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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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‘Lite’ green synagogues

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We’ve just marked Tu b’Shvat, the New Year of the trees. Noted in the Talmud as the “new year” of the trees for tithing, it was taken on later by the mystics as a spiritual celebration of the four seasons and the seven species of the Land of Israel.

But it was in the early 1970s that it really took hold in the larger Jewish community and became a kind of Jewish Earth Day. Tu b’Shvat is when synagogues and Jewish organizations all seem to become “green for a day.” We talk about Jewish environmentalism, invite a special speaker from some hip ecological organization, read creative poetry about our relationship with the earth, and put out articles on climate change for folks to read (on paper, which will then be thrown away or, hopefully, recycled – if the congregation has a blue bin). But what happens the Shabbat after? Like “Sisterhood Shabbat” when we become feminist, or “youth Shabbat” when we bring out the teenagers who don’t come the rest of the year, we isolate the environment as an interesting issue like any other special program. The environment in February, women in March, teens in April – let’s see, what can we focus on in May.

But environmentalism isn’t a “theme” for a service. It’s the most pressing issue of our day, of humanity and of our planet. It’s not about whether Judaism will survive. It’s about whether the human species will survive. We all want to bequeath Judaism to our grandchildren. But if the generations after our grandchildren have been pushed to the brink of destruction by drought, fire, rising tides, unbreathable air and polluted water, what will we say to them? “Where were you, grandpa? Didn’t you know this was happening?” If our Judaism can’t speak to this issue, and if it’s saved for only one evening on the 15th of Shvat, we are in physical peril as much as we are in spiritual peril.

Rabbi Larry Troster – with whom I was privileged to work while he was assistant rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto and I was at Holy Blossom Temple many years ago – wrote a blog post entitled “From Light Green To Dark Green: Committing to An Effective Jewish Environmentalism,” in which he notes that “much of Jewish environmentalism is based on an underlying philosophy of what has been called ‘Light Green’ environmentalism. This is an environmentalism that seeks to solve issues like sustainability and climate change through green consumerism, new technology and green job promotion. All of this is good, but it will not solve climate change, environmental injustice or species extinction. It ignores the role of population and development in the environmental crisis, and it ignores the serious critiques of the world economic system, which is a major component in creating climate change and environmental injustice. Light Green environmentalism is based on a stewardship ethic that still privileges human needs and refuses to incorporate a more biocentrist approach to environmental ethics. In other words, a ‘Dark Green’ environmentalism.”

The stewardship model says we are in charge of the world, but we just have to take better care of it as its custodians. And so we continue to develop new technologies that harm the earth because we still need them for our businesses or our leisure time. We’ll continue to build factories that pollute, but we’ll monitor them better. We’ll continue to breed cattle for meat and cut down forests for grazing land because we want our cheap, fast-food burgers – but we’ll introduce salads on our menus in recyclable, clam-shell containers to do our part.

In contrast, a biocentrist approach posits that the earth has intrinsic value apart from what it can do or provide for us. We protect the rainforest not only because it may provide the plant that has the cure for cancer, but also because it has its own inherent value, simply as a rainforest. A biocentrist approach sees the needs of the planet as being equal to the needs of us humans. It goes way beyond buying a store’s own brand of “green” detergent. It asks deep questions about that store’s policies, that brand’s politics and even why we need the detergent in the first place.

Tu b’Shvat has come and gone, the almond tree has blossomed, but underneath it, in many of our shuls and organizational halls, is still a pile of styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery.

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