As a spiritual Jewish environmentalist, I have been thinking all day about Jay Michaelson’s recent piece in “The Forward,” “Why Most Jewish Environmentalism is Useless.” While his argument for change on a macro level is indisputable, his assertion that most Jewish environmentalism is useless is very problematic.
Using less energy or cleaner energy, recycling, carpooling and doing our part is of great importance and significance. In fact, Jay Michaelson would not have written the article that he wrote or other articles about Judaism and the environment or be involved in Jewish environmental causes were it not that his teachers and colleagues and he himself constantly incorporate environmentalism into their lives (as he admitted), set an example for others, and make our air, trees, water, food, and planet as a whole at the top of our Jewish communal consciousness and religio-moral-political agenda.
There is a famous adage from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Ancestors, “It is not upon you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.” In other words, just because recycling on an individual or communal basis won’t solve the global problem, it does not mean we should stop doing so.
If we think of it as similar to tzedakah at Hebrew school, we have a fitting analogy. Every day at religious school we collect tzedakah, asking our students to place a penny or a nickel or a dime into the tzedakah box. Will this money solve the problems of poverty or world hunger? Of course not. However, it trains our children in the act of giving and feeling for those less fortune and teaches them to view the mitzvot and the repair of the world as Jewish religious and moral obligations and integral values.
Likewise, training ourselves and our children to plant trees, limit our carbon footprint, carpool, use cleaner energy, recycle, and compost will influence us on a spiritual level and spread the Torah of environmentalist Judaism. As our words and deeds of Torah grow and inspire one person after another, the global movement, which both Jay Michaelson and I support, to make a difference on a global scale, will only gain more adherents. Eventually, our many supporters will successfully lobby our governments and corporations and make the major changes we all dream of.