For those of us who went to Jewish day-schools, Tu B’Shvat may elicit not so pleasant memories of a 2nd grade Seder (festival), in which we ate dried carob (gross) and sang Israeli pioneer songs from the ‘50s. We all put a quarter in the JNF charity box, and were later sent a letter that a tree was planted in our honor in Israel. This is pretty much the extent of my exposure to environmentalism in my Orthodox upbringing in a time when not that many people cared about the environment or sustainability.
I have noticed a trend among some Jewish circles, mostly the non-Orthodox Jewish community, of embracing environmentalism as a major component of Judaism. Many Jews, especially secular Jews, see environmentalism as a major component of their Jewish identity.
When I came to this realization I was confused. What does environmentalism have to do with Judaism? Jewish environmentalist organizations are springing up left and right. Jewish Schools are focussing on environmental sustainability. Eden Village Camp, a pluralistic Jewish summer camp that focuses on environmental sustainability is growing rapidly. More and more of my Jewish friends are becoming vegetarians or vegans. Where is this all coming from?
A couple of paradigms came to mind. Deuteronomy 20:19 tells us not to destroy fruit-bearing trees in battle, as the verse compares trees to people. There is a negative commandment of “Bal Tashkhit,” not to destroy or kill unnecessarily. Before praising God, Abraham planted a tree in Beer Sheba (Genesis 21:33). This being said, considering that Judaism has not focused much on this issue from a historical point of view, I figure there must be something else driving this trend (in addition).
Part of it might have to do with the general zeitgeist. In contemporary society, especially amongst the youth, environmentalism is becoming a bigger issue. Thanks in part to Al Gore and other celebrities it is now very cool to care about the environment. I admit that I am as guilty as the next person of loving Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (though above my budget as a student). But that still does not explain what makes environmentalism a uniquely Jewish cause. Why are specifically synagogues focusing on composting?
It is well known that the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, bettering society, is key in Judaism, and is especially stressed in non-Orthodox movements. In that sense, environmentalism is understandable. If we really believe that our planet is threatened, then it makes sense for Jews to lead the charge in bettering the planet. After all, there will be no society to improve if the polar ice caps melt. I think there is an even deeper component.
I admit that I am not a good environmentalist. Being a student does limit me somewhat, but I could be more diligent about recycling, cutting back on electricity, and eating better food. However, I really do like the idea of environmentalism, and especially Jewish environmentalism. The Jewish response to environmentalism has inspired me, and it has taken me a while to figure out why.
Probably the most interesting thing about the environment is that it is the great equalizer. Rich and poor, young and old, healthy and infirmed, everyone breathes the same air. Unfortunately not everyone eats the same quality food, but that issue is not for now. Sustaining a healthier environment is a cause that can unite all people. Regardless of the philosophical or political differences that often divide us, we are all in our environment together. You can’t buy yourself better air (yet). This idea is a bit kumbaya, I know, but I think it is still true.
Equality is part of the Jewish consciousness. Much of the Torah focuses on the rights of the poor, old, widowed, orphaned, and enslaved. This is a major reason why social justice has become such a big factor in Jewish identity (just see the Pew study). Unfortunately historical circumstances precluded our involvement in social justice for many years, but contemporary Jewry has picked up where our foreparents left off. Judaism is experiencing a renaissance of God’s call to Abraham to teach his children to be involved in “kindness and justice.” Environmentalism is another cause that underscores the equality between people.
Though environmentalism has not traditionally been a particularly Jewish cause, the Jewish People’s adopting of this cause is a very positive phenomenon, in consonance with the Jewish values of bettering society and promoting equality between all people. I applaud our efforts and challenge the Jewish community, regardless of denomination or affiliation, to continue to promote these values.