A video on YouTube promotes a liberal mindset by framing contemporary America in the Jewish concept of Al Tirah, meaning fear not. The premise of the short film is that people consciously choose whether to respond to life’s challenges with fear or empathy. Reason does not always guide our decisions and because of that fear and empathy are two emotions with important impacts on our lives and relationships. Moreover, pundits and even the public promote their ideas through messages of fear or empathy to motivate others to respond in a certain way. For example, the Bush Administration manipulated fear in press conferences to justify the Second Gulf War. Advertisements from the Humane Society, on the other hand, use empathy to encourage pet adoption. The video suggests that a viable society lives in balance between the two cultures. There are times when each or both are necessary.

Environmental films like Gasland, An Inconvenient Truth, and even Avatar were effective partly because they adeptly balanced fear with calls to compassion to deliver a message that was grounded in reason and science. It strikes me as though 24-hour or even local news, on the other hand, is much more sensationalist and concerned with offering entertainment by delivering messages charged with fear and conflict.

The makers of the video suggest, and I agree, that modern day America has lost that critical sense of balance with dangerous consequences. Today, fear is the primary language of politics and marketing, oftentimes supplanting empathy and even reason. Even though American households reliably demonstrate their empathic nature through giving, John Birchesque figures like Glen Beck characterize popular culture. The nation in 2010 witnessed hateful and destructive rhetoric and actions targeting Muslims, immigrants, gays, and progressive politics.

Fear is an effective media, but it can and has been used to dangerously jumble our moral landscape and interfere with our capacity to distinguish right and wrong. Cultures dominated by fear propagate anger, contempt, cynicism, and hatred. It has been responsible for racial tension and religious intolerance including as demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church. Fear has come to characterize popular American politics and society. Though the limited and just use of fear to deliver ideas can be good, its abuse and overuse can make it ineffective and dull our sense of compassion.

Empathy is the foundation of ethical passion, purpose, and direction. Fear can compromise our sensitivity, as can privilege, power, compassion fatigue, boredom, and bombardment by marketed messages. Those things undermine our identification with suffering and blur our direct responsibilities and affirmative obligations to love our neighbors.

Environmentalists should remember that fear is one valuable tool for delivering messages, but should only be used limitedly. Moreover, they should be willing to challenge opponents on fear mongering and for a lack of sensitivity. Foremost, environmentalists like all other people are obligated to demonstrate empathy. That means approaching potential opponents with openness and understanding while defending victims of injustice. Ultimately, its more important to people with strong environmental consciousness that others share their consciences than their fears. Empathy is a foundation of environmental ethics.

Over the holidays, vegetarianism was a topic with my girlfriend, Krista, and her family. Her sister, Melissa, talked about restraining from eating meat to achieve personal purity and enlightenment after taking a Buddhism class. Similarly, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests in his book “To be a Jew,” that one explanation for Jewish Kashrut laws is that it makes even the act of eating holy. Restraint and distinction ingrain control over even the most primal instincts, substituting a deeper consciousness.

Moreover, eating less meat can protect our own health. Kosher has been connected to avoiding diets that could be dangerous or harmful. Americans suffer health consequences of eating a diet high in meat and low in other nutrition. I added that eating less meat also protects the planet. Livestock outnumber humans five to one, half of US water consumption is dedicated to livestock, and the nation’s rivers and streams are polluted with farms’ waste. Of course, animals usually suffer most from our eating habits. Cattle, for example, suffer confinement and countless other unnatural conditions. To me, compassion is the best reason to eat meat in moderation.

The important issue to me wasn’t whether or not I eat meat or even how it is killed but how much meat I consume and how that is raised. Melissa, who has been a prolific carnivore at least until now, wouldn’t kill a deer and encouraged my girlfriend not to either. She considered it too cruel. I would much rather eat a deer that spent its life in ferns and cornfields than a chicken that’s been bred into a painful shape and crowded in a dark cage for its short life. Krista’s uncle is an avid hunter too, but expressed he has no reservations about eating any animal that tasted good. Farm animals are a crop, he said. His words reminded me of an excerpt from the September 1976 issue of Hog Farm Management, in which a contributor advised, “Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory.” I disagree with that mindset, which has been embraced by the meat industry. Pigs and other animals are sentient and whether or not they can reason or talk, they can suffer. Moreover, unlike a machine they are G-d’s creation and as His gift, deserve respect.

There is something schizoid in Krista’s cousins’ relationships with animals that sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Though their dogs received Christmas gifts, the ham, which was probably many times more intelligent, was referred to as only a crop. Uncle Steve was dismissive of whatever cruelty or conditions it endured in its short life.

