How Jewish Is Jewish Environmentalism?

The wildly popular movement relies on simplified and selective readings of traditional sources. We deserve better.

A paper bag bonsai tree. Rachel Pasch/Flickr.

A paper bag bonsai tree. Rachel Pasch/Flickr.

Observation
May 7 2015
About the author

Julian Sinclair is an economist in Israel’s clean-technology and renewable-energy sector. An ordained rabbi, he has translated and annotated Abraham Isaac Kook’s 1909 introduction to the laws of the sabbatical year (Hazon, 2014) and is the translator of Micah Goodman’s Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism (Jewish Publication Society).


A remarkable feature of American Jewish life over the past 40 years has been the growth of Jewish environmentalism. From origins on the fringes of the community, dozens of organizations today enlist tens of thousands of Jews every year in a plethora of activities that include the “greening” of synagogue buildings, organic farming, and environmental lobbying under a Jewish umbrella. The Union for Reform Judaism devotes several pages of its website to a programmatic initiative aimed at “integrating Jewish values, learning, and actions that promote shmirat ha-adamah—protection and renewal of the world.” In the annual observance of Tu b’Shvat, once a footnote on the liturgical calendar, Jewish environmentalism has even created its own holiday.

Here I’m interested not so much in the value of these activities as in the question of what makes them Jewish. After all, Jewish environmentalism lays claim to an ancient pedigree in classical Jewish ideas and texts, and this claim raises questions that, to my mind, have not been adequately addressed.

What kind of reading of which sorts of texts counts as a valid appeal to tradition in this area? To what extent do preexisting political inclinations determine the messages derived from these ancient sources? How are such sources meant to apply in today’s entirely different socio-economic context? And what does the appeal to tradition actually add? If, say, a cap-and-trade bill to limit carbon emissions is good public policy, how does an appeal to classical texts strengthen the case for adopting it? If, conversely, cap-and-trade is bad public policy, why enlist Jewish sources in its support?

Some writers in the field of Jewish environmental thought have in fact considered such questions; in particular, I’d note the work of Eilon Schwartz, Jeremy Benstein, Jonathan Neril, and David Seidenberg, lately the author of Kabbalah and Ecology. But much of the movement’s claim to a Jewish provenance has been based on selective readings of a very small number of canonical and (if you will) recycled sources.

Arguably the most frequently cited such source is a tale from the talmudic tractate Ta’anit about a saintly figure known as Ḥoni the Circle Drawer and a carob tree. No Tu b’Shvat festive meal, no clarion call to action, no collection of green Jewish quotations is complete without reference to this legend. Here I hope to offer a short case study in what is lost when a complex and multi-faceted text is read with a particular environmental message in mind.

The story in its entirety, which appears on page 23a of Ta’anit, goes as follows:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said, All his days, the saintly Ḥoni was bothered by the verse: “A Song of Ascents: when God brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers” [Psalms 126: 1]. “How could people sleep away 70 years in a dream?” wondered Ḥoni.

One day, Ḥoni was walking along and saw a man planting a carob tree. “How long until that carob tree bears fruit?” he asked.

“Seventy years,” came the reply.

“Are you sure you will be around in another 70 years?” asked Ḥoni.

The man answered him, “I came into a world that had carob trees in it. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so will I plant for my children.”

Ḥoni sat down and ate his sandwich, after which he dozed off. A shard of rock arose to cover him from view, and Ḥoni proceeded to sleep for 70 years.

When he woke up, he saw the man picking carobs from his tree. Ḥoni asked, “Are you the one who planted that tree?”

“No, I’m his grandson,” the man replied.

“It seems I must have been asleep for 70 years!” Ḥoni exclaimed. He noticed that his donkey had meanwhile produced many donkeys.

He went to his old home and asked, “Is Ḥoni’s son still alive?” “No,” the people replied, “but his grandson is.”

“I am Ḥoni,” Ḥoni announced. But they didn’t believe him.

He went to the study house and overheard one of the rabbis saying, “these teachings are as lustrous as they were in the days of Ḥoni the Circle Drawer.” When he entered the study house, Ḥoni answered every question that the rabbis asked. “I am Ḥoni,” he declared. But the rabbis did not believe him and did not show him the deference due him.

Ḥoni became distraught. He prayed for deliverance, and died.

