AND THE EARTH IS FILLED
WITH THE BREATH OF LIFE
by Arthur Waskow
Spirit. . . . knowledge. . . .
relatedness. . . . doing and making:
to these dimensions of the One, Jews -- and all of humankind --
are called that they may dance another turn
in the great spiral of I-Thou.
RABBI WASKOW is a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; director of the
Shalom Center; and author of Down-to-Earth Judaism (Morrow), Godwrestling --
Round 2 (Jewish Lights), and Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon), and co-author of
Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World (Jason Aronson).
In the deepest origins of Jewish life, the most sacred relationship was the
relationship with the earth. Ancient Israel got in touch with God by bringing food to the
Holy Temple. We use a most abstract term to describe this, the "sacrificial
system," but it was food -- all the foods of the Land of Israel. And so we affirmed,
not in words but with our bodies, "We didn't invent this food; it came from a Unity
of which we are a part. The earth, the rain, the sun, the seed, and our work -- together, adam
and adamah, the earth and human earthlings, grew this food. It came from the Unity
of Life; so we give back some of it to that great Unity."
Through food and with the earth, not through words, was how biblical Jews got in touch
with God. And in turn there was a way of relating to the earth that was not only working
the earth or making the earth work, but resting with the earth. The tradition affirmed the
earth's restfulness and the restfulness of human beings in relation to the earth. Not only
the seventh-day Shabbat, but the shmitah year, the sabbatical year. Every seventh
year the earth was entitled to rest and the human community that worked the earth was
obligated to rest as well.
Shabbat -- the day and the year -- was one of the most powerful ways in which the
community affirmed the Unity of all. That rhythm of work and rest, and that affirmation of
what connects adam and adamah, the humans and the humus, the earth and the
earthlings, affirmed that we live in a world of All, a world of joyfulness, spiritually
together. There really was a down-to-earth Judaism.
The question is, what does it mean to us, who have lived through the Diaspora
experience? It is not that we have lived only in cities -- there were even Jewish farmers
-- but we have had a limited share of the responsibility for dealing with the earth,
because we were usually not in a position of power to shape the economic or environmental
policy of the communities we lived in.
What does it mean for us living in the Diaspora now? We live in a modernity in which
the human race has created technology and a work system that is the most brilliant act of
work in all of human history -- new forms of controlling the earth, dominating the earth,
making, doing, inventing. We have already affected the planet in ways no human beings --
indeed, no species living on the planet -- ever have before. We have changed the biology
and chemistry of the planet. The only previous commensurate level of change came from
outside, from the great meteor strike, 65 million years ago. Now one of the earth's own
species, one that evolved with the technological ability, the intellectual ability, and
the consciousness to review and improve its own work ability, has begun to affect the
We must strive to understand what this means for us. We must open ourselves to the
larger meaning of this event: Why is this happening to us? And we must also seek to reopen
the wisdom of the shepherds, farmers, and tree-keepers that we were a couple of thousand
First, my own thoughts on how to think Jewishly about why this is happening to us. Some
Kabbalists have taught that an Infinite and Utterly unfettered God, One Who encompassed
all that was and wasn't, is and isn't, contracted inward in order to leave space for a
universe to emerge. But in that empty space, what was the seed of the world? It was the
"left-overs" of God, the thin film, as it were, of olive oil that is left within
a vessel when one pours the oil out. It was this thin film of God that grew and grew,
appearing as the universe -- itself indeed the universe, God disguised by folds of God
into seeming something other than God. And this aspect of God grows toward revealing
Itself, toward mirroring the Infinite Beyond.
This growth, this process of self-revelation and self-mirroring of the God Whose Name
is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, "I Will Be Who I Will Be," makes up all that we may
see of evolution and history. This growth appears to us as a double spiral: one spiral of
increasing power intertwined with another spiral of increasing love, one spiral of rising
I-It intertwined with another of broadening I-Thou, one spiral of more Doing intertwined
with one of deeper Being. Each of these comes into the world as a step in the journey of
the world to become more and more a Mirror for God, more and more a fully aware being,
ever more fully aware of its own Unity,
The emergence of life was one enormous leap forward in the ability of aspects of the
universe to understand and control, and then of these same aspects to pause, reflect,
love, and be self-aware.
