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Greening Synagogues- Rabbinic & Congregational Professionals


  • Rabbinic
  • D’var Torah Resources
  • Eco-liturgy
  • Sh’ma
  • Outdoor Eco-shacharit
  • Life Cycle Celebrations
  • Eco-counseling
  • Synagogue Administrators

“Without a vision, the people perish…” —Proverbs 29:18 (and see the excellent work of our NY- based bike-riding visionary partner Hazon.)

Rabbis – and cantors, program directors, para-chaplains, and others who toil in the congregational vineyards (all welcome to partake of the resources in this section of the COEJL website) – have a unique and irreplaceable role to play in the Jewish-environmental movement. Often, only you can make meaningful change possible – you’re the people who know the most folks, who command (usually!) the most respect, and who are trusted to expound on the meaning and contemporary relevance of our classical texts and values. May you use that influence for the good of all, and for the good of Creation.

Clearly, everything that happens in synagogue life touches on the role of the rabbi or synagogue professional. We recommend that you peruse the entire ‘green shuls’ section of the COEJL website, as even choices about building materials or heating zones or lightbulbs can be grounded in Jewish thought and values – rabbinic leadership is often best exercised here, using moral and spiritual suasion to help committees and other congregational groups make Jewishly informed choices about day-to-day matters.

Beyond those ideas and programs, here are some additional resources to aid in the most “rabbinic” or “staff-specific” areas of congregational life:

Sermon starters are an obvious place to start – every parasha or haftarah has some opening for environmental themes, though sometimes those themes are more apparent than others. Bereshit, Noach, Behar, and Ki Tetze are the obvious “big four,” but what about the rest of the year? Here, in a resource still being assembled by rabbis and others connected with COEJL (feel free to send in your ideas!), you’ll find short ideas and commentaries for numerous parshiyot, so that “every Shabbos can be Earth Shabbos.” Obviously we don’t reccomend giving 52 ec0-themed divrei Torah in a year — but itsn’t it nice to know you could?!

Most Jews spend most of their time in shul hearing or participating in the liturgy. Our matbay’ah tefillah / order of service happens to include within it numerous ecological themes, which can be introduced or followed up with various kavanot (intentions); many such kavanot, along with ways to elucidate the environmental themes within the liturgy, are found here.  You can also go to a specific text study and resource just on the 2nd paragraph of the Sh’ma, a.k.a. Deuteronomy 11:13-21; or employ an outdoor eco-shacharit.

Moments across the life cycle including baby namings & britot milah, bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies – are a great time to incorpoate ecological concern into the Jewish lives of our community’s members. As the introduction to COEJL’s “Caring for the Cycle of Life” states: “This guide will demonstate how your life-cycle celebration or simchah (joyous occasion) can provide an opportunity for you both to think about your connection with the larger web of life adn to act on behalf of all Creation. Through the planning of our ceremonies and rituals, through quiet contemplation and thoughtful conversation, and through striving to make our celebrations and observances as environmentally caring as possible, we can affirm our connection to the living world around us.”

Another new area of religious-environmental thought is ‘eco-counseling’ – how might environmental themes come up in the one-on-one work which is so central to clergy’s roles? How might environmental references or images actually aid in a person’s healing process, or their spiritual journey? This exploratory, still-under-development resource outlines a few places where personal/spiritual meets ecological/social/Jewish.

Finally, you never know when you need the beginning of an outline for a presentation – perhaps to fellow members of your own congregational staff, or perhaps for a local Board of Rabbis or Federation or JCRC or movement-based meeting. You’ll find just that in basics for synagogue professionals ; feel free to modify it, and make it yours – just make sure you mention COEJL prominently in your talk!

 Dvar Torah Resources

Every parasha — weekly Torah portion, of which there are 54, plus special readings for the holidays — has a potential environmental connection. While we wouldn’t want to subject our co-congregants to an environmental drash (interpretation of the text) every single week of the year, isn’t it nice to know that we could? A few “top parshiyot” follow, but first, to show that it can be done, we take it from the top:

Bereshit — contrary to Rav Soloveichik’s Lonely Man of Faith, Chapter 1 of the classic creation story does not prescribe domination of the Earth but rather englightened stewardship (see 1:31), while Chapter 2 (especially 2:15) yields a yet more radical environmental awareness.

