I Think That I Shall Never See a Jew As Lovely As a Tree

Former Senior Fellow
An Israeli girl walks past Israeli supporters planting a tree in the Jordan Valley near the Jewish Settlement of Fatzael during the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, the new year of the tree, on January 16, 2014. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Israeli girl walks past Israeli supporters planting a tree in the Jordan Valley near the Jewish Settlement of Fatzael during the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, the new year of the tree, on January 16, 2014. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Every year, in midwinter, synagogue bulletins and Jewish Community Center emails are filled with announcements of organic Sabbath lunches, environmental lectures, and recycling drives. The impetus for this annual unveiling of the green—which, somewhat unusually, takes place across Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox institutions alike—is the commemoration on the Jewish calendar of Tu B’Shvat, classically known as the New Year for Trees.

In 2015, Tu B’Shvat begins on February 3 and continues through the day of February 4. In recent decades, it has moved from the periphery of special Jewish days to much closer to the center. It serves as a kind of Jewish Earth Day—a rallying point for the marriage between Green sensibilities and Jewish identity. Indeed, the takeover of Tu B’Shvat by the environmental movement is now so all-encompassing that it threatens to become the only thing for which this special day—which has existed for two millennia—is known.

Tu B’Shvat has its origins in the Talmud, the post-biblical exegeses that expand upon the meaning of the written law as found in the Torah. The Tractate of Rosh Hashanah, the first collation of rabbinical disputes and discussions in the part of the Talmud called the Mishnah, calls for commemorating four new years. One is for kings and festivals, one is for years, one is for the tithing of animals, and one is for the tithing of fruit from trees. The Mishnah notes a dispute between the houses of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai over the exact date this New Year for Trees should take place. But the passage includes nothing else about how to commemorate the day, and there is little in the rest of the Talmud about its meaning or observances. What we do know is that Tu B’Shvat itself is not a holiday. The restrictions on work that govern the Sabbath and other holy days do not apply. No additional prayers have been inserted into the services about it. Other than the designation of the date for taxpaying purposes, Tu B’Shvat seems to have been an occasion of relative unimportance.

In the 16th century, this began to change somewhat. Since at least that time, Ashkenazi Jews have observed Tu B’Shvat by making a special point of eating fruit. Sixteenth-century Jewish mystics created something called the Tu B’Shvat seder, loosely modeled on the Passover seder. This Kabbalistic ceremony evolved over time and even developed its own prayers. The order of this seder was laid out in the 1732 book Hemdat Yamim. According to Dan Rabinowitz’s Seforim blog, the seder portion was published on its own in 1750 under the name Pri Etz Hadar —and republished 29 times between the mid-18th century and 1959, thereby popularizing the details of the Tu B’Shvat seder. This seder includes drinking four cups of wine, as on Passover, reciting biblical verses related to fruit and trees, and saying the appropriate blessings on the fruits and grains participants consume. In the 18th century, the custom of eating fruit began to include the eating of the fruits of Israel, the specific kinds delineated in Deuteronomy 8:8: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

The most significant later shift came in the 19th century, with the influx of Jewish Zionists from Europe into what was then the Ottoman-controlled area of Palestine. The historian Ze’ev Yavetz began planting saplings with his students to commemorate the New Year for Trees. Today, Tu B’Shvat celebrations take place across Israel and center on ceremonial tree plantings, which help connect the people to the Promised Land.

But these changes in the celebration of Tu B’Shvat pale in comparison with what has happened in the 21st century. As the historian Jonathan Sarna has noted, “Tu B’Shvat has changed in my lifetime, from a Zionist holiday—eating Israeli products and planting trees [for the Jewish National Fund]—to an environmental holiday, characterized by becoming environmentally conscious and going green.” The rapidity with which this change has happened is striking. Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s 1988 The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays is in many ways a guidebook to American Jewish holiday observance. In his description of Tu B’Shvat, Greenberg does not even mention the environment, although he does note that the day has “become a time for picnics and outings and identification with nature as well as with the land of Israel.” Overall, though, Greenberg concludes that “in the absence of historical significance, the day remains a minor semi-festival.”

No longer. A generic concern for the environment now guides the modern Tu B’shvat. The most important herald of the politicized Tu B’Shvat appears to be Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Waskow has spent 50 years adapting Jewish ritual to leftist politics; his dubious masterpiece was undoubtedly the 1969 Freedom Seder, in which “police brutality” and the “prophets” Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi share space with the “rabbis” Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber and which concluded with the words “next year in the Third World.” During the Vietnam War, one of Waskow’s first Tu B’Shvat–environmental events focused on the reforestation of Vietnam as a means of protesting “the U.S. government’s policy of destroying their forests with bombs and chemicals.”

