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.

BY: Robert Rabinowitz


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

A special day to celebrate the Earth sounds suspiciously pagan, bringing to mind images of Druids conducting fertility rites at Stonehenge or modern witches dancing to invoke nymphs in a misty forest glade. Perhaps what makes us so wary of this modern festival, first celebrated in 1970, is the idea of introducing the Earth as a "being" or moral agent with its own needs and mystical powers.

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

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

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

For example, Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen demonstrated in his book "Poverty and Famines" that many of the major famines of the twentieth century were not caused by a lack of food, but were due to political and economic inequalities that prevented poor people from obtaining it.

Likewise, much of the deforestation of tropical rainforests is driven by a combination of political and economic insecurities, leading powerful people to liquidate invaluable natural resources, and put their personal interests above the basic interests of their people and the long-term interests of their countries. And the extreme poverty of landless peasants explains why they cut down the very forest that is the only enduring basis for their future material well being.

In fact, almost every environmental challenge we face has its roots in pervasive social imbalances, from pollution and water shortages to falling bio-diversity and global warming. In a way, our natural environment is acting as a barometer of the spiritual and ethical health of our societies.

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