Jonathan Sher

How Green Can Judaism Get?

November 24, 2021

With the climate crisis at the forefront of the national conversation, there has been an uptick in religious communities integrating sustainability into their own practices. Will this set a new standard going forward?

In preparation for the COP26 international climate conference that was hosted in Glasgow, the world’s leading Christian figureheads, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, Canterbury Archbishop Justin Welby of the Anglican Church, and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, released a joint statement urging members of their churches to “listen to the cry of the Earth” and pray that world leaders make brave choices. This was the first time these high-caliber religious figures felt the need to address climate change and advocate the urgency for environmental sustainability.  

In a similar move from Jewish leaders, dozens of senior rabbis from religious Zionism sent a public letter to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, calling on him to faithfully represent the State of Israel at the conference and work vigorously to engage the country’s full capacity in tackling the climate crisis. Despite recognizing Israel’s smaller size and contribution relative to larger developed countries, their newfound vocalized support highlights the high degree of significance Israel’s partnership can provide. 

Due to the fact that the fight against the climate crisis is often times mistakenly perceived as being associated with the secular-left side of the political spectrum, these moves may come as a surprise to some of us. However, these letters and official statements mark a new wave of mobilized support and more transparently indicate an environmental awakening among religious communities both in Israel and abroad.  

Sustainable Conduct 

“Listen to the cry of the Earth.” Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

“I grew up in a classic religious-Zionist home, and when I joined Green Course at Ben-Gurion University, I was the only religious person there,” says Einat Kramer, founder and director of Teva Ivri (Jewish Nature). “I did not understand why this social gap existed, and I took on the task of connecting the two worlds together.”  

According to her, Teva Ivri has been bridging this gap and mending the disconnect between Judaism and the environment for nearly fifteen years. Its purpose is twofold: to make the climate issues and environmental science accessible to the religious public and enable the general Israeli public to see the environment through the perspective of rooted Jewish culture and heritage.  

“Sustainability in Israel should not necessarily look the same as it does in Sweden,” she argues. 

Because the Zionist movement embraces and values the land of Israel as the Jewish state, Kramer illustrates that parts of religious Zionism are taking more active stances with regard to ecological issues and that it has led to changes in both personal and community-wide conduct in recent years. This is referred to as Green Zionism, which prioritizes Israel’s environmental well-being because unchecked pollution jeopardizes the only scared homeland the Jewish people have.  

“In the ‘Ashira’ congregation in Mazkeret Batya where I pray, a group of parents of Bar Mitzvah children gifted the synagogue reusable tableware for Kiddushim (religious blessings),” she says. “Since then, we do not use disposable utensils during Kiddushim, and the community’s youth come on Saturday nights to wash the dishes. 

Beyond that, Kramer alludes to a similar trend occurring in dozens of other communities throughout Israel. She even says that rising numbers of synagogue representatives are beginning to adapt their religious practices and raise questions about how best to uphold sustainable conduct.  

“Today there are also many more religious vegans and vegetarians than there were in the past, and I receive a lot of requests through the association to deliver lectures on food ethics in Judaism and Rabbi Kook’s, Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, a book that seeks to integrate environmental ethics and traditional religious practices. And this all indicates a growing preoccupation with the issue.” 

However, in light of increasing awareness and conscious support for sustainable solutions in national-religious communities, Kramer acknowledges the reverse movement—a scrutiny.  

“Some people treat sustainability as an entirely different religion, as if veganism replaces the laws of Kashrut. Some of these people even link nature conservation to neopaganism,” she explains. “For example, Bnei Akiva recently issued a tender for the position of sustainability coordinator, and some of the reactions to it on Facebook were very extreme.” 

Adapt the Language 

Parts of religious Zionism are taking more active stances with regard to ecological issues and that it has led to changes in both personal and community-wide conduct in recent years. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash.

While the disconnect between religious Zionists and the left-secular public gradually shrinks, there is another problem that still persists: the larger gap that exists between the ultra-Orthodox community and the accepted perception of environmentalists.  

“One of the problems is that the ultra-Orthodox automatically perceive sustainable action as a fight belonging to another community,” says education and environmental activist Rabbi Benayahu Tvila. “For example, people say to themselves that those who are in favor of preserving the environment are also in favor of LGBT rights, so those who oppose LGBT marriage are also opposed to environmental issues.”  

In his view, the way to solve the difficulty concerns developing awareness of the issue in a language appropriate to the community.  

“The language in which we deal with the environmental issue today is science-based, and there is no need to replace it because it is good. But it needs to be expanded, and religious-thought and tradition-related arguments need to be added to existing arguments,” he explains. “For example, the scientific argument that eating beef enables and perpetuates a harsh cycle of negative environmental impacts can be filtered through a religious perspective; one that acknowledges that it has always been customary to eat beef on the holidays, including Shabbat, but not during the week as is so frequently done today.” 

A Discourse of Mindfulness 

Rising numbers of synagogue representatives are beginning to adapt their religious practices and raise questions about how best to uphold sustainable conduct. Photo by Laura Siegal on Unsplash.

In order to preserve and increase awareness of environmental issues within the religious communities beyond the current momentum its presently experiencing, efforts have recently been made to integrate more religious and ultra-Orthodox rabbis and community leaders into environmental discourse. 

“Throughout the years we have worked with rabbis who engage in sustainability on their own initiative, such as Rabbi Ronen Lowitz or Rabbi Michael Melchior. But now, we have begun to actively approach rabbis to mobilize them due to the urgency of the climate crisis and the rise of climate discourse,” says Kramer.  

“We approached the rabbis, invited them to a seminar regarding the latest IPCC report concerning the status of the climate crisis, and created an open discussion about the things they can do as intellectuals leading a moral-spiritual voice,” she continues. “The first executive step we agreed on is writing the letter to the prime minister as a moral appeal in preparation for the climate conference.” 

“The exposure of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and educators to the latest scientific knowledge on the subject is required,” reinforces Rabbi Tvila who is also a member of the group. “Unlike rabbis from religious Zionism, who some are familiar with sustainability, talking to ultra-Orthodox rabbis about this takes more time. We want to present a relevant, eco-religious discourse that will clarify in the correct language how serious the climate crisis is.” 

“The religious public can and should lend a leading voice to the environmental crisis,” Kramer concludes. “The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ is to make the world a better place, and if we believe we were created to do what is right and what is good, then we are obligated to do so.” 

This ZAVIT Article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 24 Nov. 2021