Teshuvah and The Environment

As we engage during the High Holidays in the process of teshuvah/repentance or change, we mostly focus on how we have hurt other people and how we want to be a better person. Another category of wrongdoing, that of misdeeds between you and God gets much less attention. Even in the confession of sins (al heit) we focus on interpersonal wrongs. Is it because while we all understand that hurting another person is wrong, we struggle with the notion that God really cares if a person eats a cheeseburger? Or perhaps, some of us are atheists and even more of us are agnostics? Despite this, I believe the great sin of our time is not an interpersonal one—it is contributing to the destruction of our planet.

Where does polluting the environment fit in the traditional category of commandments/mitzvot? Can we use the word sin when we pollute this world? When we destroy the ozone layer, we haven’t actually hurt another person, but we have “hurt the world.” I want to suggest that we re-interpret a biblical category that has basically fallen into disuse—tum’ah/impurity. In the Torah, especially in the Book of Leviticus, the category of tum’ah is very prevalent. It is not the same thing as sinning. It defines that something is impure. It can happen because you did something wrong or through no fault of your own. Death is the most powerful form of impurity and touching a dead body makes you impure. There were rituals supervised by the priests that involved immersions of the impure person and/or sacrifices that could be offered in order to be returned to a state of taharah/purity. With the destruction of the Temple, this category became irrelevant since the purification rituals couldn’t be performed without the Temple. Only remnants of this idea have survived among traditional Jews.

I wonder whether tum’ah as impurity is redeemable as a term to describe the pollution of the earth. Pollution seems to me not just a modern term for destroying the environment, but echoes the biblical sense that tum’ah can affect the world in ways that might not be visible but still have a negative impact. In Leviticus, there is an understanding that impurity is an inevitable byproduct of existence. The task of the priests and Levites was to try to protect the sanctuary from impurity in part by purifying people that had become impure. The fear was that over time too much impurity would build up and that God would be driven away from the sanctuary. The Holy One “couldn’t stand” being in the presence of so much impurity.

We can reconstruct the notion of impurity, not by understanding it as an invisible force infecting society, but as a consequence of human activity that is detrimental to the environment. To put it in contemporary terms, tum’ah would make the world uninhabitable to human beings. Tum’ah is toxic to life. Reclaiming the category of tum’ah as pollution is a useful way to frame the challenge of living a life with an awareness of the need to protect the environment. Just as the Torah believed that you could not live without causing impurity however unintentional, so too we cannot live without leaving a carbon footprint on this planet. The challenge is how to offset or minimize our negative impact on the earth’s environment.

Everything in this world is a creation of God. Nothing should be taken for granted. Life is an amazing interconnectedness of all beings. We need to be careful making changes to this world because we have seen over and over again that the impact of what we do can have far ranging and unexpected consequences. Whether it is acid rain or plastic bags, what we do can affect people living far away from us.

Does the concept of sinning against God still have meaning? It could mean failing to live up to the values represented by God. If we fail to live up to being an image of God, haven’t we besmirched God’s name or God’s honor? There is a traditional notion of hillul hashem, desecrating God’s name. It is not only other human beings we can hurt with our actions, but also God’s name or at least the values of Judaism.

A place to begin our rethinking is the traditional name for this category — mitzvot bein adam la-makom — commandments between a person and God. The name used for God in describing this category is makom/ place. It is not an accident that mitzvot bein adam la-makom — commandments between people and Goduse the name of God that means place. As the midrash says, God is the place of the world. Being careless about how we treat this planet is being disrespectful to God. In fact, I would suggest that today it is a primary way that humans are desecrating the name of God. Instead of being co-creators of the world, we are destroying makom-God as manifest in the diverse world of creation. Each time a species disappears from this world, haven’t we in effect diminished God’s name?

On Rosh Hashanah, we recite in the liturgy: Today is the birthday of the world/hayom harat olam. The question that haunts us this year is: How many more birthdays will the world as we know it be able to celebrate?

Based on the chapter on the environment from Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld (Ben Yehuda Press 2013)