I think that one of the best things about faith is that it calls us to higher consciousness and compassion. That should extend to our food and to the rest of creation, too. I was hoping the OU and other kosher certifications would mean that animals were treated humanely. Instead, I was upset by stories about cruelty in the world’s largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Ultimately, Jewish Environmental Ethics did increase my consciousness of food and sensitivity to its production.

Recently, Michael Ableman visited Dickinson College to advocate sustainable agriculture. Ableman made suggestions for ways that the country should change, many in dramatic and costly ways. I thought, though, that he did a poor job of supporting why we ought to change because he did not share the values that drove his decisions. The audience heard Ableman’s ideas but was not given the opportunity to understand or defend them.  

Michael Ableman is respected as someone who thinks beyond spreadsheets, yet even he seemed unpracticed in sharing his values. For example, his audience may include greens, sprouts, and browns- people ranging from very to not environmentally conscious. Greens may readily relate to Ableman’s message because they’ve developed the same values. Sprouts, however, need to hear rationales for why erosion or industrial agriculture is bad and small scale farming is good, even though the first may be more profitable. For sprouts to really bud and become greens, they need to weigh the ethics. Finally, browns may not be environmentally conscious, but they may relate to Ableman’s presentation if it included how it connects to other values including healthy lifestyles, fulfilling spirituality, or a good inheritance for future generations.

I’m afraid Ableman’s faults demonstrate a broader unwillingness among environmental professionals to make judgments rather than calculations and open themselves to criticism for imposing beliefs. Oftentimes, after all, the same people who may denounce environmentalists for imposing beliefs will preach society’s obligatory respect for liberty and property. In my view, environmentalists have an obligation to share their values. That way society can consider them, making informed moral tradeoffs, and balancing them with countless others.

Environmentalism, unfortunately, is much less mature, less embraced by the population, and less enshrined in law and institutions than liberty and property. On the other hand, that makes sharing them even more important than these exceptional times demand. Environmental ethics is in a catch twenty-two situation because they are considered less legitimate to the population because they have a second or third class place in law. Concurrently, the ethics will only become law so long as they are supported by the population. These already glacial processes are only delayed by environmentalists’ and scientists’ unwillingness to discuss right and wrong by thinking outside the spreadsheet.

I sometimes feel like we haven’t made much progress since the 1960s, especially in sharing our values. Littering is an exception as one example of a dramatic success in shifting attitudes. As I understand, people used to drop trash all the time but most wouldn’t think of doing so today because their ethics limit them. However, when we have been successful, I think we’ve achieved narrow gains. How many people relate to the understanding that littering our towns with junk, strip-mall retail space is equally unnecessary and more permanent and damaging to values including sustainability and aesthetics?

Doctors, lawyers, politicians and researchers have ethical guidelines- it is only appropriate for environmental scientists to embrace ideas of what is right and wrong. Moreover, they ought to deliver those concepts to the popular consciousness so that other people, and society, can adapt and embrace them too.

The Necessity of a Land Ethic

December 20, 2010

In a Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold articulately presented the case for a “land ethic.” He identifies as an ecological and sociological necessity the extension of ethics to  include nonhuman members of life, collectively referred to as “the land.” His basic principle is, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold argues homo sapia needs to show respect for fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such. He hoped that man would use his sense of right and wrong to change his role from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.

While arguing to enlarge the boundaries of the ethical community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, Leopold wrote that land “is still only seen as property” and the “land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” His words still ring sharply true today. In fact, writing in the 1940s, Aldo Leopold probably didn’t foresee new, more destructive transitions in land use that took shape in the second half of the 20th-Century. He likely didn’t imagine the ubiquity of suburban sprawl. He’d been hurt to know the ways that the soil conservation movement would be eclipsed by an explosion in use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. He might have been terrified of the way mining, always dirty and dangerous, levels mountains, fills valleys, and leaves nothing but destruction in the place of productive land.

Without a land ethic, described so well by Aldo Leopold, we couldn’t understand why just the knowledge of these things can emotionally hurt some people. For people with strong values and compassion, these manmade and often fruitless ecological tragedies are touching in the same way human tragedies or injustices sometimes are.

Moreover, people with strong landsense, or environmental awareness, are conscious that these tragedies also strike mankind, especially in the long-term. We are not separate from but reliant members of the land community. Practices that destroy its integrity or obliterate hundreds of acres of productivity diminish man’s potential.

People without compassion for the land but who empathize with future generations will recognize that, even if technology replaces the resources we exploited at extraordinarily unsustainable rates, some things can never be replaced. Those things include, for example, ecosystems free of persistent bioaccumulative toxins and carcinogens that we rely on for drinking water. The modern bottled water phenomena demonstrates, in part, people’s cynicism about potentially polluted water but willingness to condone continued environmental destruction.

