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Reviewed by:
  • Judaism and Ecology: Created World and Revealed World
  • Jeanne Kay Guelke
Judaism and Ecology: Created World and Revealed World, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 513 pp. $28.95.

Judaism and Ecology is one of seven edited volumes in a series on major religions and the environment published by the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. Related volumes address Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and indigenous traditions. Articles appearing in these volumes previously appeared as presented papers and discussants' remarks during a series of conferences in 1996-98. This volume contains 17 articles and four responses plus introductions, principally by scholars of Jewish religious thought, with significant representation from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

These and other American symposia and consultations on religion and the environment generally stem from the root belief that a religious worldview affects all facets of public life for religious faith communities, and thus religious people must understand environmentalism through their religion's teachings. A less charitable interpretation is that both Christianity and Judaism have been relative late-comers to the environmental movement, in part because these faiths have not placed ecology at the center of their theologies, and consequently such volumes represent a rear-guard effort to have something meaningful to contribute to longstanding secular debates about global change. An even more sardonic view that was popular in the 1970s positions "the Judeo-Christian tradition" as the root cause of the environmental crisis, thanks to Genesis mandates for man to populate and subdue the earth, and a preference for saving souls over saving wildlife. Orthodox Judaism provides particular challenges for environmentalists, however, because of its commitment to basing contemporary thought and action in halakha or rabbinic tradition.

Yet it is equally clear that mainstream religious leaders including American rabbis are speaking out against environmental threats, and that they can wield sufficient political influence to make a positive difference in environmental issues. There is also a grassroots Jewish movement to develop environmental leadership programs and synagogue- or community center-level practical approaches to local environmental mitigation.

The Harvard series' stated goals were to identify the ecological attitudes, values, and practices of its seven religious traditions; environmental commonalities within and between faiths; the religions' desired modes of human conduct; and their needs for further study (p. xxiii). Consequently it seems most fair to assess Judaism and Ecology according to these criteria. I should mention, however, that my specialization is in environmental and not Judaic studies, and consequently I may have overlooked the theological advances represented in this volume.

Many of the papers addressed specific theological and philosophical concepts such as creation, materiality, natural law, mysticism, and the nature of G-d. These were worked out through contexts such as Kabbalah, Hasidism, liturgy, literary approaches [End Page 189] to specific biblical texts, and the thought of Abraham Heschel and Martin Buber. Most of the papers appeared to be original research on a specific topic, rather than systematic overviews of principal themes in Jewish environmentalism.

I found all of the papers to be erudite, gracefully reasoned, and informative about selected aspects of Jewish theology and philosophy, yet mostly disconnected from anything ecological in the contemporary sense. I would have hoped for the authors to make a special effort to link more explicitly their religious expertise either to ecology as a natural science, to the practical environmental management issues of today, or even to Nature as a humanities construct. I was simply left wondering, in paper after paper, why so little of the Jewish environmental literature, or indeed any environmental literature, was cited or discussed; let alone with incisive critical engagement. Readers looking for Judaism's take on major trends in humanistic environmentalist thought, such as eco-justice, gender issues, environmental values, or pragmatism, for example, will find scant evidence. The editor's own efforts to foreground the volume with larger issues of Judaism and environmentalism are commendable, but were brief and unable to counterbalance the esoteric weight of the majority of papers.

But more seriously, the transcendent character of much of this volume collectively implies that Judaism, after all, has no robust insights and prescriptions for today's environmental...


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