Green Pilgrimage: Re-framing an ancient obligation

The Global Network of Green Pilgrimage provides a meeting ground for pilgrim cities around the world.

Jerusalem Botanical Gardens 390 (photo credit: Judith Marcus)
Jerusalem Botanical Gardens 390
(photo credit: Judith Marcus)
Should Jews be “green”? Can the term “pilgrim” apply to Jews? With Passover in our sights, it is appropriate to ask these questions, in spite of the fact that the answer may seem obvious to many of us. At this time, we have a sense of starting afresh, with all the opportunities that implies. Perhaps this is the time to shake off not only the physical cobwebs on the walls, but also to do some serious “rethinking” of what it means to be Jewish in our time, to reexamine the way in which we fulfill our obligations as Jews. This must surely include an awareness of and response to the global environmental crisis, one of the most burning issues of our day.
To my way of thinking this results in a need to pose several questions, traditionally the Jewish way of tackling problems.
Indeed, if climate change is the greatest threat to life on earth as we know it, then we must make sure that our Jewish practices have bearing on this. Our sages taught that we must “walk humbly,” which should in turn result in modest lifestyle habits.
The ancient Jewish obligation to ascend on foot to Jerusalem three times a year was no longer feasible after the destruction of the First Temple, when the Jewish Diaspora was first created. During the period of the Second Temple, Jews knew that once in their lifetime they should make the effort to visit Jerusalem. This raises the question of how today’s Jewish community views the obligation to go on such a pilgrimage, when the very justification of the Jewish state is being called into question by certain sectors of the Diaspora community.
Reviving the spirit of Jewish pilgrimage on the one hand, and planning the City of Jerusalem with a view to having the capacity to welcome millions of visitors on the other, is surely a worthy goal, and one that could inject some much needed adrenalin into the relationship between the Jewish community in Israel and that of the Diaspora. However, I believe that an essential ingredient in this proposed recipe for re-framing our Jewish world is the prerequisite of underpinning our conduct with Jewish guidelines of sustainability, responsibility and mutual respect, whether as citizens of Jerusalem or as pilgrims on their way to the most important spiritual destination in the world.
It is particularly exciting when we can place this line of Jewish thinking in a global context, within which we must bear in mind the significance of Jerusalem as a major spiritual destination for Christians and Muslims as well as for Jews. The Global Network of Green Pilgrimage provides a meeting ground for pilgrim cities around the world and for the faith communities that view them as important spiritual destinations, and at the end of April 2013, Jerusalem will be the proud host of the First International Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage ( ).
Cities, holy sites, faith communities and environmental innovators will meet in Jerusalem to celebrate the message of the Green Pilgrimage Network, and its potential impact on the habits of world travelers in the years to come. We will be sharing best practices and discussing how to green not only holy cities and sites, but also how the pilgrimage experience itself, each to his own theology, can harness our collective and individual responsibility as stewards of Divine Creation. But apart from the goal of sustainable development for pilgrim cities on the one hand, and guidelines for sustainable travel on the other, there is a message that is potentially of greater impact here.
With wisdom beyond his time, King Solomon offered a special prayer on the occasion of the dedication of the Temple he had built, the very Temple that would become the symbol of Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel throughout the following millennia. In 1 Kings 8: 41, Solomon asks Gd to welcome strangers who visit the temple, and to answer their prayers, in a statement of tolerance that should surely be an inspiration for us today.
Indeed, in a city of many diverse cultures, respect for the other is of the essence, but this is not enough. We need also to be able to appreciate the reverence felt by other religious communities when visiting their spiritual destinations. If we can achieve that, and at the same time re-engage the Jewish communities of the Diaspora in the ancient obligation of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, then our “rethinking” will have been more than worthwhile. If, in addition, we reinterpret the 10 rules of environmental conduct prescribed in the Babylonian Talmud for the pilgrim seasons in Jerusalem (Bava Kamma, 82b), we will discover that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, and all we have to do is revisit our sources, and make sure that we leave a positive footprint.
The author is deputy mayor of Jerusalem.