"Let's Wear Organic, Fair-Trade Cotton on Shabbos"
The challenges of integrating Environmentalism into the Mainstream Torah-Observant World
by Emily Landau
HaShem G-d took the man and placed him in the Garden on Eden, to work and to keep.
To work and keep the earth was the first task that G-d ever placed for human beings. From that vague point in Bereshit to the present year, the children of Adam have developed agriculture, weapons, industrialization, space technology and entire digital worlds of their own. All, in essence, created from the earth. Working with the earth is something human beings have clearly never stopped doing. We till, we cut, we drill, we extract and we set the planet to flame. But it is the “veshamrah” part of the task that is more in question. For the Torah-Observant Jewish Community, also known roughly as Orthodox, this question is one that bears particular weight, because they are a community that does everything in its power to hold true to what the Torah says. How does the Torah-Observant community answer the question of whether human beings, or Jews, have stayed to their task of “keeping” or “guarding” the earth? Is it a question that this community even asks?
With the complexities that technology has placed on our lives, Torah Law (including Rabbinic Law) has also become extremely complex. In the last century, Rabbis have been faced with questions such as “Must I still only drink chalav yisroel if the milk comes from USDA approved factories of only cows?” “Can I set timers for my house-hold lights on Shabbat?” or “Even if it was shechted properly, is eating factory raised, hormone-pumped, cannibally fed cow from Argentina, raised on cleared land that was once precious tropical rainforest still kosher?”m Present day scientific data presents us with shocking facts about the impact of environmental misconduct, such as Carbon Emissions, deforestation and nuclear energy. Facts that scream at us to change our ways before the earth is destroyed. We are currently in the midst of a growing environmental catastrophe. “This crisis includes climate change, extinction of species, world-wide hunger, decline of fish stocks, loss of fertile land through degradation, unsustainable pressure on resources, dwindling amount of fresh water and the risk of environmental damage that could pass ‘unknown points of no return’” (twnside.org.). The earth’s temperature is rising rapidly relative to historical data. From 1975 to 2005 the temperature rose an entire degree (Farenheit). “According to the National Academy of Sciences, this change is the largest global temperature rise in at least the last 2,000 years and, possibly, the last 5,000 years” (pewclimate.org). As a result, the force of tropical storms and tornados increase each year.
Judaism is a religion that is known for its excellent standards of morality and ethics. A Torah-Observant Lifestyle is one that is intensely demanding and requires intensive amounts of conviction and discipline to follow; its dietary laws are restrictive, every week there is another holiday to observe, and the demand of prayer dedication is extensive. However, because of the historical threat that the present scientific movement presents to traditional Judaism, an attitude of rejectionism developed within the Torah Observant Community over the last one hundred and fifty years.
Before the changes incurred by the haskalah movement in Europe from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, there was no concept of “Orthodox Jew.” Either a person observed the laws of the Torah and the Oral Traditions or he didn’t, and an institutional phrase for the two types was not made. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in 1854, “It was not the ‘Orthodox’ Jews who introduced the word ‘orthodoxy’ into Jewish discussion. It was the modern ‘progressive’ Jews who first applied this name to ‘old’...” (Cohn-Sherbok 264). The very name ‘Orthodox Judaism’ is a reactionary title given to those Jews who rejected the new and radicalinterpretation of Torah, Jewish lifestyle and Jewish identity that came out of the haskalah movement.
The Haskalah movement encouraged Jews to break out of the bubble of Torah study and to embrace secular disciplines such as art, language, history, philosophy and science. It was a movement that pushed for assimilation into European society through “dress, language, manners and loyalty to the ruling power... The Haskalah was characterized by a scientific approach to religion in which secular culture and philosophy became a central value” (jewishvirtuallibrary.org). Essential sources of classical Jewish study, such as the Talmud, were removed from Haskalah education. The removal of Talmudic studies destroyed the transmission of halakhah which threatened the continuation of a Jewish way of life all together. Indeed, Haskalah philosophy is the mother of the present-day Reformed Judaism, which maintained Jewish identity, but lost a large part of Jewish culture and religious practice.
