In honour of Earth Day, which we marked on April 22nd, 2014, below is a video from one year ago reflecting on questions of managing our planet sustainably.
On April 22, 2013, the FinkeIstein Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary sponsored a program called “Yours? Mine? Ours?” which addressed the following question: In a finite world, how are we to equitably and sustainably share, manage and manipulate the common resources of the earth?
Expanded a bit, the question goes on: What can be considered “just” in the ownership, allocation and use of the world’s resources, from which our wealth comes and on which our economy and humanity’s well-being springs?
Even more, how do we build a marketplace that honors this vision?
We are compelled to ask – and answer – this question because for the first time in history, humans have become a geophysical force – a species able to affect by our appetites and behavior not just a river bank or a city or a floodplain or forest (as in the days of old) but the very workings of the planet. And though we tend to forget, the workings of the planet form the very foundations of the well-being of our civilization, and each of us.
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I recently ran, together with my entire family, in the Jerusalem Marathon. Admittedly, I ran merely the five kilometer non-competitive race, but it was a special feeling just the same. It was a chance to run with an amazing mosaic of people including Jews from America, soldiers from across the country, high school kids from Gush Etzion and even Christian pilgrims from Hungary and Italy. More than a dozen Pardes students, teachers, and staff from the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies (where I serve on the faculty) were out running the full marathon, half marathon, 10-K or family run, and it felt like the entire neighborhood was there, too. In fact, throughout the last months of training (yes, I had to train even for the 5-K run), there has been a feeling of camaraderie and excitement on the streets as the number of runners multiplied in preparation. We got strength from each other, and the successes of the day have inspired us to push forward to greater heights.
This piece is a continuation of the last post, a translated essay that was published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, on September 24, 2007- before the start of the previous shmita year. The authors relate to the Israeli reality then – which is only recently beginning to change. Many of the recent new initiatives around shmita have been taken as a response to critical appraisals and calls for action similar to the ones expressed here, but their trenchant critique remains highly relevant.
By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern
tr. Yale J. Reisner
It is difficult not to be impressed by the profundity of the idea that moves cautiously between the desire to preserve private property and the wish not to see property as the be-all and end-all. Shmita is a call for the creation of a bubble in time in which economic activity slows down, and which brings kindness, compassion and even partnership among all those who share the face of the earth, including the beasts of the field. In the eighth year, the race will resume, because humanity requires it, but the idea and its memory are meant to reach beyond the sabbatical year into the six years of feverish productivity.
The idea of shmita was given to us in a time when all of economics was private: each under their grapevine and under their fig tree. But today when we benefit from a national economy, shouldn’t we upgrade the personal and societal message to the situation of the state? Is shmita to be observed only on the micro level and not on the macro level as well? This question should have been the focal point of the religious discussion of our generation, since the restoration of Jewish sovereignty is the greatest novelty to have occurred in Jewish civilization over the last two thousand years. And instead – how frustrating! – there is silence.
Note: This essay was published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, on September 24, 2007- before the start of the previous shmita year. The authors relate to the Israeli reality then – which is only recently beginning to change. Many of the recent new initiatives around shmita have been taken as a response to critical appraisals and calls for action similar to the ones expressed here, but their trenchant critique remains highly relevant.
Shmita in Israel is an oppressive experience that misses a potential moment of benevolence in our national life. The biblical concept has turned into an additional battleground between the halakhic authorities, one forbidding, the other permitting, without regard for the noble idea which has been stripped of its meaning in the Jewish state. The list of the injured is long: the religion, which is decaying into irrelevance and worse; the state, which is missing an opportunity to improve its image by donning glorious ethical Jewish garb and contributing to the repair of the world; Jewish agriculture, whose withered belly is struck by the fist of halakhic prohibition; and the citizenry in general, one-fifth of whom are poor and who will be forced to pay an exorbitant price for basic goods, particularly in the shmita year.
The following text is a manifesto that represents the spirit behind a fascinating initiative taking place in Israel, Shmita Yisraelit: putting the radical idea of Shmita on the map of Israel’s civil society. Scores of individuals, as well as 22 different organizations, have signed this declaration, with the intent of promoting initiatives that take their inspiration from the sabbatical vision of the Shmita year.
This unique integrative vision combines strengthening communities and renewing the commons, with combating entrenched poverty and debt release, and promoting local and sustainable food systems, with a strong statement of work-life balance. Spearheaded by Einat Kramer of Teva Ivri, and former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, the organizations that have signed on range in their activities from environmental quality, debt relief, and social justice, to Jewish renewal, student organizations, community groups, and more.
We live on a fragile planet. Frogs are disappearing; by some counts 1 in 3 amphibian species are at risk of extinction. Twenty to 25% of all mammal species are endangered. Water supplies are fouled; coral reefs are destroyed; soils are depleted. Poisons from the air find their way into the lungs of human children, causing unprecedented occurrences of asthma. Pelicans and cormorants appear on television news stories, their feathers drenched in oil from an oil spill. All of these grim examples—and countless more—demonstrate how human activity has damaged the earth.
We have not even mentioned the harsh reality of human-caused climate change. Polar bears are losing their frigid habitats. Populations from the Philippines to Pakistan to Long Island to California experience extreme weather events. The systems on which humans and all other beings depend are in danger of collapsing–soon.
Let’s face it: Shmita has a marketing problem. It comes only once every seven years. It has little name recognition. It treads perilously close to being confused with the handy but derogating Yiddish word shmata – rag. It has no memorable ritual to ground it; no identifiable symbol associated with it; no compelling narrative to frame it. It is – as presented in the Torah and in tradition – just a series of laws.
It’s as if we had to market in one spiritual bundle seat belts, the gas tax and city circulators. Those of us in the know could see the connection – safe, affordable, sustainable and equitable transit. We would know too the greater context: that the flow of people, ideas, goods and services form the backbone of the body politic.
But the whole is not intuitively obvious. Neither is Shmita. So how do we capture the power of the seventh year in an image or symbol that can move the spirit?