The emergence of the human race was another such great step. For the universe to
continue on this journey toward self-awareness, there needs to be a species capable of
self-awareness -- made up of individuals who can reflect upon their own selves, and also
able as a species to reflect upon itself and to see itself as part of the Unity of the
universe -- on which it is also capable of reflecting. That is what it means to live in
the Image of God -- to reflect upon the Unity, and thus to mirror God's Own Self. Among
the species on this planet, the human race therefore bears the Image of God -- the
self-awareness of Unity -- most fully.
And within human history, the pastoral and agricultural revolutions were further leaps
forward in accessing the Divine attributes of power. Each meant that human beings were
able to hold and use powers that previously had been held only by Divine
"outsiders" -- gods, spirits, God. Each meant that some aspect of Divine power
became more available to human hands. And so the thin film of God that became the universe
revealed Itself more and more fully, as the universe grew toward mirroring the Infinite.
And on each of these occasions, a leap forward in power and control had to be followed
by a broadening of love and a deepening of self-aware reflection. Otherwise the new
intensity of power would have swallowed up the world. And each growth of broader community
gave the context and the impetus for another leap forward in Doing, Making, I-It. Thus the
double spiral continued.
The agricultural revolution was one such turn on the Doing, I-It spiral -- and it
required the emergence of biblical Israel, Buddhism, and the other great ancient
traditions on the Being, I-Thou spiral. The last great turn on the Doing, I-It spiral came
when Hellenism brought a more powerful form of economics, science, politics, and war to
the Mediterranean basin. This leap shattered biblical Judaism as well as other traditional
cultural and religious forms. The "I-Thou" response was the creation of Rabbinic
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In the last several hundred years, we have been living through another such leap
forward in the I-It powers of the human race. This leap is what we call modernity. It is
by far the greatest of these leaps, for it brings the human race into the arena in which
it is transforming the web of life from which it sprang.
That we would reach this point was probably inevitable. For to be capable of
"self-awaring" life inevitably also means to be capable of creating the
technology that can wreck the planet. (Our self-awareness gives us the ability to look at
our technology, see its shortcomings, imagine a more effective solution, and make it
happen. All life does this at some level -- it is the "competitive natural
selection" aspect of evolution. The mistake of "social darwinists" is to
see this as the only aspect of evolution, ignoring the I-Thou spiral. Human social history
is simply incomparably swifter at applying self-awareness to technological improvement --
so swift that it reaches the asymptote of possible self-destruction.)
That swiftness, to some extent throughout human history but with utter urgency today,
gives the human race a mandate unique among all species: to act as if it were a steward
for the planet. If we fail in this task, the planet's ruination will take us with it. In
that sense, we are strange stewards, for we remain partially embedded in the earth we
What is the alternative to ruination? It is another curve forward on the spiral of
Being, Loving, I-Thouing. It is the renewal and transformation of Judaism, Christianity,
Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the spiritual traditions of all indigenous peoples -- a renewal
and transformation that can deepen each tradition in its own uniqueness while broadening
the circle of love it can encompass. It is the bringing of restfulness and reflectiveness
to a deeper level, just as work has been brought by modernity to a higher level. It is
extending our love to the whole of the earth of which we are a part, without denying our
uniqueness in its web of life.
Now that we live in the era of high-tech industrialism, and are not shepherds or
farmers or foresters in the ordinary sense, we must learn to be shepherds, farmers,
tree-keepers again in a different sense. For shepherds, farmers, and orchard-keepers knew
you must not exhaust the earth you live on. If you're a shepherd and you let the sheep eat
all the grass in one year, the sheep may be fatter and the wool thicker, but you're
finished off. And farmers, vintners, and orchard-keepers learn the same thing.
