Sunday, February 16, 2020

Mishpatim: Toward a Communitarian Ethics

Those who want to sharpen their minds should study laws of damages, as there is no section of the Torah larger than them; they are like an ever-flowing spring.
-Bava Batra 10:8

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, introduces the cases that will form the basis for the Talmud’s laws of damages.  In the first instance, we learn that if you open a pit on your land and leave it uncovered, you must pay restitution if another person’s animal falls into it.  Next, Torah teaches that if your ox is in the habit of goring other animals, you are required to recompense their owner of for any gored beasts.  Similarly, if your herd grazes on another’s land, you must compensate the landowner for the damage.  Finally, if you start a fire that spreads onto your neighbor’s property, you must pay restitution to that neighbor.

The Rabbis applied these principles to a vast array of case law around damages in three tractates of the Talmud: Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra (in English: the first, middle, and last gate).  To enter through these “gates” is to explore questions of utmost concern around our response to the existential danger of human-caused climate change.

Bava Batra, in particular, focuses on property rights.  Here in Idaho—and throughout much of the western United States—personal property rights are too often seen as sacrosanct.  This attitude is tied to the malignant myth of rugged individualism, the libertarian notion that everyone has an absolute right to do whatever they wish on their own land, and that dependence upon others is a sign of weakness. Jewish law disagrees.  In the balance that our tradition establishes, individual rights must be weighed against communal concerns—and when there is a tension between the two, the latter usually take precedence.  Thus Bava Batra insists that I refrain from planting a tree on my land if its roots will destroy my neighbor’s cistern.  A landowner cannot open a tannery on his property if the rank odor and pollution produced by that industry would be a nuisance to nearby residents.  Farmers must even consider their neighbor’s needs when deciding what to plant in their own fields—if, for instance, the neighbor is a beekeeper, one should attempt to refrain from sowing crops that make for bitter honey.

We cannot ameliorate catastrophic climate change until we learn to think in a more communitarian manner.  If everyone feels free to do whatever is in his or her best personal economic interest, we will destroy our planet.  We’ve seen this pattern for far too long; indeed, it has already wrought irrevocable harm.  Still, it’s not too late—if we recognize the imperative to curb our individual desires for the sake of the common good.  No one can turn back climate change on their own.  Our very survival depends on our ability to think more like our Talmudic ancestors—in the spirit of this week’s portion.

Divided, we will fall.  To choose life is to choose together, for one another, for future generations, and for all of God’s creation.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Yitro: Honoring Parents--and the Earth

At the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, God gives us the Torah on Mount Sinai.  At the core of that revelation is aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments (or in Hebrew, “utterances.”)  And at the very center of those foundational laws we find the commandment:
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Holy One, your God is giving you

Our Sages saw the fifth commandment as a kind of bridge between the two tablets.  They categorize the first four utterances as bein adam la-Makom—principles that apply “between humanity and God”: the affirmation of God’s existence, the prohibition of idolatry, the injunction to refrain from taking God’s name in vain, and the commandment to observe Shabbat.  The final five utterances, by contrast, they categorize as bein adam le-chavero—principles governing the way we treat one another: prohibitions on murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness.  But the fifth utterance falls somewhere in the middle.  Honoring parents would seem to belong with the laws around human interaction, yet it is grouped with the mitzvot around our relationships with God.  The Rabbis suggest that parents act as God’s partners in creating life.  We are obligated to respect our parents in this capacity.  Even when they fail dismally in raising (or failing to raise) us, we still owe them a debt of gratitude for bringing us into existence, together with the Holy One.

In his book The Way into Judaism and the Environment, Jeremy Benstein suggests that we need a new category of mitzvot—bein adam le-olam—for those moral and ethical obligations we have toward the Earth and the rest of God’s creation.  He asks: “Where is the consciousness that we have a larger task, a mission for humanity regarding the world?  Given the global challenges facing us, we need a framework, a guiding vision, a purpose.”

Perhaps the Torah itself suggests such a category in the way the fifth commandment links honoring parents with the promise of a long life on the land that God gives us.  We tend to associate environmental repair with children, rather than parents; many ecological exhortations urge us to tend to the earth for the sake of those who will inherit it.  This seems natural—and yet it has not (yet) proven to be a very effective formula.  We have, for the most part, been irresponsible when it comes to living sustainably in order to leave our descendants with a better world.

Torah offers us a different path.  If our relationship with the land depends upon respecting our parents, then that bond between us and the earth is best built through gratitude rather than guilt.  We should honor the rest of God’s creation for the same reason that we should honor even bad parents: for giving us the ongoing gift of life itself.  If we are truly thankful for the planet that sustains us, we will act in a manner that allows future generations to express that same gratitude.

This is our challenge.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Miketz: Beware of Unintended Consequences

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, describes Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt.  After languishing in prison for ten years on a false conviction, his fate turns when he is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams.  He recognizes that while one involves ears of grain and the other livestock, both of these dreams are essentially the same.  He tells Pharaoh: “The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years.  The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the east wind; they are years of famine. . . Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt.  After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.” 

But Joseph is not content to merely interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Instead, he offers a detailed strategy for dealing with the forthcoming agricultural boom-bust cycle: “Let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.  Let all the food of the good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities.  Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”
Pharaoh approves of this idea, because it solidifies his power over his subjects.  He appoints Joseph to administer the policy, which he does, with relentless efficiency. During the bad years, Joseph rations food in return for the Egyptians’ land and livestock, which become the property of Pharaoh.

Most of our commentators defend Joseph, suggesting that he always repays the Egyptians with something of value.  He provides rations in exchange for their money, food in the place of their cattle, and seed in exchange for their land.  But a few, including Radak, and the contemporary scholar Shai Held argue otherwise.  In Rabbi Held’s words:

The ironic turns in the text are intense and powerful and thus require explanation: Brought to Egypt as a slave, Joseph now becomes Egypt’s enslaver. And soon enough, a new Pharaoh rises and the House of Israel [finds] themselves once again on the wrong end of the enslavement process.  Joseph displays remarkable administrative prowess, but he unleashes forces that eventually end up oppressing and degrading his own people. . . . Joseph provides short-term relief in the midst of a ghastly famine, but he also systematically and relentlessly strips the people bare. There is something to be said for administrative aptitude, but it is sobering to realize that it can be coupled with profound short-sightedness.


Short-sightedness and unintended consequences have played a significant role in creating our current environmental crisis.  Some greedy corporations and individuals have deliberately chosen to exploit our planet and its delicate ecosystems; by way of example, Exxon knew a great deal about global warming over forty years ago and choose to hide their findings with a malignant, decades-long disinformation campaign. 

But oftentimes, harmful actions come from good but shortsighted intentions.  We have introduced countless non-native species accidentally through travel, or on well-intended but ultimately misguided efforts at conservation, population control and agricultural experimentation.

Similarly, for many years, dams were seen as an unfettered boon, providing irrigation and drinking water, cheap hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation sites.  However, in recent years, we have learned that these same dams also increase the risk of earthquakes, decimate fish populations, destroy vast ecosystems, and block the essential free flow of sediments. 

To learn from our past is to recognize the need to look beyond the immediate future and consider the possible long-term effects of our actions.  Joseph, tragically, failed to do so; the result was over two centuries of enslavement in Egypt.  If we are to preserve life on earth as we know it, we need to do better.