Naturally, a rejectionist population formed among the newly deemed “Orthodox.” At the same time that Moses Mendelssohn began to teach secularism to the Jewish world, the mystical influences of Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer spread throughout Eastern Europe, inspiring the creation of what is now Hassidism. What we can be certain of is that 18th century Europe was thirsty for a paradigm shift, and the European Jews were thirsty too. Consequently, a split was occurred between the maskilim and traditional Jews – a split that the 21st century Jewish population is still struggling with. Today, the descendents of those who rejected the Haskalah are still fighting against the persuasive waves of assimilation into “modern” society. Innovations in science have quickly inched their way from theories to proven facts of natural systems and origins: Facts that often contradict classical, biblically-based understandings of the nature of the universe. In his book The Challenge of Creation, Rabbi Natan Slifkin writes that most very religious people look upon modern scientific conclusions as “negating G-d’s work” (Slifkin 29). Rejection of “modern” Science is one of the most detrimental causes of environmental ignorance among Torah-Observant Jews. In fact, generally a lack of education of the complexities of the natural and industrial world is the primary cause of world-wide ignorance of detrimental environmental impact. Without a wholesome education of biology and environmental science in Orthodox schools, children do not learn the details of the natural world from a measurably tangible and mathematical point of view. Instead they are infused with a deep love of G-d and the mystery of His creations. And while there is great benefit in an awe-inspired worldview (or as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik describes as “through the eyes of homo religious”), it puts barriers to the ability to be conscious of the physical systems that underlie the universe; thus limiting environmental consciousness.
Although there is another perspective among the Torah-Observant community that is not so blatantly rejectionist to “modern” science – there are some Observant Jews who see the value in science – they are careful, however, to distinguish between proven fact and what is theory. For unanswered scientific questions, and gaps in facts about different natural systems, this group tends to “invoke G-d to fill the gaps of scientific knowledge” (Slifkin 29) in order to maintain integrity to Judaism’s long history is logic but to also maintain their homo religiosus”ness” that is seen as a vital perspective to their faith.
But as gaps in scientific proven-facts have begun to get smaller and smaller, there is simply less room to rely upon the “mystery of G-d” as an explanation. On the other hand, Rabbi Nathan Slifkin presents a different perspective of science that is beginning to take hold in the Torah Observant Community. He sees science as an essential part of religion, and more specifically, Judaism. There are Jewish foundations to modern science that have been forgotten. Without Western Philosophy, he writes, modern science would not have flourished (Slifkin 30). Modern science is based fundamentally upon the assumptions that the Jewish religion brought to the world. The two foundations that hold the modern scientific discipline is the philosophy of “Logic and Structure to the Universe” and “Unity.”
The premise that there is logic and structure to the universe comes from the recognition that there is a designer of the universe. According to Slifkin, Judaism is the religion that brought the world to the understanding that the various events of existence do not just happen independently and at random, but happen because they are based upon a structure of dependence that was fashioned together in-the-beginning by the One G-d.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines science as ‘knowledge convering general
truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the
scientific method.’ But the search for the laws of the universe only makes sense if it is
assumed that such laws exist, that there is structure to the universe. If the control of
the universe is subject to a battle of the gods or the universe is simply chaotic and
random, then there is no reason to assume that there are any laws to be found. (Slifkin 31)
This is in contrast to the Eastern mentality that felt that there is no way we as humans could “unveil” and “read” the “code of Nature’s laws.” This is based upon the underlying doubt that there even is a divine being, “more rational than ourselves,” which could have designed such a code in the first place (Slifkin 31). This insight was based upon the book The Ground Tirtration: Science and Society in the East by Joseph Needham, who is a primary authority on Chinese scientific endeavors.
Unity is the other underlying premise behind the discipline of modern science that Slifkin claims to come from Judaism. There is a Unity of existence, which interconnects everything within it so that no event could happen independently without a cause. Science seeks to discover the systems that created these causes and effects. “When scientists discover something, they don’t settle for knowing what is; they also investigate how it fits in with everything else” (Slifkin 34).
Rabbi Slifkin is echoing the cries that Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon made about nine-hundred years ago. He too called for a convivencia between Torah and Science. According to Maimonides, if modern scientific facts challenge traditional Torah understanding, than it is the Torah understanding that is wrong, not the science. This does not mean that the Torah (including the Talmud) was wrong, but instead means that our understandings were, and that we are to go back and re-study the texts to develop new understandings of what G-d was trying to say through the texts. Rabbi Slifkin, and certainly Maimonides ,are seen as great and respectable figures in the Torah-Observant world. It is important to note here, in reference to the later conversation on the haskalah movement and rejectionism, that many Torah-Observant Jews do not remain so hostile towards science today.
