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April 24, 2014 | 24th Nisan 5774
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Text Studies

The following two text studies by the Religious Action Center link specific passages from the Torah to contemporary environmental issues with sample discussion questions following each text. Both texts focus on "Ecology, Judaism and Tikkun Olam."


Environment and Social Justice: Caring for the Land

Leader's Materials:
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the untrimmed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you may eat only what the growth direct from the field.
Leviticus 25:8-12.

Shabbat and the sabbatical year afford the land the ecologically sound practice of taking a rest. Now we turn to the idea of the jubilee as a time of release of all debts.
  1. In ancient Israel, at each jubilee year, land was re-distributed, so that anyone who had accumulated large parcels of land over the past fifty years had to return it to its original “owners” (tenants, actually, since God is the real owner).
    • Why do you think there was a need for this law? (To maintain an equitable and just society)
    • How might some individuals have accumulated large parcels of land? (They could buy out people who had owed them large sums of money)
    • What do you think happened to the former “owners” who were “bought out”? (They may have become servants or be homeless).
    • Do you think this was just?
  2. How might the principles of this law be applied today? (Think about international agribusiness, which accumulates huge lots of land in the Third World, at the expense of peasant farmers)

Participant's Materials
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the untrimmed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you may eat only what the growth direct from the field.
Leviticus 25:8-12.

Shabbat and the sabbatical year afford the land the ecologically sound practice of taking a rest. Now we turn to the idea of the jubilee as a time of release of all debts.
  1. In ancient Israel, at each jubilee year, land was re-distributed, so that anyone who had accumulated large parcels of land over the past fifty years had to return it to its original “owners” (tenants, actually, since God is the real owner).
    • Why do you think there was a need for this law? How might some individuals have accumulated large parcels of land?
    • What do you think happened to the former “owners” who were “bought out”?
    • Do you think this was just?
  2. How might the principles of this law be applied today?

Environment and Social Justice: Environmental Legislation

Leader's Materials
Carcasses, cemeteries and tanneries must be kept at fifty cubits’ distance from a town. A tannery can only be set up on the east side of a town [because the east wind is gentle and will not carry the fumes to the town.] Mishnah, Baba Batra 2:9.

The connection between this text- which legislates the location of cemeteries and tanneries- and social justice is less obvious than with previous texts. The link becomes clear only when we consider whom the legislation is designed to protect. Those with sufficient resources can easily choose where they wish to live, thereby avoiding hazards to environmental and physical health. This law acts as a shield for those who lack such resources.
  1. Does this law protect a particular social group? (yes, see above)
  2. Can you think of modern examples of ecological waste sites and hazards that disproportionately affect the poor and lower-middle class? (Union Carbide, an American corporation, had a plant in Bhopal, India, which employed thousands of Indians. The Indians provide a source of cheap labor for Union carbide. A leak in the system at the plant allowed the escape of poisonous gases, and approximately 2000 people were killed. In India, Union Carbide did not use the proper safety precautions that the company would have had to abide by in the United States. Mudslides and sever flooding in Bangladesh resulted from the clear cutting of forests. The logging companies profited, while thousands of the area’s residents lost their lives.)
  3. How can we - like the Mishnah commands - expand the blanket of environmental protection so that it covers all members of society, regardless of social class?
  4. How do we act as stewards and yet maintain the dignity of those we help?


Participant's Materials
Carcasses, cemeteries and tanneries must be kept at fifty cubits’ distance from a town. A tannery can only be set up on the east side of a town [because the east wind is gentle and will not carry the fumes to the town.] Mishnah, Baba Batra 2:9.

The connection between this text- which legislates the location of cemeteries and tanneries- and social justice is less obvious than with previous texts. The link becomes clear only when we consider whom the legislation is designed to protect. Those with sufficient resources can easily choose where they wish to live, thereby avoiding hazards to environmental and physical health. This law acts as a shield for those who lack such resources.

  1. Does this law protect a particular social group?
  2. Can you think of modern examples of ecological waste sites and hazards that disproportionately affect the poor and lower-middle class?
  3. How can we- like the Mishnah commands- expand the blanket of environmental protection so that it covers all members of society, regardless of social class?
  4. How do we act as stewards and yet maintain the dignity of those we help?
 
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