What are we to do?

by Nigel Savage

Thursday, July 12, 2018 | 29 Tammuz 5778

This is a fresh attempt to explicate the seeming tension between the “Jewish” impact of our work and the “environmental” impact of our work. The question is: “What is the purpose of Jewish environmentalism?” This is a longer essay than usual. I welcome your thoughts and comments.


Dear All,

Tonight is the new moon of Av. This is the start of “the nine days,” the period of the Jewish year in which we contemplate death and destruction – and come out the other side with an important lesson learned.

So this is a good moment to share a revised version of an essay I wrote for Shlomo Ravid in a recent edition of his Peoplehood Papers. I’m trying to address a question whose answer becomes less and less straightforward the more one digs into it: What is the purpose of Jewish environmentalism?

I start simply by noting some of the global challenges. Rising oceans. Pollution, and concomitant rising asthma rates. Loss of biodiversity. Deforestation. Urban sprawl. Depleted fish stocks. Drought. Heat waves. Soil erosion. “Small-scale” wars that take large numbers of lives, turn millions into refugees; and in turn partially destabilize Western democracies. Each of these brief words or phrases is shorthand for damage on a planet-wide scale which (a) has been caused by human civilization, (b) is directly or indirectly damaging human life already, and/or (c) seems likely to get worse before or if it gets better.

Slow-motion tragedies of these sorts become background noise, which we (try to) tune out.  (The people who can’t so easily tune them out because they’re most directly impacted by them are usually poorer than we are and living in poorer countries.) But then something punctuates our consciousness again, whether we want it to or not – 51 dead in storms in Japan; 119 degrees in southern California in early summer.

The tragedy of human insignificance is that these challenges are beyond the ability of any one of us to impact for good. They are intertwined, they are supranational, and they hinge upon the collective daily choices of 7.3 billion people. It is hard enough to allow ourselves to be fully aware of these global challenges. But it is even harder to acknowledge our own impotence in the face of them.

And so for each of us the question is: what am I to do?

To start to answer this, I note that cliches are a truth whose value we don’t notice. In 2009, in the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, I was representing the Jewish people at a gathering of religious leaders from around the world. It was at Windsor Castle. What was I to say? Addressing this audience provoked me to think afresh about what might be a unique Jewish contribution to these issues that confront our world.

I ended up not talking about, for instance, “bal tashchit” (the injunction not to waste, an “obvious” choice but one which is found in many faith traditions). Instead I talked about the centrality of hope in Jewish tradition. And I quoted (freshly) the to-Jewish-ears-often-cliched phrase, “we are not required to complete the task, but we cannot desist from it.” Not every tradition teaches this, or lives it.

Hope as a Jewish value: on Tisha b’Av, every year, we face death and destruction. We mimic our own death. We recount persecutions over many eras. And yet we also, each year, come back to life at mincha. We have a midrash that mashiach, the messiah, will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b’Av.

And Jewish hope is not just ancient or theological. In 1945 a third of the Jews of Europe had been murdered, and we continue to learn (from Fr. Desbois and Tim Snyder and others) the scale and viciousness of the violence meted out upon the Jewish people caught in central and eastern Europe in those years. No escape. No safe place. Murder and tyranny and brutality.

Somehow we bounced back: not just the state of Israel, and its creation and all that it has accomplished. But the Jewish contributions since then in the US, in France and England, in Australia; in the sciences and the arts and business. There are no counterfactuals in real life, but I note that Jewish renewal since the Shoah was neither inevitable nor predetermined. We might have lost faith or given up or blended in. Many of our people, individually, did indeed do one or more of these things. But in aggregate, as a people, our choice has been life and vigor and hope and energy and creation. This is so central to the Jewish story that we don’t even fully notice it – but we should.

I would add that our hope – ha-tikvah, in Hebrew – is not a blind hope, not a rose-tinted hope, not a heads-in-the-sand hope, not a G!d-will-provide hope. It is, rather, a cultural/historical/theological instinct that to have hope is possible, is rooted in our historical experience, and will help to summon up our best selves. Without hope we give in to anomie and apathy and we don’t get out of bed. We avert our gaze, and by our inaction we allow bad things to get worse. With hope and determination we get things done, and we contribute and we start to fix things, even if we know we can’t complete the task.

