Sustainable Judaism

By Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein | Issue Date: July 2011

By the grace of friendship, I recently had the blessing of participating in conversations with young professionals (not including myself in that category) about sustainability. The question on the table was: How to live a more sustainable life? Just listening made me hopeful about the future.

The majority of people I spoke with were architects for whom eco-friendly construction was not simply a matter of discussion; it was the place of departure. The fact that someone wants to live in an eco-friendly house doesn’t make the living experience sustainable. Sustainability and respect for the environment are not one and the same. One can recycle and use green sources of energy, with deep respect for plants and animals, yet be completely stressed out on the treadmill of productivity day and night while living a BlackBerry-controlled life. This type of existence is not sustainable physically or spiritually.

Let’s define “sustainability.” The Wikipedia definition is not bad: Sustainability is the capacity to endure. In ecology, the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of wellbeing, with environmental, economic, and social dimensions.

If this is the case, I would like to add the actions that one should take, in theory, to live a more sustainable life.

“Actions are sustainable if:
• There is a balance between resources used and resources regenerated.
• Resources are as clean or cleaner at end use as at the beginning.
• The viability, integrity, and diversity of natural systems are restored and maintained.
• They lead to enhanced local and regional self-reliance.
• They help create and maintain community and a culture of place.
• Each generation preserves the legacies of future generations.”
— David McCloskey, Professor of Sociology, Seattle University

In sustainability, culture, society, and human ways of life are by definition part of the ecosystem. We affect the environment, and the environment affects us. We are the environment, healthy or unhealthy.

Judaism is a way of life that constantly fosters sustainability. Our tradition was formed in relationship to nature and the environment; all holy days are based on the cycle of the months. We have laws that prevent us from cutting fruit trees and encourage us to take care of animals. The shmita, the rest of the land every seven years, is a manifestation of this sensitivity.

Rabbi David Rosen, in his essay “Sustainable Development—A Jewish Perspective,” affirms:

“The biblical model for sustainable development is rooted, above all, in a moral vision that demands that we contend with the dangers posed by human arrogance, for it is arrogance that justifies greed, exploitation, irresponsibility and violence towards others. Fundamental then to the Scriptural message is not only the special focus on the most vulnerable in society, but the insistence that we recognize that we are all vulnerable—we are all temporary sojourners in God’s world. Such awareness may lead us to live more responsibly towards ourselves, our neighbors, our communities, our nations, our humanity, and our ecology.”

Sustainability and ecology are not the same. Sustainability is about the sanctification of time in Heschelian terms. It is about how we spend our time; it is our capacity to take a break, our capacity to meditate, to create distance from our pursuits in order to put things in perspective. It is about our contribution to a more just world. It is about not believing that we are at the center of creation, and the capacity to contract ourselves. It is about realizing how healthy or unhealthy, how organic or un-organic our life is.

I am taking the word “sustainability” beyond eco-jargon. If we look at the Jewish community as a whole, is it a healthy organism? Is it an organism that lives up to its ultimate values? What practices of communal living do we have in today’s Jewish world that are not sustainable in the long range? Is the Jewish environment in balance or out of balance? Is the Jewish environment a healthy one for our kids, for our young who will define the future?

If not, what unhealthy practices have we developed that help our young run away from the organized Jewish environment?

I am not pretending to answer these questions, but just bring them to our consciousness. This article will be out in the summer—a time to slow down, to take a break, to achieve perspective and, I hope, to think about questions like these.

Have a great summer!