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EcoJudaism in the Time of the Coronavirus

By David Krantz

9 Tammuz 5780  /  1 July 2020


Today marks the beginning of 18 weeks since my family began quarantining to avoid Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2), the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. When I wrote the first draft of this article 18 weeks ago, those with whom I shared it thought it was too alarmist; today it may be too tame.

 

For those of us who despair about climate change, it is important to recognize that our response to the coronavirus is proving that life can change significantly very quickly. Although carbon-powered travel has enabled the coronavirus to spread around the world more quickly than other historical pandemics, the coronavirus is not itself a result of climate change. Nonetheless the coronavirus and climate change share many of the same root causes, including:

  • A loss of humanity’s balance with nature;
  • A failure to sacrifice in the short term for a long-term benefit;
  • A failure to prioritize human life over economic issues (even though saving human lives helps the economy more than letting people suffer and die);
  • And an overarching public embrace of anti-science and anti-intellectualism.

 

Specifically, Covid-19 shows what can happen when humans capture wild animals and house them in the center of human settlement, allowing for a virus to move from one species to a human host. But more broadly Covid-19 shows what happens when our species takes too great a role in life on Earth — when we have thrown off the balance of nature. Covid-19 may not be caused by climate change but it is very much a disease of the anthropocene, the epoch when human beings are the largest factor in changing the Earth. And like climate denialism, the denial of the coronavirus as a problem — coronavirus denialism, exhibited by many conservative politicians — represents a failure to address a difficult reality.

 

Shmita, the Jewish sabbatical year, calls for moving to restore balance between humanity and nature, in part by ceasing the seemingly never-ending encroachment of the former on the latter. By requiring us to stop working land and remove fences and other demarcations of ownership of nature, shmita serves as a nature-oriented degrowth — a pause on expansion of natural-resource consumption, a pause on privatizing nature, a pause on forcing nature to bend to our will. But the year-long pause may not be intended to offer lessons merely for the shmita year itself. Jewish tradition teaches us that our time-oriented occasions are not meant to provide a one-time salve but rather to remind us of behaviors that we should be doing regularly.

 

For example, the month of Elul, which is rapidly approaching, provides a designated time for reflection and repentance, but it also reminds us year-round that we should be carefully considering the impact of our decisions and seeking forgiveness for our mistakes. Passover provides us with a designated time to be grateful for our freedom from slavery, but it also reminds us year-round that we need to appreciate our freedom and fight for the freedom of others. Sukkot provides us with a designated time to understand the tenuous status of living in temporary dwellings in the wilderness, but it also reminds us that year-round we should be appreciative of being shielded from the elements and work to provide others with shelter. Pick any Jewish day of significance and you will find that its lessons are applicable year-round. So too are the lessons of shmita applicable to us in non-shmita years. And partly that is because shmita does not exist in a vacuum, but as part of a seven-year cycle and a 50-year yovel, or jubilee, cycle. And every day and every year is part of a shmita and yovel cycle.

 

So what happens when we stop observing shmita? The Torah says that the punishment for lack of human embracement of shmita is that shmita will be imposed upon humanity to restore the balance with nature that humanity denied. A planned shmita is healthy and necessary, but an unplanned shmita can result in human misery, including widespread disease and fever that causes “the eyes to pine and the body to languish” (Lev. 15-35). On first read that may sound threatening — observe shmita or be punished with disease. But the text may actually be explanative — observe shmita or disease will be among the bad outcomes from your negligence of maintaining a balance between human and nature. Practically speaking, that means that Covid-19 is not a punishment brought by God for our transgressions against nature; rather Covid-19 is a direct result of our transgressions against nature. In Judaism, the Torah is our guidebook to life. We learn best practices for human behavior. And, we are warned, it is best to maintain a healthy balance with nature because if we do not do so, the results will be deadly for humanity.

