Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 23 - Collective Versus Personal Action in the Jewish Bible

by Andy Oram

Environmental activists are constantly juggling between the personal and the political. Do we devote our efforts to using our cars less, substituting vegan meals for meat, and recycling? Or do we canvas our friends and neighbors to pressure governments and businesses to adopt more planet-friendly technologies? We know that we need to do both the personal and the political, but those of who have taken the environment as our cause have found ourselves swinging between them in a way that is frustrating and distracting. And as we prepare for the High Holidays, we always look for how to do more good in the upcoming year.

Perhaps we can learn something from the historical experience of the Jews. As a community (kehilah), we have constantly explored the relationship between personal responsibility and communal action. Many High Holiday prayers, such as Al Chet and Ashamnu, refer to the community in the plural even the the sins must be addressed by each individual on her own. The twice-daily V'ahavta prayer shifts abruptly (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) from the singular "you" when prescribing behavior to the plural "you" when describing the positive or negative outcomes of this behavior: rain and food at the proper times, versus drought that drives us from the land.

The grammatical shift suggests that each of us must take personal action to preserve the Earth, while the results will affect all of us irrespective of our roles in creating environmental damage. And the truth of this observation is visible throughout the world, as people with small carbon footprints get deprived of their livelihoods by climate change and leave their homes to suffer war or deteriorate in refugee camps.

So Jews understand that personal concerns are also communal ones. But the record becomes muddier when we look at the history of "people power" in Israel. In fact, the Bible gives us little to celebrate. Communal Israelite acts include the idolatry of the golden calf, the invitation to the Benjaminite men to replenish their tribe by abducting women from a religious festival (Judges 21:20-23), and the demand for a king (I Samuel 8:4-22). The leaders of the Israelites concur in all these disastrous decisions.

To find a positive example of the relationship between policy and individual action, turn to the evil city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. After the reluctant prophet proclaims the destruction of the city, the people of Nineveh, "from great to small," take penance on themselves (Jonah 3:5). Upon hearing of the prophecy, the king joins them and declares the spontaneous fast to be a policy. Sackcloth and ashes here represent both a personal sacrifice and a public statement, like building a solar farm and then pressuring the government to connect other people to it for electricity.

When we want to change behavior, we should start with ourselves. But we need not be so ascetic as to hamper our beneficial efforts. For instance, environmental leader Bill Kibben has assured followers that taking an airplane to attend a climate change rally is a good expenditure of carbon--the best, in fact.

If we persuade friends and religious congregants to change their individual behavior, we can also transform them politically. After putting hours of effort into composting or taking public transportation, a person naturally starts to think, "What if another hundred million people could do what I have done?" This should lead them to investigate the structural barriers that keep others trapped in environmentally damaging lives, and to demand political changes that spread the good they've done even further.

Like all deep and abiding social changes, the shift to sustainable human life will be a grass-roots movement that blossoms into political action.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O'Reilly Media, a technology publisher and conference provider. He is currently interim secretary of the Jewish Climate Action Network and participates often in their activities in the Boston area. Some of his other writings can be found at and 

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