Sunday, February 27, 2011

On God, ecological stewardship, and imitating an ostrich

News item:  Minnesota State Representative Mike Beard (R-Shakopee) says he wants more coal-burning power plants in Minnesota because God will fix global warming, so we don't need to worry about it.  (read more on him).   He believes God will prevent the planet from running out of fossil fuels while also eliminating the harms associated with climate change, and that it is "arrogant" of us to think we can do anything to harm God's Creation or destroy the Earth unless God wills it.  

This guy happens to be a Christian, but I have run into similar attitudes among religious Jews recently, most notably an email that claimed Israel was never under water during the Great Flood (based on an ancient story about Noah's dove getting the olive branch from there) so Israelis needn't worry if the ocean rises from polar ice melting.  The Holy Land, this email claimed, will always stay high and dry.  So not to worry about climate change.

These are not, of course, the opinions of all religious people.  Not everyone is sticking their head in the sand (which ostriches really don't do, they are actually lowering their heads to guard their eggs -- but the metaphor has entered the English language, so you all know what I mean.)  A lot of denominations have come out with more responsible directives concerning our stewardship of the Earth.  (See for example Interfaith Power and Light, an org working to educate congregations about environmental issues.)

As for the possibility of Humans harming the Earth, there is an ancient rabbinical teaching (at least 2000 years old) which disagrees with Representative Beard.  Jewish tradition says:

"When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

So, on the one hand, Judaism teaches that God created the Earth and everything in it for us.  But on the other hand, we are charged with taking care of it and not destroying it.  The fact that God tells us not to destroy it means that we do have that ability.  It comes along with our free will.  God has set the stage, but the choice is ours whether to act responsibly or not.  And to face the consequences of our actions.

The Jewish interpretation of having "dominion" over the world is one of stewardship, not exploitation.  And our tradition goes even further.  Another midrash says:

"Last and first You created me" (Psalms 139:5) ... If man is worthy, he is told:  You are first among the works of creation. If he is not worthy, he is told:  The flea preceded you, the earthworm preceded you." (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 14:1)
From this we learn that our "dominion" is not absolute.  It is dependent on our behavior.  We were created last, and that can either mean we are the "crown of creation," or it can mean that we came after the worms and fleas.  ( I remember being told back in the 1960s that if we ever had a nuclear war, the cockroaches would be the most likely to survive the radiation.)   Genesis 2:15 says:
The Lord (YHVH) God put the human being (literal meaning of "Adam") in the Garden of Eden, to work it and guard it."
Yes, we are allowed to use the resources of the Earth ("to work it") but we must also guard and care for it.  Even in the innocence of Eden, we are charged to protect the environment.  But I suppose that even in the time of Noah there were people like Beard who said, "What?  A flood in the desert?  Impossible!"  And we all know what happened to that generation...


Kathy Kaiser said...

Thanks for pointing out that we need to care for the Earth. It seems arrogant to me that humans think they don't need to do anything, that God will take care of any environmental problems. If we made the mess, we need to clean it up.

Rooster613 said...

Agreed. I am really bothered by the growning fundie attitude that when the Messiah comes (be he Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or whomever) he will fix everything, so we don't need to bother. To me, this is not at all what God told Adam and Eve, who were commanded to "work it and guard it." Whether you take the story literall or symbolically does not matter, the stewardship idea is there.

I think this is the one thing that all religions should be able to agree on -- to take care of our planet. BTW, you might want to view the "Sacred Duty" film (its in YouTube, link on my blog page) about Judaism and ecology, and how vegetarianism can contribute to planetary healing. And I'm in it!

robin andrea said...

Hello! I just found you through Sand Creek Almanac. I am delighted to find a Jewish Thoreau! It's also good to find traditional monotheistic religious thinking correlating with environmental protection. I wish there were more of this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying this critical issue. We must take responsibility for our home and all living beings that inhabit it. Our home is a great gift. We should never stop being grateful for such infinite beauty. People are mistaken if they believe ruinous exploitation of our precious home is OK. You are helping to do this and I am grateful to you for it.

Rooster613 said...

Actually, Judaism, as the original monotheism, has quite a bit of positive ecological teachings (dating back thousands of years) but these teachings are not well-known because people tend to think that the "Old Testament" is the only book we have (not true, it is maybe 5% or less of Jewish sacred writings. The Bible is mostly Jewish history, the deeper spiritual teachings and commentaries are found elsewhere.)

Also, the common Christian POV of Judaism is not accurate, no Jew really worships the angry Protestant god Jehovah. Some of the Christian stuff I've read about Jews is no more accurate than Tonto was about Indians. Nor is Judaism merely an outdated prefix to Christianity -- we continued to grow over the past two millennia since Christianity split off. And neo-pagans tend to wrongly blame everything on "the Jews" or "the Patriarchy" or "monotheism."

So it is better to learn about Judaism through practicing Jews rather than through uninformed hostile critics. Try starting with Shomrei Adamah ("Guardians of the Earth") which is a Jewish environmental org, as well as thew weritings of Ellen Bernestein, a major Jewish environmental activist -- you will be pleasantly surprised at the HUGE amount of teachings we have. Sadly neglected in these modern secular times, but nevertheless a valid part of the tradition. And for teachings about Judaism and animals, go to the site of Jewish Vegetarians of North

Rooster613 said...

That should be "Jewish Vegetarians of North America" (JVNA). Another good resource is Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (C.H.A.I.) There are lots more, but these will start the quest :)