Judaism: From Planting Trees To Eliminating Coal – OpEd


Tens of thousands of climate activists around the world are set to march, chant and protest on the same weekend that Jews worldwide celebrate the Jewish New Year of 5784. The call for an end to the burning of planet-warming fossil fuels as our planet suffers dramatic weather extremes and record-breaking heat is the result of a United Nations warning that countries are way behind the goal to curb warming to a 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times, as agreed in Paris in 2015. 

The world has already warmed at least 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 2015. Last July was the hottest month ever on record, and the Northern Hemisphere summer was declared the hottest on record.

The Jewish view is that ” The earth is the Lord’s, and all that it holds”, (Psalm 24), and as Psalm 115 says, “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth He has given to the children of Adam.” Biblical views of the natural world begin with radical amazement at the very existence of a universe that is vast and infinitely varied. 

It is the job of humanity to be the stewards of our planet. So we human beings owe a debt of gratitude for the world we inhabit, which provides us with both sustenance and pleasures. Treasuring the products of divine creation, then, is an occasion for us to acknowledge our Creator.

In our role as tenders and tillers of the living world and consumers of its produce we are called upon to exercise reverential care for natural resources. In its legal culture as well as its ethical literature, Judaism takes note of the need to care for the natural environment. 

Jewish law forbids the destruction of natural resources, taking its cue from a biblical prohibition against cutting down fruit trees even when laying siege to a city in warfare. The biblical law of a sabbatical year every seventh year, during which all land lies fallow, is an embodiment of an insight about environmental sustainability.

Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, is the only western religion to have a special day to plant trees. Tu Bishvat or the “birthday” of all fruit trees, was simply a tree planting festival until the 16th century, when the Kabbalists (mystics of Safed) in the Land of Israel created a new ritual to celebrate Tu Bishvat called the Feast of Fruits. 

Modeled on the Passover seder, participants would read selections from the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, and would eat fruits and nuts traditionally associated with the land of Israel. 

Participants in the kabbalistic seder would also drink four cups of wine: white wine (to symbolize winter), white with some red (a harbinger of the coming of spring); red with some white (early spring) and finally all red (spring and summer). 

For environmentalists, Tu Bishvat is an ancient Jewish connection to contemporary ecological issues. The holiday is viewed as an appropriate occasion to educate Jews about their tradition’s advocacy of responsible stewardship of God’s creation, manifested in ecological activism. Tu Bishvat is an opportunity to raise awareness about and to care for the environment through the teaching of Jewish sources celebrating nature. 

It is also a day to focus on the environmental sensitivity of the Jewish tradition by planting trees wherever Jews may live. The Tu Bishvat seder has greatly increased in popularity in recent years. Celebrated as a congregational event, the modern Tu Bishvat seder is multi-purpose. While retaining some kabbalistic elements  it still connects participants to the land of Israel the seder today is imbued with an ecological message.

Environmental considerations also underlie the institution of a sabbatical year. The Torah, as understood by the Jewish tradition, requires that every seventh year, Jews farming in the Land of Israel should let their land lie fallow; and that debts (incurred in biblical times by farmers when crops were insufficient) be forgiven. 

After seven sabbatical cycles, a Jubilee year is to be observed, during which all agricultural  landholdings revert to their original owners or their heirs. These laws provide a mechanism for leveling great differences of wealth in society: in addition, they seem to embody a legal principle that the earth is owned not by its human occupants but by its Creator. In the words of Leviticus 25:23, which provide a motivating clause for the preceding sabbatical and jubilee laws: “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”

Zionists also saw Tu Bishvat as an opportunity to celebrate their tree-planting efforts to restore the ecology of ancient Israel by planting over 200 million trees; and as a symbol of the renewed growth and flowering of the Jewish people returning to their ancestral homeland.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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