For most Americans, the word “ecology” conjures images of action and activism. Since the 1960s, the environmental movement has offered tangible ways to help repair the planet: conserve, recycle, write your representatives about reducing emissions and reining in corporate polluters.
Ellen Bernstein would never argue with those goals. Yet she’s the first to admit that her own environmental work has always taken up a different challenge. For more than two decades, Bernstein has been trying to change not the way people dispose of their trash so much as the way they think about nature and its role in their spiritual lives — and her focus is on the spiritual lives of Jews. In 1988, Bernstein, sometimes referred to as the “birth mother of the Jewish environmental movement,” founded the first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth). Now she brings to fruition three decades of thought and scholarship about the links between Judaism and environmentalism with the release of her most recent book, “The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology” (Pilgrim Press).
“I’ve always believed in the power of ideas to change the world,” Bernstein said of her work as director of Shomrei Adamah. “I was a consciousness-raiser — a funny mix of thinker and change agent.” Her focus on her twinned subjects — nature and Judaism — is laser-like, and it is also fully lived: This is someone who talks as matter-of-factly about “spending time in nature appreciating Creation” as most people do about going to the movies. Passionate and frank, Bernstein says that her primary goal has been to inspire Jews: “I saw my work with Shomrei Adamah as very much outreach-oriented, reaching out to Jews who had abandoned Judaism or were alienated from it, but might have been ecologically oriented. This was a way to reach people like that. Because I had been like that.”
Bernstein grew up in Haverhill, Mass., one of a string of factory towns north of Boston. Her parents and extended family were assimilated Jews with little interest in religion and Bernstein shared their alienation from Judaism. When she was 15, Bernstein left home to attend boarding school at Northfield Mount Hermon, located in central Massachusetts. It was there that she first took environmental studies classes. She and her classmates would hike along the nearby Ashuelot River and study the effects of area tanneries on the water. She also began to study religion; and in college at University of California, Berkeley, she continued her studies in both areas.
The more that Bernstein learned about Judaism, the more startled she was to discover that the Bible and other primary Jewish texts were filled with ecological concepts. “I found that religion really gave voice to a lot of concerns that I had,” she said. “At the same time, I was doing environmental studies in school, so I linked the two up. And when I started reading the parsha (the weekly portion of the Torah read in synagogues on the Sabbath), I just noticed that there was so much about nature in it.”
Bernstein held various jobs after college before becoming a physical therapist, but by 1988 she decided to pursue her most consuming interests instead, and founded Shomrei Adamah.
“When I started Shomrei Adamah, nobody in the Jewish world was interested in anything having to do with Judaism and ecology or nature,” Bernstein told the Forward by phone from her home in Amherst, Mass. “I was just looking for a place to hang my hat as a Jew; I wanted to be able to feel comfortable in Judaism, and at that time I didn’t. I totally cared about nature, but it wasn’t like I was dying to start a Jewish environmental organization. It was just that nobody else was doing it, and it needed to be done.” Headquartered in Philadelphia and operating nationwide, Shomrei Adamah developed curricula and educational materials on Judaism and ecology — such as a Tu B’Shevat Haggada called “Let the Earth Teach You Torah,” first published in 1992.
In 1996, when Bernstein left the organization to spend more time developing her ideas about Judaism and ecology, she was already five years into the manuscript that would ultimately become “The Splendor of Creation.” An eco-personal meditation on the first chapter of Genesis, the book combines environmentalism, poetry, spiritual philosophy and memoir. In it, Bernstein explores the ecological concepts implicit in the Genesis story — the inherent goodness and value of creation, an appreciation of habitat, the beauty of limits, the balance of work and rest, and the constant message of tikkun olam, the charge to Jews to repair the world.
In Bernstein’s hands, biblical ideas transform and multiply. The “Light” of the first day translates into, among other things, the light of the soul, and unfolds into a meditation on “the art of seeing” as a key part of spiritual life. In the “Water, Earth and Plants” of the third day, an especially rich chapter, Bernstein moves seamlessly from a discussion of water, a symbol of fluidity and transformation, and earth, signifying permanence and action, to a transporting look at plants in terms of their seeds, bearers of the fundamental ecological principals of sustainability and diversity. The fourth day, “Planets and Time,” navigates from the corrosiveness of the “Time is money” credo to the question of prayer as a part of an ecologically conscious life. “Prayer or any form of quiet contemplation can center a stewardship practice,” she writes. “It can help us overcome our narcissism and indifference to creation.”
The narrative, which can seem somewhat repetitive at first, becomes almost tidal by chapter two, offering up an incredible fluidity and buoyancy of ideas. Body and breath seem to relax as the book unfurls, and Bernstein’s openheartedness in revealing personal experiences and acquired wisdom throughout the book is enormously powerful. The few places where the discussion comes up short usually feel like oversimplifications of environmental problems or of their possible solutions. But Bernstein is covering a broad terrain here, and her successes far outnumber her failures.
Bernstein’s hope now is to spend more time translating Jewish texts and mining them for their buried ecological significance; the “Song of Songs” may be her next project. For Bernstein, translation is a way to amplify the outreach effort. “My work has been to help develop a language by which religious leaders can talk about environmental ideas,” she said. “Having a language is the first step toward making these ideas more meaningful for a much broader audience of people. After all, the environment is not just for environmentalists; it must be a concern of everyone.”