If you believe that we can ruin,
then also believe that we can repair.

— Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav niggun

“Eco-Judaism,” in its modern meaning, is the engagement of Judaism with ecological systems and environmental issues. The very definition implies that Judaism is one thing and ecological systems and environmental issues are entirely something else. Yet, how could that be? Our most ancient ancestors were farmers and shepherds. We have only to open the Torah to learn of their wonder and their angst regarding weather, water supply, crop yields, fertility, pollution and all the things that modern farmers and ranchers are still concerned with today. Our ancestors’ religious practices were a manner of engagement with ecological systems and the environment. Early Judaism was not monotheistic; it was monolatric. If the forces of nature were not gods in and of themselves, they were expressions of the gods. In fact, the word for “a god” in both Hebrew and the Mesopotamian languages is el, which actually means “a force.” They interacted with these god-forces, considering them to be directed by a council of god-forces that met and organized outside the realm of man. The God of the early Israelites was the ruler of those god-forces. Behaviors that pleased the gods were behaviors that lead to abundance and safety from the elements. In their desire to control their ecology and environment, to have continued food supply, fecundity and safety from the elements, our ancestors made a contract with the supreme God, and we are heirs to that contract. “Eco-Judaism” is also “Judaism” through this lens.

Over the course of history, we moved away from farming and ranching. We moved into cities and into the great academies of learning.

Over the course of history, concepts - “god,” morality, ethics, justice, nature - became abstracted. They became severed from actual experience, and instead became intellectual concepts to be drayed and considered by the minds of men. Philosophy, epistemology, eschatology, ontology, religious theory, are pursuits of the mind. “Judaism,” too, became a body of ideas, interacting with surrounding ideas, ever updating herself in the realm of ideas. “Judaism” became the purview of scholars.

When the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, the ones who were exiled were the wealthy, the political insiders, priests and the learned. The simple folks - those who worked the land and later owned the land - were left behind. When the exiles returned under Nechemiah and Ezra, they did not recognize the continuous residents as having the right to rebuild the Temple. They weren’t Jews in their eyes. Likewise, when the first Zionist settlers came to work the land of pre-state Israel, the then Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, the famed Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, had to preach conciliation to the “real Jews,” explaining that the settlers were serving G-d in their own way, if not the “right” way. We had gone from people of the Land to people of the Book.

Jewish praxis follows a similar course. Early Israelite praxis inhered to the producing and eating food: God created the world with its own ecology. Man, by design, created an alternate ecology—that of the farm, vineyard, garden or ranch. But the Israelite farmer was constantly reminded that alternate ecologies were sustained only by the grace of Israel’s God, the ultimate owner and life-force of the land. Our festival cycle coincided with the cycle of planting and reaping, and we celebrated by offering sacrifices of domestic animals and agricultural products. The sacrificial system expressed human identification with the plants and animals that were grown in covenantal partnership with God. After all, we are made of the same stuff; God breathed the same life force into us. Over the course of history, the sacrifices were replaced with words of prayer and study. Food production, which was central to the faith, became more and more decentralized. Today, food production is, for the most part, handled by remote third-party producers. Most people don’t know where their food comes from or how it was raised. The festivals, initially agrarian, were emptied of their agrarian content and retrofitted with conceptual content, first historical and later overlaid with psychological and mystical content.

The overlaying of new content into old “forms” has, for some, caused a sense that the forms of Jewish practice are not relevant to their lives. Some Jews have turned away from the forms, and it is not unusual to hear a person say, “I am culturally Jewish, but I don’t practice,” or “I am spiritual, but not observant.”

The way we approach food production, distribution and consumption, and the way we think of our connection with God is, for most, no longer that of an agrarian people. We have gone the way of the Tower of Babel, thinking that technology, not God, is our essential help. When it is too hot, we turn on the air conditioner. When it is too cold, we turn on the heat. When we want water in any quantity, we turn on the tap. When we need food, we go to the supermarket to buy it, generally without regard to local production or season.

