Biblical Ecology & Economics for the 21st (or 59th) Century
Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
The US and the world are struggling with both economic and ecological crises –- and most people see them as unconnected. In the secular “social justice” world, many organizations ignore ecological issues. In the secular “environmental” world, many organizations ignore issues like unemployment or income inequality.
In the religious world, the most audible voices in American Christianity affirm an economics of minimal regulation of private property and competition, and minimal protection for the Earth from human exploitation.
Yet the Bible sees economics and ecologics as intimately intertwined, and calls for a practice of strong, spiritually rooted regulation of both.
That key passage of Torah (Lev. 25 & 26, which appear in the pattern of Jewish Torah reading on May 4) calls for an entire year of rest for the land and its workers, every seventh year. Deuteronomy adds that in that year, everyone’s debts are annulled. (Deut. 15: 1-3).
Leviticus calls this year a Shabbat Shabbaton – restfulness to the exponential power of Restfulness, an echo and expansion of the restful seventh day. Deuteronomy calls the year “shmitah” — “release” or “non-attachment.”
And Leviticus 25 goes even farther — in the year that is 7 x 7 + 1=50, all land must be redistributed into functionally equal amounts to each family and clan, so that the rich give up their surplus and the poor come into their own.
Why all this? Because, says YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, The Interbreathing of all life, “The earth is Mine. You are but sojourners, temporary visiting-settlers, with Me.” (Lev 25: 23)
If we understand YHWH not as a Lord, a King, in the sky but as the Interbreathing that connects all life, this is literally and scientifically true. None of us “owns” where we live, what we eat. It is the weave of life — we breathe in what the trees breathe out, the trees breathe in what we breathe out –- that keeps us alive. Not only life on the “outside” but the myriad bacteria that live inside our own guts keep us alive.
And this is not only a scientific fact but a spiritual truth. It calls us to behave toward each other with respect, concern, love –- because we cannot exist without each other.
It is also a political commitment. Because the Holy One owns all “property,” says the Bible, every landholder is obligated not only to surrender surplus land once a generation and to free the land from being worked every seventh year and to annul debts owed to the lenders in that year. –- Still more: in every year all along, each landholder must allow the landless to glean grain, olives, and grapes from their fields and orchards; and each must pay tithes –- an income tax of 10% — to support the poor and the Levites, who had no land.
Recently an American politician called taxes “robbery” from private property. That worldview assumes each one of us has “private property” and that someone is stealing “our” property if we agree as a community to insist that the affluent share some of their abundance for the common good. That decision to share for the common good, agreed on democratically, is what we call “taxes.” Calling such taxes “robbery” is exactly the opposite of the Biblical teaching.
And the sense that all “property” is really shared not only with other human beings but also with the soil, the seed, the rain, the rivers, the myriad sorts of animals and plants and microbes — with YHWH, the Breath that connects us all – is actually to be affirmed and made a practical practice by the rhythm of restfulness, through the sacred seventh day, seventh month, seventh year, fiftieth year.
Torah warns with horrifying images that if the people refuse to allow these pulsations of restfulness, the land will rest anyway – through famine, drought, plague, exile. (Lev 26:, esp 13-16, 33-35, 43-44.)
So Torah calls for neither unending “economic growth” nor economic stagnation — but for what might be called a “pulsating economy.” A sustainable society. Internally sustainable, since the rage of the poor and the arrogance of the rich are both replaced with sharing. “Externally” sustainable, since the arrogance of human beings (adam) and the exhaustion of the Earth (adamah) are both replaced by sharing.
Industrial modernity rejected this whole model of society. Whether it called itself “capitalist” or “socialist,” it focused on unending economic “growth,” purchased by burning fossil fuels and by taking over more and more territory for human beings in ways that have led to the speed-up extinction of other life forms. For about 300 years, larger and larger, deeper and deeper parts of the Earth have been allowed no Shabbat. Indeed, Shabbat itself has come to seem a waste of time. A waste of time that could have been put into more intense production.
We have taken great pride in the achievements of industrial technology: cures for diseases, swift global communication, the production of so much food as to make possible the reproduction of seven billion humans (going on nine).
But –- no Shabbat. And so at last, we have reached the point described in Leviticus 26:
§ Long long lives for some billions, wretched starvation and disease for other billions.
§ Unheard-of wealth for a tiny few.
§ Extinctions of species at a rate unknown in all of the existence of the human race –- indeed, since the Great Asteroid of 65 million years ago.
§ Extremely dangerous changes in the very chemistry and climate of the planet.
Can we, should we, out of devout commitment to the Bible “abolish” the industrial technology that has, unchecked, led us to the edge of the precipice? No!
Truly devout commitment to the Biblical vision calls us now to a profound question, perhaps the most profound in human history: Can industrial technology be reshaped to fit into the Bible’s vision of a sustainable society, a rhythm of restfulness, a pulsating economy, abundance shared by humans with each other and with our sister life-forms, a respectful ecological consciousness and conscience, a constant awareness of the Interbreathing of all life?
That is what Dr. Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community, extended beyond the human society on which he was focused, to all life.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., is the founder (1983) and director of The Shalom Center <http://www.theshalomcenter.org>. Along with about 22 books on Jewish practice and public policy, he is also the author of an essay on Jewish environmental ethics in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Jonathan K. Crane and Elliot N. Dorff, eds; Oxford University Press, 2013). He also writes for The Shalom Report, a weekly blog from The Shalom Center, and will continue to explore these issues and their ramifications. For example: Can we actually create a real “sabbatical year” for the USA? How are overwork and disemployment related, and what would a society of “rhythmic rest” be like? What kind of eco-advocacy would unite the means we use with the ends we seek to achieve? To subscribe to this blog, please click to https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/mailing/subscribe
For a fuller unfolding of these ideas from an earlier moment of American and planetary history, see a chapter from his book Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights, 1986)– called “Toward a Jubilee Economy & Ecology in the Modern World,” at <https://theshalomcenter.org/node/1396>
For a guide to study and action in response to the Torah of shmitah, see http://www.hazon.org/resource/behar-week-of-shmita-study-action/
For an intensely text-focused analysis of the Biblical tradition of shmitah, Jubilee, and the Eden story, see Rabbi David Seidenberg’s writing at