October 19, 2006
Partners in Creation
Parshat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
Jews, it can be argued, already have an ecotheology. The Torah is clear when it discusses our relationship to the Earth.
This week, in Genesis, we are told, "God took the first human being, Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to watch it" (Genesis 2:15). Yet, a misinterpretation of an earlier verse has guided our human relationship to the Earth for too long. In the first chapter of the Torah, God says: "....Fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Genesis 1:27-28).
Dominion is too often read as "mastery over," freedom to control and use at will, which easily leads to exploitation. However, there are many commentators who understand the word "dominion" as correlating to "uniqueness." In this reading, humans have the unique responsibility to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. Rather than dominate, humans are called upon to make moral choices on behalf of the Earth, for we are the only creatures that God created with the capacity to reason and with the gift of free will; we alone have the capacity to destroy or protect the planet.
Gottlieb writes that we are not concerned by the signs of global warming, or in developing widespread renewable energy sources, or in how our progress has affected the planet's ecosystem because we see ourselves as outside of nature, rather than integral to it. We substitute "environment" for "nature." Through semantics, nature has become an "issue," something we can be involved in or not. Our sense of being unaffected by nature, as superior to nature, is a danger -- indeed an idol -- that the Torah warns us against. We must return to viewing ourselves as a part of nature.
Dr. Nathan Lewis, one of my congregants, a Caltech professor and expert in climate change, stated bluntly to me, "The next 10 years will determine what kind of planet we will live in; if we keep on this same path, we will leave our children a planet unlike the one we received."
Lewis is most concerned about the irreversibility of our actions, even as he acknowledges that science cannot prove definitively what will happen. He argues that we shouldn't be betting against the indicators that imply what can happen. Waiting to find out will be too late.
Many rabbinic texts detail our long tradition of ecotheology, explicitly supporting the idea that caring for the Earth is a distinctly religious imperative. Long before we started talking about fuel emissions, the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited inefficient use of fuels, saying: "Whoever covers an oil lamp [so that it burns less efficiently], transgresses the mitzvah of ba'al tashchit, do not destroy" (Shabbat 67a).
Long before recycling was the norm, the 16th century manual Sefer HaHinuch taught that "tzadikkim, righteous people, waste not even a mustard seed in this world; they use their strength to conserve everything possible." These texts illustrate that our ancestors recognized our responsibility to nature, and that our actions must be directed by the holiness of mitzvot.
We created this problem, intentionally or unintentionally; we are responsible for fixing it.
Lewis told me that we get more energy from the sun in one hour than all the energy consumed in one year. Using God's resources and our brains, we can solve the challenges we face.
California is poised to become the environmental leader in our country. And religious groups around the country are joining its efforts. The Reform movement has a nationwide campaign for "greening" its institutions. The Pacific Southwest Region of Conservative Judaism continues to back its Green Sanctuaries campaign, partnering with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California is expanding that campaign to all synagogues that wish to participate.
We each can make a difference. I challenge us to try some, if not all, of the following:
- Raise or lower the thermostat in your homes by two degrees;
- Use compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home;
- Carpool, walk or ride a bike once weekly;
- Invest in fuel-efficient transportation;
- Reduce waste and recycle seriously;
- Visit the COEJL Web site for more information and ideas.
Every change has an impact. We are called by God to live in consort with the Earth, as God gave us the awesome responsibility to be partners in creation. Let us strive to live up to that divine gift. As Pirke Avot teaches, "It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying." Now more than ever, we need this attitude toward our Earth.
This d'var Torah is an adaptation of Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater's Yom Kippur sermon. To read the sermon in its entirety, visit www.pjtc.net.
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life: www.coejl.org
Green Sanctuaries: pacsw.uscj.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=8
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He is chair of the social action committee of the Board of Rabbis, national board member and Los Angeles chapter chair of Brit Tzedek V'shalom.