“Environmental stewardship transcends politics”

Q & A with Rabbi Yonathan Neril, The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

As Easter and Pesach approach and nature seems to reawaken from its winter dormancy, believers and non-believers alike feel a sense of relief and gratitude. What do the Bible and the Jewish Sages have to say about that experience, and what has the collective wisdom of the world’s religions to contribute to a new “ecological awareness”? We asked Rabbi Yonathan Neril, Founder and Executive Director of The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, to give us his views.

Rabbi Neril, is there a connection between Pesach and the mission of your organization, The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development?

Yes, there is a connection. While we are an interfaith organization, my background as a rabbi is in Jewish teachings, which I draw on in the work of our organization and which I will elaborate on here.

The festival of Pesach is called “the festival of Spring” in the Bible, and it occurs as the natural world is renewed and becomes green again. It celebrates the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, which occurred after the Ten Plagues. These included locusts and hail, which the Bible notes made Egypt desolate of anything green.

The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development accesses the collective wisdom of the world’s religions to promote co-existence, peace, and sustainability through education and action. In a sense, we are revealing the ‘green’ teachings of faith traditions to promote a more sustainable and peaceful world.

And what about other Jewish festivals such as Shavuot (Pentecost) and Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles?

The three pilgrimage festivals - Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot - are described in the Bible as agricultural festivals. During the periods when Jews lived in the land of Israel, many were farmers, intimately connected to the land. The yearly agricultural work and harvest helped them connect to God, on Whom they were dependent for rain and food. The festivals, including Pesach, can therefore serve as a reminder of the importance of connecting to the food one eats and the natural cycles of the seasons.

Pesach reminds us of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh. In a broader sense, it is a feast of freedom, of national self-determination, of individual human rights. How does this message relate to the idea of sustainable development?

Sustainable development is about working to ensure that our and future generations inherit a vibrant and livable planet. The linkage to freedom, self-determination, and rights is clear: only if we live in an earth in balance can we be free in our lives and not constrained by ecological impacts that a previous generation has imposed on us. We should be careful about putting in place imbalances that would impair our and future generations ability to live to their fullest potential.

In Europe, there are strong tendencies to ban Shechita. Among those who advocate this ban you do find anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim voices. But there is also a genuine concern for the protection of “animal rights”. Do you believe animals can have rights?

In this regard I would like to quote from Rabbi David Sears, who wrote in his book The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism:

“'God is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works' (Psalms 145:9). This verse is the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare. The Torah espouses compassion for all creatures and affirms the sacredness of life. These values are reflected by the laws prohibiting cruelty to animals and obligations for humans to treat animals with care.

A basic rule of Jewish ethics is the emulation of God's ways. In the words of the Talmud, 'Just as He is merciful, so shall you be merciful' (Tractate Sotah 14a). Therefore compassion for all creatures is not only God's business; it is everyone's. Moreover, rabbinic tradition describes God's mercy as above all other divine attributes. Thus, compassion must not be reckoned as one good trait among others; rather, it is central to the entire Jewish approach to life.

Benevolence entails action. Beyond moral sentiment, Judaism mandates kindness toward animals in religious law; prohibits their abuse; and obligates their owners concerning their well-being.”

Thirty years ago, environmentalism was perceived as an anti-capitalist left-wing movement. Would it not be more appropriate to see it as a genuinely conservative idea?

I have been impressed by the depth of what today would be called “ecological awareness” in the texts of the Bible and the writings of the Jewish Sages that I have read. The preservation and stewardship of the planet that the Creator entrusted to us is of religious importance. As Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University writes in regard to the instruction in Genesis to “subdue the earth,” “'Subdue it' is not only not an invitation to ecological irresponsibility; it is a charge to assume additional moral responsibility, not only for the natural world as such, but even for the manmade culture and civilization that we found when we were born into this world.”

One outcome of the Interfaith Climate and Energy Conference that my organization co-organized with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung was a short video from religious leaders on environmental sustainability. What emerges from that video is a clear message that environmental stewardship transcends politics and can be an issue that people of many faiths and nationalities can unite around.

Thank you very much, Rabbi Neril.

The questions were asked by Michael Mertes.


Israel, April 1, 2012

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World religious leaders talk about humankind's responsibility for the preservation of Creation.