Since this is the beginning of Shevat, the month in which Jewish Earth Day, Tu B' Shevat, falls, it seems the right time to think about whether we Jews, so long an urban people, have any relationship with the natural world. Of course it's not just a Jewish question. All human beings have one important thing in common: we are in environmental crisis. The problem, however, is not just technological; it is a moral and spiritual crisis. All urban civilizations have lost the ability to be radically amazed by the miracle of air, land, soil, water, and species. Instead, we human view the world as ours to do with as we wish for our own gain and comfort without thinking about how we deplete the world. We live without fear of the consequences, because we live without fear of God.
The New York Times recently reported that the richest fifth of the world's people consumes 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consumes just 1.3 percent. The richest fifth consumes 45 percent of all meat and fish, 58 percent of all energy and 84 percent of all paper. One might think that those who use up the most would care the most about conservation. Yet since 1970, the world's forests have declined from 4.4 square miles per 1000 people to 2.8 square miles. A quarter of the world's fish stocks have been depleted or are in danger of being depleted and another 44 percent are being fished at the biological limit. Why aren't we more worried, praying for guidance, changing our eating habits, and turning down the thermostat? Most recently, we read about California's rolling blackouts, yet very little of the discussion suggests conserving; instead the conversation is about why we don't have more power plants. In the beginning of our history when we were an agrarian people, there was no question about our relationship to the earth. We are named after the earth. In Hebrew, earth is adamah, and the first human was named adam, the earthling. The world which surrounds us was a code for our lives. The seasons reflect stages of life, the river moves as our lives move, and we continually move, as the earth does, from darkness to light.
Our ancestors knew that everything on earth was sacred. The Midrash says: Even those things that we think of as superfluous in the world such as fleas, gnats and flies, every they are part of the creation of the world. God carried out divine purpose through everything, even through a snake, even through a gnat, even through a frog. Nine hundred years ago, Maimonides wrote: "It is forbidden to kill an animal with its young on the same day, so people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such manner that the young is slain in the sight of its mother; for the pain of the animals under such circumstances in very great." There is no difference in this case between the pain of a human and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in humans, but in most living beings.
This is the basis for the laws of kashrut. We don't eat milk and meat together not because it's unhealthy, but because we don't mix the milk of the mother in the meat of her young. Kashrut is a spiritual practice designed to make us morally sensitive and compassionate. We don't eat lobster or bacon not because they are inferior foods but because limiting what we can eat makes us aware that we cannot kill and eat anything that moves.
The word, ecology, comes from the Latin ecos, meaning house, and logy, meaning study. The world is our house and everything in nature has meaning for us. If we take this idea and pair it with kashrut, we come up with an extended meaning of what it means to be kosher, which means fit.
How can we apply eco-kashrut to our lives? We might consider eating less meat as a way to sanctify our meals with increased appreciation and awareness, and our denomination is irrelevant. Twenty five years ago, Alexander Schindler proclaimed California grapes treif, unfit, because they were picked by oppressed migrant workers forbidden to unionize. Reform Jews might give up hamburgers because raising cattle depletes a phenomenal amount of land and water. We might give up veal, a food that cause suffering in the raising of the animal. Those of us who gave up red meat years ago because it's unhealthy, take note. There is a difference between changing our eating habits solely for our own benefit. Of course, if we attempt to lower cholesterol-to live a long life of service, we accomplish two goals with one behavior.
We are not only commanded to follow the law of kashrut, we are commanded to sanctify ourselves by blessing the food we eat. This is also eco-kashrut because it makes us conscious of what it takes to produce what we eat. A piece of bread represents the sacred partnership between us and God that causes wheat to break forth from the earth we till. The raspberry preserves on the bread depend upon a hand that picked and sorted the berries, cooked them, bottled them, and drove the preserves to the market. If that weren't enough, God gave us the appetite to enjoy the food and the organism to digest it.
A consciousness such as this benefits us in bringing us closer to God and at the same time, may encourage us to be loving stewards of the blessing of the earth.
On Tu B' Shevat, which means the fifteenth of the month and therefore always falls on the full moon, we eat fifteen different kinds of fruits and nuts. We celebrate the day as the time when the sap begins to rise in the trees and they begin to awaken to their blossom. It is a great time to consider not how much we add to the world but what we take from it. This is not new-age, Jewish renewal stuff, but as old as the Torah, which teaches: "When you besiege a city to capture it, you must not destroy its trees."
The rabbis gave us four lessons to morally sensitize us to the earth. First, don't waste. Two, don't destroy unnecessarily. Before you reach for a paper towel instead of a dish cloth, imagine a towering cedar. Three, don't waste food, and four, be respectful and reverent of everything-your body, the natural world, and the animals that inhabit it.
We have a tradition that believes in the power of human beings to become loving partners in perfecting the world. Here is a spiritual path that invites us to cherish and protect the world. It is intended to make us delight in the wonder of what surrounds us, and in so doing we draw closer to God. May we be worthy of the task.