A Discussion With Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, the Birth Mother of Jewish Environmentalism
The connection between environmentalism and religion is not new. In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi preached that humans have a duty to both love and protect Creation and the Muslim poet, Rumi, described the beauties of nature. In the 16th century, Kabbalists practiced rituals to enliven Creation and bring God’s blessing into the world. In the 19th century, naturalists like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir wrote about the spirituality they found in nature. And, as the environmental movement gained speed in the United States in the 1970s, more religious groups, organizations, and leaders began to make the connection between their faith and the world around them.
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is one of the leaders. Referred to as the “birth mother” of the Jewish environmental movement, she founded Shomrei Adamah, or Keepers of the Earth in 1988, wrote several books on the connection between religion and creation, and now serves as a spiritual life advisor and campus rabbi at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. She is a thinker and a connector — an activist not of the picket sign and podium, but of the mind and spirit — who brings an invaluable perspective to people seeking to make a religious connection to nature.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with her about her hopes for the field of religious ecology. Although it started as a normal interview, it quickly became a conversation I didn’t want to end. (She had my head spinning with new ideas by the time I hung up the phone!) But here, in summary, are some of Bernstein’s insights from her decades of experience studying, discussing, and advocating for a stronger connection between religion and the environment.
We Need to Deepen Our Understanding
First, for more people to make the connection between religion and the environment, there needs to be a deeper understanding of the theology, philosophy, and just overall possibilities of religious ecology.
Bernstein points out that, right now, both religion and environmentalism face difficulties when it comes to reaching people. Religion struggles with remaining relevant. And environmentalism, as Bernstein wrote in an article for Zeek, “is considered by too many of us to be a ‘thing’ that is separate from or outside of the rest of life; an ‘issue’ that can be ‘fixed’ through technological solutions or legislative changes.” It is a special interest that competes for time and attention with other interests like social justice and violence.
But this can change according to Bernstein. Religion can be relevant if it lets go of the bureaucracy and rules that hold it captive. The Pope’s decision to question the Catholic rules on homosexuality and his subsequent popularity is a good example of this. And environmentalism can be more broadly defined because it touches all different dimensions of life — from ethics to arts to travel to politics. The only thing standing in the way of change is a general lack of understanding that religion and environmentalism are bigger than we’ve made them seem.
“We need to really deepen our understanding of this topic in a much bigger way,” Bernstein told me. “When most people talk about religion and the environment they talk about Genesis 2:18, to till and to tend the Earth, or bal tashchit, which is do not destroy. People take these one-liner ethical statements and that’s it. And, to me, [religious ecology] is a whole way of understanding the Bible.”
Bernstein recommends that more educational institutions establish Master’s or PhD programs in religious ecology. While many organizations and congregations offer limited adult and youth education classes on the subject, the conversation can — and must — go deeper than that. Religious ecology is much more than mere environmental stewardship. But only by learning “the connections in the Bible” or other religious text, can people truly connect their religious ideas with their environmental desires.
We Need to Consider Our Terminology
Bernstein also identified a problem I’ve often noticed as I write for EdenKeeper: terminology and word choice. If you want people to embrace religious ecology, you must ensure that you’re using words that don’t alienate or anger them. “I think the whole question of language is incredibly important in terms of target marketing,” Bernstein said. “You have these different kind of markets that you have to use different language for and just be really conscious of that.”
When it comes to her work, Bernstein is careful to use language that won’t push secular environmentalists or liberal Christians and Jews away. But she finds she runs into problems when she uses the term “creation theology” — or even just the word “creation.” In her introduction to The Green Bible, Bernstein writes that her “highly educated friends and colleagues (scholars and rabbis), even [her] husband, they all squirm uncomfortably in their seats” when she uses these words. But to her, these words don’t describe creationism — the belief that the word was created by God in a matter of days. They describe an ongoing process and relationship to nature — an understanding of God as a continual, creative presence in the world.
“I really do think the whole creation thing is really problematic,” she said. “It’s so interesting. I feel like the language of the creator and creation are words that secularists could embrace. But because creation is so used by Christian right wing people, secularists have a harder time with that word. It’s really challenging.”
The opposite problem arises when you are trying not to push conservatives or religious fundamentalists away from environmentalism. In this context, the words creation and creator may be more fitting, but other words such as “environmentalism” may not work. In the end, you can be left with a written product that only works for a certain market — even if you intended it to be as inclusive as possible.
“The whole language thing is a real problem for everyone in the environmental field because it’s how you communicate so people actually care. You want them to care for the rest of their lives and not get turned off or exhausted,” said Bernstein. “People need to be inspired by all of this to find their own voice, so that environment, nature, climate change all becomes meaningful to them.”
Environmentalists Need to Acknowledge Religion’s Contributions
There is no shortage of environmental crises to worry about. From the current mass extinction of species, to acidic oceans, to climate change, working to protect the planet can seem like a scary, overwhelming, and depressing task. But is all our hard work actually fixing these problems?
“The fact is that this is not going to end tomorrow — even if we get all our demands met,” Bernstein told me. “The ecological problems are eternal problems because they’re based in human greed and arrogance.”
Acknowledging the religious aspect of ecology can help address these core, eternal problems. Religion, and the morality it rests on, should encourage people to turn away from the sins of greed and arrogance. People who establish a religious or spiritual connection to the environment should naturally develop a more harmonious relationship with nature and the community around them. In other words, with religion in play, environmentalism can become more of a moral issue rather than just a political or economic one.
And there is also the message of hope religion provides — “one of the primary reasons” Bernstein believes that religions should be involved in the environmental movement. As we’ve discussed on EdenKeeper before, religion can help transform environmental grief into action by helping people remain connected to and positive about the nature that exists around them. And helping people take on the daunting challenge of environmentalism is now more important than ever.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Unfortunately, my call with Bernstein had to end. She had Sukkot celebrations to attend and I had writing to finish. But it certainly seemed after I hung up the phone that there was much more to discuss. Although religious ecology has been around for centuries, many people today don’t see any connection between religion and the environment. But that is something that can change as more people embrace the discussion.
Expect to see more of Rabbi Ellen Bernstein as EdenKeeper continues to cover the challenges and possibilities of religious ecology. And if you want to read more of her articles (or read more about her), check out her website here.
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