A dialogue on Judaism and the environment

(Photo: Unsplash)

A dialogue between Professor Richard Schwartz, President Emeritus of the Jewish Vegetarians of North American and Dr Irene Lancaster, Chair of the Broughton Park Jewish Christian Dialogue Group and author of Deconstructing the Bible.

Irene: Richard, you are President Emeritus of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (Jewish Veg), producer of the video 'A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World', and Professor Emeritus of Maths at the College of Staten Island, USA, City University of New York (CUNY).

You now live in Israel where you continue to contribute to issues of social justice, including advocating the humane treatment of animals and all living creatures, as is aptly advocated in our present run of Sedras from the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy).

And most recently, you contributed a dvar Torah (sermon) to the Israeli website, Times of Israel, on all these subjects.

You have asked me to discuss the 20th anniversary edition of your book, Judaism and Global Survival with you, which I'm delighted to do and am sure that readers of Christian Today will be very interested in what you have to say.

Richard: It is imperative that people realize that the books of our Torah are not simply fine words, but calls to action. We simply cannot rest on our laurels when it comes to the work of alerting the world to difficulties facing the planet. The situation is even more urgent in our own day than at the beginning of the 21st century, and religious people everywhere have to now get involved, encouraged by words of Scripture.

Irene: Reading the accolades that your book Judaism and Global Survival has received, it is impressive to read names such as Susannah Heschel, daughter of the great rabbi and prophet, Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century.

Martin Luther King, whose speech 'I have a dream' we have just celebrated on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, always regarded Abraham Heschel as the prophet and teacher, the greatest influence of his life. And of course, Heschel and Martin Luther King marched together for justice from Selma to Montgomery, when Heschel famously announced that 'I felt that my legs were praying'.

Many in the African American community were influenced by Heschel's emphasis on solidarity and protest as prayer, of G-d as the most moved Mover, in contrast to the 'Unmoved Mover' of Aristotle. And many civil rights leaders carried Heschel's seminal work on the Prophets with them on their marches, a book we are currently utilizing in our own session on the prophets in our Broughton Park Dialogue Group based here in the UK.

In your recent dvar Torah (sermon) for Times of Israel, you reiterated many points made in your book, as well as more visually in your video, A Sacred Duty. The message is that Judaism advocates care for the entire planet. This is what former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, has to say about your dvar Torah, which he has asked me to cite:

'Beautiful piece by Richard Schwartz; thank you. The local [Church of England] vicar in the place where we're staying has a very strong environmental commitment and is helping with a campaign to protect and cleanse the very polluted waters of the Wye river; a significant element in the pollution is from battery chicken farming, so these reflections rang a lot of bells.'

Just out of interest, the River Wye is the fourth biggest in the UK and forms the border between England and Wales, so a pretty significant river – think Mississippi maybe, brought to life for English readers in those books by Mark Twain! Or the Jordan in Israel even. It would be a scandal to think that the River Jordan of such biblical importance might be polluted ....

Richard: Yes, justice for human beings goes hand in glove with justice for the planet. That is why I was one of 120 members of the Jewish community who signed your Jewish Chronicle petition against building the proposed Holocaust Memorial adjacent to the British Parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London.

Together with Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair, formerly Jewish chaplain at Cambridge University and now rabbi for one of the largest global environmental organizations, who has written such a marvellous book on Israel's first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rav Kook, we thought it a complete Hillul HaShem (desecration of G-d's Name) to uproot such a much-loved tree-lined park and play area, let alone disrespect the Buxton Memorial commemorating the abolition of the slave trade in 1834.

Martin Luther King and Abraham Heschel would surely be up in arms at such a sacrilegious state of affairs. So, I was proud to support your efforts, seeing that you had been a member of the original jury and found it to be based on false premises. One does not honour the survivors of the Shoah by treating others with contempt.

Irene: Yes, plenty of Holocaust survivors and their families agree with you on this. One of the survivors, Dr Martin Stern MD MBE, who recently vociferously attacked the whole conception of a Holocaust memorial to Members of Parliament, has also recently addressed the annual Buxton memorial meeting in Victoria Tower Gardens, encouraging the Buxtons not to allow such a sacrilegious construction to be built in the park. Such a construction demeans the memory of the abolitionists, as well as the Jewish community at large, not to mention the wanton destruction of the environment in a renowned Heritage Site. And to what end, exactly?

To get back to your book, I understand that you received a huge amount of encouragement from the late Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen, son of the Nazir of Jerusalem, and a friend of Rav Kook.

Rabbi Shear Yashuv, my neighbour in Haifa, who asked me to translate the story of his life into English, features in your video a Sacred Duty, made in 2007, when I was in Haifa, and the Chief Rabbi had turned 80, and in fact had just received the Freedom of the City of Haifa!

On the video Chief Rabbi Cohen attributes his own youthful appearance and good health to the strictly vegetarian diet followed by his parents in his childhood, and which he maintained throughout his life. There is no doubt that at 80 he was bursting with energy, and continued to involve himself in many projects close to his heart until the end of his life. His philosophy was to encompass the entire world, without ever compromising his principle that Judaism was not to be taken lightly, as, for instance, so many Popes have done recently ...!

Richard: Yes, Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv was a great support and also President of the Israel Vegetarian and Vegan Society.

Irene: Which he never tried to force on anyone else. I remember him apologizing for the vegetarian meal he and his wife offered on several occasions for Friday night Shabbat dinners. I found this trait totally endearing ... Always trying to persuade rather than cajole, and I must say that your video makes pretty grim viewing, even to someone like me who has actually undertaken translations on animal slaughter. There is no doubt that at best, kosher slaughter, shechita, is far more humane than any other method. But factory farming definitely goes against the tenets of Judaism, in my view.

Richard: We know from the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) that the ideal for humanity is a plant diet, and that meat eating is simply a concession to our weaker natures. We must all try our best to foster kindness and compassion to animals, as it states in Parshat Ki Tetze, the subject of my article for Times of Israel, linked above.

Irene: On that note, I hope many people will read the 20th anniversary edition of your book, Judaism and Global Survival, and if you don't mind, I will end with the encouraging words of Martin Luther King, the 60th anniversary of which we also celebrate in the month of Ellul.

King based his sermon on the words and ideas of the great prophet of comfort, the prophet Isaiah, which we also read in the month of Ellul, so a fitting way to finish our dialogue: 

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."