תְּשַׁלַּח רוּחֲךָ יִבָּרֵאוּן וּתְחַדֵּשׁ פְּנֵי אֲדָמָה 

“Sending Your Spirit, Your breath, all creatures come to life, and You renew the face of the Earth.” (Psalms 104:30)

The greatest challenge of this century and perhaps the coming centuries will be to address global climate disruption. For humanity to meet this challenge, we need to de-center humanity and re-center the principle of Life in all being, that is, the biosphere, or Gaia.[2]

Addressing climate disruption is not just another tikkun olam cause on our checklist.[3] The central message and purpose of the Torah is to create a people that serves the land, living in harmony will all creatures—human and not-human—and treats all justly. No technological solution alone will long release us from the current predicament, unless we find a way to rectify our relationship to the world. Here we will explore that central message of Torah and how we went astray from it, and suggest how our people can return to the mission Torah gave us.

The Central Message of Torah

The global scope of the climate change may be new, but the kind of tragedy we face is not new. In fact, Israelite religion and civilization arose in the long shadow of the ecological collapse of Mesopotamia. In world history, Sumer, the ancient civilization that invented writing and the plow, destroyed its agricultural land when the soil became impregnated with salt, leading to the abandonment of what were once among the most fertile lands known to humanity. In our Torah story,  Abraham and Sarah leave Mesopotamia behind to come to Canaan.

Our ancestors understood that the destruction of what we call the environment or Nature was both possible and real. That is why the Torah begs us to “choose Life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19). This is an invitation, but it is also a warning to human beings to restrain our destructive power. That call to restraint is trumpeted in myriad ways by the Torah. For example, the Torah forbids taking a parent bird and its young together because, as the medieval commentator Nahmanides explained, to do that is to act like someone who would willingly cause the extinction of a species (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The Torah forbids cutting down fruit trees, because destroying the trees that freely provide food to all is not only unsustainable, it is repaying goodness with evil (Deuteronomy 20:19). The rabbis also understood the possibility of ecological collapse, for they imagined God showing the first human the trees of the garden, and saying, “Don’t destroy my world, for if you do, no one will come after you to fix it” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).

Torah laid out a plan for a civilization that would be sustainable, that would align with the needs of the land, as the second paragraph of the Shema exhorts, “so that your days and the days of your children on the land will increase” (Deuteronomy 11:21). In this civilization, agriculture would be radically different than Mesopotamia’s. The centrality of a different kind of agriculture in Torah is already signaled in the second story of Creation, which tells us—three times!—that humanity’s purpose is to serve the land, la’avod et ha’adamah (Genesis 2:5, 2:15, 3:23). The adam, the first human, comes from the adamah, the soil, and its purpose is to serve the adamah. We mistranslate and misinterpret the clear directive to serve the land, saying instead that God tells us to “work the land,” or in other words, that we should make the land serve us.[4]

Shabbat and Shemita

The plan for this new agriculture is rooted in the story of Creation and the Sabbath, which is Creation’s climax. “In remembrance of creation” (“zikaron lema’asei bereishit,” as we say in the Shabbat evening kiddush), and imitating God (Exodus 20:7-8), we let all of Nature rest from our manipulation one day in seven. Shabbat was an opportunity to practice, weekly, for living a full year in Sabbath, in the seventh or Shemita year. Shemita means “release”, and in that seventh year, the Torah tells us, our fields are not ours. Their fruits belong again to the wild animals (Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:7), all people can take what they want from our fields (Leviticus 25:6). From this principle, the rabbis learned that we must take down our fences, and that we can only eat in our homes what the wild animals can find in the fields (Mishnah Shevi’it 7:1, 9:2-6; Rashi on Leviticus 25:7; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shemitah 4:24, 7:6).

Shmita was a plan for freedom for the Earth and all her inhabitants, human and not-human. It was also a plan for human liberation, since servitude as a solution to poverty was only allowed to last for a maximum of six years.