What does this mean for us who have forgotten it -- in the wild rush of making, doing,
inventing, producing over the last couple of hundred years? What does it mean for us to
renew that shepherds' wisdom, the wisdom which knew that consuming what comes from the
earth is a central sacred act is a way of being in touch with God? What would it mean for
us to renew that wisdom?
I want to imagine a new version of the Jewish people -- a new way of understanding and
shaping ourselves. Imagine that we were to decide to see ourselves as having a mission, a
purpose on the earth. A purpose to heal the earth -- one that is not brand new but is
described in the Torah as one of the great purposes of the Jewish people.
What does it mean that Shabbat is a symbol, a sign between the God of the universe and
"His" once whole people? The Shabbat of Sinai comes in two different guises. In
Exodus, we hear it as the moment when our restfulness connects us with the cosmic resting
that imbues all of creation. In Deuteronomy, Shabbat renews the liberation of human beings
and the earth. And there is also the Shabbat that comes before Sinai -- the Shabbat that
comes with the manna in the Wilderness, betokening our free and playful reconnection with
the earth. This Shabbat betokens the peace agreement ending the primordial war between
ourselves and earth which began as we left Eden -- which came from a misdeed of eating and
brought us painful toil and turmoil in our eating.
What would it mean for us to renew the sense that deep in our very covenant, deep in
our covenant-sign Shabbat, is the call to be healers of the earth?
Imagine the Jewish people as a kind of transgenerational, transnational
"movement," committed for seven generations, from one generation to the next and
beyond, to transmit the wisdom and the practice that can heal the earth. Imagine a people
that can reach out to others and can encourage others, work with others, to do that.
I want to suggest four dimensions of a Jewish people through which we could be pursuing
that mission to heal the earth. These four dimensions, correspond to the four worlds
through which our Kabbalists, our mystics, saw Creation.
One dimension is the explicit celebration of the Spirit through the rituals, the
ceremonies, the symbols of celebration that we use to get in touch with the One. Look, for
example, at the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, the one that says, "And if you
act on Torah then the rain will fall, the rivers will run, and the earth will be fruitful
and you will live well. And if you don't act on Torah, if you reject it, if you cut
yourself off from this great harmony of earth, then the great harmony will cease to be
harmony and will cut itself off from you, and the rains won't fall [or, I would say, they
will turn to acid], and the rivers won't run [or they and the oceans will flood], and the
sky itself will become your enemy [as in the shattering of the ozone layer or the 'CO2-ing'
of the atmosphere] and you will perish from all this good adamah that you grew up
Today we can see this as a searing truth. Yet in many of our synagogues and havurot
this passage is said in an undertone or even omitted. What would it mean for us to elevate
it to a central place in our liturgy, and perhaps every four weeks or so, perhaps on the
Shabbat before the new moon or the Shabbat before the full moon, to read it with a
fanfare: to remind ourselves that we are part of the web of life, its most conscious part,
the part most aware of the Wholeness of which we and all the rest are part -- but still a
part of the web, endangered whenever we bring danger on the web?
We need to focus on the second paragraph of the Sh'ma. By racing through it, we
race through a central place of our celebration and a central place in our lives; we blind
ourselves to the world around us, racing through a wonderful ecosystem without pausing to
see its rich intertwining.
Let me take another example. I wrote a piece that appeared in several American Jewish
newspapers in the early 1990s. It began with a fantasy. One day in the fall, all over
North America, tens of thousands of Native Americans show up at the edge of rivers
everywhere. They are carrying a sacred object of their own tradition, and they are also
carrying willow branches. They dance seven times around their sacred symbol; they beat the
willow branches on the earth; and they invoke the Holy Spirit and ask for help to heal the
planet from plague and disaster and drought.
It would be on the front pages of every American newspaper and on the evening news of
every television network. Everywhere students on college campuses would be demanding
courses on Native American spirituality. And members of Congress and presidents of
corporations would be bombarded by letters, "You mean something's wrong with the
rivers, what are you doing about it?"
Now imagine a different fantasy -- that it wasn't tens of thousands of Native
Americans, but tens of thousands of American Jews who showed up on this day in the fall.