Rava said, “This is what people mean when they say, ‘either friendship or death.’”

 

It’s easy to see why Jewish environmentalists like this story. The anonymous carob-planter’s reply to Ḥoni, “I came into a world that had carob trees in it. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so will I plant for my children,” is a powerful statement of environmental responsibility across the generations. Tree-planting binds together past and future. The man feels that he must repay the selfless stewardship of his forebears, from which he benefits, by means of similar acts of altruism toward generations yet unborn.

The moral is also easy to draw: just as we came into a world blessed with myriad species of flora and fauna, abundant natural resources, and a beneficent climate, so, too, we should act to bequeath these blessings to our grandchildren. Now go and lobby your Congressperson.

But wait. Every Jewish environmental sourcebook known to me cuts the story off after the tree-planter’s manifesto, before Ḥoni eats lunch and takes his mammoth post-prandial nap. What about the significantly more complex sequel after his awakening? Seventy years on, Ḥoni learns about his responsibility to future generations not just from a carob tree. His donkey has reproduced; he meets his descendants; and he hears his intellectual legacy cited with reverence in the study house.

That’s difference number one: the Talmud does not appear to recognize “the environment” as a distinct subset of reality, with unique rules governing its treatment. Rather, it teaches a lesson about long-term sustainability that, while including nature, encompasses much more: family, study of Torah, and other investments that take longer than the span of mortal life to come to fruition.

Second, to Ḥoni this education is less uplifting than distressing. (That he may be in need of it is suggested by the fact that, after hearing the carob-planter’s sermon about the virtues of slow food, his response is to take out a falafel.) One of the hard truths he learns is that after your life, others will come and take your place. Ḥoni awakens to a world that bears the signs of his agency, but there is no home in it for him; he sees his grandchildren, but they do not recognize him; scholars cite his name with respect, but decline to honor the flesh-and-blood Ḥoni before them. So agonizing is his bewildered incomprehension at his own irrelevance that he prays for death.

What’s going on here? To the casual or uninitiated reader, the Talmud’s meandering style and structure can seem quite haphazard. But looked at in its entirety, as one must do, the passage reveals something more than a straightforward fable about caring for the environment. Can it also help us think about a Jewish environmentalism more faithful to tradition?

Ḥoni’s story, introduced by the statement of Rabbi Yoḥanan about a verse from Psalm 126, appears in the third chapter of Ta’anit (the Hebrew term for a fast), which is largely concerned with rain and drought. In all, the tractate cites this particular psalm, and an exegesis of it by Rabbi Yoḥanan, no fewer than three times. Let’s have a look at the psalm:

A Song of Ascents: When God brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers. Then will our mouths be full of laughter and our tongues with songs of joy. Then will they say among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them!” The Lord has done great things for us, and we will be joyful. Return, God, our captivity, like the water channels in the Negev! Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. Those who go on their way weeping, carrying bags of seeds, will return bearing sheaves of grain.

The psalm, whose subject, announced in the first line, is exile and redemption, employs a series of metaphors invoking Israel’s ecosystem and seasonal cycle—as in the image of dried-up desert “water channels” filling during the rainy season or the hard labor of sowing giving way to the gratification of the harvest. The first time the psalm appears in Ta’anit, Rabbi Yoḥanan connects it with the miraculous end of a ruinous drought in the days of the prophet Joel. The second time, he connects it with God’s redemption of the Jewish people (“a day of rain is like the ingathering of the exiles”). The third time is with reference to the Ḥoni story.

And who is Ḥoni the Circle Drawer? A sage of the first century BCE, he was a legendary figure even in Rabbi Yoḥanan’s day. He earned his epithet from his signature feat (recounted on the same page of the Talmud as the carob-tree tale): when the winter rains failed to arrive on time, he drew a circle around himself and informed God that he wouldn’t budge until it began to rain. God gave in; drought was averted. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Ḥoni’s name crop up in this rain-soaked segment of the Talmud. Nor should we be surprised by his impatience: rather than praying and fasting for an end to the drought—the procedure recommended in tractate Ta’anit—he forces God’s hand, as it were. No wonder he finds it hard to understand why someone would wait 70 years for a carob tree to grow.