During the Shemita year, when humanity would share all food, hoarding and storing food to sell was strictly forbidden (Mishnah Shevi’it 8:3). Then at the end of the Shemita year, after a whole year of food justice and food socialism, after a whole year of remodeling our relationships with each other, all debts were canceled (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). The Shemita year itself is practice for the year after the seventh Shemita, the Yovel or Jubilee, when the land is redistributed in a manner that gave every family an equal portion. In that year, radical land reform goes hand-in-hand with radical freedom for all human beings, and so the Torah commands us “to proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all her inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10).

The Good Life

The good life to be lived was one of sharing, generosity, acceptance of all people, and reverence for all life. The lesson to be learned was this: we are “strangers” in the land, which belongs not to us but to the Creator (Leviticus 25:23). A powerful social justice lesson was also rooted in this lesson: the person we don’t know, the refugee or foreigner whom we might label a stranger, is no different than ourselves, for we are also strangers (Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34). This is why our central story is that our existence as a people was forged in Egypt, where we arrived as strangers and were forced into slavery.

As we can see, the Israelites didn’t just believe in one God, or in their special relationship with God. They believed in a covenant that demanded of them a different kind of agriculture that would treat the land as sacred, as a subject with rights and needs and desires. And they believed in a direct covenant between God and the land: the land’s desires, according to the Torah, were to come before our own needs. God’s covenant with the land is foreshadowed in the rainbow covenant after the Flood, which is not a covenant specifically with humanity, but a covenant with the land and with all creatures (Genesis 9:9-17).

The Consequences of not Revering the Earth

God’s covenantal obligation to the land is why the consequence of failing to observe Shemita is exile. Even though exile sounds like a punishment, it was most importantly a solution for fulfilling the need of the land to rest (Leviticus 26:34-35, 43). Living in exile was also a refresher lesson for us about being strangers, after which we could return and fulfill the mission.

The Torah’s plan was to create a living society where the people served the land not just through ritual but through justice. This was the mission of the civilization that formed the Jewish people. It is a mission for which the land of Canaan was uniquely suited:

For the land that you are coming to is not like the land of Egypt, which you came out from, where you sowed your seed and gave drink with your foot (by pumping water from the Nile), like a garden of greens. [For] the land where you are passing over to is a land of mountains and valleys – through the rain of the heavens will she drink water. (Deuteronomy. 11:10–11)

The Torah teaches that this land of promise was under God’s special care, that “the eyes of YHVH your God are continually upon her” (Deut. 11:12). This mystical-sounding relationship describes a simple ecological reality: as a hilly, arid land that is only watered by rainfall, Canaan could quickly succumb to drought. Imagined from a divine perspective, this meant that God was continually assessing whether the people merited rain.

Canaan’s rain-fed agriculture was the opposite of the land of Egypt, which could be sustained by the Nile’s flooding and the technology of the pedal pump, and also the opposite of the land of Mesopotamia, which could be watered by canals dug from the Tigris and Euphrates to the fields. No matter the state of the weather or the state of justice, those lands could go on producing for centuries without rain, until finally Egypt got its proverbial seven years of famine and its ten all-consuming plagues, or until Mesopotamia’s soil became so salinized that it had to be abandoned.

Unlike those river-fed agricultures, the feedback loop in Canaan was short and swift — the loop might be closed, the consequences felt, within a season or two. Our ancestors craved that kind of intimacy with God, even though it may sound judgmental to our ears. The very fact that everyone’s tenure was tenuous is what made Canaan/Israel/Palestine a holy land.

