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Changing the Cycle: Jewish Tradition as a Response to the Climate Crisis

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn, editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet, reflects on the traditional practice of the sh’mitah year, its applications to climate justice, and how we can build a sustainable future for all.

In New York City’s Union Square, if you look up right above Nordstrom Rack and Best Buy, you’ll see a series of red numbers counting down. Right now, it reads something like six years, some amount of days, and some amount of hours, minutes, and seconds. This is a climate clock, and others just like it exist in Seoul, Rome, Berlin, and Glasgow. These clocks are counting down to the presumed date at which our planet’s temperature will have increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius due to humanity’s carbon emissions. Climate scientists suggest that this temperature shift “could trigger a cascade of tipping points, which would irreversibly alter the global climate system and further exacerbate warming.”[1]

This viewpoint is steeped in the modern mindset. Modernity, the outcome of the European Enlightenment, focuses on a view of history as a continually straight line of progress charted on human timelines, centering ourselves, our lifetimes, and our goals. This is often viewed in the positive sense—that we, as a special species and a planet, are always progressing inevitably forward. But it is not quite how the biblical, or rabbinic, world understood the nature of history.

Our Torah teaches a practice of connecting to the land called the sh’mitah system, which in many ways runs precisely contrary to our modern sense of straight-line progress. It creates seven-year cycles of stopping work, stopping growth, and, after many cycles, returning all back to an original state, undoing anything that could be viewed as financial or wealth accumulation.

God tells Moses:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:… Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Leviticus 25:2–4)

This cycle continues seven times itself, every forty-nine years. The seventh cycle of the sh’mitah year is the yoveil year, in which all things are returned to their original status. If land has changed hands between families, it goes back to the original families. If someone has become enslaved or indebted, that slavery and that debt are canceled. Every forty-nine years, the society returns to its starting point. The year 5782, or 2021–22 in the Gregorian calendar, was the last sh’mitah year. This major cycle of the Jewish calendar is aligning directly with the environmental countdown clock. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the countdown clock at Union Square is also counting down to the next sh’mitah year, 5789.

One of the most brilliant Torah scholars of history, Moses ben Nachman (Ramban), sees within the sh’mitah practice of the Torah a symbolic system of cycles in time that point us towards not just human social structures, or human-centric histories and futures, but the underlying pattern of the cosmos.

He writes:

The six days of creation represent the duration of the world, and “the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God” (Exodus 20:10). Just as the seven days of the week allude to what God created in the beginning, so the seven years of the sabbatical cycle allude to what will happen during all the rest of creation. That is why the text is so strict about it, invoking a penalty of exile for violating it. (Ramban on Leviticus 25:2)

Ramban is suggesting that our entire universe works in these cycles of seven, starting with six “days” of work, and then a seventh “day” of rest. This continues out fractally in time, forever. We have six “years” of work, and then a seventh “year” of rest, which then multiplies out to a seventh degree as well, with a complete societal reset every seven cycles.

This system of seven continues ad-infinitum, and the end of time will come at the end of one-thousand cycles of seven, in which the “World to Come”—the Jewish phraseology for the messianic era—will be established. There will then be one-thousand years of peace and prosperity, a Shabbat to end all Shabbats, which will then end with a total return to nothing, perhaps to start all over again.

In her recent book Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira writes about looking at stories so radically different from our normative modern viewpoint of straight-line progress through history, not for their literal truth, but as a process to think with.

She refers to this as worlding, using stories as a guide to how to be in the world. She writes:

Worlding stories invite us to experiment with a different relationship between language and reality. These stories do not require anyone to believe in anything; rather they invite you to believe with them. However, these stories cannot work on you without your consent. Taking worlding stories seriously makes possible a significant change in your ways of seeing, sensing, and relating to the world.[2]

So I invite you, now, to try worlding with this very different cosmology that the Torah and Ramban are putting forward. We have a little over six years until the climate countdown clock hits zero, and our next sh’mitah year begins. What this cycle of sevens brought to us by our tradition teaches us is that time moves in predictable patterns that we cannot change—but we, ourselves, can change our own behavior within the patterns. By reflecting on our own behavior within them, we are able to change the outcomes of the cycle.

The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on our Planet provides a multitude of ways to world with this idea—to find our Jewish footing in this system of cycles in order to change our behavior, and perhaps change the outcome of this cycle towards the tipping point of global warming. Each chapter of this book reflects on Jewish modes of understanding our relationship to God, the planet, and each other through different aspects of our tradition’s wisdom systems—from theology, to halachah (Jewish law), to prayer, to personal practice in nature. This volume seeks to be a key to a vision for a future perfect with nature and with the Divine rather than the straight lines of human-centered history.

As we look forward to our next sh’mitah year, and perhaps this tipping point of climate change, may each of us find within our tradition ways of worlding with our ancestors, our tradition, and our Torah, to build a future for all of us.

Rabbi Kahn and select contributors to The Sacred Earth are available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.


Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn is Associate Director of Yachad and Adult Education at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY. He is the editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet (CCAR Press, 2023).

[1] https://e360.yale.edu/digest/1.5-degrees-climate-change-tipping-points-2030#:~:text=As%20the%20planet%20rapidly%20approaches,in%20the%20next%20few%20years.

[2] Machado de Oliveira, Vanessa. Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism, 46–47. North Atlantic Books, 2021.

Categories
Books

Dreaming a New American Economy

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we invited Rabbi Andy Kahn to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

The central notion of the American Dream, that every person is equally capable of working towards a life of prosperity and happiness, may remain, but only as a dream. That ideal based itself upon the belief in an equal playing field[1] for all Americans. Through tax legislation, corporatization, dismantling of social safety net programs, and wealth channeling directly to the upper echelons of the economic elite, the nature of the system upon which the American Dream rested has been altered in such a way that this dream no longer corresponds to reality.[2] In the face of this situation, Judaism can provide us excellent examples of responses to similar dramatic change. We can, with the power of our visionary tradition, construct a new dream for the American future based in Jewish values.

As vessels of Torah, we can return to our dreams from the past as guides to help us forge a new way forward in America. Like the prophecies of Isaiah,[3] this new dream must aid all people in our country in finding their way to a better, more sustainable life. I suggest three sources of guidance: Cain and his descendants’ reaction to their world changing; the Israelites’ response to a new mode of collectivity in the desert; and the dreams of the future yet to come – that of the Messianic era.

Cain, when cast out of Eden and cursed to have his work on the land never yield fruit, was placed in a brand-new world. He, unlike Adam, was given no directive as to how he would survive – only that he wouldn’t be murdered himself. His response to this new reality? To construct the first city.

Cain having been notified that agriculture was no longer an option for him, went to work cultivating a collective that birthed new modes of production into the world. Rather than languishing in irrelevance, Cain and his offspring found new ways to contribute to society. From Cain and his children, we learn that we can view our own new, scary economic reality as an open canvas. We can choose the palette with which we paint. It is almost impossible to imagine our current society without the fundamental technologies attributed to Cain and his offspring – now, how innovative can we become to create equally new and groundbreaking ways of being and expressing humanity?

D’var acher – another example. The Israelites in the desert were emerging from generations of slavery in Egypt, and in need of a new way of organizing themselves. Just like Cain, Moses brought forth a new, this time God-ordained, technology – the Mishkan, an innovation meant to maintain connection between the People of Israel and God.[4] When Divinely directed to collect the resources for the Mishkan, the Israelites were specifically asked to do so with nedivut lev, the free will of their hearts.[5] In practice, this meant that people with particular skills or resources volunteered what was needed for the project.

This new social formulation gives us insight into our Scriptures’ view of human and communal nature. The Israelites’ went above and beyond of their own accord. In our day and age, this is a revolutionary outlook. It is often assumed that people are unlikely to contribute resources or energy to projects without extrinsic rewards or punishments. Due to this, the jobless or impoverished are often devalued to the point of being dehumanized (referred to as “drains on the system,” for instance), and individuals seek jobs, and in particular socially valued jobs, at any cost, whether or not they have a desire to perform the actual role. Humans, according to this piece of Torah, when in meaningful community and given a clear, direct need, will jump at the chance to contribute. This view is continued in the grand Torah of the future – the Messianic age.

For Rambam, the ultimate state of Messianic redemption is one in which people no longer have to compete for resources.[6] In essence, this means that all needs will be provided for, and the individual will be able to pursue one’s own knowledge of God. Perhaps we can tie this vision to the Mishkan, and the individual knowledge of God may be construed as the individual’s nedivut lev, one’s own free will to enact one’s own God-given abilities in pursuance of collective Good.

As the 1999 CCAR Pittsburgh Platform states, “Partners with God in tikkun olam, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age…We are obligated to pursue tzedek, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor…to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage.”[7]

These values central to the Reform movement commit us to pursuing a new Jewish dream for America’s future. We, the vessels of such a boldly hopeful Torah, can take the lead in realizing a new vision for the future of our beloved home in America. As we stride bravely into the uncharted territory of our country’s future, the guiding values of our Torah will provide us the dreams we need in order to to build a new, better future, free of bondage for all people.

[1] We must also recognize that this equal playing field never truly existed for all people and has always been particularly difficult to reach for people of color and women.
[2] Bartlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream, Public Affairs; 1 edition (July 31, 2012), pp xvii-xx
[3] In particular, Isaiah 2:3.
[4] Exodus 25:8
[5] Exodus 35:5-29.
[6] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 12, trans. Reuven Brauner, 2012. [Sefaria.org, https://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah%2C_Kings_and_Wars.12.1?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en]
[7] CCAR, A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, Pittsburgh, 1999,
https://www.ccarnet.org/rabbinic-voice/platforms/article-statement-principles-reform-judaism/, Accessed June 26, 2018.

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City. The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic is now available for pre-order.