A number of Jewish organizations and rabbis – especially in the USA but also beyond – have welcomed Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Sí and linked it to Jewish teachings on ecology. Pope Francis himself utilizes many of the same laws in the Torah that Jewish environmentalists have been quoting for decades: the laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee from Leviticus 25, the protection of species from Deuteronomy 22:6-7, and the Sabbath imperative to rest from Exodus 23:12. Jews and Christians share the concern for the protection of God’s creation, often relying on the same theological and spiritual sources. At the same time, every religious tradition preserves its specific texts, its own memory, so that interreligious dialogue can help to reflect one’s own tradition in light of the insights from another religious tradition.
In a tragic way, this need for interfaith dialogue and solidarity – especially between Jews and Christians – has become acute again these days. The horrible attack on the Jewish community in Pittsburgh on October 27th 2018 shows too clearly how important it is to recall again and again the special bond between Jews and Christians. Both religions share the same roots, they are the fruits of the same tree of life. The following considerations, therefore, want to stress and strengthen this deep relationship.
The Jewish-Christian dialogue that has been triggered by the publication of the papal encyclical Laudato Sí in 2015 is an instructive example of this deep relationship. The rich Jewish tradition can help to deepen the Christian understanding of human stewardship for the earth, and various Jewish initiatives can be seen as allies in the fight against the pollution of the environment and the extermination of living things. This potential for mutual learning and common action will be presented in three steps. First, some central Jewish teachings on the environment will be introduced. Secondly, the reception of Laudato Sí in the Jewish community will be presented. Finally, some suggestions for practical steps will be made.
1) Judaism and ecology: Over 4000 years an environmental ethics has been elaborated in Judaism that can still serve as inspiration and orientation today (cf. A. Waskow’s two-volume work “Torah of the Earth”, 2000). These teachings have motivated Jews all around the world to fight for the protection of the planet. Numerous organizations and initiatives have been founded, for example Aytzim, Canfei Nesharim, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Hazon, Jewish Climate Action Network, Jewish Ecological Coalition, Jewish Nature, and Shalom Center.
A famous story that puts the Jewish teachings on ecology in a nutshell can be found in Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6:
“A group of people were travelling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him: ‘Why are you doing this?’ Replied the man: ‘What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own place?’ Said they to him: ‘But you will flood the boat for us all!’”
Parallels to the current global ecological crisis can be drawn. The boat represents planet earth that safeguards all the people that are travelling with it. This boat, however, is endangered by irresponsible actions because some human beings only have their personal benefit in mind, and not the common good. They literally drill holes in the earth’s crust to exploit natural resources. This egoistic and shortsighted behavior turns the safe boat earth into a danger zone. The planet cannot recover from the damage done to it and poses a threat to all its inhabitants.
The rabbis that wrote down this story centuries ago warn us how seemingly small actions can lead to major catastrophes. They also remind us of the common responsibility that we share. Our behavior always affects the lives of others, that is why we should bear the consequences of our actions in mind. Responsibility, solidarity, mindfulness – the ecological crisis shows us how urgently these virtues are needed today.
2) Jewish responses to Laudato Sí: When Pope Francis visited the USA in September 2015, over 200 Jewish rabbis and cantors signed a letter welcoming his commitment to the environment: “Pope Francis has blown the shofar to the world in his encyclical Laudato Sí and we in Rabbinic leadership have heard the call.” (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) The eminent American rabbi Arthur Green said in a similar statement: “The pope’s leadership in this cause, expressed in his remarkable document of moral courage entitled Laudato Si, […] is a clarion call to all people who call themselves religious.” Large parts of the Jewish community see in Pope Francis an important ally in the fight against climate change. In their view this global problem needs strong alliances, especially between religious groups. This was already expressed by the Jewish Climate Change Campaign in 2009:
“As a fraction of the global population with one small state, the Jewish people alone are not capable of changing the world. However, the Jewish tradition teaches us to serve as a ‘light unto the nations,’ (Isaiah 43). With this document, we are participating in an alliance of religions to address global sustainability and the existential threat of climate change. We hope thereby that the Jewish people will offer its wisdom, tradition and thought leadership to help light the way for all.” (Sustaining Our Vision)
In that sense, the dramatic ecological crisis also offers new opportunities. Religious communities are called to come closer together, to learn from each other and to join forces. As Pope Francis writes: “The majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers. This should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity.” (Laudato Sí, no. 201)
3) Suggestions for practical steps: Networks of respect and fraternity are only possible through encounter. Wherever possible, Christians should seek contact with members of other religions and forge alliances. The Interfaith Climate Change and Renewable Energy Conference that was held at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem in May 2018 is a good example for this. Members of different religious traditions came together and shared their views on sustainability and environment. But even if one cannot meet with members of other religious traditions in person, mutual learning is still possible. Rabbi Daniel Swartz, for example, has compiled sources from Jewish tradition that are echoed in the encyclical Laudato Sí. Such intertextual readings open new perspectives and build bridges between the different religious streams. For those who want to go beyond the academic discourse, numerous interfaith organizations offer room for action. The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD), the Shalom Center or GreenFaith have strong ties to Jewish communities and a vast experience in interfaith action. The ICSD, for example, has initiated a renewable energy project in Africa in cooperation with Anglican partners.
These examples show how religious groups can learn from each other and take their responsibility for God’s creation seriously. Christians are especially called to join forces with their Jewish brothers and sisters. Following Pope Francis one can hope that the Church more and more discovers this rich complementarity:
“The Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism. While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists as well a rich complementarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 249)
Gregor Buss, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, firstname.lastname@example.org
Gregor Buss studied Catholic theology at Muenster University and holds a PhD in theological ethics from Charles University in Prague. Since 2015, he has been postdoctoral fellow of the Martin Buber Society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include: Christianity in the global south, secularization, Catholic Church and HIV/AIDS in Africa, intercultural ethics, Catholic Church and socialism.