By Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Rabbi Leo Dee
The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, 2020
Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger
Does this practical, readable book have anything in common with Christian feminism? Let’s find out!
First, let me explain how the book works. It does not analyze historical contexts or theological themes like other commentaries. Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Rabbi Leo Dee see the Hebrew Bible as a given. “God created the world out of love for life on earth,” they assert, and the text shows humans how to “preserve God’s creation” and live “in harmony with nature and all of God’s creatures” (p. xv).
To this end, they have chosen about 500 verses from Genesis and Exodus that speak in some way to creation care. For each verse, they provide commentary from the rabbinic tradition, along with some current ecological fact or principle. The chosen texts are divided by the weekly Torah portions read during Jewish prayer services. At the end of each section, the authors include “Suggested Action Items,” such as “consider changing one meal this coming week to be vegetarian, or vegan” (p. 29), or “learn the names of the trees and plants that grow in your neighborhood” (p 105).
Why Connect Ecology and the Bible?
How can our ancient texts tell us to stop current destructive global warming? Eco Bible’s introduction explains that science alone cannot always spur action. The authors quote Gus Speth, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change” and “with 30 years of good science, we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy. To deal with these, we need a spiritual and cultural transformation” (p. xviii).
As Neril and Dee see it, the Bible is a powerful tool to integrate spirituality and ethics with environmental science. The Bible has shaped literature, history, and culture more than any other writing. “At a time of ecological and spiritual crisis, how the Bible is understood can have a profound impact on human behavior, since billions of people in religions worldwide consider it a holy book” (p. xvii).
With this goal in mind, the authors merge significant details in biblical texts with environmental science to challenge the reader to a spiritual commitment to the care of creation.
Some texts, such as those from the creation accounts or Noah’s flood in Genesis, are obvious choices. In Genesis 1:9, God separates the water so that dry land may appear. But today, melting ice from the poles is raising sea levels. By the 2010s, Antarctica was losing 250 gigatons of ice per year, raising global sea levels and immersing dry land. Humanity keeps reversing God’s original action. (This statistic is noted in the list of 708 endnotes, which are easy to find and well-referenced, often with website addresses.)
One recurring theme drawn from early chapters of Genesis surprised me—eating a plant-based diet (pp. 5–10). The authors use Genesis 1:26, 28–30 to assert that “through most of history, cattle and sheep were not regarded as sources of food, but rather sheep were prized for their milk and wool, and cows were valued for plowing” and other heavy labor (p. 6). In 1:29, humans are limited to “every tree with seed-bearing fruit . . . for food.”
Astoundingly, according to 1:30, God gave “green plants for food“ for all animals! I don’t know when carnivores like wolves came along (to protect some green plants from being overgrazed by herbivores), but the authors are correct to condemn overfishing, loss of forest for cattle-grazing, and inhumane treatment of cattle in feedlots.
The story of Pharaoh’s placing Joseph in charge of planning for a coming famine has many connections to food crises today. “If we want to be ecologically wise like Joseph, shouldn’t we be concerned that, while our world produces enough food for every person on earth, some 820 million people go hungry and two billion remain malnourished?” (p. 80).
Overall, I found the examples from Exodus more closely related to ecological issues than those from the Abrahamic narratives. The Egyptian plagues are explained as natural phenomena possibly begun by human pollution of the Nile River, bringing on frogs who “play the role of the indicator species . . . until the natural world really goes out of balance—lice, locusts, lions, and other wild animals run rampant” (pp. 108–110).
Following that, Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness provides many connections with desert ecology and the struggle for food and water then and now.
Non-Jewish and Feminist Observations
Growing up in a Christian (Mennonite) culture, I always have loved and appreciated both testaments of our Bible. For Jewish New Year 5780 (September 2019), a Jewish friend invited me to the Rosh Hashanah service at her local synagogue. As we recited readings from the worship book and listened to the rabbi’s sermon, I kept thinking, “This is my story too! These are our roots!”
Thus, I read Eco Bible to find new ways current environmental science can illuminate the texts. However, to me as a non-Jewish Bible professor, this interpretive method seems quite foreign. Many rabbinic reflections are wise and helpful, but the Hebrew text itself seems to be read “on the flat,” without historical context.
I note three critiques, in ascending order of importance:
First, sometimes the use of a particular text seems like a stretch. I see the connection, but it looks more like a scientific fact in search of a verse to confirm it.
Second, in the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19–36:14), I detect a strong bias toward Jacob—since biblical history runs through Jacob and not Esau (pp. 48–67). From previous study of these texts, I had been surprised to note that Esau’s behavior was often more honorable than that of Jacob, who cheated Esau out of both birthright and blessing (Genesis 25:29–34; 27:1–40).
Third, I do not consider Eco Bible feminist. The Hebrew text reflects ancient patriarchal culture, which is accepted without comment. A few women are mentioned, and Rebekah is praised for watering Abraham’s camels—since they probably emptied her well! (p. 45). But the eco-feminist critique that both women and Mother Earth have been mistreated is never addressed. I hope these authors do combine equality for women with a vision of the earth as our mother—created by God to sustain plant, animal, and human life. Just as we should honor our mothers and fathers (Exodus 20:12), so, as children of Mother Earth, we must honor her and act to preserve her forever.
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