Tag Archives: environment

Environmental Activism: Good For The Jews?

by Kara A. Kaufman

As we feel the heat this summer–the unpleasant, sweaty results of global warming– we wondered: How are Jewish organizations working on issues like climate change?

As part of a series on faith and the environment, Moment interviewed Sybil Sanchez, the director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. COEJL, which is part of the larger Jewish Council for Public Affairs, strategically partners with a host of organizations to conserve energy and support policies that encourage sustainability. In the process, it helps to expand notions of Jewish values such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), g’milut hasadim (deeds of loving kindness) and tzedek (justice).

Read lightly edited excerpts below, or listen to the full interview.

What got you interested in this work?

I’ve been working in the Jewish community on issues and advocacy and social-justice-related human rights stuff since 1999, and so I’ve always had a passion for social justice and human rights and universal issues and the Jewish connection to that. Before working in the Jewish community, I worked in the Balkans on conflict issues, and learned a lot there about community and how people connect to their community while also asking some very deep kind of personal theological questions about the nature of humanity. And so these various components in my life really brought me to care much more deeply about the environment and about God’s creation and our connection and role with it as stewards of creation and as Jews.

How do you see Judaism and the environment speaking to and interacting with one another?

There are actually many answers to that question. COEJL has been around for 20 years as of next year, and since that time, we’ve been delving into the question, “What’s Jewish about the environment?” But now we’ve really covered some ground in terms of looking at our texts, looking at the Torah, looking at our history as an agrarian society and how Judaism developed as a religion, looking at our holidays, which all bear with them inherent environmental messages because they are all based on the agricultural cycle in Israel. Even our calendar—the lunar calendar—is based on the way the planet functions.

What are the programs that COEJL has been most involved in over the past few years? What have those programs succeeded in doing? What are the next steps?

We have three or four specific areas of programs that we work on. We have a campaign called the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The most basic part of that campaign is a declaration that 53 national leaders have signed on to. It’s a commitment they’ve made to reduce their energy use 14 percent by the fall of 2014 as a matter of justice and as a matter of protecting the environment.

What’s the significance of those 14 and 2014 numbers?

2014 in the fall starts the year of our next shmita cycle or sabbatical year. Traditionally, that is when in Israel you would let the land lay fallow, and it’s based on a whole biblical cycle of sevens. So we chose that symbolically.

We’re also developing a new network called the Jewish Energy Network to engage interested individuals who want to receive training around energy issues and bring that training back to their home community or to their affiliated organization.

Given the fact that climate change and species extinctions—a lot of these environmental issues—can seem daunting to all of us, what message would you leave us with to inspire us with some hope?

Well, I really find guidance in the quote by Rabbi Tarfon that says, “Ours is not to complete the task, nor is it ours to desist from it.” I think that’s important to remember. Another sort of catch phrase I use in my own personal work is that “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.” It’s important for me, because I tend to be a perfectionist, and I think that when people look at climate change or look at the environment, they can be very harsh on themselves about what they’re doing. On the one hand, we need to have standards and have a sense of what’s right, but on the other hand, I think we need to do that compassionately and that we have to have compassion for ourselves in order to have it for others. It’s important to remember that we’re not alone.

Judaism Goes Green

by Kara A. Kaufman

Throughout the past several decades, organizations like the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Teva Learning Center and Hazon—as well as many others—have sprung up seemingly out of thin air. Their major goal? To couple religious teachings and belief with environmental stewardship. Their actions have the potential to enrich what it means to be part of the environmental movement today.

To many of us, environmental challenges may seem beyond our control, and outside the scope of our religious beliefs. But in many ways our faith-based texts, customs, holidays and laws can guide us as we attempt to live harmoniously with the other species—and other people—who share our planet. For instance, several biblical and rabbinic laws encourage humans to use natural resources, yet limit our consumption in key ways. To give two examples: The Bible allows us to farm the land, yet instructs us to leave the lands fallow every seven years; and we may destroy things in order to build new ones, yet the rabbinic principle of bal tashchit forbids us from wanton destruction or wastefulness.

In a manner reminiscent of biblical and rabbinic mandates to constrain our resource consumption, today’s leading scientists are beginning to calculate these very limitations of our planet. In a 2009 article published in Nature, 28 of the international community’s most renowned scientists called biodiversity, climate change and ocean acidification three of nine “planetary boundaries” critical to our own survival. It seems that ancient laws, customs, and holidays are increasingly relevant given modern environmental crises.

This post is the first in a series about the intersections between faith and the environment. The series will explore a number of related questions and issues. Topics include the shape of a Jewish environmental ethic, differences between Israeli and American viewpoints and examples of environmental action from within the Jewish and other faith communities. It will feature written articles as well as video and audio podcasts, broad discussion as well as individual profiles.