 

Which brings us back to the coronavirus pandemic, and its jump from bats to humans, or from bats to another animal, such as a pangolin, to humans, in the middle of Wuhan, a city with 11 million people. One might think that the Torah gives humanity the right to dominion over pangolins and the other nonhuman animals of nature, which would therefore permit their capture and sale in cities. Is that not what it is says it in the Torah? Actually the translation of the Hebrew v’yirdu to the word “dominion” (Gen. 1:26) is a misnomer noted by early rabbinic commentators. V’ridu can mean “and they shall rule over” but it also can mean “and they shall descend,” which makes the meaning of the verse more ambiguous. Perhaps instead of meaning that humans have dominion over other animals, it means that humans will descend before the other animals. A Christian might read this to think that humans, by virtue of our sins, go to hell before other animals would. But we Jews do not really believe in hell. So about 2,000 years ago, Rabbis Chanina and Yaakov provided the following explanation for the dichotomy of dominion and descent: Humanity can only have dominion over nonhuman animals if humans merit it through God-like behavior — and that absent Godly actions, other animals will have dominion over humans (Breishit Rabbah 8:12).

 

To understand how humans should relate to other animals and nature writ large, we can turn to the next chapter and another mistranslation. We are told we must l’avda u’l’shomra Creation (Gen. 2:15), which is typically mistranslated as “to till and tend” the Earth, i.e. the Earth exists for our exploitation as we see fit. However a more accurate translation for l’avda u’l’shomra is “to serve and to guard,” i.e. to be stewards of Creation, stewards for the Earth. To steward Creation is not to exploit it, but to care for it — the goal must be what is best for Creation as opposed to what is seen as best for humanity. Humans may like the idea of capturing wild animals or using our Earth as a mine for fossil fuels and the atmosphere as a depository for unwanted greenhouse gases, but the Torah says no — such behaviors are not God-like, are inconsistent with being stewards of Creation, and are worsening the imbalance between humanity and nature.

 

So what can be done? In the short term, the easy spread of the novel coronavirus combined with its lethal impact for far too many — including not just the immunocompromised and the elderly but also the young and otherwise healthy — demands that we do the one simple thing that we continue doing the one thing that is most effective against spreading the virus: Stay home.

 

Keep washing your hands, wearing masks and air-kissing mezuzot, of course, but since the virus is spread person to person, simply stay home and keep refraining from person-to-person contact with those outside your household. This becomes more important as jurisdictions, falsely thinking that the worst effects of the virus are behind us, continue reopening and people make summer vacation plans. History teaches us that pandemics do not end so quickly or easily, and that you can run from a virus but not far enough to escape its grasp, unless you simply stay away from all other people. This notion may run counter to our Jewish communal sensibilities. We Jews are, of course, all about community. But pikuach nefesh dictates that we prioritize health over our other concerns. And for too many in our community, potentially contracting the coronavirus is a matter of life or death. Many, including the U.S. president, are calling for religious institutions to reopen. What should Jews do? Synagogues and other Jewish organizations should stay virtual and not reopen their doors until the pandemic is over — which could be in another year or two. That may sound onerous, but we have gone through far worse in our history and we can survive this as well. By the time the pandemic is over, all of us will know someone who contracted the virus, and many of us likely will know someone who succumbed to it. We must go against our Jewish instincts to foster in-person community and instead isolate ourselves in order to save as many of our fellow humans as possible from the coronavirus.

 

Do not respond with greater consumerism: The coronavirus — like climate change and other environmental problems — can’t be fixed with a credit card. It’s not about changing what we buy, it’s about changing how we act. Think of it as an opportunity: Read the books that you have been meaning to read. Reduce your consumption of the outside world. The pandemic serves as a good reminder of how we are connected to each other and how the decisions of one individual can affect the health of others. Embrace the Jewish concept of sova — satiety — and be satisfied with your health and that your social restriction helps others survive.

 

In the long term, rethink the human-nature relationship and consider how you can help restore the balance. Perhaps that is through reducing your carbon footprint. Perhaps that is through working with others — virtually of course — to press lawmakers to take action on animal welfare, wildlife conservation and climate change. Or perhaps that is through meat reduction or elimination, thereby ceasing the treatment of nonhuman animals as a consumable and disposable commodity.

 

Our tradition teaches us that about 3,300 years ago, with a strong hand, God released us from bondage in Egypt. Now, with masked face and gloved hands, may we — standing at least 3.5 amot apart — be released from the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, in time this pandemic will pass and life will return to “normal” — but without rebalancing our relationship with nature, the root causes of the crisis will remain. Restore our balance with nature — and renew our days as of old (Lamentations 5:21).

 

 


 

 

David Krantz is the president and chairperson of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.

 

 

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