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Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep

Darkness upon the Face of the Deep חשך על פני תהום

Rabbi Ed Rosenthal

“In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was null and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered on the surface of the water.” (Gen.1:1-2).

While we are taught that God is omnipresent and there is no place where the Divine presence does not dwell; there are few places that evoke a spiritual experience or a connection with the Divine more surely than the surface of water. Stand on a beach and look out to the endless expanse of the sea, and we feel God’s power. Contemplate the still, calm surface of a quiet lake and we feel God’s peace. Sit on the bank of a meandering river and feel God’s presence.

Yet we Jews have never been contented just looking at the surface of anything. We delve deep into our sacred texts. We dive into social justice. We are not content just living in the world; we want to change it. We talk about being partners with God in creation and Tikkun Olam. Indeed, the Jewish environmental community is a stellar example of individuals who are passionate about repairing the world, not because it is the popular thing to do or because it is “politically correct,” but because we are Jews. We see environmentalism not as a fad but as a religious and moral imperative. It is our responsibility as Jews to reverse the damage that humans have caused to our planet.

For all the noble efforts to raise awareness of the environment in the Jewish world however, it would seem that we have missed one essential element. Stand on the beach, the bank or the shore and all looks peaceful and right. The price of waterfront real estate alone will attest to its beauty and desirability, but do not be deluded. There is darkness upon the face of the deep.

With seventy-one percent of our planet covered in water, where is the voice of the Jewish environmental community about the virtual rape of the oceans and waterways of the world? On the surface, it would appear that the Jewish environmentalist’s view of water conservation is limited to ground water utilization and the amount of energy used to get it from the aquifers to the field and faucet. All this, while enjoying our herring on Shabbat and Sushi the rest of the week.

As a vegetarian, my mind reels at the number of animals (kosher and non-kosher) slaughtered every year for human consumption. The numbers according to the 2009 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Statistics Bureau[1] are:

· 298,284,486Cows

· 403,579,945 Goats

· 521,036,586 Sheep

· 1,343,635,030 Pigs

· 52,630,054,000 Chickens

If the number of animals slaughtered for human consumption is staggering, then the number of fish removed from the sea to feed ourselves, our livestock, our pets or as simple waste from “bycatch[2]” is incomprehensible. It is not in the millions. It is not in the hundreds of millions. It is not even in the billions. The number of fish removed from the sea each year to grace our plates and to please our palates is in the trillions. It is so high that exact figures cannot be provided. It is measured by the metric ton[3].

Where is the voice of the Jewish environmental community concerning our oceans? Perhaps it is because we view fish as parve, neither meat nor dairy, a culinary “no man’s land,” that it doesn’t require our attention. No Rabbi’s stamp of approval is necessary; just make sure it has scales and fins and you’re good to go. And let us not fool ourselves. There are plenty of Jews who are eating “seafood” that tastes much better than carp, of which no rabbi would approve.

When it comes to terrestrial animals that we eat, we Jews are quick to speak about “Tzar Ba’alei Chaim,” the laws which prohibit causing pain to animals. We go to great lengths to make sure that our dogs and cats get fed before we feed ourselves. We talk about how humane Shechitah is, but also know that in the industrial age of slaughter even our ancient method is not without its pain and suffering. The rise of the new “Heksher Tzedek” is an indication that it is no longer enough that the animals slaughtered to be kosher are merely killed properly. They must also be treated with compassion throughout the course of their lives to really be “kosher.” However, since fish are not considered meat they are not considered the same as mammals and birds. Tzar Ba’alei Chaim is rarely, if ever, mentioned when it comes to fish.

We’ve been told for years that fish don’t feel pain. We’ve been told that fish have no memory. We’ve been told they don’t have a nervous system. I’m no scientist to debate the neurological evidence, but if you have ever seen fish in a trawler’s net, crushed under the weight of thousands of other fish, you know they feel pain. If you have ever seen a fish on a line, you have seen that they know fear. And if you’ve ever seen a fish gasping for air on the deck of a boat, you know that they suffer. Yet where is Tzar Ba’alei Chaim? Where is our compassion? Where is the Jewish voice?