So hope is real, and it is a choice. It is one of our gifts for the world, at this time of hopelessness. Take some moment to register this, to acknowledge it, to think about it for yourself. The present moment often feels dark. There is slightly too much bad news, coming too quickly, for us to get our balance. In sending this out today, I share with you my own pain and my own fear, but also my own increasing clarity that to choose hope is actually an important thing to do.

So then, after this, after “choosing hope” – then what?

First: there really is a unique Jewish contribution that we can, could, and should make to the challenges that face the world right now. Understanding hope as a Jewish value is just one, but there are many others.

And secondly: bringing that Jewish contribution to public fruition will also strengthen Jewish life.

For most of you reading this I’m going to assume not merely a familiarity with Jewish thought and Jewish life but, possibly, an overfamiliarity. Part of the gift of the environmental challenges is that they prompt us to view Jewish tradition freshly. Not through the eyes of an educator, a rabbi, a “Jewish leader,” and thus not through the prisms of “the Israel/diaspora relationship” or “the challenges of day schools” or “how do we engage our young people” but rather through the prisms of our identities as human beings, as Jewish citizens of the world. And, perhaps, as parents or grandparents – those prisms are especially salient, because even if you or I may not be alive in 2100, the kids being born today should be. And what world will we bequeath to them?

When we bust out of our overfamiliarity, key elements of Jewish tradition burst through in a new way. This is true of committing to a huge task, even if we can’t complete it. It is true of hope, as a Jewish choice and a Jewish value. Here are two more elements of Jewish tradition that read freshly in this moment.


Relationship to land and to place

You would be hard-pressed to name any great “environmentalist” who was not or is not very firmly grounded in relationship to place. For John Muir (the founder of the Sierra Club, and one of the great 19th century naturalists) it was California and the Sierra Nevada. For Alfred Wainwright, 70 years later, it was the English Lake District. For Wendell Berry (arguably the greatest living environmental writer) it is Henry County, Kentucky, where he lives, on land that his family has farmed for five generations.

We have learned the hard way – not least from the French and Russian revolutions – that we should be wary of those who love “people” in abstract, but are not grounded in love and respect for the uniqueness of individual people in practice. Far too many people have been murdered in the name of a nominally idealistic or altruistic ideology.

And I think the same is true with relationship to land. For we may love “the world,” but the world is slightly too large a place fully to connect with. In some sense there is no “world” as there is no “humankind.” We learn love by loving someone, somewhere, sometime, and caring about them, and giving to them. We must love some patch of the earth, and be in relationship with it, in a not too dissimilar way.

And as soon as one thinks in these terms – as soon as one realizes how fundamentally true this is, and how important for the well-being of the world – we realize how remarkable is the Jewish commitment to the land of Israel. We understand rather sharply that we have more in common with the indigenous peoples of the world than we do with most citizens of Britain or France or the United States. And unlike any of the world’s other indigenous peoples – almost all of whom have been almost irreparably damaged by their confrontation with modernity and colonialism – we have traveled through all these countries, all these centuries, and yet twenty centuries after the destruction of the second Temple we still love this land, face it when we pray, travel to it, care for it, visit Israel, live in Israel. That the state of Israel is the only country in the world to end the twentieth century with more trees than it began – this is not an obscure factoid. It is not “hasbara.” It is a deep and truthful and fascinating and significant reflection of what happens when you ally a deep connection to a particular place with reverence for land and for living things and the notion that our Torah is etz chayim, a tree of life. I’m saying kaddish every day and the words of the daily prayers are about Jerusalem, rebuilding Jerusalem, facing Jerusalem, psalms about the land, natural metaphors. No wonder that we traveled to Pumpedita and Baghdad, Salonika and Constantinople, Alexandria and Fustat and Worms, York, Krakow, not to mention Shanghai and Buenos Aires and Melbourne and Manhattan and Manchester – and still, as we returned to the land of Israel, planted trees and planted trees and planted trees. The JNF blue boxes were a twentieth century icon, but they came after nineteen prior centuries of prayer and learning. (In an ironic postscript, I learned from Dr. Alon Tal that some of the earlier chalutzim planted the wrong trees – monoculture pine stands that were not well-suited to the land of Israel. But for the last twenty or thirty years Israeli tree-experts have been slowly fixing this. This is honest work and good ecology – na’aseh v’nishmah in a real way.)

