New Bible commentary is a call to eco-action

Eco Bible Volume 1: An Ecological Commentary On Genesis And Exodus, Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Rabbi Leo Dee,The Interfaith Center For Sustainable Development, £11.61


comparing green earth and effect of air pollution from human action, glbal warming concept, green tree and green earth with light and arid land with air pollusion at background

In this time of climate emergency Tu Bishvat (which begins next Wednesday evening) is more important than ever. It is not just a day for planting trees, essential as that is, but a call to re-evaluate our whole relationship with nature and our planet. The publication of the first volume of Eco Bible provides rich ancient and contemporary Jewish source materials to urge us to do just this.

“I could give this to teenagers” is not something one feels about every Jewish book. But Eco Bible is topical, practical, spiritual and timely. It is rooted in classic rabbinic wisdom; it addresses the soul and directs us to the presence of God in nature. At the same time, it references the latest science on the climate emergency and directs us to what we must urgently do.

I met Yonatan Neril, co-editor and lead contributor with Leo Dee (previously a community rabbi in London) in a Jerusalem café in the pre-Covid era. Someone had left a plate of rolls untouched on the next table: “They can’t just become waste in a plastic sack.” He took them to a homeless man.

Rabbis Neril and Dee practise in their daily lives what they’ve been preaching and teaching for years across the world, from yeshivot to high-level interfaith climate conferences. Eco Bible, published by The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which Neril founded and directs, is the distillation of their knowledge, passion and commitment, supplemented by contributions from rabbis and scientists around the world.

The book is structured as a Torah commentary with sections for each weekly reading composed of reflective passages and concise insights on specific verses. One might have thought there was little about ecology in the Hebrew Bible. That would be wrong. The Torah is a world of climates, minerals, herbs, trees, and animals. It testifies constantly to how human beings should, and should not, relate to the rest of creation.

Attention is focussed and lessons are drawn from details usually missed. The bitumen pits into which the kings of Sodom and Gemorah fall in their flight from battle are “surface seepages of this thick, sticky form of crude oil”. Abraham, who pulls them out and rescues them, “provides an example of lifting people from being trapped in fossil fuels”.

The repeated descriptions of the curtains and coverings for the tabernacle remind us how, when buying garments, we should research companies which create clothes from sustainable materials - bamboo, water-efficient fibres, ethically-sourced, or pesticide-free cotton.

Careful referencing guides the reader not just to classical rabbinic sources but to the latest online ecological literature. This points to the essential need for partnership between science and religion in working to preserve and regenerate the planet. Rabbi Neril quotes Gus Speth of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:

“The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

But if changes in attitude are to lead to appropriate shifts in behaviour, they must be informed by up-to-date knowledge.

Eco Bible is a call to activism. Every portion concludes with suggested action items: “volunteer at a local foodbank or wildlife rescue center”; “support an effective energy policy in your city”.

Not every entry is equally compelling. But the commentary is a rich, focused and urgently important resource for those of us determined to rethink our relationship to God’s world.

Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism and co-founder of Eco Synagogue



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