This Wednesday is Tu b’Shvat (i.e., the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat), a minor Jewish holiday often referred to as the “new year of trees.” Originally, the date simply marked the beginning of a new cycle for the tithing of fruit. In the 16th century, kabbalists invested the day with mystical significance and, in the 19th, Zionists made it into a celebration of the land of Israel. Its most recent reinvention, as Tevi Troy explains, is its most radical yet:
In recent decades, [Tu b’Shvat] has moved from the periphery of special Jewish days to much closer to the center. It serves as a kind of Jewish Earth Day—a rallying point for the marriage between Green sensibilities and Jewish identity. Indeed, the takeover of Tu b’Shvat by the environmental movement is now so all-encompassing that it threatens to become the only thing for which this special day—which has existed for two millennia—is known. . . .
From a religious standpoint, bringing ancient rites into a modern context may delight many Jews today and make the religion relevant to current sensibilities. But while putting a contemporary accent on an ancient ritual might be fine, problems arise when the accent takes precedence over the ritual. Many Tu b’Shvat programs this year and in the foreseeable future will focus on “sustainability” in the environmental context, but too little attention is being paid to the fact that Judaism itself has a sustainability problem. . . .
Ultimately, the way to keep Jews in the fold is to have them doing Jewish things. If one just wanted to help the environment, one could join an environmental group. Keeping Jews engaged on a religious level requires the maintenance of something that is authentically Jewish, not something that has been grafted on. Judaism . . . has withstood intellectual assaults dating back to the ancient Greeks by sticking to its traditions. In doing so, again and again, Judaism has outlived many an ancient civilization.