Eco Judaism


In The Way Into Judaism and the Environment, Jeremy Benstein, associate director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, explores traditional Jewish thought regarding humanity’s stewardship of the natural world.

Much of prevalent contemporary Judaism is the heir to Western European Enlightenment and philosophical rationalism, and so we have learned to ignore the peshat, the clear straightforward contextual understanding of these many texts, that Jews from the Bible onward have believed that nature is alive and deeply spiritual. We must acknowledge that if we reject the sentience of nature, we are not rejecting paganism for the sake of Jewish belief; rather, we are rejecting some deeply rooted Jewish values in the name of a hyper-rationalist scientific world view.

Investigators looking for support for environmentalism in the classic texts often cite isolated examples, such as the prohibitions against cruelty to animals, the requirement to preserve fruit trees in times of war, the prohibitions against wasting resources or giving birth in times of famine or other hardship. We turn to ancient documents for guidance in a technological age. How can we apply these core concepts to contemporary environmental issues? While we can’t manage the planet the way God can manage it (or if you prefer, the way it has managed to manage itself without our help for the duration) our impact – due to sheer numbers if nothing else – requires us to become involved in shaping environmental policy. Benstein suggests guiding principles may be extrapolated from the rules on agriculture as well as torts and damages. Who owns the world? Who is responsible for protecting it from harm? Private property is transient, but common property is timeless and should be preserved for future generations. Both waste induced by excess, and deprivation so deep that long-term effects can’t be considered, lead to environmental degradation.

In the past two hundred years the human population has increased from about half a billion to roughly ten billion. We were fruitful and multiplied. How can we reduce unsustainable levels of consumption and limit our impact? Benstein discusses water rights, eco-kashrut, food production, personal health, social justice, and the trend toward urbanization, all in light of Jewish law. While in the pre-industrial age we sought protection from the wilderness, we now seek protection from over-urbanization, sprawl, pollution, noise, and consumerism. The inner work of spiritual practice – knowing when we have enough – is a critical first step for realigning our priorities.


Tu B’Shevat, the Fifteenth of the Jewish month of Shevat, is the New Year for trees. As with anything else in Judaism, there are many different yet compatible interpretations of the holiday. Some today view it as an opportunity to renew a commitment to environmentalism. Others donate money to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel. Still others may find ways to contribute to their communities by volunteering for pea patch gardening projects. In the Hebraic Age, Tu B’Shevat marked the lifespan of trees for purposes of tithing to the Temple. During the Middle Ages, the Kabbalists created a special Seder for this holiday, with wine and fruit to symbolize the emanations of God.

The Tree of Life is a symbol for God and Torah. The seasonal cycles of trees remind us of our own cycles: death and birth, despair and renewed hope. In Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book Seasons of Our Joy, he explains that just as Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for the Jewish people, Tu B’Shevat may be considered a kind of New Year for God, representing a resurgence of divine energy in the natural world.

If we want to be ecologically minded, what kind of Tu B’Shevat Seder best represents our values? Should we import the traditional dates, figs, carob, pomegranates, olives, oranges, and spices? Should we instead serve varieties of fruit grown organically in our own region? Should these fruits be cultivated within 100 miles of our Seder? 50 miles? What about the wine? What about the plates, tablecloths, napkins, and utensils? Are they washable or compostable? If Tu B’Shevat is our Jewish Earth Day, perhaps we should make the content of our celebrations match that commitment. The symbolism includes fruits which can be eaten whole (e.g. strawberries), those with a pit or seed (cherries, peaches), and those with a hard or woody exterior (coconuts, pineapples.)

On the Gregorian calendar, Tu B’Shevat 2010 falls on January 30th. Here is a link to what I feel is a beautiful and inspiring Tu B’Shevat Haggadah by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal.


Our choices affect the world in very real, measurable, concrete ways. As a society we are now recognizing post-industrial habits of consumption, long taken for granted, need to change. One way to make a difference is to vote with our wallets (assuming, of course, we have wallets to vote with – I don’t mean to be dismissive of those who can’t afford the luxury of Voluntary Simplicity – instead, I am suggesting even the smallest choices, over which we do have control, make a difference.) It takes time and numbers to overcome systemic problems, but we have to make a conscious effort.

Why avoid GMO foods?

Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, speaks on the health risks:

It’s creepier than you might think, most notably because no one really knows what the long-term consequences might be of messing around with how Nature actually does things. We don’t even understand how our own brains work, let alone the nuances of the genetic codes organizing the world.