There’s a straight line from the JNF and KKL and the blue box and planting trees to the work of Yosef Abramowitz and Energiya Global. Israel is one of the densest countries in the world in population. It has not much land, even less growable land, and very little water. And the environmental challenges that Israel has faced in the last thirty years will become chronic in a third of the world in the next thirty. And so, lo and behold, the work that Yosef did a dozen years ago, in founding Arava Power – to try to help fix Israel’s environmental challenges – is now being applied in Africa and elsewhere. This is precisely what it means to begin with love for a particular place – our people’s ancient homeland – and then apply it to make the whole world a better place.

So in two senses, I think that connection to the land of Israel is critical to a Jewish response to the environmental challenges of our time. First, simply that we must all strive to love land, to love our own land, however defined, more deeply. As Jewish people we now, for the first time, actually have a choice, and we are exercising it – not either/or, but both/and. We have the choice to love the land of Israel, and specific parts of it, and engage there. And we may also take those lessons of the tradition and apply them in – for instance – Falls Village, CT, or Reisterstown, MD, or on the Berkeley/Oakland border, or in the Jewish commons in Boulder, or at Shoresh in Toronto. The love of Zion and the reverence for the land of Israel in Jewish tradition is a strong basis for engaging the largest issues of our time. It’s significant for us, and it offers a new way of being or l’goyim, a light to the nations, in the 2020s and beyond.


Shabbat, shmita, and cycles of rest in Jewish tradition

Just as with Jewish relation to place; so too with Jewish relation to time. I will not labor this point. I hope it will have become gradually obvious to people who have read some of what we have worked on these last ten or fifteen years. But the intra-Jewish conversation about Shabbat (“I keep it”; “I don’t”; “I do this”, “I do that”) is far too small, and it misses the larger and more significant point. And shmita as an idea isn’t for most people even part of an intra-Jewish conversation; for most people it has been ignored in any serious way until the last shmita year in 2014-’15, when it started to break through into public consciousness in a growing number of places.

But it is now clear that “24/7” is overconsuming the world and burning us out and damaging families and communities. The teachings in Jewish tradition about Shabbat and shmita seem to me like some medicine used by a small Amazonian tribe that, in the Harrison Ford movie, now turns out to be able to save the world from this nearly fatal avian flu. There, in plain view, developed by one people, relevant and useful now to everyone, everywhere – if we can cultivate and propagate the seed and the idea and the different ways of bringing these ideas to actuality. When we think about the potential Jewish contribution to the world, a key part of what we have to do is not just reducing our own carbon footprint; it is at least as vital, and maybe far more so, to take key Jewish ideas out of their small boxes and into public space.


The paradox of Jewish impact

Hope is a potential gift to the whole world. So is halacha as a frame for the teaching of self-restraint. Our relationship to Israel and trees and Shabbat and shmita – these are all potential gifts for the world.

I hope and believe – and intend, by my work and Hazon’s work and that of a growing number of our friends and partners in the world of Jewish, Outdoor, Food, Farming  & Environmental Education (JOFEE) – that in the coming years and decades we will contribute to the world in material and practical ways. This is happening through the Hazon Seal of Sustainability, and by addressing the food we eat and through the Israeli water and clean-tech entrepreneurs and many others.

