Alon Tal
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Tu Bishvat 5778: From radical amazement to radical environmentalism

Species are being erased, land is eroding, Israel's carbon footprint is expanding: Where are the rabbis?
Illustrative: The remaining 25 or so glaciers in Glacier National Park may melt entirely within the next decade or two, scientists say. (Uriel Heilman/JTA)
Illustrative: The remaining 25 or so glaciers in Glacier National Park may melt entirely within the next decade or two, scientists say. (Uriel Heilman/JTA)

No modern Jewish visionary has more to say to us on Tu Bishvat than Abraham Joshua Heschel. His ideas established intellectual and spiritual paradigms that still resonate for modern Conservative Judaism and beyond. Of course, he was a particularly brilliant scholar and eloquent author. But Heschel continues to inspire because he was unabashedly radical.

Radicalism is at the heart of the Jewish ecological perspective that he articulated: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…..get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Dictionary definitions of “radical” generally refer to something that is “far-reaching,” “thorough” — and a “departure from tradition.” But Heschel’s expectation that people continuously be astonished by the extraordinary world the good Lord created is actually a return to traditional ways of thinking. It produces an implicit sense of gratitude, where prayers of thanks become a logical response. It also makes environmental protection a personal imperative.

Rabbi Heschel’s ability to see the everyday miracles around him did not blind him to the many flaws on this broken planet that need fixing. Indeed, radical amazement was not a state that paralyzed, but something that mobilized him.

Heschel was well aware of the malevolence that modern civilization was wreaking on creation. It is not clear whether he foresaw the magnitude of the ecological destruction that has come to characterize the 21st century. But he surely would have found it unimaginable that the organized Jewish world would remain so complacent amidst present devastation, with no meaningful voices calling for a radical Jewish reaction to the modern environmental crisis.

When the World Wildlife Fund reported recently that 52% of all animals in the wild had disappeared during the past 40 years, no significant outcry about the abomination we are all part of resonated in sermons, or in Jewish community agendas around the world. When scientists began to declare that the planet earth is witnessing a “Sixth Extinction,” during which species are erased 100 to 200 times faster than they would naturally disappear, it never translated into new moral imperatives or a Jewish action plan to set aside endangered habitats.

On Tu Bishvat, Jewish communities limit their observance to colorful, organic seders or symbolic tree planting, rather than confront the implications of living in a world where every second, two football fields of rainforest disappear. New ethical or halachic demands have not emerged. Given what’s at stake, our approach seems altogether too tepid, too cautious. It is time to think more radically.

Of course, it is easier to ignore the 250 cubic kilometers of ice that Greenland loses each and every year then to change the way we generate and consume electricity. Nonetheless, if Judaism and environmentalism are really synonymous, the time has come to use our pulpits and periodicals to decry governments that choose economic profits over international commitment to save the planet. Surely our spiritual leaders need to send clearer directives about what needs to be done so that our children might have a future with the same climate stability that we enjoy. As Heschel marched for civil rights, today’s leaders need to lead their congregations in the annual climate marches.

As we think about trees this Tu Bishvat, it is of course important to recount the wonderful Midrashim that link planting trees to inter-generational justice and read the ancient parables where God directs Adam not to destroy the Garden of Eden. But Judaism has always been about studying that leads to action. As every decade, the world loses an area of forest the size of Costa Rica, on Tu Bishvat, surely there is more we can do for our trees.

Disheartening international environmental data can be numbing. While the pathways to change at the global level can be confusing, the road to a sustainable future for the land of Israel is far clearer. A sense of urgency should accompany the many signs of environmental abuse reported in the homeland:

  • A third of the country’s 100 mammal species are threatened with extinction.
  • Every year, 20 square kilometers of open space gives way to housing, highways and commercial development caused by explosive population growth.
  • Despite government promises in UN climate treaties, the Israeli carbon footprint continues to climb.
  • As the population spirals towards 9 million, quantity of life supplants quality of life.

A meaningful Tu Bishvat message is that this kind of environmental damage is unacceptable. It runs counter to the heart of the Zionist dream; it flouts Jewish tradition.

These are not normal times. They require rabbis and Jewish leader to start asking radical questions: Is it still legitimate to call any kind of beef Kosher, when the meat industry contributes 17% to global greenhouse gas emissions? Should we continue to tolerate the crass consumption that warps the meaning of weddings and bar mitzvahs throughout the Jewish world? Should gas-guzzling SUVs be allowed in synagogue parking lots? Should Judaism continue to venerate large families or begin to adopt an alternative, more sustainable view from those sages who set limits on being fruitful and multiplying? And can we find ways to get the organized Jewish world out of sterile sanctuaries and into the outdoors where people can far more effortlessly find inspiration and sustenance?

The psalmist posited “that all the trees of the forest will rejoice.” But if we are really going to celebrate the forests’ birthday today, let’s consider a more radical celebration. If we are going to anthropomorphize trees, let’s offer these critical partners in maintaining the earth some radical solutions — solutions that can return the harmony between humanity and this amazing planet on which we are so lucky to live.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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