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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

During this Passover season, people of the Jewish faith celebrate their ancestral journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But some Jews say that journey isn't over and it won't be until the earth itself is freed from the bondage of ecological abuse, and humans return to the Promised Land of living in harmony with nature. Richard Schiffman reports on emerging environmental theology in the Jewish community.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
During this Passover season, people of the Jewish faith celebrate their ancestral journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But some Jews say that journey isn't over, and won't be until the Earth itself is freed from the bondage of ecological abuse, and humans return to the Promised Land of living in harmony with Nature. Richard Schiffman reports on the emerging environmental theme in Jewish theology.

RABBI: Speak for the redwood and the rock.

CONGREGATION: Speak for the redwood and the rock.

RABBI: Speak for the lion and the beetle.

CONGREGATION: Speak for the lion and the beetle.

SCHIFFMAN: It's raining in the Headwaters Forest of northern California, but that hasn't prevented over 250 people from gathering here to share a Seder. The ritual meal is meant both to celebrate the beauty of this ancient redwood grove and to protest the plans of the Texas-based Maxxam Corporation to cut it down.

STEINBERG: In the last 10 years we've seen reckless disregard for the natural world.

SCHIFFMAN: Seder organizer Naomi Steinberg is the student rabbi at the B'nai Haretz, or Children of the Earth, a congregation in Garberville, California, with a long history of environmental activism.

STEINBERG: Our immigrant grandparents didn't slave in sweatshops to see us become profiteers and despoilers of the land. This is to my mind acting like a pharaoh. This is not the model we want to offer to our children; we want to offer to our children a model of escaping from slavery, not so that we can take over the power and become pharaohs, but so that we can truly arrive at a Promised Land of balance, of harmony, and reverence for the Earth.

CROWD (singing): A tree of life she is, for all who hold her close. A tree of life for Shalom! A tree of life for Shalom!

SCHIFFMAN: At the climax of today's Seder they plant 100 saplings on timber company land, as a gentle act of civil disobedience.

STEINBERG: There's a tradition, a Jewish tradition which says that if you were holding a sapling in your hand and about to plant it, and if the Messiah were to arrive, you would finish the job of planting the sapling before you would rush to greet the Messiah. That's how important is our relationship to trees.

SCHIFFMAN: In the Biblical book of Job are the words, "Speak to the Earth and it will teach you." The Hebrew prophets felt God speak to them in the rootedness of trees, in the fury of storms, and in cold springs flowing out of desert stone. Many contemporary Jews also look to the natural world for inspiration. Amongst them, a group of scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

MAN: Why is nature sacred?

SCHORSCH: It is an extension of God. I then take from Eliezer's talk last night and from what you say that the Jewish response to the questions in the environment is modesty...

SCHIFFMAN: Once a month, Chancellor Izmar Schorsch and half a dozen colleagues meet to ponder the links between their religious faith and concern for the environment.

SCHORSCH: Religion takes us out of ourselves. It makes us aware that we are part of human society. We are part of nature. We are part of God.

SCHIFFMAN: The science of ecology also teaches that we're part of something greater than ourselves, the chancellor adds. Science informs the mind, he says, while religion educates the heart. It makes us aware that life is holy, and we need to preserve it.

SCHORSCH: Religion has the vocabulary to make this an emotional issue, to translate our scientific knowledge into religious values and symbols and metaphors that can prompt us to change our behavior.

CROWD: (sings wordlessly ya-da-da-yi; clanking sounds)

SCHIFFMAN: In particular, Jewish environmentalists point to the Sabbath, called in Hebrew Shabbat, being welcomed here at Congregation Beth Sinchat Torah in downtown Manhattan. On Shabbat, observant Jews refrain from doing acts that alter the physical world. Mark Jacobs says this puts a break on the human impulse to dominate nature. Jacobs directs the Coalition for the Environment in Jewish life.

JACOBS: What we are experiencing in the world today is a sense of humanity having complete control over the world in which we live and having the right to exploit it at all times. Shabbat says that we have to make a break in that. Shabbat provides a balance to our experience as transformers of the world.