In 1983, Waskow founded the Shalom Center, which then focused on the nuclear-freeze movement. As he put it in a more recent interview, “Nuclear war would mean a Holocaust for all of life—so gradually the element of ecological concern that had been an aspect of our work became the central lens to view all other issues.” Liberal Jewish groups were fine with this “central lens”: “Reconstructionist, reform, feminist—had no problem,” he said. The broader Jewish community, however, resisted Waskow’s ecological linkage. According to Waskow, “First thing, they thought I was a kind of a pagan!”

A Waskow-allied organization, the radical New Jewish Agenda, also pushed the environmental Tu B’Shvat concept. It shut down in 1993, in part because, according to the historian Rafael Medoff, “NJA’s credibility within the Jewish community nationally was damaged by its calls for Israeli acceptance of Arab territorial demands, including ceding control of parts of Jerusalem, and its willingness to cooperate with Arab-American groups that were unfriendly to Israel.” Among other unpalatable activities to mainstream Jews, NJA protested the state of Israel at the Philadelphia Holocaust Museum and called for a “Palestinian Holocaust Memorial.”

Waskow, however, persisted, and he continued to use the holiday to pursue his own political ends.

In 1997, he held a Tu B’Shvat seder at the Redwood Forest to protest the Maxxam Corporation for cutting down trees. Waskow’s approach kept him on the radical fringe, but something broader was happening in America. Global warming had become a dominant issue in the Democratic Party. In 1993, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) came together, with support from conventional Jewish organizations. Within a few years, COEJL had defined Tu B’Shvat as the Jewish equivalent of Earth Day. The linkage hardened in the 2000s, with the Internet becoming a popular means for synagogues to share program ideas. According to The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality, “As climatologists focused on the worldwide danger of ‘global warming’ and a ‘climate crisis’ arising from deforestation and the overburning of fossil fuels, both the obscure holy day of Tu B’Shvat and the dictum of Bal tashhit [‘do not destroy’] grew more important in Jewish ethics.”

Waskow’s conflation of environmental activism with Tu B’Shvat caught on so well that by 2012, the whole business became a rallying point in the presidential election. That year, the National Jewish Democratic Council touted President Obama’s environmental record and concluded that “on this Tu B’Shvat, it is clear that the Jewish community has an ally in the White House who shares this value.” Other matters that liberal Jews have associated with Tu B’Shvat include: opposition to fracking, the importance of eating locally grown foods, reducing one’s carbon footprint, and exploring why Jews should be vegans (or at the very least vegetarians). For Jewish foodies, Tu B’Shvat is a day like no other. The 14-year-old organization Hazon, which “examines how American Jewish life can be strengthened by engagement with food, the outdoors, and the environment,” sees Tu B’Shvat as “a perfect time” to have conversations about the morality of food and its centrality to the Jewish experience.

In addition to the overt attempts of left-leaning activists and groups to define Tu B’Shvat as a liberal holiday, most American synagogues today have seized on it as an opportunity for communal service to the environment. In the weeks leading up to Tu B’Shvat, synagogue announcements within Judaism’s three main denominations herald a host of environmental activities for congregants. At Washington D.C.’s Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation, an ad for a recent event noted that “protecting the environment is a Jewish value rooted in the Creation story” and then invited guests to a Tu B’Shvat seder “whose theme is protecting the environment from the ravages of global warming and the pollution of air, water, and earth.” The event was sponsored by the shul’s Green Committee.

Oakland’s Rodef Shalom, which advertises itself as a progressive congregation, hosted a Tu B’Shvat program with an arborist who “will discuss trees and how they affect the environment.” The event promised to help people “learn what is going on and how you can help.” This event was sponsored by the shul’s Social Action Committee.

At the Conservative Forest Hills Jewish Center, the president of the synagogue called Tu B’Shvat “a time dedicated to observe our duty to protect our environment.” He added that the synagogue observed the day “by reaffirming our religious duty of creating a sustainable environment and learning how to do it.” Not to be outdone, the vice president of membership touted the “15 Ways to Change the World” event, which taught what “we can, and need, to do to pass a cleaner, healthier world on to future generations.” A follow-up recycling drive directed proceeds to “various organizations helping to make this planet ‘Green.’”

Activist events also take place community-wide. On one recent Tu B’Shvat in Washington, the “Jewish DC” website listed events across the area and noted that on Tu B’Shvat “today advocacy has taken a strong foothold with planting and teaching about sustainability.” One of the synagogues listed, the Reform Temple Emanuel, has a joint “Earth Worm Disco, Celebrating Tu B’Shevat and Earth Day,” which “combines two environmental holidays.”