In a series of interviews, I questioned a variety of Torah-Observant Jews on their perspectives of Torah, the environment, and science. I made sure that all of the participants were born and raised from Torah-Observant backgrounds, and were still Torah-Observant when I interviewed them. I interviewed a range that included Chabad shiluchim, Lithuanian Jews, “Hippy” Orthodox, Religious Zionists and a Kabbalist. When asked the question, “How do you feel about the field of Biology?” the answer across the board was: “I think it’s great.” And for the question of “Can a Relgious Jew be a good Biologist?” The answer was “definitely.” Most Torah-Observant Jews today are aware of the dangers of rejecting modern science. They recognize that it is the same science that goes into things such as medicine and agricultural practices in Israel. However, when I asked another question that gave a more defining answer to present-day Jewish sentiments towards science, “Is there was anything about modern science that bothered them,” almost all the participants mentioned that many scientists have “agendas.” Some answers were vaguer, such as, “I like science, as long as it is unbiased.” This implies a picking-and-choosing attitude; the science thatgoes well with Traditional-Jewish perspective is the “unbiased” science without an “agenda,” meaning any bias that challenges Traditional Judaism.
I asked many questions about education. What lessons they remembered from school that had to do with science or the environment? How did their parents teach them about dinosaurs? How old the earth is, versus how old they were taught the earth to be. When asked questions such as “How do you feel about Darwinism?” all of the responses were rejectionary, with the Kabbalist going as far as stating that it “supplied the philosophical basis for Nazism.” There was an interesting range of responses in regards to the question of the existence of dinosaurs and the age of the earth. The Nachlaot couple responded with another question: “Does it matter?” While most others said 5,771 years. Some participants said that there were definitely dinosaurs. Some were more hesitant. The two common answers to the existence of dinosaur bones was 1) the great flood of Noah wiped them out, and the heat of the water aged their bones and that 2) G-d had created a few worlds before this world and the bones were left over from those worlds (a response based upon a midrash).
I asked the question, “Did you study environmental science in grade school? What lesson do you remember most?” The answers were varied. The majority of the participants either said that they didn’t study environmental science in grade-school or that they had no memory of studying it. Only two participants remembered specifically an activity they did in school regarding environmental science. However, no one said that it impacted them in any significant way. The most common response was that their interaction with the environment was based upon what values they learned from their Torah studies, and not from the science program in their grade school. It was unclear as to weather their children were getting a scientific education at school today.
They all expressed a great level of reverence and awe for G-d’s work of creation in the natural world. They say blessing on their food devotedly, and spend time every day thanking G-d for all that they have. Only two participants, who have particular interest is environmentalism, said they recognized anything more than the physicality of their food when they make a blessing. With all the responses I received, and from many previous conversations with Torah-Observant Jews on matters of environmental consciousness, I maintain that the passion and goodwill is there, but the consciousness is lacking due to three main issues. The first is a flawed scientific education that has a shifted focus from the physical workings of the earth to spiritual workings of the earth. Another issue is improperly weighted values; financially sustainable Shabbos joy versus environmentally sustainable Shabbos joy. And lastly, a simple issue of cultural standards of lifestyle.
I believe that it is completely possible for the latter three issues to be resolved halakhically. It only requires a new level of consciousness that includes greater awareness of the Unity of existence. This includes the unity within natural systems on this planet. There must be an increased awareness of cause and effect, from both a spiritual and a physical (scientific) perspective. Currently, all people can see is one link in the chain of effects after a human cause. For example, when there are too many people driving cars then there is lots of car exhaust. In the questionnaire, I asked participants what kind of pollution disturbs them the most and all of them immediately answered “car exhaust.” When asked “why?” they answers only went so deep as to say, “it’s not pleasant for breathing.” No one thought of the CO2 emissions delivered into the atmosphere from the car exhaust. No one thought of how those CO2 emissions change the climate of the earth. No one thought that that climate change leads to drought in some areas of the world (such as Israel) and devastating floods in other parts (South Asia). No one would be able to connect the violent conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians to the car exhaust that bothers them every day. If there would only be an adjustment in the religious education system to a more wholistic framework that focused on interconnnectedness, than I believe there would be great environmental changes in the Torah-Observant world. Truthfully, this could and should be applied to the non-religious world as well.
Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Judaism: history, belief, and practice. London: Routledge, 2003
Khor, Martin. “Global Trends.” Third World Network.12 Nov 2007. Third World Network. 16 May 2011. <http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/gtrends/gtrends180.htm>
Schoenberg, Shira. “The Haskalah.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2011. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 16 May 2011. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Haskalah.html>
Global Surface Temperature Trends. 2006. PEW Center on Global Climate Change. 16 May 2011. <http://www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-basics/facts_and_figures/temp_ghg_trends/temp.cfm>