Written by Elaine Coburn, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research, York University
Tanhum Yoreh is an Assistant Professor at the School of Environment at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on religion and environment, faith-based environmentalism, faith-based environmental ethics, and religious legal approaches to environmental protection. He is particularly interested in the themes of wastefulness, consumption, and simplicity. Dr. Yoreh is currently researching environmental engagement in faith communities in Canada, the United States, and Israel. He is the author of Waste Not: A Jewish Environmental Ethic (2019). You can find his talk here.
At the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, Dr. Tanhum Yoreh (PhD Humanities, York University) spoke about “Faith Based Environmental Action: The Jewish Experience”. In his talk, he considered possibilities and tensions around religiously rooted environmentalism, turning first to the words of the philosopher Roger S. Gottleib: “For as long as human beings have practiced them, the complex and multifaceted beliefs, rituals and moral teaching known as religion have told us how to think about and relate to everything on earth that we did not make ourselves.”
This observation is helpful, Dr. Yoreh argues, in part because it does not presume the usefulness of religion for understanding environmental questions. Rather, Gottlieb leaves open the possibilities that theology may be helpful or harmful to our interactions with the natural world.
Certainly, many religious people who are active in the environmental movement understand themselves as having a responsibility, even a moral imperative, to respond to the environmental crisis. If religion is life-giving and the ecological crisis is life-destroying, being a responsible part of the Created World demands action to protect life.
Practically, being able to mobilize religious communities around environmental causes, including their ability to organize and their financial and their political clout, makes them at least potentially powerful actors. The United Church, for instance, is actively divesting from fossil fuels. Diverse faith communities are present at events like COP-26 at Glasgow in 2021, asking that we make difficult decisions to reduce ecologically destructive practices and support life in the natural world.
At the same time, Dr. Yoreh observes, religious communities may have entrenched habits that make new engagement with environmental questions difficult or environmental questions may seem irrelevant to the central spiritual mission. In some cases, religious communities may hold ideas antithetical to ecological activism, for instance, theologically rooted fatalisms make action meaningless, since the Book of Life is already written. Some monotheistic communities may understand environmentalists as spiritually wrong-headed, even dangerous, associating “tree hugging” with idol worship.
Prevailing Orthodox understandings of Jewish law, the halakhah, view environmental commitment as morally good but as extra-legal, praiseworthy but not legally necessary. Yet, other aspects of Jewish law may support environmental activism. For instance, if environmental damage is viewed as a form of self-harm, the live-privileging halakhah would be activated in full force to protect human life.
Ecclesiastes Rabbah, a commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, includes a passage in which God reviews “each and every tree” in the Garden of Eden and warns Adam:
“Behold my creations how pleasant and praiseworthy they are. All that I created, I created for you. Pay heed that you do not ruin and destroy My world. For if you ruin it, there is no one after you who will fix it.” (7:13)
Such passages speak powerfully to many contemporary Jewish environmental activists, enjoining all of humanity to take care of the natural world, understood as God’s Creation.
In contrast to those who understand Judaism as demanding stewardship for God’s Creation, Reform and Orthodox communities may rely on very different vocabularies, for instance, evoking the need for cleanliness to urge an end to littering and pollution. Varying approaches and vocabularies within a diverse Jewish faith community speaks to the need, within the environmental movement, to mobilize a range of language that resonates with different religious actors.
In short, these are matters of different worldviews, different motivations that bring people of faith to the environmental struggle.
What is clear is that faith-based actors are important to environmental struggles. Scientists can measure risks, but they cannot answer the moral and spiritual questions that the contemporary ecological crisis poses. For the faithful, theological imperatives and religious responsibility provide an impetus to act that they find nowhere else.