When I think of Tu B’Shevat, I think of my childhood.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, and went to elementary school in the Hollywood Hills. At 3 o’clock, we’d get driven home, and as we started down the San Diego Freeway, we would see a layer of brown gunk on top of the Valley. It was just the way it was. During the summer, our eyes would sting, and sometimes we couldn’t even see the hills. “First-stage” smog alerts were common, and sometimes we would have second-stage alerts. I got asthma, as did many of my friends.
That doesn’t happen anymore: the Valley hasn’t had even a first-stage alert in years. No one would mistake the air for that of a national park, but it is a lot cleaner than it used to be. Seniors can walk outside now. Meanwhile, popular songs about contaminated water (like Tom Lehrer’s “Pollution” or The Standells’ “Dirty Water”) have become relics of a past age.
There is a reason why things have changed for the better: the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA wrote the rules that cleaned up the Valley’s air and healed my lungs. It created and enforced the regulations that saved rivers around the country. And Donald Trump wants to destroy it.
This is not hyperbole. Trump’s choice to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is currently suing the agency, and has expressed contempt for its work. Trump’s initial budget indicates that he will seek to cut the EPA by 50 percent — purposefully eviscerating its capacity and crippling it in the future. Within hours of taking the oath of office, the administration placed a gag order on all of its personnel, and began to alter content on its website. The agency’s scientific reports must now be vetted by political appointees before being made public. And last week, Trump issued a probably illegal executive order mandating that for every regulation enacted, two must be withdrawn — with no attention to whether any of the regulations are beneficial, or even crucial. It essentially enshrines ignorance as a matter of national policy.
The president embodies this ignorance. When asked by Fox News host Sean Hannity which federal departments he wanted to eliminate, Trump replied, “The Department of Environmental… I mean, the DEP is killing us environmentally.” No one bothered to tell him that the “DEP” does not exist, and it is not clear whether he knows now. But he knows he wants to kill it.
For Jews to support these policies represents a repudiation both of Tu B’Shevat and the values it stands for. Tu B’Shevat is not simply “the birthday of the trees” (as I also learned growing up). Rather, it celebrates humanity’s relationship with nature, and thereby with God. The rabbis declared it as an important day because it established the day on which produce counted for a new year for sacrifices. Later, Kabbalists constructed a Tu B’Shevat seder, now becoming more popular. Some ultra-Orthodox writers argue that we celebrate it because humanity is the “tree of the fields” — a purposeful and creative misinterpretation of a passage from Deuteronomy chapter 20.
Tu B’Shevat’s genius relies in no small part on its recognition that the spiritual humanity/nature relationship is also empirical. When the environment is destroyed, so is human health. We cannot detach ourselves from nature. Thus, the Hebrew name of Israel’s leading environmental advocacy organization, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (on whose U.S. supporting board I serve), is Adam Teva V’Din — Humanity, Nature, and Justice.
The Trump administration’s war on the EPA, then, is a war on Tu B’Shevat. People who support Trump’s and the GOP’s efforts to gut and incapacitate the agency aren’t stopping some faceless bureaucrat: They are helping to destroy ecological resources and thus guaranteeing that thousands of children, maybe theirs or others, will get respiratory diseases or waterborne illness. That’s what these actions are: the Make Children Sick Act of 2017. And that is profoundly un-Jewish.
That’s what these actions are: the make children sick act of 2017. And that is profoundly un-jewish.
This is not a standard policy debate about the amount, character or pace of regulation. Reasonable people can disagree about such things. Indeed, environmentalism began as a conservative impulse and contained deeply sacred aspects. The great conservative writer Russell Kirk noted that:
“If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the prosperity of future generation…. The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining … is evidence of what an age without reverence does to itself and its successors.”
Reverence. Destroying nature destroys humanity, in both its physical and its spiritual aspects. Both Judaism and conservatism properly understood have always known this.
The administration’s program, however, represents a rejection of the entire enterprise of environmental protection — not conservatism, but rather the materialistic philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand’s “Fountainhead” hero, Howard Roark, expresses contempt for nature, saying that when he looks at mountain peaks, all he thinks of is tunnels and dynamite. Not surprisingly, the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that the most un-Jewish philosophy was Rand’s. And, not surprisingly, Trump and many members of his Cabinet are big Rand fans.
The administration’s policy on climate change — or lack thereof — reveals its deepest contempt for the Jewish idea that humanity’s and nature’s fate are intertwined. Climate change represents the greatest ecological threat the planet has ever faced, but the White House home page was scrubbed of all climate change-related material a few hours after inauguration, and Trump has made clear that he will attempt to withdraw President’s Obama Clean Power Plan. There is no pretense of repealing and replacing — it is repeal outright. Again, this is not a difference of degree: It rejects the entire concept of wanting to know about the problem. Science, and truth, are to be subordinated to political needs.
No one with a commitment to Judaism can accept this. The rabbis knew it thousands of years ago. A midrash noted that when, in Genesis, God tells Adam to rule over the earth, the word used — radah — is equivocal: It can mean either “ruling” or “descending.” The message was clear: Unless humanity accepts genuine stewardship over the planet, it will “descend” to a lower level and betray its calling. But it required a stronger statement, and so they provided it, connecting our dependence upon nature, and the consequences of forgetting that dependence. As the midrash to Ecclesiastes relates:
“When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
My lungs saved by the EPA remember this statement daily. Does anyone else?
Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.