Their sacred object was the Torah, and they danced around it and they beat willow branches
on the earth, and they prayed in English and Hebrew for the energy to heal the earth. They
too appeared on television, and they too led demands that Congress and the corporations
heal the earth.
What would many of our present Jewish leaders say? -- No doubt, "This is
primitive, this is pagan, this is radical, this is un-Jewish!"
Yet what I have just described is at the end of most traditional Jewish prayer books,
because it's a description of the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah. But we don't do
it anymore, we certainly don't do it that way. A few people in some traditional synagogues
will gather in a small chapel and beat willow branches on the rug. Nobody ever hears about
it. And they say the words of prayer to heal the earth, but they don't connect the words
with any act that might be done.
Look at the prayerbooks, however, look up Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of the
festival of Sukkot, and look at the words of "Hosha na." "Hosha na"
got transliterated into the rather meaningless English word "hosanna" -- it
actually means "Please save us." Right there: "Save the earth, save
us!" And read the words of these prayers, for almost all of them name the dangers
that face the earth and plead with the Breath of all life to save the earth from plague
Those are just two examples; the tradition is rich with possibilities. Our whole
festival cycle, after all, is attuned to the rhythms of the earth. Let us imagine it alive
with earth again:
On Tu B'Shvat, the festive New Year of the Trees that comes at the full moon of deep
winter, we can plant the trees that together make up the Tree of Life. (Last year in the
Headwaters redwood forest of California, two hundred Jews actually trespassed on the land
of a corporation that was threatening to log those grand and sacred groves, so old they
were living when the Temple fell. It was Tu B'Shvat; we planted redwood seedlings.)
At Pesach we can eliminate the swollen chameytz (leavening) that makes our lives
swell up, and embrace instead a week of simple living. And at Pesach we can identify the
pharaonic institutions that are bringing upon us the plagues that turn our seas and rivers
to "red tide," that fill our cattle with disease, that infest one or another
ecosystem of the earth with swarms of invasive species that destroy a habitat. We can call
on these corporate pharaohs to open their hearts instead of hardening them, and to save
the land they are destroying.
And we can face not only the dark side of Pesach, the chameytz and the plagues,
but we can also read together the Song of Songs, that lovely evocation of a spring in
which humanity at last learns how to live in loving, playful peace with all of earth as
well as with each other.
For us to celebrate our ancient festivals in such ways, however, to pray such "Hosha
nas," we would have to be convinced of their wisdom and their truth, of our own
authenticity in so invoking them. We would have to believe that our prayerful pleas do not
fall into emptiness but into a Place that hears and can respond.
In short, we would have to understand God in such a way that such prayers have meaning
not only to a distant disembodied Mystery, but also to an embodiment of holiness on earth.
We would have to believe, really believe, that the great Unity includes the processes of
One of the great Hasidic Rebbes, the Rebbe of Chernobyl, about two hundred years ago
said, "What is the world? The world is God, wrapped in robes of God so as to appear
to be material. And who are we? We are God wrapped in robes of God and our task is to
unwrap the robes and to dis-cover, uncover, that we are God."
So, think of the earth as one aspect of God, and think what it would mean for us to
pray those prayers with that Hassidic understanding. We pray them, can we act on them? As
Rabbenu Heschel, our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel, said when he came back from the civil
rights march in Selma, Alabama, "I felt my legs were praying."
What would it mean for us to pray not only with our mouths but also with our arms
Or, to put it another way: if earth is Spirit, then politics may be the deepest prayer,
and prayer the deepest politics. We may realize that we are always choosing between a
politics that may be prayers to idols, mere carved-out pieces of the Whole, things of
partial value that we elevate to ultimates, and a politics that we may shape with such
deep caring that it becomes prayer to the One.
The Kabbalists taught us that the process of Creation involved a great outpouring of
Divine energy so intense that this river of Divinity crashed through each vessel intended
to contain it, swept over four great waterfalls, Four Worlds of the Divine Flow,
shattering Itself until it came to a shattered calmness in our world.