What bothers Ḥoni, though, isn’t the rain imagery in Psalm 126 but the part about being “like dreamers.” This he understands as a reference to the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile 70 years after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. How, he wonders, is it possible for the returnees to have been asleep and dreaming for 70 years? Then he falls asleep for 70 years and finds out.

 

In brief, the talmudic story cited as an environmentalist parable doesn’t seem to be mainly about the environment, or even about intergenerational responsibility; it’s about exile and redemption. What Ḥoni learns is that you can sleep for 70 years and awaken believing time has barely passed and yet, without your knowledge or participation, the world has moved on. Generations have come and gone, scholars have grown up and departed, saplings have reached maturity, donkeys have bred. Just so, the Talmud seems to be suggesting, the Jews lived for 70 years in Babylonian captivity without self-government, wrenched away from their land and its rhythms, no longer authors of their own history—in a word, asleep. Yet without their active participation, political processes were unfolding that would lead them to return to the land and awaken as if from a dream. Ḥoni’s confusion after his seven-decade slumber is akin to the disorientation of being away from and then rejoining history.

Reading this passage today, in light of the 20th-century Jewish experience of return from exile, makes it all the more potent. This time, not 70 but 1,870 years separated dispersal at the hands of the Romans and national restoration. During that period, in the absence of land or sovereignty, the scope of Jewish life contracted. Meanwhile, empires rose and fell, secular nation-states were born, and eventually the rise of Zionism brought about the mass return of Jews to Israel. The Temple was destroyed by catapults, spears, and battering rams; Israel’s war of independence would be fought with tanks, machine guns, and fighter planes. The Jews awoke from exile to a drastically different world.

Small wonder, then, that Jews are still feeling disoriented. In their current reawakening, can they avoid the tragic outcome of Ḥoni’s story? Let’s recall the coda:

Ḥoni became distraught. He prayed for deliverance, and died.

Rava said, “this is what people mean when they say ‘either friendship [ḥavruta] or death [mituta].’”

Rava’s rhyme evidently applies to the final scene in which Ḥoni enters the study house and the scholars there fail to recognize him. Ḥavruta is the traditional word for a small talmudic study-group. Rava seems to be saying that if you have no one to study with—that is, if you’re excluded from the companionship of scholars—then you’re suffering a kind of death.

But one may understand his comment more broadly. On an earlier page of Ta’anit, the Talmud has compared the interdependence characteristic of communities of Torah students with a series of natural phenomena, as if they were an ecosystem in which one nourishes the other and no growth can occur in isolation. Indeed, the word ḥavruta (rendered above as “friendship”) derives from the root signifying connection. We can therefore read Rava’s remark as “either connection or death”—or, in the famous epigraph to E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End: “Only connect. . . ”. Either an organism is connected with others in a supporting ecosystem—humans with other humans, communities with other communities, past generations with future generations, humanity with the natural world—or they die.

The story of Ḥoni stepping into a circle and remaining there until rain falls may thus itself be read as an image of exile: obtaining natural resources by artificial means, through separating from the physical world. Although the strategy can yield immediate results, it is ultimately unsustainable. The better method is to sow now so that someone else can reap seven decades hence: a useful model for Jews who must go about their lives for centuries, passing the tradition from one generation to the next while waiting for the moment of redemption to ripen.

 

All this is not to say that the green reading of the Ḥoni story is false. Rather, it is impoverished, reducing a complex narrative to a simple tale with a pre-packaged moral. Talmudic stories, packed with allusions, undercurrents, and ambiguities, are not Aesopian fables with single, clear-cut lessons. Ta’anit certainly wants to teach us to care for the environment so that it will be usable by our descendants. But it also wants us to preserve the Torah so that it can be taught to future generations, to develop bonds of affection with other humans rooted in study and religious devotion, and to care about the land of Israel even when in exile. To focus on just one disconnected aspect of a story—and in a story about interconnectedness!—is to distort its message.

Impoverished and ideologically inspired readings of the Talmud are not limited to environmentalists. Yet today’s environmentalists do often pursue their program with a single-mindedness that translates into lack of concern for other goods: for example, economic development and human freedom. The most extreme seem to place a higher value on the environment than on humanity. A Jewish environmentalism faithful to tradition would insist on the larger picture: on the connection to past and future generations, to other people, to the land of Israel, and to service of the divine.

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More about: Jewish environmentalism, Religion & Holidays, Talmud, Tu b'Shvat