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Posts Tagged ‘mitzvah’

Turn on the evening news and you will see many indications of planetary decline: famine and rapid desertification, extinction of vital plant and animal species, drug-resistant super-bacteria, political upheaval and resource wars, melting ice-caps, floods and hurricanes. Overwhelmed with the intensity and variety of problems, we resort to a state of emotional despair. Those of us with a spiritual or religious inclination turn to archaic and/or new age doomsday prophecies; in some strange way it comforts us that someone has predicted these events and has gone to the trouble to forewarn us, or that it is all part of a grand scheme. Critics will obviously retort that in each generation there were pundits and ‘prophets’ who considered themselves to be living on the verge of apocalypse all of whom turned out to be wrong.

As a scholar of Hebrew religious culture, my conclusion is that the scripture notes functions and patterns in history. Biblical authors, from the very beginning right up to the rabbinic period, were living in and out of Near Eastern civilizations which were constantly vying for world-hegemony. The economic and spiritual fall-out that ensued informed biblical authorship in a very powerful way: the rabbis had a strong aversion to war and a strong sense of charity and social justice. The rising and falling of empires, to those individuals caught in the midst of the action, also had cosmic implications. With the downfall of each great world power, there is a lesson the Jewish people learn both on levels of practical survival and moral humanity. The Bible is said to be a blue-print for the universe; it is not a direct historical account so much as a description of the patterns by which things unfold. One very relevant example of this phenomenon is the flood account in the book of Genesis. Noah is chosen from amongst all humans to be saved, for his qualities most resemble the moral paragon of a new and better world. He is also charged with the task of preserving extant animal species to repopulate this new world. Before us, on the evening news, we see the modern equivalent of this story. This time there is no bat kol, a booming voice from the heavens commanding us to build an ark, and instructions which drop out of the sky. This time there is only a kol dmima, a whispering voice; there is endless information, ignored by mass media, indicating the need to take immediate action towards establishing a more sustainable and viable economy. Solutions are available, there are experts and researchers hard at work. They are building the ark.

What solution am I offering? I’m not claming to know what to do. Retreating to the woods is an option, but it is not really a Jewish option for the reason that it does not offer practical benefit to others. An agrarian permaculture commune, with Carlbach davening Friday night, is certainly an attractive improvement. But its vulnerabilities would be not unlike those our European peasant ancestors faced for so many years—assuming the economic decline continues at this rate, we would face the prospect of pogroms at the hands of decommissioned Marines, possibly white-supremacist, with M16s and Hummers. Our world is too small now to attempt escape.

The solution I want is one that can be applied today, here and now. I want to green our synagogues. I want to green our schools and our cities. It is interesting to observe the readiness with which most Jewish people seem to accept the fact that ecological preservation is an important value for modern Jews, indeed all humanists. Yet few are willing to enact the radical changes to our daily lifestyle demanded by such an imperative. Even getting people to recycle is like pulling teeth. This is not unlike our relation to Jewish law. Most see a mitzvah as ‘a nice thing to do’; something nice that you can do. Actually, it is a commandment, which is a direct charge. No matter what your stance on halakha, the word commandment denotes some sense of imperative, some sense that this is not just something you feel like doing. I want to make the same point about Eco-Torah/Eco-Judaism. Restoring our ecosystems, purifying and altering our food supply, preserving plants and animals—for us, as it was for Noah—is not a noble idea, a nice thing to do, it is absolutely imperative to the survival of the species. The Noahs of today will not be selected by God; they will self-select and, hopefully, will be able to save even those who do not save themselves.

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