Neil Janes
Rabbi, Scholar, Writer, Educator and Leader

The Unicorn, Humanity and Climate Change

Over the last few weeks with my community, South Bucks Jewish Community, we have been outside a lot. What started as a way to cope with predicted rising cases of COVID-19 to bring us back together ‘in person’, turned into an opportunity to understand the world around us, the local countryside and the Jewish responsibility we have to halt climate change with COP26 coming up fast on the horizon. With the onset of the Shmittah year, we’ve walked the reservoirs of Tring for Tashlich and survived the downpours of rain in Sukkot. We learnt with survival experts about building shelters in the woods of Waddesdon and began to appreciate the woodland habitat on our doorstep with bushcraft guides. We have flown virtually to Israel to see the work of Kibbutz Lotan and in the next half term we plan to visit Ghana and the Antarctic, all from the comfort of zoom.

As I developed the programme, I attended the training of a major Environmental organisation who were showing us how to run ‘Mock COP26’ conferences. The facilitator was part of our community and I met her to learn more about climate change and environmental education. Over the summer I read about Environmental Ethics and began to appreciate the nuances of the debates, whether we can really justify our actions based on an unborn future generation and the extent to which we see humankind as the centre and apart of nature or a part of the natural world. And most importantly, in my mind, whether we are dumping the anxiety of the future on the next generation of children whilst taking a pitiful amount of responsibility ourselves.

We have to educate our young people that Judaism also speaks about climate change and we have ideas and myths that can enhance our thinking and create a discourse in our communities. And we have to take action as adults to show the children that it’s not their problem, it’s our problem. Jewish environmental activists have been talking about this for years and I am but one rabbi standing on their shoulders. With COP26 on the front pages of our press, perhaps this is the moment when Jewish environmentalism finally has its moment.

I told a story in three parts to our families to begin our learning over the first few weeks of the last half term and it’s all about the unicorn. I want to share it here with you now.

Part 1 – Why are there no unicorns anymore? The sad answer is a myth of the Adam and Eve who looked about on their first day and saw the sun setting. “Perhaps this was the world coming to an end”, they wept. The Talmud tells the story that all night they sat and cried about the ‘decreation’ of the world. When the sun rose the next day, in a moment of rejoicing for their salvation Adam and Eve offered a sacrifice to God. What kind of animal did they sacrifice? Why, none other than a ‘one horned bull’ – a unicorn. In a moment of joy in survival that the world was to continue turning on its axis, Adam and Eve depleted the natural world by one of its species – leaving of course only one other Unicorn in the world (for the animals had all been created in pairs of course).

Along comes the story of Noah and Part 2. We all know that Noah saved the animals two by two (well the unkosher ones anyway) and we are reminded of the flood and the covenant whenever we see a rainbow in the sky. But poor old surviving unicorn, mystical beast from Adam and Eve’s time, is but one of a pair. For the partner was long since sacrificed by Adam and Eve on their first day of existence. So the unicorn is not to survive the flood and will perish with all of human life and animals not lucky enough to make it on to the ark. What happens? The Talmud records a conversation about a certain mystical beast who was so enormous as to be perhaps four miles long. Clinging on for dear life, surviving boiling waters, this beast was none other than our unicorn and the unicorn’s horn was tied to the ark in order to be able to survive above the stormy waves. When the waters subsided, the rainbow shone and the one unicorn in the world lived on.

So all is well, until Moses begins the tabernacle – the instructions for which include what is often translated as dolphin skins. So begins part 3 of the story of our hapless unicorn. Our poor unicorn (or perhaps we might think of a Narwhal, the unicorn of the sea having survived the flood) is now alone without a partner and yet has survived. It is now that Moses receives instructions to create the portable sanctuary for the Israelite people and it includes a covering of ‘tachashim’. This, the Talmud records, was a unicorn, perhaps even the partner to the one sacrificed by Adam and Eve. And Rashi in the 11th century, goes further, telling us that this was a multicoloured – might we say – rainbow unicorn. The last remaining rainbow unicorn, sacrificed for the covering of the tent of meeting, the place where God will dwell amongst us. And now, millenia later, there are no more unicorns, save in our imagination.

What does this three act story teach us about Judaism and the environment? There are many messages, but most of all I learn about the way in which the universal story of humankind has constantly interacted with the world around us. We are part of the natural order of things and yet we have power and responsibilities that, not taken seriously, could jeopardise not just the future of one being but all of life on earth. There are many ways in which we can construct a world that allows God to dwell amongst us – our ancestors tried nobly in their own ways and yet, for the glory of the Divine, there was also a cost. The diminishment of the natural world, already on a precipice. For all our sophisticated ways, which we might think stand above the wild beast and fish in the sea, our fates are still intertwined. Even our great projects of culture and industry might need to be rethought as we reconsider our impact and the possibilities for our future celebrations of moments of redemption and adulation.

The unicorn lives on, like King David, in our imagination for all that might be possible in our future, as the Jewish people and as humanity. We honour the unicorn’s memory best when we work together, as one human family and part of the created universe, as the Jewish people in our sanctuaries, to stop climate change and strive for a habitable earth for all living things in which the presence of God may dwell.

About the Author
Rabbi Janes is the rabbi of South Bucks Jewish Community, one of the fastest growing Liberal Judaism communities, enriching Jewish life in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. He a School Rabbi of a Jewish primary school where he teaches Jewish Studies and faculty member at the Leo Baeck College teaching Talmud and Midrash. Ordained by the Leo Baeck College in 2006, with degrees in Psychology and Education, Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He has studied at Cardiff University, Leo Baeck College, Haifa University, and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 2022, he was an M² Jewish Pedagogies of Wellbeing Research Fellow. He is researching for a PhD at King's College London in Rabbinic Literature.
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