Clean Earth to Till: An Environmental Vision of Redemption

The concept of Tikkun ‘Olam (the repair or healing of the world) in a contemporary form has been extensively used in Jewish social justice ethics over the last 50 years. In this iteration of Tikkun ‘Olam, there is a high degree of human freewill, instead of divine intervention, as the chief means by which the world will be perfected. But what do Jewish environmentalists imply when they use Tikkun ‘Olam? What kind of Jewish environmental perfection are we seeking? This is an important question because even if we are seeing the repair or perfection of the world as a symbolic and not literal goal, the concept of redemption we choose will shape the way we seek to achieve it.

The secular environment movement has often been criticized for presenting to the world only apocalyptic views of possible future environmental disasters. They have often failed to present a positive vision of what a sustainable world would look like. Environmental historian Steven Pyne once wrote: “The real future of environmentalism is in rehabilitation and restoration. Environmentalists have told the story of the Garden of Eden and the fall from grace over and over again. But we haven’t yet told the story of redemption. Now we need to tell that story.” Religious environmentalists, particularly those from the Abrahamic faiths, have rich traditional sources on redemption that may be drawn upon to create such an environmental vision of redemption.

However, in the Jewish environmental movement there have been few attempts to define our “perfected” world.” Too often, appeals to Tikkun ’Olam have been vague and are often in conflict with the way the actual workings of Creation. Jewish environmentalism needs a theology of redemption that is concordance with the modern scientific understanding of the natural world. Anything else would require a supernatural ending to the natural world, something modern theology in general and environmental theology in particular has rejected.

The traditional Jewish view of redemption or eschatology has been expressed on three different levels: the individual, the national and the universal. While there are many Jewish visions of redemption, before the modern age all of these concepts assumed that there will come a time when the Jewish people will be restored to their land and living under a Davidic sovereignty; that the individual’s soul will survive death and ultimately be restored to their resurrected body; and that there will a profound change in the course of the world politically as well as in the laws of nature themselves. This will bring about what my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman has called “The Death of Death.” But the modern sciences of ecology and biology have shown us the necessity of death in the evolution of life and its ongoing dynamic existence.

A new vision of redemption needs to incorporate ‘Tikkun ‘Olam into an ecologically sound concept of Creation. One way to approach this problem is create what might be termed a “minimal” approach to redemption. The minimal approach may be summed by what J.R.R. Tolkien had Gandalf the wizard say about any future battles between good and evil (Yes, I am a very devoted Lord of the Rings fan):

“Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)

This minimal redemption is very similar to Moses Maimonides’ naturalistic messianism in which natural laws are not abrogated in the days of the Messiah. Human society does improve, but except for the resurrection of the dead, all life goes on as before but in peace, prosperity and harmony. A minimal approach thus seeks no grand vision, no final supernatural end of time, and no radical changes in the natural world. It seeks rather to solve the environmental crisis in a spirit of humility and modesty by the performance of pragmatic acts and policies which will bring about a sustainable world for future generations. This is a great enough task for us all.

We may never see the completion of our quest for a sustainable world but if I could go to my rest knowing that I have left “clean earth to till” for the next generation, then I will be at peace.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence for GreenFaith, the interfaith religious enivornmental coalition and is a regular contributor to the Huffinton Post. His articles there can be found at:

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