Adaption, evolution, is the key to survival.
This is true for species, cultures and religions.
Such was Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s astute insight when he defined Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish People.” We are still here after so many millennia because of that essential dynamic of the Jewish people.
Another fundamental ingredient to the continued existence of the Jewish people has been our attachment to the land of Israel. It was the brilliance of the rabbis in the formative years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the Bar Kochba Revolt of 136 CE when they made sure that there were daily, seasonal and holiday connections included in the liturgy and messages of the Jewish calendar.
Our tradition is saturated with nature-sensitive messages, from the charge to “guard” the earth in Genesis (2:15) to the nature-intoxicated words of many of the Psalms, to the sublime message not to disturb the environment on Shabbat.
Many of the environmental messages, as they should be and as to be expected, are Israel-centered.
A number of years ago in a class at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies Jeremy Benstein suggested that while the focus on the environment of Israel was important for the reasons stated above, one could also make the argument that perhaps that focus has come at the expense of Jews in the Diaspora creating a deeper Jewish Diaspora environmental awareness and ethic.
In the post-Pew Study days that we now live in to even suggest something that lessens the connection between Israel and the Diaspora might sound like heresy. And yet perhaps we have the equation wrong.
The thought is that a strong relationship with Israel will strengthen the connection of Jews to their Jewish identity. To paraphrase Ahad Ha’am, more than the Jews have kept the Land of Israel the Land of Israel has kept the Jews.
While before 1948 there is a lot of truth to that statement now almost 66 years into the reality of the modern State of Israel it may be time to reevaluate that understanding.
Perhaps now as we continue to march forward into the 21st century we need to see Jewish identity as the catalyst to a connection to Israel and not vice versa. If that is the case then we need to first find ways to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora. One possible way is to create a Jewish environmental ethic that is more Diaspora-centric.
One example is replacing the waving of the lulav and etrog at Succot with local produce such as a corn stalk, a gourd, branches of a white spruce tree, and the branches of a weeping willow (also as a connection to the lulav and Israel). Another choice is during the year where we say in the Amidah prayer, “You cause the wind to blow and rain to fall” and “Grant us dew and rain for blessing.”
Certainly during the winter months in Vermont and other locations rain is the worst thing to happen both in terms of the environment and the economy. Some of us say during that period, “You cause the wind to blow and snow to fall,” and “Grant us snow for blessing.” Imagine during the change in the liturgy on Shemini Atzeret if poems for snow, and not rain, were commissioned within synagogues to be recited.
There are no easy answers to the challenges Jews in the Diaspora face as we wrestle with, in the words of Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, Judaism under freedom. What we do know is that evolution and adaption are the millennia-tested way that has preserved us. Or as some would say, “Masheev haruach umoreed hasheleg.”
The author, a rabbi, teaches at Bennington College and is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont.