I’ve just read an enthusiastic article in the Forward on the subject of “eco-Judaism,” a small but growing movement within American Judaism that seeks to emphasize the connection between environmentalism and Judaism, and to recast environmentally-friendly acts, such as driving a gas-efficient car or using fluorescent rather than ordinary light bulbs, as mitzvot, Jewish ritual commandments.
Why do I find this concept so silly?
It’s certainly not because I doubt the importance of environmental values if this planet is to remain livable. And it’s certainly not because I think that Judaism, a religion in which I grew up and am reasonably well-versed (even if I don’t observe it very much today), shouldn’t try to make itself relevant to contemporary problems.
But there’s a big difference between trying to make Judaism relevant to contemporary problems, and trying to turn it into a reflection of contemporary attitudes. And it’s the latter of these two activities that “eco-Judaism” is engaged in. As such, it’s really—like many other kinds of modern Judaism before it, starting with the Reform movement in 19th-century Germany—more of an “echo-Judaism.”
I’d like to propose a simple test to determine if “eco-Judaism” is a natural outgrowth of Jewish theology and thought. Suppose you’re not already an environmentalist. Would a knowledge of rabbinic Jewish texts and traditions turn you into one?
The answer, of course, is no. The fact is that rabbinic Judaism, traditionally, has had very little to say about environmental problems, for the simple reason that Jews have lived for the better part of their history in the Diaspora—and the Diaspora was never considered by them to be their true environment. The rabbis thought about many things, but the environment, in the sense in which the word is now used, was never one of them.
Judaism has much to teach the world and much to learn from it. When it comes to environmentalism, its place is on the learning end. There’s no such thing as “eco-Judaism.” There are Jews who care—as we all should—about the physical health of the planet we live on. But for that, you don’t have to be Jewish.