Rabbi Greg Alexander explores whether JoJo tanks are Jewish

OK, hands up if you take a shower while standing in a bucket! It was only a year ago that everybody was, and the city of Cape Town was preparing us for Day Zero. 

Every house was stocking up on water containers and the business to be in was not swimming pools but JoJo tanks. Now it’s 2019, and many of us have gone back to our old ways and why not? It’s been raining the whole year and surely everything is back to normal, right?

Well yes, normal indeed. Because normal is actually water-scarcity. That is the reality of where we live. We just don’t have lots of water. And we should continue to shower in our buckets and use the water for plants and toilets l’olam v’aed — forever and ever. And that’s not all that’s scarce and getting scarcer if the scientists behind Climate Change are right. Our world is changing rapidly, and the signs are everywhere — fish stocks, Arctic ice melting to extreme weather conditions. What can we do besides panic?

Judaism (and many scientists) teach that the forces that govern the changes in weather are actually responsive to human action. In other words, we are not passive observers of the changing climate, but actually the cause, or a huge part of the cause, of it. When G!d created the world, She placed us in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah — to till it and to guard it (Gen. 2.15) and a midrash describes the significance of that role perfectly — “When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, She took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). 

The message is clear — we are responsible for this world and it’s up to us to fix it. So what can we do? Well again, thousands of years of Jewish teaching have been preparing us for just this moment in time — their relevance has never been clearer. Let’s start with bal tashchit, the mitzvah to not destroy unnecessarily. The Torah rules that you can’t chop down fruit trees during war, but rabbinic law expanded that to wasting lamp oil, throwing away old clothing or chopping up furniture to burn for firewood when it could still be used. It was eventually codified as the commandment not to waste anything without adequate purpose, even a seed of mustard! (Sefer Ha-Chinuch 529)

Apply that to overpackaging — why is your breakfast cereal wrapped in a giant plastic bag, which is then wrapped in an even bigger cardboard box when the contents that you actually bought take up a fifth of the box? To make it seem bigger of course. 

Why does most kitchen waste end up in the bin and our landfills when we can easily put them in compost bins or drop them off at one of the increasing number of urban farms in the city? Why do we keep buying bottled water and plastic cutlery and plastic straws when they end up in our rivers and seas? And to return to our showers, why does most of our purified drinking water come out of our taps and go down the drain instead of into our bodies?

Let’s talk about meat. Judaism certainly permits the eating of meat. Many people consider their Shabbos chicken or Pesach lamb ‘Mi-Sinai’ — something ordained by Moses on Mt Sinai. But meat today does not come from your village chicken or cow hand-reared from birth by the homeowner. It usually comes wrapped in clingfilm from the supermarket and if you examine its journey there it’s not one that inspires happy eating. Most poultry and animals are not raised on land at all, they are mostly raised in ‘batteries’ or industrial conditions. Their treatment is not humane at all and many insider videos have gone viral in the past decade shaming the meat industry’s processing. 

There has also been much concern about the food that is given to domestic animals which increasingly contain non-food bulk items and growth hormones. But the most damning consideration is the expense to the environment. Recent studies measure the water required throughout the growth cycle of food and the findings are telling. While vegetables had a footprint of about 322 litres per kg, and fruits drank up 962, meat was far more thirsty: chicken came in at 4,325l/kg, sheep/goat meat at 8,763l/kg, and beef at a stupendous 15,415l/kg. That should already cause us great reason for action, without even adding the compounding problems of water pollution from fertilizers and animal excreta and deforestation for grazing lands. Producing a calorie of meat protein means burning more than ten times as much fossil fuels —and spewing more than ten times as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide —  as does a calorie of plant protein. One third of the world’s grain is now fed to animals reared for meat.

So back to the Jews then — does this mean no roast chicken on Friday night? I can hear the Banting dieters roar in condemnation, and believe me I do not want to make an enemy of Prof Noakes. Protein is our friend. The answer is no, we don’t have to kick out the roast. What it does mean is that we all need to cut down the amount of meat we eat. Instead of demanding we all become vegan, let’s start with asking how often in the week we eat a meat meal. If it’s more than twice in three days, it’s too much. And less would be better. Meat-free Mondays is a start, but we should all be aiming to eat eggs or chicken no more than six times a week and beef or lamb two at the most. If we all did, the immediate effect on the meat industry and on the environment would be dramatic.

We are agents of our own destiny, and Judaism calls us to take responsibility for our actions — the water we use, the products we buy and the food we eat. 

As the midrash reminds us, if we don’t there is no one who will come after us to fix it. This isn’t even about the trees anymore, this is about our survival on this earth, our only home. Let us make the changes now and take seriously our role of being partners with G*d in the ongoing work of creation. 

Click here to download a PDF of the May edition of the Chronicle
Click here to read the editor’s column for May
Click here to visit the Temple Israel website


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