In his book “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do To Save Them,” Ted Danson wrote: “Humans are terrestrial creatures. We live on the land, not in the sea. When we refer to the “environment,” we’re typically talking about our environment – the land, air, rivers, lakes, and coastlines where we live, work, and play. It’s no surprise that a study of charitable giving in America showed that of all donations directed toward environmental concerns, 99 percent went to agencies and organizations focused on terrestrial issues, while 1 percent went to groups working to protect the oceans and the sea life within them.[4]” It’s time for a change; a sea-change, if you will. It is time to raise the Jewish voice to save our oceans and seas.

The Jewish People has a long maritime heritage. Psalm 107 says: “They that go down to the sea in ships, who do their work on the great waters, these see the deeds of the Lord and God’s wonders in the deep.[5]” Most of us have not been privileged to experience the glory and majesty of the open ocean. We have not witnessed God’s awesome power on the high seas. Yet while those who do “go down to the sea in ships” in their industrial trawlers wreaking havoc on the ocean think only of profit, they do not see God’s wonders. As long as they see dollars instead of divinity they will continue to rape and pillage until there is nothing left.

The Jewish People is called to be a light unto the nations. It is time for the Jewish Environmental Community to raise the torch and shine the light on the disaster which is taking place at this very moment. We can no longer sit complacently by as our oceans are destroyed by greed and ignorance, simply because we don’t see beneath the waves. The most recent studies and data are telling us that at the current rate of depletion by the fishing industry, our oceans could be empty within the next fifty years. Yes, you read that correctly: Our oceans could be empty….. devoid of life….dead, within the next fifty years if we don’t do something now.

The Talmud says: “Those who have the capacity to eliminate a wrong and do not do so, bear the responsibility for its consequences.[6]” We Jews, like the vast majority of all environmentalists, are focused on the terrestrial world. The simple fact however, is that if we lose the oceans, the earth will follow. There is nothing we can do to sustain the world once we have destroyed the seas. It is undeniable that there is darkness upon the face of the deep. It is time for light to shine forth from Jewish environmentalists to dispel the darkness.


NEXT STEPS – What You Can Do:

  • Follow our Blog: Tikkun HaYam – Repair the Seas, at repairtheseas.org
  • Get a copy of the Monterrey Aquarium’s “Sustainable Seafood Guide” and keep it in your wallet. Do not buy seafood that is not deemed sustainable.
  • Make sure that the restaurants you patronize only use sustainable seafood.
  • Reduce your use of plastics.
  • Use reusable water bottles.
  • Organize or take part in a beach or river front cleanup.
  • Support a Marine Environmental Organization and sign up for regular notifications of action alerts

o Oceana: http://oceana.org/en

o Sea Shepherd Conservation Society: http://www.seashepherd.org/

o Coral Restoration Foundation: http://www.coralrestoration.org/CRF/

o Save the Manatee Club: http://www.savethemanatee.org/

o Ocean Conservancy: http://www.oceanconservancy.org/

o Deep Sea Conservation Coalition: http://savethehighseas.org/

o Tag a Giant Foundation: http://tagagiant.org/

o Plastic Pollution Coalition: http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org/

· Be a true Blue and White Zionist and support Marine environmental organizations in Israel

o Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Center: http://www.ocean.org.il/mainpageeng.asp

o EcoOcean: http://www.ecoocean.org/Default.asp?LangId=2

o Zalul: http://www.zalul.org.il/en/info.asp

o Save our Sea: http://saveoursea.org.il/




[1]Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Statistics Bureau – http://faostat.fao.org/site/569/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=569#ancor

[2]Merriam-Webster Dictionary: by-catch/noun – “the portion of a commercial fishing catch that consists of marine animals caught unintentionally.”

[3]A unit of weight equal to 2,000 pounds in the United States and 2,240 pounds in Great Britain. In most other countries a metric ton is equivalent to 2,204.6 pounds.

[4]Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do To Save Them, by Ted Danson with Michael D’Orso, Rodale, New York, 2010.

[5] Psalm 107:23-24.

[6]Babylonian Talmud: Massechet Shabbat 54b

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