I invite you to engage with this topic with the question: What do you think of when you hear the words “Jewish environmental ethic?” Please post your comments below or email them to kkaufmanATmomentmag.com. Through all of our participation, this series aims to foster a rich dialogue about faith, our interactions with each other and our relationship to the natural world.

Israel’s Public Debate Over Privatized Land

by Lily Hoffman Simon

This week, Jews around the world celebrated Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for trees. Among many Jews, the most popular way to celebrate this holiday is to plant a tree in Israel through the Jewish National Fund (JNF). This symbolic act goes further than celebrating trees and agriculture in Israel; the practice of planting trees on public land in Israel was fundamental to establishing a Jewish presence in Palestine and mobilizing American Jewish support for the seed of the State of Israel. In today’s world, though, conceptions of public and private land have changed, as evidenced by a 2009 bill that would privatize Israeli land, challenging the foundation of the JNF and of Zionism in general.

The vast majority of land in Israel (around 93%) is owned by the JNF or the State of Israel—that is, not privately owned. This land is typically leased to private parties on 49-year leases by the State, in accordance with the Jewish Yovel (Jubilee) agricultural tradition. This system was largely introduced in order to establish a state along legitimate borders in 1948—borders that were easier to determine with centralized land ownership. In addition, public land ownership was intended to encourage Jewish stabilized and distributed populations in the newly established Israel. Fundamental to this project was also the Zionist dream that the state of Israel was to belong collectively to the entire Jewish people (achieved through the administration of land by the JNF as well, which is largely a Diaspora-run organization).

In 2009, however, the Knesset voted to pass a bill that enabled the private purchase of Israeli land. The motivation behind this bill was to free land which has been left undeveloped because of bureaucratic processes, opening up more opportunities for economic and structural development. This would reportedly drop housing prices, as more houses could be built on the newly opened land. The bill reflects the greater shift towards free-market capitalist principles in the Israeli economy, countering the socialist values on which the State was founded.

The privatization of Israeli land has been criticized by people of all political affiliations and ethnicities. The bill is seen by many as undermining the essence of Zionism, which for many is the collective ownership and investment in the state by the Jewish people as a whole. More right-leaning critics claim that enabling private ownership may allow wealthy individuals or groups who are not favorable to the existence of a Jewish state (including forces such as Hamas) to buy significant amounts of land. Some also believe privatization to contradict Biblical and spiritual connections to the land itself, citing Leviticus 25:23: “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity.”

Criticism of the bill has also hailed from pro-Palestinian communities, which claim that the selling of land is a neo-Zionist attempt to appropriate Palestinian lands. This criticism is two-fold. First, if Israeli land is publically owned, the issue of a Palestinian right of return for those whose families became refugees in 1948 can be discussed with Israel. Second, the selling of land involves the drawing of more concrete borders in order to establish land to be sold. Many claim that this will not only conceal vast amounts of land that was taken by Palestinians earlier in history, but will also provide new opportunities to take more land. This is especially true when considering that the land proposed to be privatized includes the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, which were annexed by Israel in 1981. Some are going as far as to call the bill “a privatized naqkba,” using the Arabic word for the day of Israel’s independence that translates as “the catastrophe.”

Environmentalists are also criticizing this bill, arguing that privatization favors urban growth at the expense of environmental sustainability and agricultural development.

Amidst all these criticisms, the government faces a conflict between appealing to public interests and continuing to move Israel into the developed, free-market driven world. This Tu B’Shvat, buying a tree might not be the best way to celebrate.

The Seeds of the Future

By Daniel Kieval

In the insightful children’s book Noah’s Wife, which provides a modern-day expansion of the Biblical story of Noah, the title character Naamah goes out and gathers seeds from every kind of plant while her husband is busy collecting all of the animals for the ark. After the floodwaters receded, she and Noah are able to repopulate the Earth with all of its plants as well as its animals.

Until hearing of this midrash, most people never even notice this glaring hole in the Biblical story—I hadn’t. What would the animals have eaten in a world without plants? Where would they have gotten oxygen to breathe? Obviously, this is not the only scientific critique we can make of the Noah story, but it is one that calls attention to the importance of plants, and their seeds, to our survival.

Seeds have long been a part of Jewish tradition. The first of six major sections of the Mishnah—Seder Zera’im, the Order of Seeds—is devoted to them, covering a wide variety of laws related to food and agriculture. A subsection of Zera’im known as Kilayim (mixtures) deals largely with how seeds may and may not be planted in a field. Some of the debates between the Talmudic rabbis seem scientifically outdated today, but others turn out to be shockingly prescient. For example, a panel at last winter’s Kayam Farm Beit Midrash discussed how the principles of kilayim apply to the genetic modification of seeds—an issue too big to ignore as the majority of U.S. farmland (and therefore the majority of U.S. food) now contains such seeds.

