Rabbi Ellen Bernstein Describes an Ecotheology for All
It’s not every day we are blessed to hear from one of the leaders of the religious ecology movement. Recently, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, the birth mother of Jewish environmentalism, gave a talk at the Chautauqua Institution. Titled “A Creator God and a Sense of Place: A Jewish Ecotheology,” Bernstein’s talk shed light on a universal version of God not often referenced.
At the beginning of her presentation, Bernstein admitted that she struggled to develop a relationship with God when she was younger. She encountered God in nature, but never met God in the synagogue. The God that led the Jews out of Egypt — the only one she heard about — seemed too narrow and personal for her. She gave up on Judaism before she was 13-years-old.
But when she got older, things changed. Hungry for a spiritual connection, Bernstein began studying the parshah. Her maturity opened her eyes to the underlying sacredness of nature in Judaism: the ties to the agricultural seasons and the laws that addressed kindness to animals, care for the land, and waste. Bernstein wanted something to tie it all together though. Surprisingly, the link was in the opening chapter of the Bible: Genesis.
Instead of focusing on the creation of the Jewish people, Genesis focuses on the creation of light, water, and Earth. It also describes the land, or Earth, as a partner to God. God called on the Earth to create vegetation and living creatures and the Earth did. Every new life created by Earth is good in the eyes of God.
According to Bernstein, the version of God the creator of a living Earth and all people is not talked about enough. Instead, most worship the God of history — a tribal deity interested in its people’s affairs. Bernstein makes the distinction between the two versions of God, not to demean the God of history, but to show how the God of nature has been diminished.
“My goal is to bring back the God of creation,” Bernstein says in the talk. “To restore the balance. To help make the world whole again.”
She acknowledges this work won’t be easy. The God of creation isn’t as personal and responsive as the God of history. It is less interested in human affairs. It follows a distant kind of natural law that may not conform to people’s idea of justice. But should we ignore this part of God? Can we really achieve a relationship with the whole God if we only accept what serves us? Is there a way to make the God of Creation more relatable through finding a sense of place?
Watch Bernstein’s wonderful presentation and hear more about the God of creation and the sacredness of place.
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