The world we have been exploring, the world of ritual and celebration, is our way of
experiencing the First World, Atzilut, "Being," the world of Spirit.
Just below Atzilut, on the next water-level of the Divine river, is the Second
of the Four Worlds, another dimension of what it would mean to shape from Jewish
peoplehood a transgenerational movement to heal the earth. This second World is Briyyah,
Intellect, Knowing, Learning. This involves learning Torah, and learning science, and
learning public policy, and especially learning how all these intertwine.
Suppose we learn Torah simply because it was written down once upon a time, a matter of
"religion" that teaches only about prayer and ceremonial. And suppose we learn
science by going to a university department, politics and public policy from yet another
university department or from the mass media. Then what do these three have to do with
each other? Nothing, or very little.
But that's not in fact what Torah was. It was a celebration of the great unity;
therefore it was politics, and it was also science, the best science available to every
generation of Jews who were encoded into the process. So, when the Jubilee chapter of
Leviticus (Lev 25) says, "Hey, some guy with a master's degree in Business
Administration is going to say to you, "If you let the fields lie fallow on the
seventh year, what do you think we are going to eat?" the Torah says, "Hang on!
You will have more to eat, I promise you, if you let the earth rest every seventh year
than if you try to work it to death." Of course, this is religion. It is also
science, the science that knows that the fields are more fruitful if they have a chance to
lie fallow. This is not something separate from science. It affirms what is holy in the
world, and what is holy includes knowledgeable science.
And this process did not stop with the Torah, or the biblical period. The Rabbis of the
Talmud proclaimed that no one should herd "small cattle" -- that is, goats and
sheep -- in the Land of Israel. Why? because they destroy trees and grass. The Rabbis say
this even though they know perfectly well that our forebears were shepherds and goat
herders. Why do they make such an amazing departure from tradition? Because their
experience, and their science, have taught them something new. Their deep sense that our
relationship with the earth is sacred causes them to oppose what was normal for the early
Torah period. The basic values continue; how to affirm them changes in accord with new
Today, we might imagine saying to ourselves: "Our Torah forbids us to cut down
fruit trees, even in time of war. Today we know that every tree gives oxygen to the web of
life, and great forests are crucial to the life of the entire planet. Does that mean that
we may cut down any tree only if it is possible to replace its fruitful supply of oxygen?
That we may not cut down great forests at all? That this is now Torah because we
understand the science of trees in ways our forebears did not (though they certainly knew
trees were important to their lives), and we uphold the values that they held?"
We can think such thoughts and ask such questions only if we begin to interweave the
knowledge that in the modern age has been separated into religion, science, and politics.
What would it mean for us to take the lines of Torah in Leviticus 26 -- which are
incredibly powerful as both a sacred and a scientific statement, not two separate things
-- the lines that ask, "And what happens if you don't let the earth make its Shabbos
year?" and answer, "The earth gets to rest anyway -- on your head. The earth
gets to rest through exile, disaster, desolation. The earth gets to rest, that is the law
of gravity. The only question is if you are going to rest with it and celebrate the rest
and take new life, or if the earth is going to expel you from its midst so it can
This understanding was both sacred and scientific three thousand years ago, and it
still is. Today, when ecologists say, "If you insist on pouring CO2into
the atmosphere and never letting the atmosphere rest from that overdose, there is going to
be global warming and your civilization is going to be knocked awry if not
shattered," they are simply saying what Leviticus 26 said.
What would it mean for us, both children and adults, to intertwine that learning, to
have Torah study that alw; which almost teaches the lesson in the word itself, if you let
it reverberate in your head a little while. But let me unfold it just a tiny bit.
For people who were shepherds and farmers, celebrating food was the way of celebrating
the crucial relationship between adam and adamah, because food was the
crucial connection between them. And so our people generated not only the elaborate
celebrations of that sacred nexus through the offerings of food at the Holy Temple, but
also an elaborate pattern of what food to eat, and in what way: the Kosher code. When the
elaborate Temple offerings were no longer possible, the Rabbis of the Talmud compensated
by making the rules of Kashrut even more elaborate.
