Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Greening of Torah Text

Global warming is this decade’s buzz word. It is politically and socially correct to be concerned about our environment. There is much to be said about the need to become not only more sensitive to our planet’s limited resources but also become pro-active. I do this not only as a Jew but as a citizen of planet earth. As an involved, productive human being wishing to pass on a healthy legacy to the next generation it stands to reason that there should be active and reasonable concern and commitment to guarantee that the earth will be of the same quality or better than what we received from our parents.

This is why I can’t understand the burning need by so many of the yefe nefesh to ascribe qualities of environmental concern in the Bible that aren’t there. As I read more and more articles in liberal journals such as Tikkun and Sh’ma aas well as other left of center journals I am aghast at the approach methodology exploited for the greening our Torah text to the point that it is no longer recognizable as the text of our fathers. In November, 2007 I penned an essay entitled The Greening of Agudah, where I implored the Agudah leadership to address environmental issues with the same passion that they have addressed other issues. The basis for this position is that we are stewards of God’s creation; that we were mandated to serve as the custodians of the planet as inferred from the creation story. That however is as far as it goes – or should go.

In truth, all mankind is mandated to serve as custodians over the planet. This isn’t a Jewish mandate, nor is it rooted in text beyond the creation story. The creation narrative preempts the Jewish story which begins with Abraham, thus all humanity must assume stewardship for our planet. So why is there such an obsessive desire on the part of the yefeh nefesh (literally, beautiful souls; sarcastic reference to the liberal Israeli community) to prove that biblically we have an obligation to be green - even at the point of distorting our text.

What is particularly fascinating is the fact that our yefeh nefesh pick and choose the text that serves their purpose while ignoring other text that doesn’t necessarily fit into their world view. Oftentimes they reference the Deuteronomy text delineating appropriate behavior of the Israelites when laying siege to a city. Environmentalist point to the fact that the Hebrews were commanded to preserve the fruit trees, giving the distinct impression that the Bible was not only benevolent but also environmentally sensitive. What yefeh nefesh choose to ignore is that the fact that trees other than fruit bearing can be destroyed. But this example is fairly innocuous. There are other examples within our sacred text tradition that put us on the same footing as the jihadists, and as a matter of fact sheds some light on their world view.

Chapter 13 verses 14-18 in the Book of Deuteronomy is quite frightening, but rings soberingly realistic, relevant and sheds light when trying to understand the intolerance of Jihadists today. According to the text, if there are amongst the Israelites those that choose to serve other gods they shall be smitten and “utterly destroyed”. But not only that, the text insists that all the spoil be brought to the center of the town and burned together with the town itself. The town of course, according to the text shall not be rebuilt. Over the past several weeks we have been reading about Pinchas’ zealotry. He not only murdered Midianites, but was rewarded by becoming the high priest. He was also the designated general to lead the military campaign against the Midianites (and not Joshua) because of his zealotry. How are the yefeh nefesh going to reconcile these blood curdling commandments with their warm and fuzzy picture of our biblical heritage? Will they rewrite our text, or reinterpret it. There are green apologists who contend that while these commandments are “on the books” they were never put into effect. This however is irrelevant. Most important is the text’s attitude to our neighbors and the lack of tolerance exhibited towards those who don’t necessarily agree with the prevailing belief system as laid down in the text.

The yefeh nefesh also believe that being green is an expression of living up to the prophetic vision of being a “light unto the nations”. Being a light unto the nations has nothing to do with environmental issues. We are mandated to observe all of God’s commandments and by doing so we will be a “light unto the nations”. This includes odious commandments like driving out witches (machashefot) from our communities, or rules relating to taking captive women as a wife or inane commandments assuring that our garments do not contain shatnez and of course observing the shabbat and kashrut. What this means is that we have to live a halachic life style, for it is only through halacha that we can approximate what it is that God wants of us. According to this logic being reform won’t work, since they don’t subscribe to any halachic standards. Perhaps being conservative would work, although it is doubtful, since they pander the public by reading polls and focus groups. This leaves only the orthodox – but which, ultra or lite? This is but one more reason why the paradigmatic construct of denominational Judaism is archaic and no longer works.

The truth is, the yefeh nefesh aren’t interested in being consistent. There have a particular agenda and will do whatever it takes to make there philosophy fit into Jewish thought even at the point of distorting Jewish text.