But the greatest impact of this work, these last two decades is not, paradoxically, on the world; it’s on the Jewish community itself. Not everyone cares about the world or the environment or sustainable food systems. But of those who do – including many of the best and the brightest of our teens and 20-somethings – these passions are leading them through the doorways of new institutions. In North America, Hazon (including Adamah and Teva and our Hazon Seal of Sustainability and our work catalyzing the Jewish Food Movement) but also Eden Village and Milk and Honey Farm and Pearlstone and Shoresh and Urban Adamah and a wonderful proliferation of projects all over the place. And in Israel the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and Chava v’Adam Farm, and Harduf and Heschel and Teva Ivri and a bunch of other projects and people and initiatives.

Hamlet’s phrase – actually his explicit intention – was “by indirections find directions out.” The positive impact of these initiatives on Jewish life is dependent on the seriousness of our environmental commitment. If they are instrumental – merely a step towards strengthening “Jewish identity” – they will not succeed. If they are not truly grounded (as, happily, they are) in a serious commitment to effecting change in the world then they will not also have the Jewish impact that in fact they do have.

And yet the final paradox, is that the greatest contribution of the Jewish people may not be in clean tech or planting trees, but rather in sharing core Jewish teachings much more deeply and widely across the world. Because now we all need hope, and we all need Shabbat, and we all need halacha as a form of voluntary self-restraint, and we all need to learn that it is not our responsibility to complete the task – nor can we ignore it. The work of greening institutions, the work of engendering new Jewish leaders who integrate sustainability in serious ways into their life and work, and the work of strengthening Jewish teaching – these turn out to be part of a single eco-system, a single means of having impact.


The end and the beginning 

I want to end by noting that this core challenge – that not everything we can do, should we do – lies at the absolute center of the environmental crises, of the challenge of 21st century life, and of our potential responses to these challenges. On the one hand, (and in another paradox) we must lobby governments to introduce legislation to cure us of our own worst behaviors – factory-farmed chickens, plastic bags, oil and gas sold without a substantial tax to reduce consumption and to cover its true public costs.

But we also cannot legislate by government fiat all the restraints that we actually need, and nor should we. So “religion,” widely construed, will have a vital role to play in trying to help the world’s people build a better future in the coming decades. We are all too familiar with the negative role that religion has played and can play in recent years. But we too easily forget – or didn’t notice in the first place – the gifts of religion in general and of Jewish tradition in particular.

The Hazon Seal of Sustainability is now in 63 institutions, with more lined up to join. We’re deadly serious in wanting to take several hundred and then several thousand institutions through it. We’re serious about wanting, in due course, to work with other faith institutions to develop robust and systemic mechanisms for change. Similarly the work of Adamah and Teva and so much else that Hazon does is about the slow patient work of integrating core questions about sustainability into the deep fabric of Jewish life. Increasingly the challenge of our generation will also be about adaptation – and that word and that concept represents, to me, not accommodation, but rather a serious commitment to critique ourselves, to face reality, and to adjust and adapt.

So these nine days, leading up to Tisha b’Av: this is the time to face destruction, of all sorts in the world – and to come out launched towards Rosh Chodesh Elul, the period of our teshuva, being our best selves. Pick one aspect of destruction in the world. Try to learn, to act, and to advocate. Pick something to do with food or transportation and start #livingthechange in your life and in your community. Choose hope. Pitch in, even if we can’t complete the task. Keep Shabbat, more deeply. Love some part of the land of Israel, and some part of the land where you live. Join me at Isabella Freedman this Labor Day for our New York Ride & Retreat – a chance to push yourself, to make a difference in the world, and to have great fun in the process. And think about the shmita year that starts in September 2021, and start to think about how your life will be different that year, and the life of your family and your institution or community.

I hope and pray that, as each year goes by, we learn our tradition more deeply; we deepen our sense of being part of the Jewish people, with unique gifts to share in the world; we address environmental challenges more directly; we see the actual and potential significance of Israel through fresh eyes; and so we thus, in aggregate, add a new chapter to the history of the Jewish people. This is what it is to take Torah from Zion out into the world – making a better world for everyone, and in so doing also strengthening Jewish life and the Jewish people. Kein yehi ratzon.

Chodesh tov, Shabbat shalom,