How Earth Day Aligns with Jewish Values

Leib Kaminsky

My burgeoning love of the environment began during a 1978 Muppets’ television special.

It featured Buffalo Springfield singing “For What It’s Worth,” parodying the original song using Muppet animals.

The song’s refrain: “Everybody stop! Hey! What’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down” brought a connection of my values (the love of wildlife) to a cause (protecting them) as seen through a child’s version of conservation.

I wanted to save the natural areas that surrounded my “animals.”

My love of the environment continued to grow, leading me to major in environmental science in college at the University of Pennsylvania and later focus on environmental education in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

But my love for the environment truly blossomed when I was able to see how my Jewish values and the religion itself guided me on my learning journey.

Earth Day is a reminder of these values.

It is closely aligned with Jewish values, emphasizing each individual’s role and responsibility in maintaining the earth for all its living creatures. It is a reminder to renew our efforts to preserve the planet because it is up to us to care for the world.

In Genesis 2:15, humankind is given the responsibility to serve and conserve the Garden of Eden, which, in our times, applies to the whole earth.

Today, we struggle with balancing our need to conserve and our need to consume. How do we make this planet more sustainable for all?

Those who join in the celebration of Earth Day realize that wise stewardship of our planet requires detailed knowledge of the environment and how it is changing.

“Earth Day, Every Day,” right? But how can one justify this phrase?

There are multiple references to the idea of Earth Day in Judaism. Many Jewish holidays could literally be called Earth Day.

First, the holiday Tu B’shvat is the celebration of the birth of trees. Tu B’shvat is not mentioned in the Bible, but in the Mishnah – a collection of material from the oral tradition of Jewish law.

The three major holidays that were pilgrimages to Jerusalem – Passover (Exodus 12:18), Shavuot (Exodus 34:22) and Sukkot (Exodus 23:16) – all incorporate water (prayers for rain and dew), agriculture (planting and harvests) and natural elements related to the use of the earth.

Looking at the environment through Jewish text is just one of many ways to learn about Jewish values toward our natural world.

In Exodus 23:10-11, the concept of the Sabbatical year (Shmita) is introduced.

Shmita is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle, designated as a time to let agricultural fields lie fallow to recuperate, replenish and restore the soil. Specific requirements to feed the poor and animals also are included.

Do not destroy or waste (Bal Tashchit) is a basic ethical principle in Jewish law that is rooted in Deuteronomy 20:19-20.

These concepts challenge modern-day Jews to balance agriculture, industry and commerce by considering the needs of the community both now and in the future. The Bible warns that over-consumption now will lead to scarcity later.

Judaism is based on the values of learning. The Bible is read, year after year, and each time readers are encouraged to look at new ways to view passages in the context of our ever-changing world.

A good source for Jewish learning is the Eco Bible by Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Rabbi Leo Dee, which brings together 450 Bible verses with commentary from over 100 rabbis whose ecological insights were previously scattered across hundreds of books.

The commentary also incorporates scientists’ understanding of human health, biodiversity and environmental protection of air, land and water. By examining the past, one can reflect on our environmental future.

My Jewish and environmental advocacy are intertwined; they cannot be separated.

These are values I incorporate into my everyday life. These are values that everyone can incorporate into their Earth Day observance.

I encourage everyone to embrace the meaning of Earth Day from their own religious perspective, for what it’s worth.

Leib Kaminsky

Residing in Falls Church, Virginia, and a member of Agudas Achim Congregation, he currently consults for Jewish and environmental non-profit organizations, assisting them in building capacity and fundraising for innovative programs.

Related articles about Earth Day (April 22nd) from Good Faith Media include:

This Earth Day, a Sermon for the Birds | Jessica McDougald

Silence on Climate Change Spurs Millennials’ Migration | Don Gordon