Jewish Journal

Climate crisis and the birth of eco-Judaism

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

July 1, 2013 | 4:56 pm

During the past generation, we have discovered that we are facing a global crisis in the relationship between human action and the web of life on Earth. That discovery has stirred an ancient but sleeping Jewish concern for the Earth into new energy and a new approach --   Eco-Judaism.

One of the most powerful and delightful doorways into Eco-Judaism is simply two words of Hebrew: adam and adamah. Adam means “human being,” and adamah means “earth.”

The two words say in the very words themselves what is true in reality: the earth and human beings are intertwined. Their meaning is totally different from that of the English word “environment” –- for that means something that is “out there,” in the environs. The truth is that  trees and tigers, bees and bacteria, are not “out there,” away from us humans. Our lives are totally intertwined.

Indeed, we now know that in our own kishkes, our own innards or intestines, are myriads of bacteria that keep us healthy. Occasionally some turn up that make us sick, but usually they are chewed up by life-giving microbes like those that turn milk into cheese.

So the most dramatic way we are intertwined is in our bellies. But there is more: We are beginning to understand that human beings are part of a planetary eco-system. We get to breathe the oxygen we need only because trees and grasses breathe it out. And the trees breathe in the CO2 that we breathe out. Without this interchange between each other, we – and all life on our planet – would die.

We have seen how two words of Hebrew communicate this interconnection so simply. Is there a way to say this intertwining in English? If the ordinary word for human being were “earthling,” that would signal how intertwined we are. Or if the ordinary word for earth were “humus,” that would do it. But these two words are specialized –- one in science fiction, the other in soil science. So it is hard for the English language to teach what Hebrew teaches so simply and organically.

The poetry of Torah goes further, using these two words to point to the origin of our entire species as a birth from Earth. Adamah births adam.

What is the story?

In Genesis 2: 6-8, the Torah tells this story of the creation of the human race:

There was no human/adam to till the soil/adama.

YHVH, God, formed the human, of dust from the soil, he blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the human became a living being.

I am using the translation by Everett Fox (Schocken), precisely because unlike most translations it makes explicit and inescapable the connection between “adamah” and “adam.”  But I am using “YHWH” where Fox uses “YHVH,” because in biblical Hebrew the letter “vav” was pronounced more like “waw,” just as in ancient Latin the letter “v” is pronounced the way in modern English we would signal by using a “w.”

Let’s unpeel this brief yet crucial telling. In being “born” from the Earth, the Human loses the breathing-sound of the “—ah” in “adamah.” Shorn of this breathing sound, s/he becomes “adam.” Then at once the Human receives the breath of life directly from YHWH.

Compare this sequence with what happens in a normal birthing of an ordinary single human being.  In the womb, the would-be baby breathes in and out unconsciously, through the placenta as part of the mother’s breathing. When in birthing the placenta falls away, the new baby must receive the breath of life from outside—sometimes with a tap on the tush.

The biblical story of the birth of the human race is literally borrowing from the birthing of one child to describe the birthing of our species.

Here Earth indeed is Mother Earth, and the Torah goes on to say that when we lose that breath of life, we return to Mother Earth.

We are interwoven.

This is the profound perception of an indigenous people, farmers and shepherds who lived close to the land and were constantly aware of how they gave life to the Earth, and the Earth gave life to them.  They understood the relationship as sacred. The food that came forth from this relationship was what they offered back to YHWH at the Temple, in token of the gift of life they had received from YHWH.

When the Temple was destroyed and the people were overwhelmed by the Roman Empire and Hellenistic economics and philosophy, they grasped the value of a new way of connecting with God --   -- the speaking and chanting of words. Words of prayer, words of learning and reinterpreting Torah. Words they could take with them anywhere, unlike the land from which they were exiled.

This was in many ways a great and crucial discovery It made possible the survival of the Jewish people and a new paradigm of Jewish life – Rabbinic Judaism. But it also  carried a cost – much less attention to the earth and its interconnection with the human race.

It is only now, facing a planetary crisis in that relationship, that we are beginning to reopen the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible about the Earth. Reopening it with a broader perspective  -- looking not only at our interconnection in a tiny sliver of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, but at the great round globe.

And that reinterpretive reopening is what we mean by “Eco-Judaism.” It is why this blog comes from “Eco-Rebbe.”

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center.

He was legislative assistant to a US Congressman, 1959-1961; Resident Fellow of the Inst. for Policy...

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