"To Serve and Preserve It" - A Conversation with Rabbi Jonathan Biatch
When reflecting on humanity’s relationship with the environment, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch wanted to start at the beginning. “I think that we begin, at least in our particular faith community, by the command of God to our legendary ancestors that we have in our tradition. When God created the world, in the second chapter of Genesis, God says that God placed humanity in the garden,” Biatch said, “’to till, and to tend,’ which is a very nice flowery translation (of the Hebrew).”
Rabbi Biatch, who leads the Reform Judaism Community at Temple Beth El in Madison, WI, said that the Hebrew could also be translated as “to serve and preserve it.” The Garden of Eden, in this context, really means serving and preserving the whole earth, and that “from a faith-based standpoint, that is our task.”
It’s very clear from the stories of creation and other parts of the Torah, he added, “that God is the owner of this property, and we're only here to take care of it. And if we mess it up, we've messed it up. The implication is, we have to take care of it.”
Rabbi Biatch grew up in Los Angeles, and looking back over his life, he said “there’s always been some connection to water.” The first time he lived on his own was during his time in Buffalo, NY, on Lake Erie. “I think I had an appreciation for the whole of Lake Erie,” he said. He would drive along the water on trips to Toronto, taking the scenic route and “just sort of marvel” at the water. “That whole area was just replete with important water resources. And so it just showed how important water is to us.”
After his time in Buffalo, Biatch served as a Rabbi for Jewish communities in Virginia and California. He then came to Temple Beth El in 2005, where he said that serving and preserving creation is “sort of an undercurrent of all that we do.”
Forest at Whitefish Dunes State Park, Door Co., WI (Photo by Dan Robinson)
For example, on January 24th, the Temple Beth El community will be celebrating Tu Bishvat, or the New Year of the Trees. The celebration traces its roots to ancient Israel, when the people would recognize the sap starting to rise in the trees, marking the beginning of spring. After being put aside for many centuries, the followers of Kabbalah, a mystical tradition within Judaism, started putting renewed emphasis Tu Bishvat 400 years ago, and the celebration has grown in importance since then.
“There’s such power in the turning of the earth, and such power in the gifts of God with more and increased heat and light, that this deserves a celebration,” Biatch said. “It's a time when we celebrate our connections to nature and appreciation of how we have to act in concert with the earth or the earth will turn on us.”
“Kabbalah looked at a person's soul, and how that person turns first inward, and then turns their soul outward. So, too, we have to look at our environment, from a local perspective, and then how that care and concern affects the broader perspective of the community, the earth,” Biatch said.
Another Jewish concept central to the Temple Beth El community is Tikkun olam, which they understand to mean “repair of the imperfect world,” according Rabbi Biatch. The community believes that the “act of repair has to be initiated through us. We can be inspired by God,” he said, “but we can't rely upon that connection to God to be the sole arbiter of what happens here. We have to be involved. We are God's stewards on this planet, again, that conception of our stewardship of this world. And so we have to be prepared in order to make this world a better place through our own actions.”
This concept of repairing the world applies to many different areas of society, but when it comes to the environment, Tikkun olam can mean working to eliminate fossil fuels, promote renewable sources of energy, and uphold the Paris Climate Accords, according to Biatch. “We have to really find ways of acting in every possible arena to make the world better.”
A third way that Temple Beth El serves as stewards of God’s creation is through a commitment to the place where they are and the water there. At one point, the community talked about moving west from their original location near Lake Wingra. But the decision, according to Rabbi Biatch, was “Nope, we're going to remain here, we're going to remain close to our heritage, we're going to remain close to this lake, we're going to remain close to downtown where there are other lakes.”
“We start from the premise of where we are near water. And isn't that an important part of what we need to be doing? We've just begun to consider what it means to be part or to have our synagogue on the land of the Ho Chunk Nation, because that's the people who settled here first,” Biatch said. “We have to begin to take more of an appreciation of what they can teach us in terms of how they might have approached living in the proximity of all this water. And so that's another important bit of learning that we're in the middle of right now.”
From the stories of creation, through the traditions within Judaism, to the community of Temple Beth El today, the message is clear, according to Rabbi Biatch. “We know that we're here to serve and preserve this land. That's one of our primary roles.”