Our Place in the Universe – Judaism and the Environment

Man's relationship to the natural world has been a concern of Judaism from our earliest texts. It is possible to see the entire beginning of the Torah as a series of attempts to grapple with the dilemmas of control vs. partnership, dominion vs. stewardship, power vs. powerlessness, being outside of nature vs. being inside nature, doing vs. being. The creation, the expulsion from Eden, Noah, Babel – our formative myths make it clear that these questions have been central in Jewish thought as long as there has been Jewish thought. Thus, when we seek to make Judaism ''relevant'' to the concerns of 21st century students, we don't have to dig too deep or stretch too far to find opportunities to connect our classical texts with current dilemmas relating to conservation, consumption, environmental quality, intervention in natural processes, etc.

We on the staff of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education have addressed the place of environmental concerns in the Jewish tradition in a number of settings over the years – batei midrash for the community and for schools in the region, field seminars for high school students, and in-service sessions for teachers. We were honored when we were asked by the Melton Centre for Jewish Education of the Hebrew University to work with Bialik College in Melbourne, Australia, to create a curriculum for the sixth grade, bringing together a wide range of topics in which the interaction between environmental concerns and the Jewish tradition are manifest.

We accepted the challenge, and found that we really enjoyed the process. The school has been testing the units and has found them successful and fun to teach. With Bialik's encouragement, we are interested in making this material available to a wider audience, as it seems to us that it could be useful to many schools, and other settings as well, such as youth groups and camps. Therefore, we are happy to offer this curriculum – ''as is'' or modified, adapted, or expanded according to the needs of the institution. Pricing would depend on the amount of work needed and new materials to be assembled, as determined by a discussion with the school leadership.

Our Approach

It seems to us important – and consistent with the ideas we find in classical texts – that these topics be treated as dilemmas to be understood and respected, not merely as opportunities to preach environmental morality. After all, the classic dichotomy of Genesis 1 vs. Genesis 2 (See first two lessons) informs all subsequent discussions: What is our place as humans in this world: Are we here to rule over it and exploit it since we are the pinnacle of creation? Or were we placed at the pinnacle of knowledge and sensitivity in order to understand that we are to be awed by the world – and responsible for its wellbeing and its very survival? That is the question that comes back again and again, with respect to air, and water, and endangered species, and nuclear power, and genetic engineering, and vegetarianism, etc. etc. When to intervene in nature, and how, are questions that are basic to every human enterprise, and with respect to which Judaism has offered insights in different periods and different contexts. The goal of this series of lessons is to challenge the students to understand and think seriously about these dilemmas in a historical context, not as just sudden recent developments – and to help them bring their Jewish commitments and knowledge to bear on responding to them. We have also found that these topics are an opportunity for integration between Jewish text and the natural sciences, since ecological and environmental issues stand at the intersection of natural science, social science, and moral philosophy. We have tried to suggest experiments and observations here and there, to bring the natural sciences into the course; we suggest trying to find further such opportunities, perhaps by working together with a science teacher.

We have built the course as 24 lessons, but of course teachers may wish to change the timing and spend more time on some topics and less on others, depending on the teacher's – and the students' personal interest. While the curriculum in its current form was written with sixth graders in a day school in mind, the materials can be easily adapted for higher grades, and for other educational environments.

Lessons in the course:

1-2 Two creation stories
3 Tower of Babel
4 The mitzvoth dependent on the land
5 Blessings
6 Introduction to projects fair
7 Biodiversity
8 Cruelty to animals
9 Vegetarianism
10 The commons (reshut harabim)
11 Water conservation
12 Family size
13-14 Global warming
15 Sustainable development
16 Wealth, consumption
17 Conservation
18 Advertising, materialism
19 Importance of life
20 Genetic engineering
21 Nuclear energy
22-23 Israeli case study - Hula Valley
24 New ten commandments



These curriculum units were developed by the Galilee Foundation for Value Education in cooperation with the Melton Centre for Jewish Education for Bialik College in Melbourne, Australia.