Green Shabbat: how we can make the new normal better for us all

Covid-19 has pressed pause on our civilisation: now we must rethink how we live


Whispers of a new wonder treatment have been causing a stir among health experts worldwide,” writes Broadleaf, the Woodland Trust’s magazine. The cure, for physical and mental stress, is time among the trees.

It’s true. Under lockdown, congregants have sent me pictures of birds, garden flowers, views from solitary walks. We’ve noticed nature more. The mystics would call this da’at, knowledge, awareness of sacred wonder, of God’s presence in the world. A midrash observes that originally “the spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind, for all living beings were created for mutual companionship with people”. In the silenced streets, in the absence of the rush-hour race, we’re relearning to listen and realising we’re richer for the communion.

This Torah, straight from the trees of life, has its roots in Jewish text. The Talmud instructs us to be “partners with God in creation” not destruction. Yet we are participants in an economic culture which, for all its substantial and significant achievements, risks consuming the globe. This was never the Jewish ideal. So how can Judaism guide us to change?

The Bible is set in a circular economy. Land reverts to God; rivers run back to the sea; life flows in a reassuring unbreakable rhythm: though “the dust returns to the soil”, God “renews the face of the earth”. There’s a profound awareness of humanity’s dependence on nature; even “a king is subservient to the field”.

Irreverence towards creation has consequences; God will withhold the rainfall on which everyone’s livelihood hangs. We may question this interventionist theology, but it is beyond doubt today that drought can be the result of human actions. Injustice in society leads to ecological catastrophe. It is Pharaoh’s own advisers who eventually confront him with the facts: his hard-hearted policies have ruined Egypt.

The Mishnah challenges the notion that profit is the ultimate criterion of success in a blunt critique of the economics of selfishness. “‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,’ is an average attitude” towards money, it notes, before adding the qualification: “Some say this is the way of Sodom”. In other words, if we pursue gain without taking responsibility for those on whom our behaviours impact, we risk becoming as unjust and merciless as Sodom, which, though once rich in minerals and grain, was turned into a devastated wasteland.

Perhaps we should take this as a warning about unbridled capitalism, deforestation for the sake of beef and soya and the consequences for the world’s poor and for nature of the unheeding pursuit of wealth and rich living.

The Talmud portrays an ethos of sufficiency, not waste. Discussions of the ritual status of patched-up pots or of the susceptibility to impurity of a scrap of cloth a mere three fingerbreadths square, reveal the opposite of a throwaway culture. The reminder that the pious buried broken items deeper than the reach of a ploughshare tells us that to leave a legacy of poisonous landfill shows disregard for the future.

In a responsum about hunting, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague writes that while we may deal with dangerous animals if they enter our habitations, we may not, unless driven by extreme hunger, pursue them into their God-given forest homes. Just as there is space on earth for people, so there must be places for the rest of creation.

Thus, consistently through the ages and in every layer of its history, Judaism reveals an ideal of respect, humility, thrift, care and harmonious interdependence in our relationship towards creation. While it encourages enjoyment of and gratitude for life’s blessings, it does not sanction the anthropocentric selfishness of our current exploitative culture.

Learning, taught Rabbi Akiva, must lead to action. So what must we do? We need to revise how we live, consume less, eat and dress with more care for the cost to the earth and other people, waste less, plant trees, protect and nurture nature more, invest in green energy and transport, shun agricultural systems which poison the soil and harness whatever influence we have for a green recovery.

Coronavirus has pressed pause on our civilisation; these months have been called an “anthropo-pausal” moment. They present an opportunity our children and our very future cannot afford for us to miss. Rarely has Hillel’s warning, “If not now, when?” been so urgent. Judaism has a remarkable history of adaptive creativity in the face of disaster: the Mishnah reshaped Jewish life after the destruction of the second temple; Zionism rebuilt Jewish hope after the Holocaust. The teachings to guide us are all here and present in our tradition: what we need now are the imagination, determination and courage to live by them.

Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.

For details of events around Green Shabbat and how you and your community can become involved, please go to the EcoSynagogue Facebook page


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