It might be tempting to dismiss these instances of environmental activism on Tu B’Shvat as the natural expression of the liberalism of the coasts. But that would risk missing a broader movement in American Jewish life. Tu B’Shvat as the Jewish Earth Day has become a national phenomenon with few geographic limitations. In 2014, for example, Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, Florida, had an event featuring a Humane Society booth, sign-ups for unspecified “causes,” and a station for “Endlessly Organic, a temple-wide, organic produce–buying club.” In Memphis, Tennessee, Temple Israel has an annual “All Eco Expo” environmental fair that highlights “everything positive that we can do for the environment.” West Hartford’s Temple Beth El invited Sybil Sanchez, the national director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, to deliver, during services, “an overview of the textual basis for Jewish environmentalism.” During the talk, she planned to answer the question: “Why is Judaism inherently a ‘green’ religion?”

One reason for the national spread of these kinds of events is that the parent organizations of these local synagogues provide resources and encouragement for the Tu B’Shvat–environmental link. Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center has a convenient “TuBiSh’vat Social Action Holiday Guide.” The guide suggests that celebrants “incorporate social justice themes” in three program areas: natural resources and the environment, health issues, and endangered species. The suggested activities include hosting “a TuBiSh’vat Social Action Seder”; making a family commitment to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”; getting back to nature by adopting a local area; preparing an organic oneg, or celebration, with organic food, sans pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, or the like; and purchasing Fair Trade Coffee.

The Conservative movement is less expansive (indeed, it would be hard to be more expansive). Its main programming document, written by Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner, is far more substantive and text-based than Reform’s Green wishlist. Still, Conservatism’s United Synagogue Youth arm does call for “environmental social-action programs” as a way to commemorate Tu B’Shvat. In addition, its United Synagogue Department of Youth Activities publishes an environmental handbook listing “130 things one can do to help the environment,” such as stopping junk mail, using unbleached coffee filters, and not releasing helium-filled balloons outside. In case you are not familiar with that last restriction—nowhere in the vast literature of rabbinical prohibitions—the reason is that the balloons “can land in the ocean and harm marine life.”

Even the Orthodox movement, typically resistant to fashion, has joined in. Chabad and the Orthodox Union now both highlight Tu B’Shvat. Chabad’s website features an article exploring the spiritual dimension of “ecological awareness.” A number of Orthodox-affiliated groups are pushing an environmental connection. One such group is Canfei Nesharim (“wings of eagles”), which promotes sustainable living within and among the Orthodox community. While Canfei Nesharim is more text-based and less overtly activist than the Conservative or Reform organizations, its website does features articles with titles such as “Mercury: The Global Pollutant.” The denominational Orthodox bodies may not be providing their synagogues with environmental-activist material for Tu B’Shvat activities, but groups devoted to environmental causes often dominate the Tu B’Shvat agenda at Modern Orthodox shuls.

Even the Jewish National Fund, which one would think would have an interest in maintaining the specific role of Tu B’Shvat as the day for planting trees in Israel, plays up the environmental connection through something it calls “Tu Bishvat America.” JNF features a quiz to determine if one is an Eco-Zionist, with questions such as “What do I feel is the connection between Israel, Judaism, and the Environment?” and “How is Shabbat an environmental concept?” (On a personal note, as someone who leaves both lights and cholent -simmering crockpots on over the entire 25-hour Sabbath period, I am convinced Shabbat is decidedly not an environmentally friendly concept.)

Beyond the so-called mainstream denominations of Judaism, there are also the expressly environmentally minded organizations such as COEJL. COEJL, which aims to “address the climate crisis through advocacy” and to “reduce our own greenhouse-gas emissions,” now specializes in securing organizational pledges across the religious spectrum to reduce the emissions of the Jewish community as a whole. In 2013, Tu B’Shvat served as a launch day for one of these initiatives. As climate change becomes a more important part of the liberal agenda, that issue appears to be playing a larger part in the Tu B’Shvat environmental liturgy as well.

Waskow and other leftists have tried to superimpose their views on Jewish festivals, including Sukkot and Hanukkah. Waskow called for the establishment of a Hanukkah for Humanity to promote the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. But those efforts have not been successful to date. Holidays such as Sukkot and the fast day Tisha B’Av (lamenting the destruction of the Temple) already have well-defined rituals, which means there is stronger communal resistance to change. Not so Tu B’Shvat, about which even Hebrew-school-educated kids know little. The environmental message actually filled a vacuum regarding its observances.