Future generations, like our own, will depend on ever shrinking non-replacable resources to nourish growing populations. Oftentimes, it is the simplest unadulterated things which may be missed the most including water, open space, prime soils, species, quiet, beauty, and dark. Future generations will also be constricted by the choices of previous earth inheritors and enjoy much less natural flexibility in where and how they live.

Man should show gratitude for creation and treat it with respect. Aldo Leopold argued not only that a Land Ethic is right, but that it is necessary. The destruction we continue to inflict harms partner members of the land community and will ultimately be a burden on successive generations.


December 19, 2010

I was also surprised that the first two examples of disobedience are not granted with any second chances.   One of the most preached ideas in modern society is that everyone deserves a second chance, and in the beginning of the Bible, there is no sign of this whatsoever.   It almost makes God look like a dictator in these early passages because of his lack of tolerance for mistake.   

This very point arises in Genesis 6:5.  God says that everything that man does is evil, both mentally and physically.   He claims that he is so ashamed of creating mankind that he plans to destroy it completely, and essentially start over.   Similar to the way a dictator acts when in power, eventually destroying anything that poses a problem, God proves here that what he has created is not worthy to coexist in society.  Not only does God plan to wipe out every living being, but he also lowers the lifespan from to 120 years.

The last part of this passage refers to God’s encounters with Noah and the Ark.  After the flood, and Noah, his family, and the animals arrive on land, God says something very unexpected.  “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:22)   To me, it seems as if God is showing some remorse for what he has done.

Another interesting passage that comes up is in Genesis 9:6.  God states, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in his image did God make man.”  This exact verse is one of the main advocates for administrating the death penalty.  The verse directly says that if you take the life of another human being, then you will be cursed with death as well.  This is one of the most important rules that God instills in mankind, and to this day, people use this as a justification for the death penalty.

Second chance

December 19, 2010

Earlier in the year, I chose to read Genesis 3-9 for one of my reflection essays.  I didn’t end up using it, but I found it quite interesting when I sat down to write one of my final blog posts.  I found this passage extremely enlightening in many ways.  For one thing, we see our first encounter between the human race, and other living species, which sets the tone for God’s feeling towards mankind.  In this passage we also see how God’s power can be misinterpreted as almost overbearing. For me, this passage is the most enlightening one that we have gone over, and similar to all the other passages we have gone over, this can very easily be related to in modern day situations. 

This passage opens up with the story of Adam and Eve, and the forbidden fruit.  The most alerting thing that I noticed was that the first emotion that we come across is that of deception.  It’s very interesting that this feeling of deception displayed by the serpent came before any sort of kind or generous gesture by Adam or Eve.  Reading about this encounter makes me think of God as a parent.  Even though one could make the argument that Adam and Eve did not do anything intentionally wrong, they are still punished for their actions, to show that it is not acceptable to disobey your elders.  I can relate to this encounter on a personal level because one of the major lessons that my parents stressed when raising me, was to always respect my elders, no exceptions.

Later in the passage, in Genesis 4.3-4.16, we are introduced to the story of Cain and Abel.  Abel was chosen as a keeper of the sheep, while his brother Cain was chosen to till the soil.  After given theses tasks by God, Cain expresses tremendous disappointment with his future position as tiller.  Once again, before we are introduced to any compassionate emotions we embark upon more disobedience and denial.  God questions Cain’s feelings of distress and tells him that his life will have “uplift” if he does his job the right way.  God warns Cain that if he does not do right, then “sin crouches at the door,” (Genesis 4:6).   Yet again, we see God acting as a parent to human beings as he attempts to teach Cain that doing well by others is rewarded with happiness.  However, when God finds out that Cain slaughtered his brother Abel, he shows no mercy.  Cain’s punishment is that he must flee the land and that wherever he walks, the ground will curse him.   God goes on to say that whoever comes across Cain at any point in time, shall murder him.  Even though he spites Cain for killing his brother, God permits the killing of Cain.  I found this very hypocritical on God’s part.

Judaism and Consumption

December 18, 2010

Judaism speaks against consumption, saying that it leads to dissatisfaction with what we have an a perpetual desire to have something better.  However, it seems to me that by practicing Orthodox Judaism on Shabbot, we are consuming excessively.   During the Sabbath, lights remain on so you don’t have to turn them on during the day of rest.  This uses up a  ton of unnecessary energy.  To make Shabbat dinner, a pot is kept heated for about twenty four hours, again using excessive amounts of energy.  Heating or cooling has to remain on all day at a set temperature as well.  While not driving is helpful to the environment, it does not entirely over-set the excessive energy use in these other areas.