In the society we live in, while food is obviously important, it is not the biggest
piece of our economic relationship with the earth. It's not all we eat anymore. We eat
coal. We eat oil. We eat electric power, we eat the radiation that keeps some of that
electric power going, and we eat the chemicals that we turn into plastic. What does it
mean to eat them in a sacred way? What does it mean to say that we're Eco-Kosher? What
does it mean to apply more broadly the basic sense of Kashrut that what you eat and how
you eat it matters?
Today our most dangerous addictive substances are not heroin, or nicotine, or alcohol.
They are plutonium and petroleum. These are social addictions, not individual ones. I do
not mainline oil or gasoline into my own body's veins, but America mainlines gasoline into
our society's veins.
What is addiction? It is feeling unable to control or limit a behavior, especially
using a substance -- even one that in some limited uses may be beneficial -- in such a way
as to receive immediate pleasure at the high risk of long-run disease and death. And that
describes America's relationship to gasoline.
Addictions are to a great extent a spiritual problem -- what in ancient Jewish language
was called idolatry. Carving out a small part of the great Flow of Life and worshiping
that small part. Letting it take over our lives. A serious Jewish community today should
see these social addictions as idolatries; we must work out ways of infusing our use of
oil, coal, paper, and all the rest with holiness. We must eat them in an
Is it eco-kosher to eat vegetables and fruit that have been grown by drenching the soil
Is it eco-kosher to drink the wine of Shabbat kiddush from throw-away
non-bio-degradable plastic cups? Or would it be eco-kosher to share ceramic cups; to begin
each kiddush with the kavvanah, the intentional focus, that we are using these cups to
heal the earth; and to end each meal with the sacred act of washing these cups so as to
heal the earth?
Is it eco-kosher to use electricity generated by nuclear power plants that create waste
products that will remain poisonous for fifty thousand years?
Is it eco-kosher to ignore the insulation or lack of it in our homes, synagogues,
Community Centers, and nursing homes, so that we burn far more fuel than necessary and
drunkenly pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby accelerating the heating of
Is it eco-kosher to use 100 percent unrecycled office paper and newsprint in our homes,
our synagogues, our community newspapers? Might it be eco-kosher to insist on 10 percent
recycled paper this year, and 30 percent in two years, and 80 percent in five years?
I want to suggest that what makes a life-practice eco-kosher may not be a single
standard, a black-white barricade like "Pork is treyf" -- but rather a
constantly moving standard in which the test is: Are we doing what is more respectful,
less damaging to the earth than what we did last year?
What would it mean to evolve a code of daily Jewish practice for how we consume, how we
eat all these things that come from adamah? What would it mean for each Hillel,
each congregation, each Jewish Community Center and nursing home, to review what kind of
paper, what kind of energy it uses? Do we invest money in industries that destroy the
earth, or industries that heal the earth?
Most of the Jewish community is not asking those questions yet. What must we do, then,
to begin the creation of Eco-Kashrut?
Let us turn back to the third dimension, the third of the Four Worlds, the world of
Relationship. For indeed the Jewish community, acting on its own, cannot heal the world. I
could say to myself all day, "Hey, every time you drive the car you are polluting the
planet and bringing on global warming" -- and yet if my society is set up so that the
only way I can get from where I live to where I work is to drive, and there are no bike
paths, and mass transit is rare, run down, and expensive -- then I am going to feel guilty
but I am going to drive the car.
It does not help the planet if I feel guilty.
In other words, we have to act with other peoples and other communities to shape a
society where we can walk from where we work to where we sleep, or we can bike, or we can
take mass transit that is far more efficient and less wasteful, and less likely to damage
the atmosphere. And we have to draw on the energy and clout, of the Jewish people, our new
ability in the Diaspora to make a difference in the societies we are a part of.
One of the notions that has arisen in American society in the last twenty years is the
idea that acting to heal the earth means acting to damage ordinary people, that there is,
for example, a war between owls and timber workers, and any law advancing the owls hurts
the timber workers.