Noah — he was a righteous and blameless person in his generation — and his major contribution was to protect examples of all life on Earth, so they could re-establish themselves after the natural catastrophe that human wickedness brought on — shouldn’t we be the same in our day, working to protect endangered species?

Lech Lechakum hitalekh ba’aretz, get up and walk yourself around the land, God tells Abraham after giving him spiritual title to it. We can only truly know what is ours, and appreciate (and protect) it, when we study the land carefully, and slowly, at pedestrian rather than automobile or airplane speed.

Vayera — the frightening ‘close call’ of Hagar and Ishmael in Chapter 21 reminds us of the severity of natural systems such as the desert, and of the importance of clean, potable water.

Chayei Sarah — it’s all about intergenerationality, ledor vador, as Abraham’s servant’s travels in Chapter 24 to find a wife for Isaac demonstrate; what are we doing to ensure the healthy appearance of a new generations, into a healthy world?

Toledot — again, water, which in this parasha (as in our time) becomes the occasion for strife in the land of Israel; in Chapter 26, Isaac has to re-dig the wells of his father Abraham, and contest each with the other occupants of the land.

Vayetze — Jacob’s classic dream is followed by the all-important awareness, which can be spoken of every spot on God’s good Earth, as well as the site of holy dreams: “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (28:16).

And so on… the point is, there’s an ecological ‘hook’ most anywhere, should you want to link any given parasha to ecological concerns.

An aside: exegesis is when we read out of the text what seems to truly be there; eisegesis is when we read into the text what we wish to see in it. It’s a fine line, but Judaism demands that we limit ourselves to the former. The Torah, insofar as we can speak about “framer’s intent” or “historical context” is not in any modern sense an environmental book. We must tread carefully when identifying contemporary concerns within timeless text. Still, precisely because these words are holy and eternal, they should speak to the heart of each generation and each situation. Proceed with caution in eco-drashing, but do proceed.

Over time, COEJL hopes to provide “sermon starters” for every parasha. These will not be full divrei Torah (sermons), but simply an annotated text or a linkage of two ideas which can get a rabbi — or a bat or bar mitzvah student, or a lay-leader, or anyone else — going with ways to offer an environmental observation about something in the Torah portion. That said, even thought it can be done for almost every parasha, a few stand out. Bereshit and Noah are certainly on the short list, but so are the following:   

Vaera and Bo — the plagues can be understood as nature gone awry, poisoned by human injustice and short-sightedness

Yitro — most of the ten dibrot have an environmental angle, especially Shabbat; see also the intergenerational remission of hesed and avon (again in Ki Tisa, 34: 6-7).

Sheminikashrut, applying to food here, can quickly become a way of looking at the world and at patterns of consumption of all manner of things.

Kedoshim — everything in it! Including peah, and the eco-justice connection of not standing idly by the blood of your neighbor (works for Re’eh, Deut. 15, as well).

Behar — Leviticus 25 is perhaps Tanach’s most ecological chapter, commanding us to practice sustainable agriculture, and linking social and environmental justice

Beha’alot’kha — the incident at Kivrot Ha- Ta’a’vah begs a discussion of Jewish views on animal consumption and vegetarianism, and consumption in general.  

Ekev — the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, a.k.a. Deut. 11:13-21, is among the most powerful warnings of ecological doom in all of literature

Shoftim — the law of bal tashchit. at 20:19, becomes the basis of much of Jewish-environmental thought; S.R. Hirsch calls it “the first and most general call of God.” 

Ki Tetze — the precautionary principle is learned from the law of the parapet (22:8), just one of many dicta with ecological application or significance

Nitzavim — free will, life-and-death stakes, and intergenerational impacts all are contained within Deut. 30:19: choose life, that you and your offspring may live. .

Go and learn, and teach…

 Life Cycle

Click here for information on “Caring for the Cycle of Life.” While by no means comprehensive, this booklet does help us begin to envision the possibilities for transforming ceremonies and celebrations into Creation-continuing events. After reading it, you can go directly to section segments most relevant to you at the moment: baby namings & britot milah, bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, and weddings & commitment ceremonies. 

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