Ecology is organic to the biblical narrative, Rabbi Yonatan Neril argues

Neril hopes that with the recent publishing of the first volume of Eco Bible, he will provide religious leaders with a pathway to combine discussion of environmental issues with Biblical teachings.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Yonatan Neril
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The reality of today’s environmental scene is that thousands of young people are more interested in the issues of ecological sustainability than they are in God and religion, says Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founding director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which is based in Jerusalem.
As a man of faith and an environmental activist, that stark fact is troubling for Neril.
“They likely never heard their clergy preach or teach about ecological sustainability but it is an issue close to their hearts,” he says. “At a deeper level, the ecological crisis is not a crisis of the environment or of nature, but really a spiritual crisis. Not only do senior religious leaders need to speak out about environmental issues and climate change, but more importantly, local clergy should address their congregations.”
Neril hopes that with the recent publishing of the first volume of Eco Bible, which explores environmental teachings and commentaries in the books of Genesis and Exodus, he will be able to provide religious leaders with a pathway to combine discussion of environmental issues with Biblical teachings.
At the same he says, the book can hopefully help introduce a younger generation of environmental activists to ecological teachings of the Bible.
“Now that they can see that there are hundreds of ecological teachings from the Bible, they can actually have more of an appreciation for the Bible and religion,” says Neril, 40, who grew up on “an acre of land” gardening with his mother in the California town of Lafayette – which he points out is actually an old French word meaning a forest – “surrounded by trees, deer, and a creek,” and attending a Reform temple. His rabbinical ordination, however, is from an Orthodox seminary in Israel, Yeshivat Hamivtar. “We are living in this modern, industrial, technological world but the Bible was given in a pre-modern, pre-industrial world. So for many people reading the Bible is a key encounter with a totally different way of relating to nature.”
'Eco Bible' - The cover of Neril’s book (Courtesy)'Eco Bible' - The cover of Neril’s book (Courtesy)
Neril was himself first exposed to the connection between Judaism and ecology as a young camper at Tawonga Jewish summer camp near Yosemite National Park. He later took some courses in environmental studies at Stanford University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in history. During his time in college he was able to conduct research in India on renewable energy and in Mexico on genetically modified corn, and studied Latin American history in Cuba.
When he came to Israel in 2003 to study at a yeshiva for a year, he combined his environmental background with his studies of Jewish text, discovering the ecological sustainability woven inside the texts. He ended up staying to study for seven years and eventually made Israel his home.
Co-edited by Rabbi Leo Dee, director of programs of ICSD, part of the idea behind Eco Bible is to create an awareness that ecology is organic to the Bible, says Neril, noting that until now those teachings based on rabbinical commentaries from the past 2,000 years “have been scattered between many books.”
By uniting those hundreds of ecological insights into one book, he says, they are able to address what they see as the spiritual roots of the ecological crisis.
“We have disrupted the ecological balance of all God created on earth, and we owe it to God, to each other, and to all species to restore balance,” Neril writes in the introduction to the book. “This is the greatest physical and spiritual challenge humanity has ever faced together.”
Since religion is a fundamental part of many people’s lives, it can be a key motivator to shape values, he maintains, by not only appealing to the intellect but also to the soul.
While it has been some 33 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated – with some 197 signatories to date – every year emissions continue to go up and every year the ecological crisis deepens, Neril says.
“I think part of the reason is that religion has not fully come on board to address the ecological crisis and promote sustainable living,” he says.
Many people in the world especially in the Global South and Africa regularly attend houses of worship, he points out, and according to PEW Research Center studies 85 percent of people worldwide have said they identify with a faith. Yet, most clergy in the USA do not teach or preach on stability, and ironically most people in countries such as the USA, Brazil, and Australia who identify as religious tend to vote for candidates who prevent climate action, he says.
Clearly, Neril says, it is critical for religion to start addressing the ecological crisis.
Out of practical numerical considerations, Eco Bible is aimed primarily to Jews and Christians, based on the shared tradition of the Old Testament.
“There are 2.2 billion Christians and 15 million Jews in the world,” Neril, says, pointing out the importance of reaching out to the Christian world community. “We are making an effort especially in the USA to reach a wide range of Christians and Jews.”
They are planning to send copies of the book to the Vatican and have already reached out to 13 Swedish Lutheran bishops and 50 Anglican bishops in England and Africa. They have also distributed copies to some 300 other Christian clergy in the US, especially in theological schools.
Together with his co-editor Dee, Neril is currently working on a bible study discussion guide for Christian clergy, tailoring the guide for the different denominations and hopes to engage clergy to help coordinate it, he says.
The book counter positions Torah portions and passages with rabbinical commentary from a wide source of rabbis and Biblical scholars – ranging from Maimonides and Rashi to modern day rabbis such Rabbi David Rosen, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Ellen Bernstein – to address modern day environmental issues including vegetarianism and veganism, consumer restraint, over-fishing, respect of public space, and factory farming.
At the end of each portion simple action items are suggested which readers can undertake to make their reading of the text a more personal experience, such as calculating their own ecological footprint using an online quiz, exploring more sustainable ways for water usage in the home, spending time in nature, and replacing a good deed for an unnecessary purchase to combat over-consumerism. In one section about Noah and the ark, the book discusses composting and provides practical suggestions of how to begin composting at home.
The book also includes 700 endnotes references, about half of which are from Biblical Jewish sources, while the others are from scientific sources.
Secular environmental activists are happy to start seeing religious people get involved in ecological issues, Neril says.
Prior to work on the book, Neril wrote ecological commentary on each week’s Torah portion for 15 years in consultation with Kanfai Nesharim-Etz Chaim, a Jewish environmental organization which merged with the New Jersey-based, Torah-centered ecological education organization, Grow Torah.
While he hopes to have the book translated into Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Italian, Neril acknowledges the challenges they face raising environmental awareness in Israel and among ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“Yes, it does post challenges here in Israel, and at same time, this is the Holy Land…. Many tourists who visit (post COVID-19) come to Jerusalem and wonder why they are seeing garbage in the holy city of Jerusalem,” he says. “We definitely need to raise awareness and educate people about how religious practice includes environmental sustainability.”
They are currently working on the second volume, which aims to bridge religion and science and Neril is researching the issue of environmental pollutants.
“What gives me hope is that religion can step up to the plate and take a leadership role in revealing the connection between sustainability and spirituality,” says Neril. “The idea of Eco Bible is that this is not just about tree-huggers and hippies. Just listen to what Maimonides has to say about experiencing God by means of what God has created.”