SCHIFFMAN: Mark Jacobs also cites an ancient agricultural law that every seventh year a field should be allowed to remain fallow, as an example of Jewish ecological wisdom. But not everyone is convinced that Judaism is quite so eco-friendly. Some critics read the injunction to multiply and subdue the Earth in the book of Genesis in the Bible as a license to exploit nature. And they blame this attitude for the excesses of our industrial society. Professor Eliezer Diamond disagrees.

DIAMOND: I don't think the Bible says that, and I think it's time to read it again and to read it more fairly and I think accurately, and to see that we're talking about stewardship and not tyranny.

SCHIFFMAN: Still, some ecologically-minded Jews object to Biblical language. Marcia Falk is a poet and a highly original translator of Hebrew texts. She says there's a need for a new spiritual vocabulary, one that expresses a less hierarchical view of Creation than the tradition one in which, she says...

FALK: God is at the top. Men, particular white men in European tradition, follow next. After that come women and then children and then the animals and the plants and on down to the rocks and the pebbles. I think that's a very problematic model, and I think it's time to consider other models, more horizontal models. We need to find a way to see the Divine in all of creation and tend to it there, and see ourselves as a part of that Divine.

CROWD (singing): Sh'ma Yisroel Ya Eluhenu Ya Yichud.

SCHIFFMAN: Marsha Falk has composed material for a new Earth-affirming liturgy. At Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the worshippers recite the poet's controversial English version of the Sh'ma, Judaism's fundamental statement of faith.

CONGREGATION (reciting): Loving life and its mysterious source with all our heart and all our spirit, all our senses and strength, we take upon ourselves and into ourselves these promises. To care for the Earth and those who live upon it. To pursue justice and peace...

SCHIFFMAN: With this vow, to care for the Earth, and with its many images from Nature, Marcia Falk's liturgy celebrates the sacredness of the world. Some Jews have criticized her work, which speaks of God only indirectly through symbols and metaphors derived from Nature. But one of today's worshippers says the rich natural imagery made her feel connected to the service in a whole new way.

WOMAN: For me, when I'm out in Nature, when I'm riding my bicycle, when I'm walking on the beach, you know, that's when I become very aware of God. She was sort of injecting that in her language, in the prayers. And that sort of like let me relax, it let me connect with something that makes me feel spiritual.

SCHIFFMAN: Judaism puts supreme value on language and learning. Nowadays, that love for learning has been extended to environmental education, which is being introduced from a Jewish angle into many schools and synagogues. Some groups are going outdoors for their lessons.

(Voices, footfalls. Man: "Has anyone ever been here before?" Man 2: "Yeah." Man 3: "I have, a million times." Man: "A bunch of times?" Man 3: "Yeah.")

SCHIFFMAN: A dozen Jewish college students hike the mountains north of New York City to learn about Tu B'ishvat, the late winter festival of the trees.

CROWD: Baruch atah Adonai elohenu melech ha'olam, boray etsee v'samim.

SCHIFFMAN: They're saying the Hebrew blessing for fragrant plants over a black birch, a tree once used to make root beer.

FENEBESI: So that's one of the things hopefully we'll be doing today, getting to say some of these blessings that are really connecting us to the outside world.

SCHIFFMAN: This is just one of hundreds of prayers that Jews were once enjoined to say when they came across features of the natural world like rivers, rainbows, and fruit trees. Hikeleader/environmental educator Shumu Fenebesi would like to see this custom revived. saying these blessings, he says, makes us more aware of the world around us, and grateful for its gifts.

FENEBESI: In Judaism, if you enjoy anything in this world, the benefit of anything in this world without saying a blessing, you're considered a thief. And that's a quote from the Talmud. We can't take anything for granted; we have to always give thanks and we always have to be aware of what we're taking from the world, whether that's a piece of fruit or 10,000 board feet of pine.

SCHIFFMAN: As we grow to revere God's creation, Shumu Fenebesi believes, we're less likely to waste limited natural resources through overconsumption. Spiritual values, he says, have practical consequences.

FENEBESI: We can talk as much as we want about it, but in the end it's what we buy, how we eat, how we choose to live our lives. And Judaism very much brings the spiritual down to that practical level, and applies it to everyday living.

SCHIFFMAN: Ancient Jewish books speak of the need for Tikkun Olam: the repair and healing of the Earth. Jewish environmentalists believe that this healing will take place when we return to a deep spiritual awareness of, and love for, the natural world.

FENEBESI: Let's walk silently for a little bit.


SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.



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