Another ancient tradition that has been appropriated by environmentalists is Shmitta—the seventh year in the planting cycle, as decreed in the Torah, during which the land is supposed to lie fallow as a parallel to the way Jews are supposed to cease all work on the Seventh Day. The year 5775, which began on Rosh Hashanah 2014, is one of these planting sabbaticals. Building on the Tu B’Shvat model, the group Hazon recommended a Shmitta Seder, in which a seder plate is added to the Rosh Hashanah table (Rosh Hashanah, as the start of the new year, marks the beginning of the Shmitta period). During this seder, Hazon recommended making six blessings, featuring many clichés of the present moment: “In this year of Shmita,” went the third, “may we celebrate abundance and work toward sustainability so that our children also experience vast goodness.” Hazon also suggests a list of Shmitta-related activities, including joining Hazon’s own Jewish climate-change campaign. The Shmitta Seder goes beyond imposing environmental strictures to a call for supporting “ethical investing, spending, and banking.” Just hazarding a guess here, but it seems that their view of “ethical spending” would not include a contribution to the Republican Jewish Coalition—or a donation to Commentary, for that matter. If current trends continue, we can expect more Shmitta-based campaigns in 2021, 2028, and 2035, perhaps during a Chelsea Clinton administration.

The point is not that these individual environmental programs are bad or problematic in and of themselves. The vast majority of Jews, as well as Americans, agree that the environment is important and that current attitudes in favor of recycling and against pollution are good things. The question at stake is whether linking a Jewish observance to these modern values is a good thing for Judaism, both politically and religiously.

From a political standpoint, the redefinition of the New Year for Trees is an attempt to indoctrinate children in environmental activism while cementing the Jewish community’s ties to environmental causes. Now, while most Jews are liberals, not all are, and the identification of Judaism with a political movement risks alienating those with differing political beliefs. Judaism today, with its increasingly tenuous hold on its American members, cannot afford to risk alienating co-religionists, even those in the minority.

In some cases, this adherence to environmental activism can even go against the Jewish community’s larger interests. Just to take one recent example, a hard-headed geopolitical analysis would suggest that the larger Jewish community should support building the Keystone XL pipeline. Economic analysis has been unanimous that the development of this pipeline would increase energy diversity, strengthen energy security, and provide a North American counter to Russian and Middle Eastern oil, much of which comes from states hostile to Israel. One would think that the bulk of Jewish community organizations would therefore back the pipeline as a way to reduce the influence of anti-Israeli actors, not only in the United States but presumably around the world. And yet, according to the Forward's Nathan Guttman, “exactly one Jewish group supports the Keystone pipeline.” This one group happens to be the American Jewish Committee, which, Guttman writes, “reflects the group’s policy of viewing energy issues primarily through the prism of their impact on America’s ties to Arab countries and to Israel.” One wonders, however, what other prism a Jewish community organization should use to view issues with geostrategic implications for the State of Israel.

Tu B’Shvat’s modern incarnation as an environmentalist holiday has another political implication as well. Long before any of the modern Tu B’Shvat observances merged, Judaism was and remains an environmentally friendly religion. Its view of the environment, however, is based in the sense of responsible individual stewardship and in the goodness of Creation, rather than in a critique of humankind. Judaism traditionally sees humans as keepers of the environment, not as hostile actors in conflict with it. But modern Tu B’Shvat observances, not to mention environmental-activist groups, mostly see man as the problem.

From a religious standpoint, bringing ancient rites into a modern context may delight many Jews today and make the religion relevant to current sensibilities. But while putting a contemporary accent on an ancient ritual might be fine, problems arise when the accent takes precedence over the ritual. Many Tu B’Shvat programs this year and in the foreseeable future will focus on “sustainability” in the environmental context, but too little attention is being paid to the fact that Judaism itself has a sustainability problem. The sustainability challenge is especially acute among the Conservative and Reform movements, each of which lost 40,000 people in the New York area alone in the first decade of this century. All of the emphasis on environmental sustainability does not appear to be doing much to promote Jewish sustainability.

Ultimately, the way to keep Jews in the fold is to have them doing Jewish things. If one just wanted to help the environment, one could join an environmental group. Keeping Jews engaged on a religious level requires the maintenance of something that is authentically Jewish, not something that has been grafted on. Judaism is not, and should not be, trendy. It has withstood intellectual assaults dating back to the ancient Greeks by sticking to its traditions. In doing so, again and again, Judaism has outlived many an ancient civilization, by aiming to follow the ways of the Torah.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of a Jewish Earth Day too often begins with whatever is the latest liberal position on environmental matters, pays little attention to the divine origin of the Torah, and instead searches for a Jewish justification for liberal views rather than building out from the rich and authentic Jewish tradition itself. A Judaism that tethers itself to the culture around it and worships the idols of the day detaches itself from its deepest convictions and heralds an uncertain future.