Judaism and Environment – An Interview with Rabbi Michael Cohen


Environmental awareness is an integral part of the foundation of Judaism. This has been one of the principles that stemmed from the establishment of KKL-JNF in 1901. The human connection to our shared environment is reflected in the Book of Genesis, the first book of Moses and the Torah. Throughout its first chapters the diversity of environment is considered as the basis of a healthy life. How can we understand more about this connection to environmental education? I had the chance to meet Rabbi Michael Cohen, who has been involved with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies since its doors opened in 1996. KKL-JNF has also played an important role in the Institute’s development.


Rabbi Michael Cohen. Photo: Shmuel WilnerRabbi Michael Cohen. Photo: Shmuel Wilner


Interestingly, his life story starts in Indiana, in the Unites States, where Rabbi Michael Cohen was born. However he was raised in the suburb of Ewing, New Jersey. According to Rabbi Michael, at an early age, because of all of the time he spent in the woods behind his house, he understood the connection between responsibility, action and results, particularly when it came to the environment. During his high school years he established the very first recycling center in his town. This was during the early years of the environmental movement in 1976.
When Rabbi Michael was a student at the University of Vermont his yearning for his Jewish roots strengthened. During two years, 1978 -79, studying and traveling around the world, he was able to trace his family roots back 500 years in Eastern Europe as well as spend one year in Israel exploring his Jewish identity further. Rabbi Michael was in Israel during an important time in Israeli history when the historic Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt was signed during the first Camp David process.
Feeling responsibility to help the world and the people: “I went to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College of Philadelphia and when I was there during 1980s it was the beginning of the organized Jewish environmental movement including the founding of Shomrei Adamah. I always felt responsibility to help the world and people.” Rabbi Michael explains that Judaism is a very important part of his life: “It was the beginning of the revival of the Tu Bishvat seder as an environmental holiday, which integrated even further my interest in Judaism and environment.”
Today we are sitting in the offices of the Arava Institute in Kibbutz Ketura, from where the Jordanian border in just two kilometers away and the Egyptian border about 15 kilometers away. How did it all start with the Arava Institute? According to Rabbi Michael, it was about the best of Zionism.
The best of Zionism: “In February 1996 I saw a little advertisement in the Jerusalem Post saying that ‘The Arava Institute of Environmental Studies is opening in October 1996… Please contact Alon Tal’. It was the beginning of the email revolution; just two weeks earlier I had opened my first email account, and so I contacted Alon.”
“I ended up coming here with my family and being part of the founding faculty of the Institute in the fall of that year. I quickly discovered that the Arava Institute was the address for all my passions; it was about peace, the environment, cross cultural learning, desert, kibbutz living, and in my opinion, the best of Zionism.”
“The kibbutz is a model of how we can live and cooperate; the kibbutz is a good place to learn. I have been involved in the Arava Institute since its establishment and I see how our Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian and international alumni model long-term personal relationships, and how many of them go on to work with the environment. The primary focus of the Arava Institute is the environment; peace is a spin off.”
“Had we focused primarily on peace we would have collapsed during the second intifada. But as the peace process goes up and down, the environment is constant that you can hold onto. If you trust somebody you can disagree with them and still have a relationship with them; trust of the “other” is what we are able to create here,” says Rabbi Michael Cohen. 
Together with Dr. Alon Tal, who founded the Arava Institue, Rabbi Michael played a key role when the Arava Institute established its connection with the Jewish National Fund USA. In that process he also helped to co-found the Green Zionist Alliance with Alon, of which the goal was to bring environmental activists to the board of KKL-JNF. “We succeeded in this,” notes Rabbi Michael. Nowadays Professor Alon Tal serves on the Board of Directors of KKL-JNF.
Now years have passed from the early years of the establishment of the Arava Institute and Rabbi Michael has continued to divide his time between Vermont and spending extended periods teaching and working at the Institute as well as shorter periods there: “While in the United States I work for the Friends of the Arava Institute, including fundraising and writing articles. Recently I have also started working for Bennington College, developing a partnership with them, working in Student Life, and teaching classes on conflict resolution.” Part of this process is to understand what the Bible teaches about the environment.
The book of Genesis and the environment: “I often teach based on the book of Genesis and the environment. What is interesting in the Torah is that it opens in the first week of Creation where God sees the diversity of everything and calls it good. In that context the environment has an intrinsic value in itself, which is not based on human beings. When humans are created God calls it ‘very good’; not because it was all created for us, but a more accurate reading is that we are the last piece of that diverse puzzle.”
From the story of Noah to the Tower of Babel: “Noah is remembered as a righteous person who saves the diversity of the animals on the ark. At the end of the story God gives Noah a sign of God’s covenant with humanity: the rainbow, which is also the symbol of diversity. What is a rainbow? It comes from one source, a ray of light, that encounters water, the source of life; and through that process it refracts and creates a diversity of colors”.
“Then we get to the story of the Tower of Babel. Most people read the story as if the babel of languages was a punishment for the humanity, but another reading says it was a blessing. Interestingly, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a Jewish philosopher and writer, who grew up in Poland at the beginning of the last century and saw the horrors that happened there, said that if you look at Babel, it is a place where everyone speaks one language and the whole society is focused on one thing. He says it is a description of a fascist society, where the value of an individual and diversity is worthless. In Leibowitz’s reading of the text, the babel of languages at the end of the account is a corrective step back to how things had been and how they are supposed to be.” 
“We know from the environment that the more diversity it has, the healthier it is. Most biodiversity is in the coral reefs and in rainforests. In our lives we are taught the importance of diversity from the foods we should eat to the type of portfolio one should have in the stock market; with everything, diversity is the basis.”
“Even the Talmud reminds us of the importance of diversity where the rabbis were paired together who disagreed with each other! It is no coincidence that this is how the Bible teaches us how to live: We want the incredible colorful mosaic of the world and humanity,” highlights Rabbi Michael Cohen.
From Tu Bishvat to Passover: Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees, was celebrated in January and the holiday of Passover is approaching. According to Rabbi Michael, both of these holidays connect people to the environment and ecological seasons of the Land of Israel, as do the Jewish holidays and the words of the Siddur, the Jewish prayerbook. “We know that our connection to the land of Israel was a key component in maintaining the Jewish identity during two thousand years in the Diaspora. As the Jewish people are returning to the Land of Israel, we have a responsibility both to our environment and to our neighbours with whom we share our environment. At the Arava Institute we work to address these issues in a real and meaningful way,” concludes Rabbi Michael Cohen.
What about the future? At the end Rabbi Michael points out that in rabbinic teachings one of the most important points in Judaism is to understand that the future is about a change for the better. “It is a hallmark for Judaism and what it stands for, and Judaism understands that it requires committed work towards that goal.”