Sociologic and demographic changes also led to “Judaism” as separate from “Eco-Judaism.” We went from a people that thought of itself as an organic whole to a society that is hyperindividuated. We went from a single, uniform Judaism in one land and culture to a time when there are as many “Judaisms” as there are Jews and scholars, and we are, for the most part, separated from direct interaction with any land at all, no less that one Land.

That, in an admittedly oversimplified nutshell, is where we find ourselves today.

In March, 1967, Lynn White, Jr., a history professor at UCLA, published an article in Science Magazine , linking modern ecological and environmental issues to Biblical teachings about man’s relationship to nature and environment. “ Human ecology,” he says, “ is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion.” Referencing the biblical account of Creation, he says: "God planned all this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes…Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” He ends by saying. "Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.” I agree.

White wrote as a Christian, but his article became a well-known challenge to Jewish thinkers to examine the place of Jewish teachings in light of growing ecological and environmental concerns. What does it mean to “be fruitful and multiply and conquer the Earth?” What attitudes are expressed in the Biblical and Rabbinic texts? How did the traditional interpretations arise and develop? How and what do these contribute to our current situation in either a helpful or harmful way? What do they tell us about how we are permitted to act, exhorted to act or refrain from acting today? That is the academic study of eco-Judaism, and it is central to this study.

But there also remains the question of what “eco-Judaism” means to you. How do extant teachings mesh with your personal belief system? How does your personal Judaism or Jewishness engage ecological and environmental issues? Were you to forge a text-based, value-based set of teachings that arrive at your ecological goals, what would it look like? This is self-examination. A second, but not secondary pursuit of this study is to provide tools for examining our beliefs within the context of Judaism.

Finally, eco-Judaism would not be complete without experiential learning. There is no substitute for neuro-sensory-within-spiritual-religious experience as we engage food production, consumption, and our personal relationship and communal engagement with ecology and environment. Thirdly, and of equal importance with other study, will be deliberate participation in activities that foster experiential learning.

Our syllabus, which follows, can be downloaded for printing (PDF).

Two 5-day retreat intensives in Pueblo, Colorado:
Two 12-week teleconference courses:

First Intensive: TBA, mid-November, 2012
First Telecourse: January through April, 2013
Second Telecourse: May through August, 2013
Second Intensive:
TBA, September/October, 2013


RETREAT INTENSIVE: Introduction and Tools

I. Introduction
What is the purview of eco-Judaism? The engagement of Judaism-texts, values, traditions, with ecological and environmental issues.
A. Bridging two directions of inquiry:
1. Back: We are dealing with traditional interpretations, extant halakha as rooted in Judaism to evaluate how it contributes to our current situation, attitudes and actions and what it tells us about how we are permitted to act, exhorted to act or refrain from acting. Lynn White and Ellen Bernstein say crisis is mainly a matter of values? Do we agree?
2. Ahead: Forging a text-based, value-based set of teachings that arrive at ecological goals.

Text study: Text study: Joshua 7:1-26 ,Talmud Bava Metzia 59b; Nu 10- 30:1
1. Jaspers, The Axial Age
2. Lakoff & Johnson, Deconstructing Directional Metaphor
3. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearance
4. David Hazony, Eliezer Berkovitz and the Revival of Jewish Moral Thought

A. Deriving the matrix. The Torah, by way of metaphors, both contains and is constructed according to a matrix for describing and mapping beliefs, consciousness, the psyche and decision-making about our actions. If we were to look at 3,000 years of our literature and array our metaphors, we would find that our metaphors are consistent in their directionality and in our understanding of their relationship to each other, allowing us to draw out this matrix.

This matrix is a tool that:
1. Gives us common language for discussing belief concepts, consciousness, decision-making process, etc. that are relevant to Eco-Judaism;
2. Guides our study and aids discussion;
3. Gives tools for evaluating and teaching others, preparation of sermons, etc.

C. What Jew are you? Examining popular belief pathways using the matrix. Examining our own beliefs using the matrix.

III. The Rabbinic engagement with Torah. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
A. The Oven of Achnai Talmud) and the fate of Achan at Ai (Josua)
B. Pinchas and rabbinical commentary
C. C. Talmud on theft of bread.
D. Descriptive vs. prescriptive understanding
E. Godwrestling
IV. Outcome-based decision-making

PAPER assigned for full credit


TELE-CLASS, YEAR I (Note: we will use our tools for meaning-making in these classes!)