A New Relationship to the Earth and Everything In It

We often think of climate change as the consequence of industrialization, but the long view is that it is equally the consequence of agriculture, which brings with it the loss of forests as vast as continents, and the loss of habitat for multitudes of creatures. Everywhere we go, we act like invasive species, driving native plants and animals to extinction, ending whole ecosystems. This is the sixth mass extinction, the culmination of the Anthropocene era—the geological era of “no Shabbat”, in which humanity became a force so great as to change the planet itself.[5]

Another world was possible. The Torah’s mission, our ancestor’s vision, God’s commission, was for the seed of Abraham and Sarah to realize that world, and thereby to avert the catastrophe that is the Anthropocene, a catastrophe that began with Sumer. We failed in that mission more than once in ancient times, and it is a mission in which we are failing now. Our “Jewish state” uproots olive groves and demolishes homes as a way to wage low-intensity war on people who may be strangers to us, but who are not strangers to the land. Meanwhile, even though the Jewish people has returned to “the land,” the mission on whose success everything else rests, the mission of justice for the land and for all her inhabitants, waits to be fulfilled. Is another world still possible? That is an open question.

How Did We Get Here, and What Can Lead Us Out?

To have a chance at creating a sustainable world, we will also need to plumb other questions. How did Western civilization, carrying along with it so many cultures and other civilizations, arrive at this point from a spiritual and psychological perspective? What assumptions were made about the Earth, about human life, about other creatures, about God? What did we human beings ignore or minimize in order to serve our own aggrandizement? And what stopped the Jewish people from fulfilling our mission? To my mind and heart, these questions are essential to answer.

As for the last question, about what stopped the Jewish people from fulfilling our mission, here are a few ideas to consider:

  1. The rabbis decided that in a time of exile, the biblical commandment of Shemita to release the land was itself annulled, even in the land of Israel. That means, paradoxically, that the condition of exiles that was supposed to motivate us to re-establish our connection to Shemita and the land had the opposite effect.
  2. The cancellation of debts at the end of the seventh year, which was the only Shemita rule that applied outside the land, was effectively annulled by Hillel’s “prozbul” decree that enabled debts to be collected after the seventh year (Mishnah Shevi’it 10:3). 
  3. Furthermore, as we became distant from the land, we internalized assumptions about the superiority of humanity, about the belief that we stand in the place of God, ruling over Creation, about the radical separation of Spirit from bodies, of human beings from the other animals, etc., including the relatively modern idea that humans but no other animals have souls.[6] To a large degree, these and similar assumptions come to us from outside of our tradition, from Greek philosophy and Hellenism, from the Enlightenment, and from modernity.
  4. We cannot underestimate how exile and persecution themselves made it hard to hold onto a vision of a radically new social order. While the Jewish people kept the hope intact, we mostly lost sight of the details. And so we returned to the land in a state of katnut, diminished consciousness, with often tragic consequences.

Part of the process for restoring our mission and our consciousness may be to free Judaism from the accretion of Western assumptions. Another part of the process will be to reconstruct the Torah’s original message. That message, at least on its surface, seems to say that only human beings are in the image of God. As mentioned, Kabbalah can help us rectify this apparent flaw. More shockingly however, the Tanakh (especially the Book of Joshua) tells us that the way the Israelites endeavored to start a radically new society was to commit genocide against the seven Canaanite nations. It is critical to note that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence that such a genocide ever happened. But even just as a story, it poisons the mission. Zionism has come full circle as more and more Jews turn to the experience of exile, of galut, to re-ground our story wholly in the command to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:34).

The Fullness of the Earth

It is also true that while in exile, we accomplished great things, and created new resources that may help us in our mission. For example, Kabbalah found God’s image in the structure of Creation itself, seeing humanity as being in God’s image because it was in the image of Creation (Yosef Ashkenazi, Commentary on Genesis Rabbah).[7] Maimonides urged us to completely reject anthropocentrism, and he saw the whole universe as a single being that is alive (Guide for the Perplexed 3:13, 1:72).[8] Moshe Cordovero demanded that we take responsibility for the lives and souls of every being that we use to sustain ourselves, whether plant or animal (Tomer Devorah, end of ch. 2, ch.3).[9]