Recent American politics, however, has shown that the enemies of the owls and of the
timber workers are the same -- they are the institutions that see it as their task to
gobble up the planet. To gobble it up biologically, to gobble it up culturally by
destroying small communities which just don't fit, and to gobble up local and regional
economies that just don't fit into the global market economy. To gobble up the kinds of
enterprises where owners and workers felt responsible to each other, where even in the
midst of struggles management and labor unions felt some kind of responsibility, a sense
of limits of what profits could be, a sense of limits on whether you can fire tens of
thousands of people in a prosperous, profitable company. The new corporations of Modernity
Amok destroy such companies: their profits could be bigger; in this way regional and local
economies are shattered along with local cultures and local bio-regions, eco-systems.
Gobbling the globe means chewing up living creatures, thousands of species. It means
chewing up small, odd cultures: the Jews of Eastern Europe, the natives of the Amazon
Valley, the Shoshone. It means chewing up the local factory neighborhoods in Philadelphia,
even the IBM towns of upstate New York. It means chewing up the family in all
The institution of Global Gobble is the global corporation, and its Torah says that
producing is what human life is all about. Producing -- and of course consuming, which is
not the opposite of producing, but only the other side of the coin (and I do mean coin).
In the Torah of the global corporation, resting, celebrating, reflecting, loving, being
there, are all a waste of time, literally. Shabbat, a waste of time!! Think what you could
be making if you were not resting!
That attitude toward the earth becomes also an attitude toward human beings. It creates
a technology which pushes people in two directions: either being disemployed because the
technology is better, more efficient, or keeping their jobs, but being forced to match
their lives to the speed of the machine.
The result is that more and more people who keep their jobs don't work eight-hour days,
but ten-, twelve-, or even fourteen-hour days. And people who lose their jobs scrabble
together two, three, even four jobs in order barely to hold on by their fingertips.
In the process community is dying, divided between the disemployed and the overworked.
The overworked have no time for family or neighborhood or religious life or grass-roots
politics. Some of the disemployed -- those who end up on the streets with no work at all
or in prison because they get desperate, crazy, drugged, or alcoholic -- get a perverse
form of leisure, but they cannot use it for family, neighborhood, religious life, or
Neither the overworked nor the disemployed can get their lives together to help shape a
decent society. Neither the desperate disemployed nor the exhausted overworked can shape a
loving family. In their neighborhoods, the only thing you have the energy to do after a
twelve-hour day is to sit in front of the television set, which takes your depressed and
exhausted self and reawakens it with jolts of your own adrenaline. And then since you are
feeling jangled from being awakened that way, it calms you down with "Hey, here's
something wonderful to buy." So if you're exhausted or desperate you don't create
PTA's, neighborhoods, synagogues, churches, or political parties.
There is a wonderful study by Robert Putnam called "Bowling Alone." The
bowling leagues are disappearing; people still bowl but they bowl alone, because they
don't have the energy anymore even to organize a bowling league. If this seems so
unimportant as to be ridiculous even to mention, the point is that the seedbed of
democracy, as De Tocqueville taught, is all those networks of local organizations.
We need to be serious about addressing both the issues of what we call the economy and
what we call the environment. They are deeply intertwined. An economy is the way in which
earthlings and the earth fit together. Economy and ecology: it is no accident that they
both begin with the Greek word for household; they are both about the same processes of
the human relationship with the earth. And those who want to heal the earth must also
understand the institutional structures that are damaging the earth and also damaging our
society. To act on either, we must act on both.
I have suggested four dimensions. First, the Spirit: what we call ritual, ceremony,
prayer, celebration, the direct ways of getting in touch with that sense of unity, of
allness in the world. Second, Knowledge: the kind of education that intertwines our
ancient tradition with the constantly growing edges of tradition, with knowledge in all
the spheres of relationship between human beings and the earth. Third, Relationship:
reaching out to other communities and societies everywhere to join with us to heal the
wounded earth. And fourth, Doing: the daily eco-kosher practice of our own self, of our
households, and own community organizations.
These four need to be treated not as four separate parts but as aspects of the One.