An anthropologic view. Reading: Evan Eisenberg, The Mountain and the Tower: Wilderness and City in the Symbols of Babylon and Israel, (Waskow)
A. What is a world pole? (vertical dimension).
B. Exploring the religion and mythology of surrounding cultures will help us understand our own beliefs better.

Is the Jewish Bible to blame for the modern ecological crisis?
Text study: Genesis 1 and 2.
A. Review the theories and claims of readings:
1.Lynn White,Jr.;
2. TikvaFrymer-Kensky, Ecology in a Biblical Perspective (in Waskow, ed.);
3. Jeff Sultar, Adam, Adamah, and Adonai: The Relationship between Humans, Nature and God in the Bible (Bernstein, ed.)
4. E.L. Allen, The Hebrew view of Nature, ( Yaffe, ed.)
5. Jeanne Kay, Concepts of Nature in the Hebrew Bible, (Yaffe, ed.)

B. The concept of a created universe, and its implications for eco-Judaism (objectification of nature vs. inherent sanctity, vs. I-thou, vs. mystical view?).

Continued text study: Genesis 1-4
A. Themes of Earth, Spirit, Fire and Water
B. Adam ve Chava (the embodiment of farming?); How might this be understood as a biocentric, theocentric or anthrocentric model? What does this tell us about the Bereishit view of man’s role in creation/nature? What does the text anticipate about man’s role as a farmer/rancher?

a. Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esau- the preference for the domesticator.
b. Cain and Abel as seen in anthropological, ethical, philosophical contexts?

C. Eisenberg on separation of roles into masculine and feminine, and Waskow, subjugation of the feminine as anthropological phenomena.
D. The fall of man – implications for an agrarian society.

Continued text study: Genesis 4-9
Competing demands of dominion (pru o’r’vu…) and stewardship (shomrah ve’ovdeha)
A. concepts of Eden vs. paradise and impact of expulsion myth
B. The Biblical koan—to tend Eden is to unmake Eden
C. The Biblical view of Technology: Noah and the Tower of Babel
D. Rethinking Jacob and his ladder.

Note: At the end of class we will divide up the text study for next week between groups for report and discussion.

Do we learn from the Torah or from the Earth?
Text study: T. Shabbat 33b
T. Kiddushin 39b
T. Eruvin 100b
Perek Shira (web folder);
Job 12:7-8
Pirke Avot 3:7
Reading: Steven Schwartzchild, The Unnatural Jew (Yaffe), nature theology
and competing texts from the Rabbah’s.
Jeanne Kay, Comments on the Unnatural Jew, (Yaffe)

Jewish Legal and ethical categories regarding Nature, Part I
In this section of classes we will cover:
A. What ethical statements and value judgments we find in Torah and Rabbinical literature that apply here. Ben adam le’Makon, ben adam le’chavero, ben adam le’olam?
B. Weighing ethics for outcome
C. Relationship between social justice and the land;
1. reward and punishment or cause and effect? Text: Ve-haya im shamoah
General Reading: Jonathan Helfand, The Earth is the Lord’s: Judaism and Environmental Ethics (Waskow)
Text study for this and next class: Tanach Gen. 1:29, Deuteronomy 20:19–20 Talmud Shabbath 67b, 140b,Tractate Hullin 7b, Kiddushin 32a, Sifre to Deut. 10:19; Ex 23:5, Deut. 22:4, 22:6, Bava Metzia 32b, Lev 22:28
a. Bal Tashchit
Bal tashchit is invoked only for destruction that is deemed unnecessary. Destruction is explicitly condoned when the cause or need is adequate. Consider different views of what is “necessary.”
Readings: Eilon Schwartz, Bal Tashchit: A Jewish Environmental Precept, (Yaffe)
David E. Sulomm Stein, Halakhah: The Law of Bal Tashchit (Do Not Destroy) (Waskow 96-126)
b. tzaar baalei chayyim
Reading: Teshuva of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on Pate de fois gras. (web folder)