Some teachers of Hasidism, including the Baal Shem Tov, also took the (not very helpful) Lurianic idea that physical reality trapped divine sparks, and turned it upside down, believing that divinity could flame forth from within the physical realm.[10] And Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine) all gave us powerful language for rejecting the commodification of the world and lifting up the holiness of pure relation and wonder and love.[11] There is also today a vibrant Jewish environmental/farming/wilderness scene in North America, alongside innovative work in theology and ritual, including many feminist voices from institutions like the Kohenet Institute. All of this adds up to a deep revaluation of Judaism.[12]

Revaluing what we have learned and are learning in exile can also help us strip the tarnish from older ideas that were in themselves magnificent. For example, the Hasidic turn towards divinity in the physical realm can help illuminate the meaning of Isaiah 6:3, which is usually translated as “Holy, holy, holy is Adonai Tseva’ot, the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” Firstly, notice that the glory of God is not found in the angelic hosts but on Earth, as the angels themselves declare. Then, we also need to correct the translation, which should be “the fullness of the Earth is God’s glory.” “Fullness” doesn’t just mean that God’s glory is everywhere; it means that the diversity and abundance of life IS God’s glory.[13]

As for the other questions, about our relationship to Earth and life and other creatures and God: We need to remodel our thinking and feeling, to re-forge our relationship to the more-than-human realm of Nature.

The temptation will be to do the opposite, to rely on old ideas about how technology and mastery will save us. This is unavoidable, because we will need to manage the Earth more and more intensely as we strive to limit the tragic consequences of climate change.

Spiritual Resources

Such stewardship comes with great spiritual risks as long as other creatures’ lives and survival are in our hands. However, as we connect with and care for other species, we may also find ways to connect to that part of ourselves that still belongs to the proverbial garden of Eden. Even as we may have to “say Kaddish” for many species (how does one even say Kaddish for a whole species?), it will take all our spiritual resources to overcome grief and numbness, to stay connected to both the task and to the hope we need to carry it out.

There are Jewish voices from the past that we can lean on, like Maimonides or Cordovero or Buber. And we can integrate the wonderful flowering of new ideas in the secular and broader religious world, including theology about Gaia[14], the personification of our planet (about which Maimonides has much to say, as noted above), and ecopsychology[15], which explores how the more-than-human world teaches us to inhabit our humanity, and the sciences of ecology and evolutionary biology, which teach us so deeply about the connections between all beings in the Tree of Life.[16] In this fragile moment, we are called to utilize every available resource, in a process many ecological writers call “The Great Turning,” to undertake to shift society away from industrialization and towards sustainability.[17]

Restoring Ourselves to the Natural World

In order for humanity to turn back from defacing the Earth, we must turn to behold the Earth’s face. When we do so, we are reaching towards much more than a solution to the climate crisis. We may restore ourselves to the natural world, re-tune our senses to the many creatures that surround us, and reclaim our companionship with the other animals. We may re-root the diversity of our humanity in the diversity of Life itself.[18] We may re-ignite passion as full as the Song of Songs, where love between two people is sung in harmony with the hills and mountains, and interwoven with love for the birds and foxes and flowers. And as we renew the face of the Earth, we may restore ourselves to God, who is after all not just in the image of human beings, but in the image of all the innumerable beings and ways of being and evolving. All of us relations, all of us comprised in this universe, that also holds our bodies, our spirits, and our dreams.

[1]  An expanded version of this article will appear in The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet (CCAR Press, 2022), available at http://www.ccarpress.org.

[2] The “Gaia hypothesis” or “Gaia theory” teaches that the life on Earth is a self-regulating system that can be best understood by viewing the planet holistically as if it were a living organism. “Gaia theory” was first proposed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in “Atmospheric Homeostasis By and For the Biosphere: The Gaia Hypothesis,” Tellus 26:1 (1974): 2–10. For a wonderful and literary exposition of Gaia theory, see Eisenberg, The Ecology of Eden (New York: Knopf, 1998), ch. 21, esp. 262–5, 274–7. For a a Jewish perspective on Gaia, see also Lawrence Troster, “Created in the Image of God: Humanity and Divinity in an Age of Environmentalism” in Judaism and Environmental Ethics, ed. Martin Yaffe (Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 172–82, 176–7.