When they are split apart, very little happens. In most synagogues today, if issues of the
earth are dealt with at all they are broken up in separate spheres. Issues of the earth
and ritual are discussed within the ritual committee; issues of the earth and knowledge
are discussed within the education committee; issues of the earth in everyday practice are
dealt with in the house committee that decides what paper is bought or who comes in to
check the insulation; issues of society are dealt with by the social action committee. In
each of those committees, however, the issue of how to deal with the relationship to the
earth, is probably third or fourth or fifth on the list of priorities. Perhaps on one
committee the issue of the earth will come forward, but on the next front where the issue
must be addressed, the specific committee is not interested, and the question molders.
We should not let this happen. The issue of the earth is such that in a unique way, all
these in fact are intertwined. So I think perhaps the crucial strategic switch in any
Jewish community, congregation or organization comes when that community decides to create
an Adam-and-Adamah committee, even if it has to be called the Committee on the
Environment. Adam-and-Adamah says, "Hey, we ain't identical but we sure are
closely intertwined." You can't say adam without hearing adamah, you
can't say adamah without hearing adam. The "environment" is --
something else, somewhere else. But whatever we name the committee, I think the crucial
change in any Jewish community or organization may be when a single Adam-and-Adamah body
is created that has responsibility for all of those four dimensions, to report on them to
the community as a whole.
From then on, judging from the places where this has already happened, things are
different. The community begins to imagine itself as a piece of a broader movement to heal
the earth, to imagine that that is a major aspect of what Judaism is all about.
Reframing Judaism in this way can evoke passionate commitment from the next generation
of Jews, in ways that few other things can. Much of what the human race is doing to the
planet will have its worst effects on the planet thirty, forty, fifty years from now. Our
children will have to live in what we have created. Judaism which addresses the future of
the earth will evoke their passion, energy, intelligence, commitment, and spirit.
Conversely, a Judaism which says, "Hey, what's this earth stuff got to do with
us?" won't fly.
The passionate engagement which comes from a sense that we fit into the great Unity, is
profoundly necessary if the human race is to decide to stop gobbling up the earth. Those
who are spiritually starving will need to fill their bellies with something -- and they
will try to fill themselves by gobbling the earth. Intense song, dance, Torah-study,
drushodrama, the engagement of the whole body, the full involvement of both women and men
in shaping spiritual practice -- all this spiritual intensity is crucial to a recovering
addict. Spiritual vitality is necessary if we are to heal the planet.
I would encourage any of you who talk with people who talk of Jewish continuity to say,
"Continuity? What is its content? Because if its content is a real, alive,
down-to-earth Judaism then I'm ready to put my passion into this. And if not, I will put
my passion elsewhere, or perhaps I will cynically give up, and put my passion nowhere. For
this is a question of life and death to me, a question of the life and death of my
children who are not yet in this world. If you're not interested in my life or death, then
I am not interested whether the empty Judaism you speak for lives or dies. Its continuity
It does not have to be that way. Together we can create a Judaism that has a purpose
for its continuity, a Judaism that answers the question, "What for?"
What for? For the Breath of Life Who fills the universe. For the web of life that is
the universe. And here is where we share in our depth the Breath that all peoples breathe
-- by whatever Name they name the One Who is always becoming.
We do the breathing, and we are the Breath. All of us. Not only do the trees breathe in
what we breathe out, and we breathe in what the trees breathe out, but so do all the
species, all the peoples.
Shabbat did not come to us because we were "the Jews"; we became "the
Jews" because we heard the silence of Shabbat. We should be welcoming others into
that hearing, even as we ourselves -- some of us -- have had to relearn it from the
breathing of yoga and the sitting of Zen and the meditating of Buddhists and the whirling
of Sufis and the chanting of those who still live on Turtle Island.
It is now the restful task of all the spiritual traditions, Buddhism and Hinduism,
Christianity and Islam, Judaism and Wicce, to learn from each other how to rest. To catch
our Breath. To dance another turn in the great spiral of I-Thou. Together.
Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of
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for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1997, Vol. 47 Issue 3.