Part I, Cont. Sanctity of the Earth, the Land of Israel and Beyond

Reading: Bradley Shavit Artson, Our Covenant with Stones: A Jewish Ecology
of Earth (Yaffe);
Victor Raboy, Jewish Agricultural Law: Ethical First Principals and Environmental Justice (Bernstein)

a. Zerayyim, kerayot; orlah (temporality) as means of preserving
Biodiversity from a Biblical perspective
b. First fruits as means of preserving best seed stock
c. Peah

Part I, cont., Yeshuv Ha’aretz and Yeshuv Ha’olam

Text: Bava Metzia 108b; Tur Hoshen Mishpat, par. 175; Bet Yosef no, 43, and the comments of Prisha to this paragraph in the Tur.
a. Ethical implications

Jewish Legal and Ethical categories regarding Nature, Part II
Reading: Eric Rosenblum, Is Gaia Jewish? Finding a framework for Radical Ecology in Traditional Judaism ( Yaffe)
Talmud Eruvin 13b
A. Melo’ Kol Ha’aretz Kevodo -the fullness of the Earth is God’s Glory
B. Biodiversity and the Gaia hypothesis
C. Deep ecology
D. The Jewish view of wilderness (Torah given in wilderness, God first spoke to Moshe in the wilderness, why?)
Note: at the end of class we will divide up the text study between groups for reports and discussion.

Part II cont., Social justice and the Land:
Text study: Lev: 18:25-20:22
Deut. 11-13:21
Isaiah 1: 2-15
Psalm 82
Deut. 24:14-15
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Shekalim 4:7 (web folder)
T. Bava Metzia 83a
Rabbeinu Jonah Gerondi, Sefer HaYirah (web folder)

A. The recursive relationship between social justice and agricultural yield, rain, etc.
B. The rules of living in a covenant community
C. Protection of at-risk workers and underclasses

Part II cont., Cumulative responsibility
1. Text study: Ta’anit 7 (a) and (b).

Pulling it all together: Agency: What are you doing when you do it?
A. The halacha, integral halacha and Eco-Judaism.
Reading: Jonah Chanan Steinberg, Classic Rabbinic Steps toward a Theology of Environmental Torah

Semester Final Papers Assigned




Kashrut and Eco-kashrut
How many times does the word for food or eating come up in Genesis 1-2?
Text study: Deut. 4:9-15 and commentaries
Readings: R’ Samuel Weintraub, The Spiritual Ecology of Kashrut (webfolder)
Jay Michaelson, Kashrut and Donduality (webfolder)

A. positive and negative commandments
B. sakkanat chayyim and kashrut
C. Kashrut as body practice
D. Magen Tzedek

The Shabbat, shemitta and Jubilee
Text study: Lev 25
Reading: Gerald Blidstein, Man and Nature in the Sabbatical Year, (Yaffe, ed).
a. Agrarian considerations: soil health, salt table
b. Use of the heter mechira in Israel

The Jewish calendar, the sun, the moon and the agricultural cycle
Reading: Debra Robbins, The Sun, the Moon and the Seasons: Ecological Implications of the Hebrew Calendar
a. Intercalation and adjusting the calendar for Pesach
b. Moon cycles
c. The Sadducees and the Pharisees
d. A calendar in two directions?

Tu beShevat
Text study: Lev 19:23-25 and commentaries
Reading: Ellen Bernstein, A History of Tu B’Sh’vat (Bernstein)
Ellen Bernstein, The Tu B’Sh’vat Seder (Bernstein)
Elliot Wolfson, Mirror of Nature Reflected in the Symbolism of Medieval Kabbalah, (Samuelson)
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Response. The Textualization of Nature in Jewish Mysticism, (Samuelson)
A. taxation
B. planting
C. ideas round table

Pesach to Shavuot : planting and reaping
Text study: Leviticus 23:1-44 plus Milgrom commentary (this and next two classes)
Menachot 52: The two exceptions to this rule were the two loaves of Shavuot and the thanksgiving offering. The two loaves of Shavuot were completely leavened; they were made of wheat, ground into fine flour. The thanksgiving offering was accompanied by forty loaves, ten of which had to be leavened.

