the canopy of a tall tree, seen from below

The Jewish relationship with nature is mucky, but our ethical duty on climate change is on terra firma

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I imagine that Leo Baeck, the 20th-century German Reform rabbi, would frown quizzically at an outdoor Tu B’Shevat retreat in a Northern California forest or the term “eco-Judaism.”

Baeck was learned, stately and generally oriented toward indoor activities.

But Baeck, who is best known for his steadfast leadership of the German Jewish community even in concentration camps, has a lot to teach us on Tu B’Shevat, the closest thing there is to a Jewish Earth Day. (It begins this year at sundown on Jan. 16.)

On any day of the year, the climate crisis is an all-hands-on-deck situation. We as a global community need all the help we can get to prevent catastrophe, so people have scoured wisdom traditions for guidance.

Some have turned to Indigenous thought. This explains the resurgence of the book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer. “Braiding Sweetgrass” is part of a larger tendency to rethink the dichotomy between nature and humans and to view the entire universe, including the natural world, as endowed with holiness.

The examples of outdoor Tu B’Shevat retreats, the more heady philosophical approach of eco-Judaism, Jewish farming and environmental advocacy groups are all examples of Jews prioritizing the environment within Jewish frameworks.

But historically, Judaism generally has not offered us the same perspective as wisdom traditions that view animals, plants and ecosystems as being sacred and therefore inherently worthy of protection.

The scholar Steven Schwartzschild offered a hyperbolic articulation of this when he wrote in his essay “The Unnatural Jew” that his “dislike of nature goes deep.” He argued that Judaism and nature have historically been at odds. Instead, Schwartzschild wrote that throughout history Jews have seen nature as a means for achieving human ends.

As much as I am drawn to efforts to reconnect Judaism to nature, analyses like Schwartzschild’s suggest that our tradition’s most deeply rooted contributions to fighting against the climate crisis lie elsewhere.

American Jews can learn a lot from other cultures about how to be in relationship with the natural world.

Which leads us back to Leo Baeck.

Baeck wrote parts of his most famous book, “This People Israel,” in a Nazi concentration camp. He scribbled furiously as he faced the potential wrath of his captors because he was convinced that Judaism has at its core an important message for humanity.

According to Baeck, Judaism can share with the world a sense of being ethically commanded. In the gendered language of his time, Baeck wrote, “Everything given to man in his existence becomes a commandment; all that he has received means, ‘Thou shalt!’”

As we face calamity, there is no doubt that global climate change is an ethical issue. We risk unimaginable amounts of suffering.

Baeck sees Judaism as a tradition centered on our response to our ethical obligations, and he argues that Judaism builds an entire way of being around our moral responsibility. This includes ritual, song and prayer. “One can only understand [the Jewish] people when one knows that it became a singing people,” Baeck wrote.

As we consider the potential moral fallout of catastrophic climate change, we can turn to Baeck, who argues that the Jewish people can teach everyone about the primacy of our ethical obligations. “This people stands on earth within a covenant that encloses all people and is valid for everyone,” he wrote.

Judaism doesn’t have all the answers we need to the climate crisis. Especially if the scholar Schwartzschild is correct about Judaism’s historically antagonistic relationship to nature, we as American Jews can learn a lot from other cultures about how to be in relationship with the natural world.

But in these perilous times — and on Tu B’Shevat — we Jews can contribute our tradition’s commitment to ethics in the fight against climate change.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.