Metro Views: The halacha of environmentalism

Should ecology be seen as an integral part of Orthodox Jewish life?

recycle logo 88 (photo credit: )
recycle logo 88
(photo credit: )
The word of the moment seems to be "footprints." It is hard to ignore messages about our environmental footprints here in the US. This land of outrageously excessive consumption has gotten the jitters, and the general idea about footprints these days is that you don't want to leave any. Messages come in all forms: in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's movie on global warming, and the news that even Porsche is coming up with a hybrid vehicle. Fuel is expensive, and water is scarce in once-lush parts of the country. Recycling is required in all New York City households. In Westchester County, just north of the city, people will find yellow "oops" stickers on their garbage cans the first time they are caught tossing recyclables in with the trash. If that fails to convince them to sort their discards, they face $250 fines. Most people I know use fluorescent light bulbs, even if they do tend to give most of us the color of cadavers. And some can give you their score on the Ecological Footprint Quiz. (Mine is lower than the American average because I recycle like a maniac and rarely use a car. But my quiz results still screamed: "IF EVERYONE LIVED LIKE YOU, WE WOULD NEED 5 PLANETS.") Although environmental issues cut across political and denominational lines, some lines are harder to breach than others. THIS YEAR marks the 15th anniversary of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), which was created to spark distinctively Jewish programming and policies on the environment. It drew support from the Reform and Conservative movements, and participated in interfaith environmental partnerships. It has some kitschy gimmicks, like fluorescent light bulbs with a green Magen David, called "A Light Among Nations." But COEJL and the general environmental movement couldn't make inroads into the American Orthodox communities, which, because of family size alone, tended to have larger footprints than most. Five years ago on Tu Bishvat, a group of Orthodox environmentalists began Canfei Nesharim ("the wings of eagles"). By linking Jewish law and Torah sources to environmental issues, Canfei Nesharim is bringing environmentalism into the American Orthodox world. "People take care of the environment because it is central to their values," said Evonne Marzouk, the director of Canfei Nesharim. "We have to show it is central to Orthodox values and in turn that Orthodoxy has something to contribute to the environmental movement." IT'S BEEN nearly 40 years since the first "Earth Day" was held in the US. But in many religious communities, there is a genuine newness and genuine ignorance about how religious texts speak to environmental issues, says Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and director of GreenFaith, New Jersey's interfaith environmental organization. But in New Jersey, for instance, the dangers are real and immediate. The Garden State is a national leader in environmental health threats. According to GreenFaith, the air quality in two-thirds of the counties does not meet federal health standards, and every state resident lives within 10 miles of a Superfund site - the name given to the most toxic waste sites that required federal intervention in the cleanup. No one suggests the Orthodox community is less concerned with the environment than others. However, "the level of awareness in the Orthodox Jewish community as a whole is definitely lower than the level of awareness in the rest of the Jewish community," said Ora Sheinson, Canfei Nesharim's associate director and chair of its Halacha Committee. "There has been a lot of movement in non-Orthodox environmental circles for a lot of years that has worked very well. The material they are generating is wonderful for Jewish ideas." But she said, "When material doesn't focus on Jewish law, it tends to have less of an impact in the Orthodox community." Canfei Nesharim is determined that environmentalism be seen not simply as a nice sentiment, but as an integral part of Orthodox life, mandated by religious law. The organization provides educational materials, weekly Torah commentary on environmental issues and enthusiastic speakers. THESE ARE serious, zealous advocates who are versed in halacha, science and law. Marzouk, for instance, works in the US Environmental Protection Agency's Office of International Environmental Policy. Sheinson is an environmental lawyer at the firm Patton Boggs in Newark, New Jersey. Their work is backed by rabbinic and scientific advisory boards. The group was endorsed by the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of about 1,000 rabbis that serves as the rabbinic authority of the Orthodox Union. Canfei Nesharim also has the support of the interfaith and non-Orthodox Jewish environmental groups, which apparently were excited to have a partner who could to reach into the Orthodox world in ways they could not. With encouragement from Canfei Nesharim, Kehillat Kesher: The Community Synagogue of Tenafly & Englewood, an Orthodox shul in New Jersey, is due to break ground this year for a new building that will be a "green shul." It will have energy-efficient heating, electricity, lighting and appliances; and its building materials will be eco-friendly, according to David Marks, the chairman of Kesher's "green shuls" committee. Part of the idea is that an environmentally correct synagogue also would inspire congregants to modify their household behavior, as well, such as limiting the use of high-energy light bulbs and disposable paper goods. Slowly, synagogues of all streams are going green in the US. The biggest hurdle among the Orthodox is educating the congregations about why it is important. "Canfei Nesharim is trying to educate the community on the Jewish law, the halachic reasons for becoming environmentalists. Once that is thoroughly understood, then it's a no-brainer. As responsible Jews, this is what we have to do," said Marks. Sheinson warns that people need not go overboard. "It doesn't mean you can never use a paper plate; it doesn't mean you can never drive a car," she said. "I have four children. I work full time as an attorney, so from time to time I use paper plates. I confess. The point is I am a religious Jew and I have to think about the action I take and the environmental consequences."