Today I conclude my three part series on faith and sustainability with an interview with Rabbi Lawrence Troster of the group GreenFaith: Interfaith Partners for the Environment. He is an expert on eco-theology, biotethics, and Judaism and modern science. He holds a B.A. from the University of Toronto and an M.A. from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I work in the intersection of science and policy. While science and policy have a tremendous impact on sustainability efforts, it is our broader culture that is the source of solutions and problems. It is worthwhile, therefore, to encourage conversations on the role of societal movements like religion in the modern sustainability movement. You can read the first part of the series, my interview with Catholic Ecology blogger, William Patenaude, here and the second part of the series with Rachel Lamb, from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, here.
Rabbi Troster is one of the most well-known thinkers on eco-theology. He is a prolific writer, a popular speaker (including giving lectures at the National Cathedral), and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. He has been honored by the Temple of Understanding as an Interfaith Visionary. He also received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has written widely on the topic of faith and sustainability and has an important perspective on the environment.
1. You are a well-regarded scholar on Judaism and the environment. What inspired you to focus a significant amount of your work on this issue?
My interest came from several streams:
1. Intellectual: while I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary through the influence of two teachers (Rabbi Neil Gillman & Rabbi Seymour Siegel) I became very interested in the relationship between science and religion (especially in the areas of cosmology and bioethics). Two papers that I wrote for them became my first published articles. When I was in my first pulpit in Toronto, I was giving a series of lectures on science and religion and a number of the people who attended were very involved in the secular environmental movement in local, national and international organizations. I began to study the issue as it seemed to be a natural segue from the theological work that I had been doing (I still write on science and religion issues apart from environmentalism)
2. Emotional: I was the father of 2 young twin girls (aged 6 or 7) and as I learned about climate change, I began to be very concerned with their future and the future of their children. I am now a grandfather of three girls (6, 3 ½ & 3) with another grandchild on the way and I am very frightened about what their world will look like when they are my age.
3. Spiritual: After having been involved in this work for some years, I realized that my most important early spiritual experiences took place in the natural world. I went to summer camp in Northern Ontario for many years and looking back, I had some very formative spiritual moments. Some of my strongest spiritual experiences since then continue to be in the natural world. In the last 15 years, I believe that my spirituality has been primarily based on this.
4. Ethical: The more that I have learned about environmental justice, the more that I have understood my environmentalism to be primarily concerned with the injustice that is occurring because of environmental degradation. This is one of my central concerns as an eco-theologian and activist.
2. What do you see as the main environmental problem our world is facing at the moment?
Climate change because it is both result of and the source of much of the environmental problems in the world and it has the potential to wreck the most damage. I see it as big a threat to humanity as the possibility of nuclear war in the Cold War era. And we will take down many species with us.
3. My readers come from many different backgrounds and are from all over the world. What would you like them to know about your work on Judaism and the environment?
I have been very influenced by the work of Thomas Berry and of Hans Jonas. From them I have been emboldened to try to reexamine all the classic Jewish theological categories of divine action (Creation, Revelation & Redemption) from an eco-theological perspective. I believe that it is necessary for all religious communities to take seriously the new worldview that modern science has given us in the last 200 years and to realize that all our traditional sources were written in very different times with very different worldviews. Our understanding of the natural world is exponentially much greater and this must have implications in our theologies. We can still seek wisdom in our sources but they must be understood within their own time and reinterpreted for our time. Also, it is very important that we understand that our modern technology is qualitatively much more power than anything that came before and this new vast power requires new ethical responses. We, for the first time in human history, can have an impact on people at great distances from us both spatially and temporally. This creates an ethical gap that we must try to bridge.
4. You wrote a wonderful piece for Huffingtonpost called 10 Teachings on Judaism and the Environment that I encourage my readers to check out here. One of the ten teachings is that “Humanity should view their place in Creation with love and awe.” I sometimes think that our modern world, full of technology and innovation, separates us from nature. How do you think we can reconnect with this sense of love and awe in our modern era?
I believe that scientific study of the natural world can produce love and awe but we must be open to having such feelings. We must seek what Martin Buber called I-Thou moments and be open to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” I also believe that prayer and ritual can be utilized to bring about this state of mind and spirit. Blessings over everyday things and actions, for example, can create sacred pauses so that we do not take the world for granted. Mindfulness meditation is also good for this.