Locally grown foods take less fuel to transport. Buying them helps to support the local economy. And, we are more likely to find organics through small farmers. I also believe in only eating animal products from animals who  have been well cared for – free range, grass fed, no antibiotics, no arsenic, no disgusting filthy disease-ridden pens the size of a shoebox, etc.  This is not only for our own health (aside from the chemicals, what happens to us when we consume the flesh of a creature who lived in misery?)…but because cruelty is not a spiritual value. Many people have written on this subject. One of them is here:

Why take extra care to recycle acquired plastics?

Even the so-called “bio-degradable” plastics take years to disintegrate – they do not break down in landfill. Plastics that have already been manufactured are here on Earth to stay. They are  most often made from petroleum and toxic substances (i.e. formaldehyde, chlorine, phenol) that can leach into the soil and groundwater, and into the food products they package, or into our bodies through skin contact. Early puberty in children as young as eight has been linked to exposure to PVC (polyvinyl chloride) found in toys, shower curtains, and packaging labeled with the “3″ designation. Phthalates mimic estrogen.

What you always wanted to know about green building but were afraid to ask:

The idea is to approach a design project holistically. Each building system impacts the efficiency of the other systems, in addition to affecting the environment and the occupants. Disruption of construction sites can lead to soil erosion and waterway sedimentation, so measures should be taken to prevent that (e.g. traps, filters, vegetation.) If gunk and murk gets into the rivers, fish and plants can’t breathe. They die, and pretty soon the only things the water can support are leeches and algae. During construction, workers – yes, workers are people! – should be protected from exposure to toxic fumes emitted by carpeting, adhesives, caulking, sealants, foams, ceiling tile, paint, etc. Prior to occupation, air quality is tested for formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful substances. Recyclable materials can be collected at the construction site, and diverted to where they can do some good – say, going to Habitat for Humanity instead of to landfill. Reusing existing materials saves money and limits the cost and fuel spent transporting new materials. Preferred materials are harvested and manufactured regionally and/or are rapidly renewable, e.g. bamboo as opposed to wood. Building on farmland, parkland, wetlands, habitat for endangered or threatened species, or in close proximity to bodies of water are discouraged. Ideally, new construction takes place in existing urban centers within walking distance of  community and commercial amenities and public transportation, and/or by cleaning up and reusing brownfields (areas where there is hazardous waste.)  Building footprints are minimized to protect the land surface habitat of plants and animals. Parking goes underneath the building, both to preserve open vegetated space and to reduce what is known as the “heat island effect.” Paved surfaces radiate an enormous amount of heat into the atmosphere, which leads to higher air temperatures in urban environments. Vegetated or reflective rooftops help keep the air temperature above buildings consistent with temperatures outside the city (protects wildlife habitats and reduces strain on cooling systems.) Light pollution may be reduced or avoided through the use of low-lighting, downlighting, and automatic shut-off. Light pollution harms nocturnal animals, and kills birds by disrupting their migration patterns. Impervious site surfaces (e.g. pavement) prevent filtration of stormwater, which results in surface pollutants being carried by rain into streams and sewers. Plants and their root systems filter yucky stuff out, which is why wetlands are so important. Often green building sites will use “rain gardens” – beds of water-loving plants – to absorb some of that runoff. The building’s demand for potable water is limited by capturing rainwater and reusing it for irrigation, toilets, and custodial purposes. Native plants need less or no irrigation, so are preferred. Water-efficient fixtures with automatic turnoffs are selected – also dry fixtures such as composting toilets. An integrative approach to building energy systems means taking into consideration the orientation of the building on the site (sun exposures, passive solar and wind benefits), the make-up of the building envelope (ventilation, permeability), and the use of materials appropriate to the job, all planned in relation to the anticipated energy needs (for equipment, elevators, escalators, computers, cooking, refrigeration, laundry.) For example, a reflective white paint will make a room brighter. Less electric light is needed for good visibility. Light generates heat. Fewer lights mean reducing the cooling load, which means the project can get away with a smaller HVAC system. Renewable energy options may include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, bio-gas, and the avoidance of ozone-depleting substances historically used for refrigeration and fire prevention. Smoking rooms, if allowed, and janitorial closets, printing rooms, or other areas with toxic fumes should be negatively pressurized to cause air to flow in instead of out when a door is opened. These rooms are typically exhausted directly outdoors, so the dirty air is not recirculated through the building (an imperfect solution, but an improvement for occupants, nonetheless.) Permanent monitoring systems provide feedback on ventilation performance and carbon dioxide levels. Studies show building occupants remain healthier and are more productive when they have natural daylight and views to the outdoors. While all of this may sound obvious, change has been slow in coming.

And here is a website for the Responsible Purchasing Network, which advises institutions on the selection of environmentally friendly office equipment, paints, fleets, and other business operations needs:

If you know of other such efforts or organizations, please feel free to list them here. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s