Originally released as a blog in 2019, this piece has been updated to reflect recent news and communal work.
For all our hand-wringing generation after generation, Jewish communities seem to have achieved the impossible: keeping a faith tradition alive among a critical mass of followers for millennia. Each fall, we evaluate ourselves and our relationships leading up to the High Holy Days, and follow Sukkot with a celebration at the completion of a full cycle of reading Torah. But in this time of climate crisis, our institutions face – and often avoid — a question that our ancestors might have never seen coming: How can tradition help us live within the ecological limits of a struggling planet?
At this moment, we need a reevaluation and new definition of Jewish continuity.
Many American Jewish institutions pay little attention to an actionable response to climate change, too busy asking themselves more traditional questions: how to attract more members, craft a more successful holiday program, and tackle important political conversations about salient issues domestically and abroad. At the heart of these preoccupations is concern for “continuity:” the survival of Jewish wisdom, practice, and peoplehood. Leaders often identify threats to the ongoing vibrancy of Jewish life as internal (like assimilation) or external (like antisemitism). In the long term, however, our Jewish continuity depends on a much greater attention to and involvement in preserving our Earth.
This may seem too lofty an aspiration for a community that’s simply focused on strengthening their Hebrew school program, or for an aging congregation that’s struggling to recruit new members — and yet the stakes are too high to not expand focus. We’re not doing enough to come to the Earth’s (and really, our own) rescue. The complex network of life that sustains us is crumbling. The social dimensions of this crisis are also clear as climate breakdown has already and will continue to worsen global inequality. The most recent UN biodiversity report has demonstrated for the millionth time what an anthropogenic disaster we’ve created for the web of life we ultimately depend upon for our own survival. As these public statements grow increasingly urgent, it’s clear we must not only curb overfishing and halt habitat destruction; we need to overhaul our entire values system and move from pursuing economic growth to understanding nature as the inextricable foundation for human progress.
Easier said than done, of course — but aren’t the synagogue, the Jewish summer camp, the university Hillel, and the religious school classroom the venues where we are meant to challenge ourselves to live our values? Yet most of our Jewish institutions have been tackling climate — if at all — through modest, energy bill-saving, and community conscience-soothing changes such as implementing recycling and installing LEDs. Laudable to be sure, but communities need perspective about which projects will have the most significant impact. If Jewish communities chose to focus on food waste and food sourcing, institutions could save hundreds or thousands of tons of CO2 every year. Changing the meals we serve to hundreds of community members each year has a much greater potential to decrease our collective greenhouse gas emissions than upgrading our light bulbs. Changing the culture around food and using ‘nudges’ to move diners toward sustainable meals is a powerful tool already used by some Jewish institutions – not to mention New York City’s entire network of public hospitals.
At Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA), we support institutions in facilitating discussions about how we will transform our food system into one that truly sustains the world. JIFA brings the topic of building a better food system to communities through Jewish learning, and promotes behavioral and policy change through the lens of Jewish values. We work with institutions on lowering their carbon footprint directly through the food they source and serve. If you’re wondering why we need to tackle the way we eat and farm when so many other socio-political issues vie for our attention, you’re likely to find farming — specifically, factory farming — overlaps with all these injustices.
How we approach this complex charge matters. Meaningful engagement does not consist of parroting warnings and statistics that cause people to throw up their hands. This piece in Slate from 2019 explains why, for example, it’s problematic and misleading to dwell on the idea there are “only 12 years left” to prevent the worst effects of climate disruption. Meaningful engagement means forming an action plan. Jewish communities do not need to choose between their b’nai mitzvah program and preserving the planet. If more families and communities hold space for conversations about aligning values with institutional commitments, leveraging the power of Jewish teachings that already command us to protect the Earth, we might find that our goal of lowering our environmental impact actually converges, rather than competes, with the goal of fortifying Jewish tradition.
There are many ways to start this process. Jewish institutions begin by:
- Adopting a food practice that’s plant-based by default, which not only saves immense amounts of water, land, and emissions, but takes the burden of “individual choice” off of our community members. Changing food norms in our synagogues, schools, JCC’s, Hillels, and more has, by far, the most immediate and greatest potential to reduce our contribution to the climate and environmental crisis;
- Incorporating educational curriculum rooted in Jewish tradition that both generates love and responsibility for the natural world, and equips students with the spiritual resiliency to become effective advocates;
- Articulating community values around food and climate from the pulpit, and exploring them through communal study and discussion. If the way that kosher meat and dairy are produced isn’t well understood, for example, find the opportune parasha or holiday with which it can be connected and brought to the fore.
The reason for starting with the story of creation in Torah is famously debated by great thinkers like Rashi and Rambam, two master commentators from the 11th and 12th Centuries, respectively. A famous question rabbinic tradition considers is: why didn’t the Torah just start with the mitzvot/commandments? Why start with a universal story of creating the first humans and all life? Perhaps a midrash for our age is that creation takes precedent because without creation, there is no Torah. Today, the state of the Earth demands that we utilize the greatest feature of Torah to help keep our planet and our people healthy: infinite re-interpretation and re-imagination of wisdom for our time. We keep Judaism alive through the integration of new conversations, new norms and new meaning. Today, our approach to Torah must take seriously the need to repair our relationship with the natural world, and the need to gird our younger generations with spiritual strength for navigating the future they are inheriting.
Without followers, there is no Torah. Without a healthy planet, there is no Jewish community. We can, and we must, shift our consciousness and our actions now. We need to embrace the iterative and evolving nature of Judaism to ensure the survival of a world in which we and our tradition can live, and perhaps thrive — our Jewish and human continuity depends on it.