I find it interesting that these two aspects of Jewish culture (respecting the Sabbath and limiting consumption) can be in such utter contrast with each other.  I also can not think of a way around this seemingly hypocritical dilemma.  I do think such issues need to be addressed if the Sabbath is to be observed in a manner that respects all aspects of Judaism.

Judaism and recycling

December 18, 2010

As part of our green-program for Ohev Shelom, I designed a recycling program for their religious school to enact.  to make this relevant, I tried to offer reasons for being environmentally friendly in terms of Jewish beliefs.

The first thing I outlined in my plan is a statement from Genesis 2.15, proclaiming God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and guard it.  I interpret this passage to be a metaphor for humans and the environment- humans were place on Earth to develop it for our purposes, but also to guard it from harm.  This, as I suggested to teachers in my plan, implies that while humans were told to go out and “master” the world (Genesis 1.28), they have responsibilities as owners of the world to care for it as well.  In this sense, caring for the environment is an important part of being Jewish.

I also proposed discussing laws of the Sabbatical year.  The book of Leviticus takes a large section to explain that once every seventh year there is a Sabbath of the land, just like every seventh day there is a day of rest (Shabbat) for people.  The Torah states that if the Sabbatical year is not observed, the land will stop yielding crops.  We know from modern understanding of agricultural practices that if the land is not left to rest every so often, the crops will absorb all the nutrients from it and the land will lose its fertility.  Therefore, students can take pride in knowing that their religion recognized early on the importance of letting the land rest and made this practice part of its laws.  I proposed that teachers use this story to explain to students that being environmentally conscientious by letting the land rest is not only logical, but another key part of being a Jew.

I used Sukkot as a final example.  Sukkot is one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals during which Jewish people would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the others being Passover and Shavuot), making it a very sacred holiday to the Jewish people.  Sukkot was originally a holiday to celebrate harvesting the year’s crops and to say thank you for what has been provided; today it is more of a celebration of what the land provides for us in general, although saying thank you for what has been supplied is still a major part of the holiday.   It is important for students to understand that one of the most important holidays in Judaism is the celebration the land- the environment is essential to our survival as a species and Judaism acknowledges this by caring for the land and celebrating it.  This is yet another argument why environmentalism is a major part of Judaism.

Although I was born and raised Jewish, I lately find myself identifying more and more so with the Buddhist tradition.  As a non-western religion, I find it very interesting to compare the views presented in Judaism with the views the Buddhist tradition holds.  The creation story, for instance, makes it very clear that the world is to be ruled by humans, who are in turn ruled by God.  Buddhists believe all creatures should be treated with compassion and respect; every living being has a Buddha potential and, after all, every living being is interrelated.  Buddhism in a way is a speciesist religion in that they believe a human rebirth is very special because only in human form can one achieve enlightenment; however, in order to gain enlightenment one must recognize, among other things, that all beings should be treated with compassion so that they too might someday reach enlightenment.  Judaism is also clearly a speciesist religion, but unlike the Buddhist tradition it does not teach that all other (possible inferior) creatures deserve nurturing and caring treatment.

From an environmental standpoint, the two beliefs seem to be sending different messages.  Based on the creation story, Judaism suggests that humankind has a right to use the Earth, plants, and animals as they see fit.  There is no sense of responsibility implied that would cause people to prevent the deterioration they cause to the environment.  Buddhism, on the other hand, implies that it is our duty as compassionate beings to respect and care for our world and the other inhabitants of it.  While Judaism has laws mentioned later on to help the land or on what animals we should consume, those are all in long run a way to benefit humans only, whereas in Buddhism respecting the planet is a way to help yourself and others, human or non-human, become enlightened individuals.

Genesis 1, and particularly Genesis 1.29-31 seem very controversial to me.  God creates the earth and life upon it and is proud of his creations, but particularly appears to take joy in man.  God tells all living creatures to go out and populate the world, but man God tells to go out and master the world and all in it.  It appears that from the beginning, what God created in God’s image is the creation favored above all other creations.

This raises a few questions for me.  As a compassionate being, I would like to believe in a compassionate God who believes in equality for all creations.  However, the very first chapter of the Bible appears to set up a world where humankind ranks above all other beings and all of the parts of the Earth, and thus has the right to do whatever they wish to whatever they wish as long as it is in accordance with God’s law.  I do not fully understand how a compassionate God could set one creation ahead of all others.

It is possible that by interpreting the Bible as God creating humans and things to aid humans we can understand why humans are given this superiority.  In this sense, God is compassionate to God’s creations (humans) but does not feel the need to be compassionate for God’s lesser creations, which are merely tools for humans.  The chapter to me appears to conclude that in creating the world, God’s ultimate plan was to make a species in God’s image to inherit the newly created world.  God establishes that this species, man, was to rule the Earth and all its inhabitants as man saw fit.