An exciting Jewish environmental movement has been developing in recent years, with its foundations firmly established in tradition and modern environmental knowledge. The latest rung in this developing ladder is the publication of a new book by Jeremy Benstein, associate director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership. “A Way Into Judaism and the Environment” is an exploration that weaves Jewish texts, from the ancient to the modern, and environmental literature, with one convincing argument: that environmentalism and Judaism share a common vision.
The two, Benstein argues, share a profound respect for the natural world and take seriously the fact that humans derive from the earth that which makes their lives possible. Both are concerned with future generations and eager not to cause irreparable damage to the earth, and both share a vision of social and economic justice and look down upon environmentally destructive trends. And Benstein brings the evidence to back up these claims, digging beyond the most commonly cited green verses of text.
Take, for example, 15th-century commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, whose thinking about sustainability was remarkably similar to the famous United Nations Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development. “It shall be good for humankind,” Abravanel wrote, “when Creation is perpetuated so that we will be able to partake of it again in the future… since if we are destined to live for many years on this earth, we are reliant upon Creation perpetuating itself so that we will always have sufficient resources.” That is, meet the needs of the present, as Brundtland wrote five centuries later, without impairing the opportunities of future generations.
Benstein merges the Jewish with the environmental in forming his worldview, while patiently rebuffing criticisms of one or the other. There is the accusation from Jewish quarters that environmentalists are pagans, to which Benstein responds that “the natural world does not have to be holy or worshiped in order to be nurtured or protected as God’s creations and our own source of sustenance, physical and otherwise.” And Jewish criticism that meddling in the natural world is a distraction from Torah study is rebuffed with a quote from the Zohar: “How beautiful is the shade with which these trees protects us; Let us crown them with words of Torah.”
On the other side, Benstein fields criticism from environmentalists, who have suggested, for example, that since Genesis can be interpreted as a call to dominate nature, Judaism (like other religions) obstructs good environmental stewardship. Benstein counters that the commandment to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it,” if considered in proper historical perspective, is about not domination but escaping the domination of humans by nature. It is, he says, actually a liberating command, and is complemented in the next chapter with a command to be stewards of the earth. Contrary to some environmental claims that humans are no more important than any of the millions of species on earth, Benstein argues that human needs should be at the center of our concerns. He writes that our powers to alter the earth “bestow upon us an exclusive status with concomitant responsibilities.” In his opinion, humans have a special status characterized by privilege — and responsibility.
But while Benstein finds compromise between extreme readings of the human-earth relationship, he does not shy away from taking provocative positions. On suburban sprawl: “The contemporary suburban model… is practically a privatized parody of the Levitical locale,” which mandates care of the commons around a town. On the excesses of consumer society: “We should rephrase the Pirkei Avot question and answer: ‘Who is wealthy? One whose personal fulfillment and happiness is not tied to material affluence and consumption; where the good life is not a function of a life of goods.’” On population growth, whose reduction is an article of faith in the environmental world: “Like other decimated tribal peoples, world Jewry needs to regroup and replenish…. If environmental concerns motivate us, we should be focusing on unsustainable levels of consumption, reducing net impact per family, and not necessarily family size.”
In the final chapter, Benstein turns all these issues local onto Israel. Rootedness to territory might seem anachronistic in an era of globalization and transcendence beyond borders, but Benstein promotes attachment to place as the best foundation from which to build a progressive society. Just as Judaism can provide the ethical foundations for a new environmental understanding, Zionism provides Jews with the opportunity to apply these teachings to the land we hold so dear.
In talmudic tradition, Benstein’s stated goal of this book is to promote the kind of study that leads to action. Indeed, the powerful arguments he brings forth make clear that addressing mounting local and global environmental challenges is a distinctively Jewish responsibility.
Daniel Orenstein is science and policy fellow with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and visiting fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.