T. Pesachim: The sourdough cycle; leaven, sa’or and sa’ar damua
Readings: Eileen Abrams, Grow Your Own—Barley That Is!
Professor Moshe Benovitz, Which Came First: the Hametz or the Matzah? (webfolder)
R’ Zushe Yosef Blech, Bread…and Wine and Beer (webfolder)
Some illustrative stories from our farm
A. Chag Ha-Aviv marking the beginning of the barley harvest
B. Sa’or, chametz, and damu’a (Wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats all contain gluten, an anti-fermentation agent)
C. Returning to the eco-themes of Earth, Ruach, Fire and water: Chametz is comprised of all four: the fundamental element of Earth — from which the wheat sprouted — is combined with Water — with which the wheat flour is kneaded — to make dough. Ruach is the air that puffs the dough by making it rise, and then the Fire bakes it. With matzah, however, one element is missing — Ruach!
D. brewing for Pesach—time to make your mead or ginger beer!
E. The Essene live-food community. Sprouting buckwheat, garbanzo flour and baking for Pesach

Pesach to Shavuot cont., The Omer and Shavuot
Reading: Ellen Cohn, In Search of the Omer (Bernstein)
A. Chag katzir barley, wheat, first fruits, taxation and seed-saving
B. The wheat harvest and the leavened waive offering
C. The hamsin

Text: Lev. 23, cont.
Reading: Arthur Schaffer, The Agricultural and Ecological Symbolism of the Four species of Sukkot, (Yaffe, ed)
Dan Fink, Sukkot: Gathering the Boughs

Discussion and idea round table.

Reading: Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Religion, Ecology, and Gender: A Jewish Perspective; (printed articles)
Irene Diamond and David Seidenberg, Renewing the Sensuous through Jewish Ecofeminist Practice (Waskow2)

Blessings and Worship
Text: Siddur
Reading: Neil Gillman, Creation in the Bible and in the Liturgy (Samuelson)

A. The usefulness of blessing.
B. Ideas, kavvanot and creative approaches

Eco-Judaism and Jewish Death Practices
Reading: David Kraemer, Jewish Death Practices: A Commentary on the Relationship of Humans to the Natural World (Samuelson)
Rabbi Isaac Klein z”l, edited by Rabbi David Golinkin, Does Jewish Law Permit Cremation?
A. Modern considerations
B. Green burial societies

Modern issues, Current Issues and responses: Policy Making
Reading: Tsvi Blanchard, Can Judaism Make Environmental Policy? Sacred and Secular Language in Jewish Ecological Discourse (Samuelson)
Eliezer Diamond, How Much is Too Much? Conventional versus Personal Definitions of Pollutions in Rabbinic Sources (Samuelson)
Jeremy Benstein, PhD, Olam U’melo’o: Contemporary Topics and Issues
A. Food justice
B. Population growth vs. wilderness
C. Sustainability
D. Land use and urban life

Final session: How will I use this in my life and in my rabbinics?
Personal theologies and cosmologies transformed into action



During this retreat we will visit an organic farm to see some permaculture, a confined feedlot, a Global Animal Partnership certified ranch, a slaughterhouse (but not a slaughter), and we will learn about land stewardship and food. We will also do some shopping and cooking, some holy eating, and will learn how to make bread, ginger beer, kefir, and kimchi, all of which we can eat and drink. We will also do eating meditation, and experience eating with sacrificial intent.

Text study: Leviticus 8-15 and Chullin 42a; Leviticus 11:42

J. David Bleich, Vegetarianism and Judaism (Yaffe);
Leon R. Kass, Sanctified Eating;
R’ Elisheva Brenner, teshuva on Eating meat;
Lawrence Troster, The Blessings of Holiness, (Bernstein)
Kedusha and the sacrificial system: the holographic nature of the sacrificial system; holiness; purity, kashrut and body practice.

A. Beha’alotecha re: eating non-sacrificial meat.
B. Was the sacrifice theurgic?
C. Can, might or should we maintain sacrificial consciousness today when slaughtering or eating meat?
D. Eating and meaning-making



Questons? Contact us at

Join us on Facebook!

Ruach Ha'Aretz is a Project of
ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal