Preserving nature is central to Judaism as seen in many of its rituals. Jewish environmental anthropologist Jeremy Benstein talked to Global Ideas about how his religion’s holy texts translate to modern times.
DW: Passover has just finished in Israel. Many Jewish holidays have a strong connection to nature. Can you explain that?
Jeremy Benstein: Basically we just finished a holiday of Passover and, on the one hand there are the deeply spiritual values, talking about freedom from slavery and redemption in the world. But, there are also a lot of dealings with issues of everyday life, many of which have environmental implications. Most of the Jewish holidays have a connection to the seasonal times of the year, to the lunar cycle or connecting us in some way to living in nature.
Jeremy Benstein is an environmental anthropologist in Tel Aviv who studies the connection between religion, culture and sustainability
And the Halakha, the Jewish law, that is guiding our actions also has a wealth of information about how to shape our physical environment and how to deal with issues that we would call environmental, whether it be waste reduction, pollution, biodiversity preservation, or how we relate to open spaces or water resources. The answer is that there are many references and the more one looks, the more one finds. The more one knows how to phrase one’s questions, the more one realizes how over the course of centuries different thoughts have developed, but often under different labels and different categories of thought.
Where do we find those references ?
It’s difficult to separate between what is written in the Torah and what is written in the Halakha, which has its roots in the Torah. It is all over, for example the creation story begins with that. In Genesis Chapter 2, the human being is put in the Garden, to work it and to watch it, to serve nature and to preserve it. You can write a whole book about the implications, what it means, what are we guarding nature from, what is the balance. And if you look at Chapter 1 of the Genesis, it tells us to dominate the earth, and there the question arises on how do we reconcile that with preserving which is right in the next chapter.
One of the places where people might not necessarily look is that there is a huge section of the Talmud that is known as the order of damages. It regulates human behavior and how they relate to each other. But there are also many laws on how people affect one another through the medium of the environment. For example, when it comes to where to put dangerous waste - which was in Talmudic times broken glass or thorns or things like that which could cause injury - and what do you do with it when you put it in the public sphere? So it is not at all a far jump if you look at current days when you have factories that put poison into the water or the air. And if the Talmud would be part of the legislation today, and I am not advocating it, then we ld have much stricter air pollution restrictions or regulations today.
Could you give us an example ?
There is this value, this very central Jewish environmental value "al tashchit" which means you should not destroy, you should not waste. It comes from Deuteronomy Chapter 20, where the original commandment is not to cut down fruit trees at a given time of war. If you need wood for waging a war, for making a siege on another town, you are forbidden to cut down the fruit trees and there is a whole discussion about why and what the reason is for that. There are two environmental possibilities: One is that our life is dependent on the fruit on the trees for the long term, and so you shouldn't lose long term benefits for a short term gain. And, the other reason is that the trees are innocent. They are not part of your conflict. If you are waging a war with somebody else you shouldn't involve nature, which is a very environmental approach that we don't see very often in contemporary militaries.
How do these ancient provisions translate to today's world?
Very often, what you find in Judaism, and that is what frustrates a lot of people, is that you have a very sort of archaic original source and you ask yourself – ‘ what does that have to do with recycling or waste reduction today?’ And the answer is that over the centuries, people have decided on what is the core idea here and they said that we shouldn't really destroy anything in nature that doesn't have a very clear and direct purpose to improving our long-term well being.
Holy texts explore themes that are relevant today, but they are interpreted in different ways according to religion and approach
And that gradually led to it being applied in, for example, cases of waste. That you are not supposed, for instance, to live a life that is overly luxurious, if you can live a more frugal or more economical life, because you are wasting your resources. For example, you shouldn't do things like, as a Talmudic verse says, you shouldn't cause an oil lamp to burn its oil faster than you need it. The idea of using too much energy resources when you don't need to is a value.
Some environmentalists say that even the weekly holiday of Sabbath does have an environmental aspect to it. Is that a modern way of looking at it?
Sabbath is not exactly an environmental category like waste or pollution, but on some level it is. One of the things is that an environmentalist is not just critical about our abuse of physical resources. If you look a bit deeper at the way we structure our society, there is a lot of over-work and under-employment in our world, there is an economy we have created that is interested in growth. And we have to continue to produce and grow rather than to develop, which is not necessarily growth. So first of all, the whole idea of instituting a day of rest in the world comes from the Sabbath, and it is pretty common that you have a day off, if not two. In Israel, we try to take that a step further and say maybe we should also have a day of no consumption, not only off from the hours of production. And maybe we should have a day where the focus isn't on shopping and buying and acquiring and having more stuff. That is close to the ideal of a traditional Sabbath.
It’s rare to be able to return bottles for recycling in Israel. A recycling container could change that.
I think that consumption is clearly what we have to deal with as an environmental issue in the 21st century. Some of these traditional Sabbath restrictions - observant Jews refraining from using all kinds of labor-saving devices such as washing machines or dishwashers and not driving cars – from the outside this might look kind of extreme or esoteric. The fact is, it is not just rest for a person, but it is also a rest for the world, all the things that you are forbidden to do are things that have a negative impact on the environment like using electricity and other sources of energy and creating waste and pollution and things like that. So the Sabbath, in its number of dimensions, is a very environmentally significant day.