Whether these seeds will save or destroy the world depends on whom you ask. Supporters say that seeds engineered to resist diseases and herbicides and to contain extra vitamins will allow us to grow more food and fight malnutrition in the developing world. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that the seeds encourage privatization and commodification of life, cause indigenous farmers around the world to become dependent on U.S. corporations for their food, and threaten the world’s crop gene pool by replacing countless local varieties across the globe.  The fact remains that seeds in the U.S. are now controlled by fewer people than ever before.

With the national seed supply undergoing such a transformation, I had the chance last month to attend a remarkable meeting whose goal was to reestablish something quite different: a community seed supply, and with it, the intimacy and knowledge that come from working in partnership with plants year after year. Representatives of the burgeoning Jewish farming movement came together from such organizations as Kayam Farm, the Jewish Farm School, Adamah, the Teva Learning Center, Kavanah Garden, and Shemesh Organic Farm. Gathering at Teva’s Nature Center on Long Island, the passionate group shared knowledge of growing and saving seeds, visions of a future Jewish seed exchange and seed bank, and seeds themselves. Efforts like this are attempting to counter the danger that some see in the centralization of seeds by large corporations. At the same time, they are restoring the Jewish community’s awareness of its long-standing connection with the Earth and how it sustains us.

Jews often say “ledor vador,” meaning from generation to generation. The transmission of Jewish religion and culture across the generations is what enables a people with such ancient origins to continue to thrive today. Likewise, the perpetuation of our seeds from generation to generation is quite literally what allows us to survive as human beings. The modern midrash of Naamah, the ancient rabbis, and today’s Jewish farmers remind us that we must work to cultivate a reverence and appreciation for the seeds that accompany us across the generations.

Kosher Goes Green

By Lily Hoffman Simon

Have you ever sat in an empty Chinese restaurant on Christmas day feeling like you are the only person in the whole country not congregating around a tree?  For those who keep kosher, resisting the temptation to order shrimp for their fried rice sometimes seems like just one more thing that sets Jews apart.  Sometimes, one can’t help but wonder: What’s the point?

This question comes into starker light when considering that traditional kashrut inadequately addresses contemporary ethical issues of the gastronomic variety. For example, if you type ‘agriprocessors’ into Google, you will be bombarded with information about the ethical misconduct of one of America’s biggest kosher meat producers, including cruel animal abuse, refusal to recognize its workers’ union, questionable environmental behavior and charges for breaching child labour laws.  How can these practices in good conscience  be considered “Kosher”?

Kashrut’ comes from the Hebrew root meaning “fit” or “proper,” and denotes guidelines for appropriate eating and consumption. The animal being consumed must be slaughtered in a way that ensures little physical discomfort for the animal. An animal must not be eaten with its mother’s milk, to signify the separation between its death and its source of life. A mother and child animal must not be killed on the same day.  All of these rules, and others, are intended to create a social, ethical consciousness surrounding the food we eat, as well as promote a spiritual relationship to food. But are these rules enough to ensure an ethical food industry?

The limitations of traditional kashrut have sparked critical analysis of the dietary laws. Proponents of kashrut reform advocate for changes in the standards of kashrut to follow suit with the changing food industry and the new ethical dilemmas its presents. A simple hechsher (the symbol of kashrut certification) no longer seems to be enough to ensure ethical food.

At the forefront of addressing these questions stands the Eco-kashrut movement, which emphasizes the environmental impact of the globalized food industry, which values efficient mass production over environmental consciousness. Advocates of eco-kashrut encourage environmental and animal-friendly ideas about food, such as organic farming, free-range livestock and sustainability, as a contemporary means to maintain an ethical conscious. Eco-kashrut also connotes a lifestyle outside of the realm of food, providing commentary on the environmental and spiritual implications of issues such as plastic production, energy consumption and general sustainability. With Hanukkah just around the corner, the Shalom Centre’s Green Menorah Project provides an interesting example of the key role environmentalism plays in the holiday.

Spiritually speaking, eating with an ethical understanding can unite food consumption with nature and God.  The Conservative Movement of Judaism has gone so far as to develop its own eco-kosher hechser, called a hechsher tzedek (justice certificate), to supplement traditional kosher standards. Other initiatives to create “social hechshers,” which denote just worker-producer relations among other socially responsible considerations include Tav Chevrati, created by Bema’aglei Tzedek, and Magen Tzedek’s initiative to label food that is conscious of environmental implications, animal welfare, and labour relations.

So the next time you scan a package of meat for a hechsher, maybe think about all the other aspects of production that are not considered in the traditional kashrut certification process. After all, if kashrut is intended to provide an ethical guidance, it might as well be relevant to the ethical questions of today’s times.