[3] Many of the issues require us to rethink what Judaism means. For more in-depth exploration of these issues, see David Mevorach Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), especially the introduction, which may be downloaded for free from http://kabbalahandecology.com.

[4] In fact, the formulation of serving and protecting the land in Genesis 2:15, l’avdah ul’shomrah, takes the exact same grammatical form as the command to serve God in the second paragraph of the Shema, “to serve Him [sic] with your whole heart,” l’avdo b’khol levavchem. It was a great loss to developing Earth-based Judaism when some of the prayerbooks of the liberal movements removed the second paragraph of the Shema from the liturgy because it was seen as “superstitious.” For more on these and related motifs in Judaism, see my article “The Third Promise: Can Judaism’s indigenous core help us rise above the damaging politics of our time?” (https://www.tikkun.org/the-third-promise/). On the Tanakh specifically, see Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[5] See The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert (New York: Holt, 2014).

[6] Some of these changes were well underway due to the influence of Hellenism even before the Roman exile.

[7] See Kabbalah and Ecology, pp. 250-54.

[8] Kabbalah and Ecology, pp. 15-16, 27-9, 268-271. Note also that throughout the Guide for the Perplexed, when Maimonides speaks generally of animals in comparison to human beings, he always spoke of humans and “the other animals.”

[9] Kabbalah and Ecology, pp. 149, 163-5.

[10] This idea evolved over generations. See Seidenberg, “Building the Body of the Shekhinah: Reenchantment and Redemption of the Natural World in Hasidic Thought” in A New Hasidism: Branches, eds. Green and Mayse (Lincoln NE: JPS, 2019). See esp. sections on Nachman of Breslov and Menachem Mendel Shneersohn therein, and in Kabbalah and Ecology, see pp. 294-5, 330-31, 338.

[11] See Buber’s I and Thou, Heschel’s God In Search of Man, and for English translations of Kook’s writings see Abraham Isaac Kook, trans. BenZion Bokser (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

[12] There are now too many Jewish educational farms to list them all here. All promote some version of Earth-based Judaism, which is also the mission of Wilderness Torah and a central part of the vision of Kohenet. TheAleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal now has a certificate program in Earth-based Judaism. Corresponding elements in Israel include Teva Ivri and the Heschel Center. Arthur Waskow and Art Green have done much to create the foundation for this paradigm. I’ve already referred to my book, Kabbalah and Ecology. Rabbi Jill Hammer, Kohenet co-founder, has made one of the most recent contributions to this great endeavor with her translation and commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, Return to the Place (Teaneck NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2020).

[13] Jeremy Benstein, “Biodiversity is God’s Glory,” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/biodiversity-is-gods-glory/; and David Seidenberg, “Being Here Now: This Creation is the Divine Image” (Tikkun, Winter 2017), https://www.academia.edu/31387102/Being_Here_Now_This_Creation_is_the_Divine_Image.

[14] For example, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (New

York: HarperCollins, 1992) and Sallie MacFague, The Body of God (Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 1993).

[15] Valuable resources include Andy Fisher, Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life (Albany NY: SUNY Press, 2013), and David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[16] As one example of the interweaving of science with Judaism, see my neo-Kabbalistic version of the “Cosmic Walk” ritual (http://www.neohasid.org/ecohasid/cosmic_walk/). This is one of the ecospirituality practices that are comprised in the “Work that Reconnects.” Rabbi Mordecai Liebling of the Reconstructionist movement is one of the leading teachers bringing related rituals, such as the Council of All Beings, to the Jewish community.

[17] Joanna Macy, “The Great Turning,” https://www.ecoliteracy.org/article/great-turning.

[18] See Kabbalah and Ecology, pp. 341-3.