5. Have Jewish congregations embraced the modern sustainability movement? If so, how is this expressed in action?
Many Jewish congregations have tried to incorporate sustainability into their buildings, education programs and liturgy. But this is not happening in enough communities. Many rabbis still know little about this issue and although most of the denominations have embraced sustainability in principle, they have yet to really commit the resources necessary to achieve this. Some of the denominations are better than others. I believe that there is significant grassroots action occurring but it is not enough and there need to be more advocacy.
6. You wrote an interesting entry for the Encyclopedia of Sustainability, Vol. 1: The Spirit of Sustainability on Judaism. Readers can click here to read it. In it, you describe several aspects of the Jewish liturgy and practice that relate to sustainability. I was particularly struck by your statements on the significance of the Sabbath. Could you explain to my readers how practicing the Sabbath can contribute to greater environmental awareness?
The Sabbath liturgy is filled with references to Creation as its origin was in the creation cycle of the 7 day week that was central to the theology of the Priestly School of the Temple in Jerusalem in the First Temple period. Thus on the Sabbath we can focus on Creation and also step back from our everyday activities. The traditional rules that govern the Sabbath are meant to do that. But there is also a great celebratory aspect in the traditional practice of the Sabbath. On the Sabbath we are supposed to let Creation be, and utilize our time in relaxation, communal prayer and study and family celebration. By stopping as much as possible our usual activities we can get ourselves out of normal time and enter into a different spiritual place. Again, as with all prayer, it can help us to appreciate Creation and not take it for granted. I believe that Abraham Joshua Heschel once said (in his great book on the Sabbath) that on the Sabbath, because we cannot pick the flower, the flower becomes like us and we become like the flower—each with its own undisturbed place in Creation.
7. I work a great deal in the nexus of science and policy. But overall, it is clear that we cannot legislate human behavior and it is important to encourage broad cultural change on sustainability issues. For example, we can recycle and encourage people to reduce waste, but we still produce mountains of waste due to our hyper consumer culture. We have almost turned consumerism into a religion. How does Judaism address this problem?
I believe that there is great material on this issue to be found in the Wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, in post-biblical literature (like the book of Ben Sira), and in rabbinic literature. From these sources come alternative views of how we should live our lives and achieve happiness. Not from the addiction of consumerism but from the values of gratitude, blessing, understanding our place in Creation, our interconnection with the rest of Creation, and our responsibility to take care of Creation. We also can learn how God takes pleasure in all creatures and each has its own inherent value. These ideas can help to counter the monetization of the world which numbs us to the real value of each thing in creation. We can teach people that real happiness means both personal and societal well-being which requires us to think of the common good and not just our own desires. I believe that traditional Wisdom sources can help us to distinguish between our wants and our needs.
8. In the field of sustainability, we are trying to preserve the beauty and bounty of our planet for future generations. What gives you hope for the future?
I have hope first of all because despair would be impossible to live with. I also have hope because I see many young people being genially concerned with trying to do something about climate change. I have also seen the spread of religious action on the environment—it has not been fast or wide enough but it is still gaining strength. I also believe that people when pushed to the wall, can come together in collective action. My fear is that this action will come too late to stop terrible suffering.
9. You are the Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence with Green Faith. Readers can find out about this organization here. Could you explain a bit about this organization? What is your role with Green Faith?
GreenFaith began as an interfaith coalition to mobilize NJ religious communities to fight climate change by becoming sustainable. It was started in 1992/3 by an Episcopalian priest (Skip Vilas) and a Catholic academic who had attend the Rio conference. Since then, it has expanded its work on nationwide projects primarily in the areas of leadership development and congregational resources. Its three key concepts which govern all its work are: Spirit, Stewardship and Justice.
I became involved when I moved to NJ in 1993 and I was on the board of directors for about ten years. Then I began to work for GF in a variety of different capacities. Together with the Rev Fletcher Harper, I created the Fellowship Program which trains religious leaders to become religious environmental leaders. There are now over 130 GreenFaith Fellows across the country from many faith communities: Christian and Jewish denominations, Unitarians, Muslims and Hindus. Because of funding problems I am no longer the director of the Program but I continue to be involved as the Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence which means that I teach in the Program and also help develop resources for other GF programs.
10. Is there anything else you would like to say?
My work as a rabbi, eco-theologian, educator and activist has given great meaning to my life and I am constantly surprised and inspired by the people I meet who are so committed to this work.