“It was once religion which told us that we are all sinners… it is now the ecology of our planet which pronounces us all to be sinners because of the excessive exploits of human inventiveness. It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgment at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day…”
“I believe these words are true prophesy,” said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who was the guest scholar in residence at Congregation Darchei Noam, the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Toronto, earlier this month.
Rabbi Lawrence Troster [Shayla Gunter-Goldstein photo]
Rabbi Troster was in Toronto on the weekend of Jan. 9 and 10 to lead the congregants in sessions exploring Jewish ecology, environmentalism and environmental justice, to help examine such questions as: “How can Jewish wisdom guide us in our quest for happiness and a more sustainable lifestyle?” “What is Jewish environmental justice?” and “How does a synagogue embody Jewish environmental values?”
A native Torontonian and former assistant rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation in the early ’80s, Rabbi Troster is a recognized religious-environmental leader. Besides his pulpit work in Toronto and New Jersey, he is also former rabbinic fellow of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, co-chair of the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment of the United Nations Environment Program, and fellowship director of GreenFaith – a New Jersey-based interfaith coalition for the environment. He co-ordinates the organization’s stewardship program, which educates clergy and congregational layleaders on how to implement ideas of environmental justice and environmental leadership in their own communities (http://www.greenfaith.org/).
The weekend, organized by Darchei Noam’s Shomrei Adamah committee, was part of the synagogue’s commitment to environmental issues using a number of different programs and initiatives, including its eco-conscious “green” building.
Asked what questions and lessons he wanted to leave the members thinking about, Rabbi Troster replied, “We are at a critical point in the fate of the planet: climate change, environmental responsibility and environmental justice are the critical issues facing humankind. If Judaism cannot help us with this, where else can we turn? If Judaism cannot respond… that speaks to the relevance of our religion.
“I want congregations to think about how a community can make environmental learning and responsibility a core value… as much as prayer, kashrut and teaching Torah are to our faith,” he said.
“Twenty per cent of the world is using 80 per cent of the resources… generating 80 per cent of the waste. Consumerism is threatening the planet and threatening the way we deal with fellow human beings. It leads to toxic air and water, and ultimately results in climate change. Climate change contributes to rising water levels, which threaten coastal cities and countries. Why is this important to Jews? Think about it… New York – where the Jewish population is immense – is coastal. Israel is coastal. What will climate change and rising water levels mean to Israel?”
Faced with these conditions, he said Jews must ask: “What can I do?… How can I make a difference?”
To find the answers, Rabbi Troster believes that Jewish wisdom literature – from the Torah to Rashi and beyond – holds the ultimate truths.
“Central to Judaism are the concepts of bal tashchit [do not destroy] and tikkun olam [repair of the world]. There exist myriad texts we can study on these issues, which outline ideas of righteous practices in dealing with other people and with the Earth. But all of these teachings are about much more than just giving charity and being eco-conscious,” he said. “They are also about environmental justice.”
The environmental justice movement combines environmental activism with ideas of social justice – for the goal of protecting those who are economically, racially and politically disadvantaged from suffering disproportionately as a result of environmental harm. Rabbi Troster referred to literature on the Principles of Environmental Justice, which have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement. (See www.ejnet.org for a full list of the principles.)
Rabbi Troster also suggested that every faith wants to believe it is the most “green,” but “the reality is that none of our traditions had to deal with the environmental crises we are facing today. Environmentalism is a challenge to our whole theology.”
So, where is Judaism when it comes to environmental impact? The news is not all dreary.
“Judaism is an optimistic religion. We believe in tikkun olam. Jews are strong supporters and activists for environmental causes and organizations.”
It is only recently, though, that these issues have become strongholds in the consciousness of the Canadian Jewish community, he sid. “The issue is strongest in liberal Judaism, with the Reconstructionist movement being the most progressive. Orthodox sectors are often more inward-looking, but there are some exceptions, like Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental organization which is doing excellent work.”
Rabbi Troster has worked with Unitarians, Baha’is, Buddhists Episcopalians, Catholics and Muslims. “Baha’i and Episcopalian efforts tend to be local, whereas Catholicism is working on a more national level. Nuns in religious orders are doing incredible work. The movement is growing at lightning speed with the evangelicals.”
He has spoken at environmental conferences around the world. In 2005, he participated in the International Conference on Environment, Peace and the Dialogue among Civilizations and Cultures in Tehran. “Iran was at the forefront of environmental education and discussion several years ago. This progress was pushed aside once [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad came into power, unfortunately.”
His ultimate message: “It is imperative that we change from a consumer society to a sustainable society.” He showed me a photo of a date palm in Israel grown from a 2,000-year-old dormant seed. “This gives me hope that we can regenerate this world to be as beautiful as Gan Eden.”