Why Earth Day is a Jewish Holiday

It sounds suspiciously pagan, but the Hebrew Bible is replete to references to our responsibility to the environment.

April 22 is Earth Day. The very name makes many Jews nervous.

A specialday to celebrate the Earth sounds suspiciously pagan, bringing to mindimages of Druids conducting fertility rites at Stonehenge or modern witchesdancing to invoke nymphs in a misty forest glade. Perhaps what makes us sowary of this modern festival, first celebrated in 1970, is the idea ofintroducing the Earth as a "being" or moral agent with its own needs andmystical powers.

And yet, ironically, the Bible is full of references to the way in which theEarth responds to the behavior of the people who live on it. The book ofLeviticus, for example, warns the Children of Israel that immorality willcause the Land of Israel to "vomit" them out (Lev. 18:24-28, 20:22).

In theshema prayer, it describes both the earthly benefits - rain, fertility andabundance - for listening to the commandments and loving God, and the costs- drought and famine - for ignoring God's word (Deut. 11: 13-21). Onecompelling way to read this text is to think of it as suggesting that amajor way for us, as individuals and as a society, to judge our actions andpolicies is by their environmental consequences.

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The shema warns: "Beware that your heart be deceived and you turn and serveother Gods and worship them" (Deut. 11:16). The "other Gods" need not beidols, but could just as well be the idolizing of wealth and power thatoften has profound negative environmental consequences. As we know,corruption and oppression frequently lead to poverty and hunger. Thepoorest people often pay the price of pollution, drought and deforestation.

For example, Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen demonstratedin his book "Poverty and Famines" that many of the major famines of thetwentieth century were not caused by a lack of food, but were due topolitical and economic inequalities that prevented poor people fromobtaining it.

Likewise, much of the deforestation of tropical rainforests is driven by acombination of political and economic insecurities, leading powerful peopleto liquidate invaluable natural resources, and put their personal interestsabove the basic interests of their people and the long-term interests oftheir countries. And the extreme poverty of landless peasants explains whythey cut down the very forest that is the only enduring basis for theirfuture material well being.

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