As a true child of the ’60s, Nina Perlmutter, now a rabbi, was concerned about the war in Vietnam, civil rights and helping the poor. But caring for the environment was not one of her concerns; she considered it selfish to put it ahead of the needs of people.
Raised a secular Jew, Perlmutter did not realize that along with social justice, Judaism prizes the world God created for them. As the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s faded, Perlmutter began paying attention to environmental problems and the effects they had on all people, particularly the poor.
“The was part of what helped me come home to Judaism,” said Perlmutter, rabbi emerita for Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff. “Jews of my generation either thought there was no environmental ethics or concern in Judaism, and if you cared about the environment you should become a Buddhist or Taoist. I thought it was like a criminal act to go support Earth Day because you should be fighting for social justice.”
On Jan. 20, three days after Tu B’Shevat, Perlmutter will speak at Temple Chai about ancient and modern teachings that look at the relationship between humans and the non-human world.
In the Middle Ages, Tu B’Shevat, sometimes called Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot — the New Year of the Trees — began featuring a seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning.
Since the founding of the state of Israel, Jews around the world began celebrating Tu B’Shevat by planting trees. Today, the holiday is used to bring a wider awareness of the environment.
“The Torah expresses that our species lives within a whole,” Perlmutter said. “It’s not either/or. It’s not humans or the environment. It’s humans within the environment.”
As she delved more into her Judaic studies, Perlmutter discovered that Jews had a long and strong tradition of promoting stewardship of the environment.
In 2007, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced that it supported working with environmental groups to foster knowledge about the environment from a Torah perspective.
In its declaration, the RCA called “upon its members to take personal and communal action within synagogues, schools, and homes to protect the environment and … to educate themselves and their constituents both scientifically and halakhically about the environmental challenges we face, and consider their implications for Jewish law.”
Although not speaking specifically about Tu B’Shevat, the managing attorney for Earthjustice’s office in Washington, D.C., David Baron, spoke at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center on the Jan. 17 about environmental issues. His lecture is called “Cleaning It Up: Making America Beautiful Again.”
“The speech is completely coincidental, but the holiday has become, particularly in the last 20 years, an occasion for us to reflect on how we could better protect the natural world,” Baron said in an interview before the lecture.
Baron spoke as part of the Tikkun Olam 3 – Repairing the World art exhibit. The third in a yearly series, TO3 showcases artists whose work reflects repairing the world in relation to environmental justice, sustainability and climate change. The exhibit ends on Jan. 23.
“Some people are moved by photographs or stories, and some people are moved by creative expressions,” Baron said. “I’m going to talk about ways people can make a difference.”
Simple things like sending emails and letters about your environmental concerns to political leaders could make a change, Baron said, especially if you don’t let up.
“Keep at it, keep telling people that you care about these issues and you want action.” JN