohelet Rabbah 7:13. Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes. ↑
Avot d’Rabbi Natan version B, chapter 31 (3rd century CE). This text is similar to Pirkei Avot, the ‘Chapters of the Sages’ appended to the Mishnah (3rd century CE). ↑
Va-yikra Rabbah 25:5. Commentary on the book of Leviticus. ↑
Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1 (3rd century CE). ↑
The passage references a debate between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel about the actual date of the New Year for Trees. According to the School of Shammai, it should it be the 1st of Sh’vat. The School of Hillel preferred the 15th. As with many debates recorded in the Mishnah, the ruling of Hillel prevailed – hence: Tu Bishvat; the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat. The other ‘New Years’ mentioned include the new year for the festivals commencing with the first month of the Jewish year, Nisan in the spring, and the New Year for years on the first day of Tishri in the autumn. ↑
Remember to use Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees, when searching on the Internet.
There are two editions of the Talmud. The earlier and shorter one known as the ‘Jerusalem Talmud’ was completed under Roman occupation around the year 400 CE. The longer one that runs to 70 volumes is known as the ‘Babylonian Talmud’ and was completed in Babylonia (present-day Iraq) around 500 CE. All references to ‘the Talmud’ are to the Babylonian version, unless otherwise stated. References refer to the tractate and page. Each page has an ‘a’ side and a ‘b’ side – hence: Kiddushin 32a. ↑
Generation Share. The changemakers building the Sharing Economy by Benita Matofska, with photographs by Sophie Sheinwald. Policy Press, University of Bristol and University of Chicago Press, 2019. ↑