Relating Biblical Teachings to Current Environmental Threats
Eco Bible: Volume 1: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus
Editors and lead contributors: Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Rabbi Leo Dee
Publisher: The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development
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As one who has long been advocating that Jewish values be applied in efforts to resolve current critical threats, I eagerly anticipated reading Eco Bible: Volume One: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus. Was this the book that would help end the failure of the vast majority of Jews to consider Jewish teachings as a way to make a difference? I was not disappointed at all – quite the contrary. Eco Bible provides a feast of Bible-related ideas that can be groundbreaking in efforts to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
This potentially transformative book is especially timely and relevant at a time when climate experts are increasingly warning that the world may have only ten years or less to make “unprecedented changes” to have a chance to avert a climate catastrophe, when glaciers worldwide, polar ice caps, and permafrost are rapidly melting, and there has been a major increase in the frequency and severity of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events
There are many very valuable discussions of environmental issues in the book. I have been involved in reading and writing about environmental issues for over 40 years, but I still gained many additional facts and concepts.
Eco Bible is unique in relating key Bible insights to current frightening environmental facts and expert climate opinions. It has the potential of activating many Jews who hear Torah readings weekly in the synagogue year after year, but do not connect the Biblical readings to current critical issues. The Bible is the most read book, with billions of the world’s people considering it to be a holy book, but very few are using its teachings to address current environmental threats.
Eco Bible is extremely well-documented – there are 708 end notes and a valuable index, which would help readers to find information on specific issues related to different Bible verses. In volumes one and two, 450 Biblical verses are considered and there are commentaries from over 100 rabbis and other Jewish experts.
In this review it is not possible to cover the full scope of the many powerful Bible-related lessons in the book. But below is a sampling of some of the key issues the book connects to Bible teachings:
- Jews are to be co-workers with God in protecting the environment: In discussing Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,“ the editors quote Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s view that these words teach us “to think of the world as God’s world and ourselves as creatures of God . . . We must not destroy the world , but preserve it.” Thus, they point out, “rabbis throughout the ages make clear that God tasks humanity with caring for creation.” This message is reinforced by Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man [Adam] and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it”
- Jews should be vegetarians or vegans or at least sharply reduce their consumption of meat and other animal products. This is based on Genesis 1:29: “God said; ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earthen every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.’” This is consistent with modern scientific findings that humans are closer to herbivorous animals than to omnivorous or carnivorous animals, and with basic Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources’ and reducing hunger.
- Jews are to treat animals with compassion. Among the many sources for this is Exodus 23:4: “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under. Its burden and would refrain raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” The editors comment that this shows “the extra moral obligation to avoid the suffering of animals.”
- It is essential that people live more simply to reduce environmental threats. Pointing out that the average American consumes over seven times what the earth can sustain, co-editor Rabbi Yonatan Neril points out that Exodus 20:14, “You shall not covet, “ is “one of the essential messages of Divine revelation,” that can provide “an alternative to a high consumption, unsustainable future.”
The editors also point out many parallels between the biblical ten plagues and modern “plagues,” including climate change, air, water, and land pollution, soil erosion, and rapid species extinction.
This is just a small example of the feast of material that would enable rabbis to deliver environmentally-based sermons on each of the portions read on Shabbat throughout the year. Jews looking for environmental material for a talk on a special occasion would also find the book valuable as would any Jew or non-Jew interested in seeking deeper meanings of Bible teachings.
I recommend the book without qualification. It has the potential of being a game-changer in efforts to avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters and to help heal our imperiled planet.
I eagerly await the publication of Eco Bible: Volume Two, which will be a commentary on Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy,