It’s easy to get discouraged or demoralized as an environmentalist in today’s world. It seems like every day brings more devastating news. Half of the world’s wildlife has died in my parents’ lifetime, and current rates of extinction may be up to 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate. We’re losing a terrifying number of birds and insects, and a million species are considered threatened or endangered. Things are bad enough that “eco anxiety” is now a recognized mental health condition.
It is said that in the environmental movement, all of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent. Much of the current focus of environmental advocacy has been described as “playing against the slaughter rule,” hoping not to win but to avoid getting totally wiped out in our inevitable loss.
In the face of all this, I’m often asked how I can remain so optimistic, and so motivated to keep working. Some people are surprised to learn that a large part of my answer comes from my Jewish faith.
I should note here that I don’t claim to speak for all Jews, or even for all of my fellow Jews who come from the American Reform denomination.
After all, we Jews love to discuss the nitty-gritty details of everything—the cliché is if you put two Jews in a room, at least three different opinions on every topic will be argued. That said, the ideas presented here come from well-trodden theological ground, and are neither novel nor fringe.
I’d like to walk you through some relevant principles of Judaism (by which I usually but don’t always mean US Reform Judaism) and modern Jewish environmental activism, and explain what they mean to me as a Jewish American conservation biologist.
Tenets of American Reform Judaism: The modern Pittsburgh platform
In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis wrote a modern statement of principles for American reform Judaism. This meeting was held in my hometown of Pittsburgh, which is also where the 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform,” an earlier version of the same type of document, was written. This modern Pittsburgh platform includes several references to environmentalism and conservation, including:
“We regard with reverence all of God’s creation and recognize our human responsibility for its preservation and protection… In all these ways and more, God gives meaning and purpose to our lives.”
“We are obligated to pursue (tzedek), justice and righteousness… and to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources… In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.”
This means that the idea of activism to improve things in general, and the idea that protecting the environment is important specifically, are literally central tenets of my faith. They’re written down (and were written down in my hometown) and approved by our governing body of Rabbis.
Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world“
This phrase was first introduced around the year 200 C.E., but first became used in an activist context around the 16th century C.E. by the Kabbalic leader Isaac Luria. Luria was a leader in medieval Jewish theology, and worked out of the Israeli town of Safed, where many Jewish theologians relocated after being expelled from Spain. My brother was Bar Mitzvah-ed in Safed, so it’s another place that’s always had a special significance for my family.
The idea of Tikkun Olam is most commonly (but not exclusively) used in the context of Jewish social justice activism, but the idea of “repairing the world” certainly has implications for environmental activism. Humans are measurably damaging the world, and environmental activism literally seeks to repair that damage.
You know the old story of the person walking along the beach putting sea stars that were drying out in the hot sun back into the water, being told by a passerby that what they’re doing doesn’t matter because you can’t save all the sea stars, and responding “it matters to this one?” I’ve heard lots of local-scale environmentalists tell this story, and it is an example of Tikkun Olam in action. (There are, of course, also lots of distinct or even contradictory Jewish philosophies on the intersection of environmental and social justice, as exhibited by the range of responses to the Green New Deal from various groups across the Jewish ideological spectrum.
Pirkei Avot, “ethics of our fathers”
Pirkei Avot is part of the Mishnah, the first written collection of Jewish laws. Though it’s not part of the Torah, some Jewish siddurim (prayer books) include large chunks of it, and some Jewish communities read from it every week during parts of the year. While Pirkei Avot contains many nuggets of wisdom, the best known quote is extremely relevant to modern conservation advocacy:
“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” – (Pirkei Avot 2:21), attributed to Rabbi Tarfon (70-135 C.E.)
In other words, saving the planet is a big job, and you haven’t failed if you don’t personally save the whole planet. However, you have to keep trying, and you can’t quit! I think about this idea a lot, and it’s gotten me through many a policy failure. The occasional failure is actually expected, and it’s how you roll with the punches that matters.
Bal Taschit, “thou shalt not destroy/waste”
This is the 604th (of 613) mitzvah, or good deeds that Jews are encouraged to do (or, as in this case, not do.) The full text in the Torah introducing this concept reads:
“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission-” Deuteronomy 20:19-20
In other words, needlessly destroying a part of the environment that humans rely on for life is bad. While this passage refers specifically to not destroying an enemy’s crops during times of warfare, it is commonly cited as a scriptural basis for opposition to wasteful destruction or unsustainable use of a natural resource of any kind. I think about things like this when forming my personal values about which conservation solutions to support. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to support, for example, sustainable fisheries management as a solution to shark conservation over bans on the consumption of all sharks- sustainable natural resource management is in the Torah!
The Torah also includes extensive discussion on how helping to feed the poor is a critical duty of the more fortunate, including the idea that the corners of our fields and every piece of produce that falls to the ground shouldn’t be harvested, but should be left for the hungry to gather themselves. I think about this when forming my personal opinions on things like artisanal or subsistence fisheries management; it’s important to not catch all the fish that can possibly be caught for commercial purposes, but to leave some in the ocean for people to catch and eat themselves. (Later interpretations of Bal Taschit have also noted that waste in food gathering is bad, which means opposition to using only the fins of a shark and not the meat also has a scriptural basis.)
Jewish Earth Day
The Jewish holiday of Tu BishVat involves planting trees and is often associated with environmental awareness and environmental charity in general. It’s sometimes called “Jewish Earth Day.” Trees in general have some pretty important symbolic importance in Judaism, especially the Tree of Life, the namesake of the Pittsburgh synagogue that’s now infamous for an act of violent hatred. Over the last century or so, donating money to the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in the Jewish homeland has become a very common gift among Jews, in honor of things like marriage, the birth of a child, or a Bar Mitzvah . (JNF claims to have planted a few hundred million trees through this charity, which has been a major factor in the reforestation of Israel; along with the hard work of Israeli farmers and some clever irrigation technology inventions, this is central to the idea that we Jews “made the desert bloom.”) I’ve given and received dozens of these tree planting certificates, and even got to plant a tree in Israel myself when my family visited for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Incidentally, the Green Zionist Alliance has done some amazing work raising money and awareness about environmental issues in Israel, check out their website here: )
Judaism also has tons of laws about ethical agricultural practices and humane slaughter of livestock, including the Kashrut (Kosher rules), inspiring Jews to think a lot about various impacts of the food we eat in the same way that many environmentalists do. It’s worth noting that Kosher foods are not necessarily more sustainable or eco-friendly than non-Kosher foods but see this great article by Phil Levin about sustainable seafood and Jewish dietary laws. I should note that most Gefilte fish is actually extremely sustainable but a lot of smoked salmon comes from questionable stocks, and for those who are curious, shark is not considered Kosher, because it lives in the water and doesn’t have true scales.
For what it’s worth, I personally don’t keep Kosher. However, learning the Kosher dietary laws as a child has long inspired me to think about what I eat and don’t eat, and why, which lead naturally into making some more environmentally friendly dietary choices. Thinking about this is part of the reason why I tend to support the idea that people should eat more sustainable seafoods, rather than saying “don’t eat seafood at all”; Jewish dietary law certainly excludes some food types entirely but for many other food types it encourages us to eat food harvested or prepared a certain way.
Go forth and repair the world
So there you have it. Some of the central tenets of American Reform Judaism call on us to do whatever we can to make the world we live in a better place, with specific reference to biodiversity conservation, sustainable use of natural resources, and even environmentally friendly waste management. Studying, restoring, and protecting the environment is, in short, a worthy cause to dedicate one’s life to! Moreover, these tenets note that while we aren’t expected to accomplish such a huge task all on our own, we can’t give up. We have to keep trying! Personally, I find that this helps motivate me and helps to give my life purpose. I hope that it helps you, too!