Judaism’s Gifts to Climate Activism

Jewish traditions bring unique teachings and values to interfaith climate activism.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Shoshana Meira Friedman

Rebbe nachman of Bratslav used to say:

Friends do not despair!
When a difficult time has come upon us, joy must fill the air!
We must not lose our faith in living, we must not despair.
When a difficult time is upon us, joy must fill the air!

When I was a child, singing this song in synagogue gave me great hope. I hear it now as a call to keep joy and hope alive amid the enormous environmental challenge facing humanity. We must not lose our faith in living, we must not despair. Though a difficult time is indeed upon us, joy can fill the air!1

I want to highlight three major gifts that Jewish traditions bring to the table of interfaith climate change work: first, experience with paradigm shifts; second, the connection between the environment and human actions; and third, the Jewish cycle of time, specifically the cycle of rest and renewal.

1. Paradigm shifts. When the Second Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE, the Jewish community suffered cataclysmic violence and the loss of a way of life. In the chaos, a man named Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of a burning Jerusalem in a coffin. He brokered a deal with the Romans to give the Jews a place in Yavneh, leading to the birth of rabbinic Judaism. Out of the ruins, these Jews were able to take death—the coffin—and make it part of their plan for survival.

Whether after the destruction of the Temple, or the expulsion from Spain, or the emancipation of Jews in modernity, or the tragedy of the Holocaust, or the founding of Israel, Jews have had to reinvent how we live over and over, while maintaining integrity with who we are. We have continually needed to ask ourselves: What does it look like to rethink how we live? How we relate to community? How we relate to land, material resources, and people not in our group? In the 1990s, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized that his people were undergoing a dramatic cultural, religious, and political shift in exile, and he brought in a group of Jews to advise him. He called on Jews because we are experts in continuity through crisis. As a human collective, we now face our own versions of these questions, our own crisis of continuity. If we can rise to the challenge of this paradigm shift, we have a much better chance of survival.

2. Connection between the environment and human action. The idea that there is a deep and visceral connection between human actions and the well-being of the land is an integral part of Jewish tradition. In our daily liturgy, we read Deuteronomy 11:13–21. Some synagogues, uncomfortable with the overt language of divine reward and punishment, omit this passage. But many of us read it as a clarion call to sustainable living. A translation by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l2 is particularly attuned to this idea:

God says to Israel: How good it will be when you really listen and hear my directions. . . . Your earthly needs will be met at the right time, appropriate to the season. You will reap what you planted for your delight and health. Also your animals will have ample feed. All of you will eat and be content.

But be careful—watch out! Don’t let your cravings delude you. Don’t become alienated. Don’t let your cravings become your gods; don’t debase yourself to them. Because the God-sense within you will become distorted. Heaven will be shut to you. Grace will not descend. Earth will not yield her produce. Your rushing will destroy you, and Earth will not be able to recover her good balance in which God’s gifts manifest.

May these values of mine reside in your feelings and aspiration, . . . so you will be more aware. Then you and your children and their children will live . . . heavenly days right here on this earth.3

The ancient land of Israel, like the modern Middle East, lived on the ecological edge. The right rains at the right times would lead to abundance, but drought would lead to starvation. The topsoil was thin, the yearly harvests were uncertain. Yet this vulnerability gave rise to a tradition with great wisdom and respect for the delicate balance of living well on the land. If we are in the right relationship to our natural world, spiritually as well as materially, our weather will support our needs. If we are out of balance, it has drastic consequences, for us, for our children, for nonhuman animals. When I read Deuteronomy 11, I think not of geographic Israel alone, but of our whole planet. The vulnerable weather that the Torah speaks of has now expanded to the entire world, and it has never been so clear how much our actions impact that weather.

3. The Jewish cycle of rest and renewal. In Judaism, the cycles of land and the cycles of time are intimately connected. My teacher, Rabbi Nehemia Pollen, teaches the Shabbat dance. The dance goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, REST. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, REST.

In the creation story in Genesis, God dances this dance: six days of creating, and on the seventh day God rests. While God operated on a mythic-cosmic timescale, we people count days: six days of working, and then Shabbat, the day of ceasing, of rest. Shabbat is a time to refrain from purchasing, from travel, from stress, from technology. In our fast-paced, consumer age, Shabbat is an important Jewish offering to the environmental toolkit.

But we can’t stop at Shabbat. The Torah teaches that the land also rests, every seven years, during the Shmita (sabbatical) year.

The most recent Shmita started this past Rosh Hashanah, in mid-September 2014. Biblically, this is a time when debts are forgiven, land is not cultivated, and anyone can harvest what they need for the day—from anywhere. Private property boundaries become irrelevant, because the year is a reminder that the earth belongs to God. The contemporary environmental Jewish community has been reenvisioning what the sabbatical year means to humanity today. Sustainable agriculture, reconnecting to our local watersheds and landscapes, bringing a sharing economy to life in a community, working for economic and environmental justice. We need to bring Shmita values to life in a modern world, not just this year, but all the time.

I appreciate that this dance of six units of work, one unit of rest is danced by God, people, and land. The dance is one way that Jews have of asserting that nature, human, and the divine are linked by sacred rhythms.

I conclude with a teaching from an early Jewish rabbi recorded in the Mishna, a text almost two thousand years old. It is a wonderful metaphoric description of climate change and the work we are required to do:

Rabbi Tarphon said,
The day is short,
the task is abundant,
the laborers are lazy,
the wages are great,
and the Master of the house is insistent.
It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
(Mishna Pirkei Avot 2:15–16).


  1. This is adapted from Friedman’s talk at the conference, “Spiritual and Sustainable: Religion Responds
    to Climate Change,” held at Harvard Divinity School on November 7, 2014.
  2. Zichrono livracha (may his memory be a blessing, in Hebrew).
  3. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Joel Segel, Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice (Riverhead Trade, 2006), 171–172.

Shoshana Meira Friedman was ordained by Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She currently works at JCDS: Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, and Congregation Shirat Hayam of the North Shore. In addition to her rabbinic and climate change work, she is a singer-songwriter and medical clown with Hearts Noses Hospital Clown Troupe.

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