Wednesday, January 15, 2014

It Ain't All about Trees: Bringing Tu B'Shvat Full Circle

The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat is not what it used to be. Increasingly referred to as the “Jewish Earth Day,” it offers a good example of a religious observance that has grown and changed over time—in interaction with and response to current challenges and community needs.

I first learned about Tu B’Shvat’s history from Nigel Savage at Hazon’s annual Food Conference a little over three years ago. He described four different incarnations or movements of the holiday, beginning with "The New Year for the Trees" and a tax on fruit- and nut-bearing trees during Temple times. After the Temple was destroyed, the community didn’t really know what to do with this holiday that had centered so much on the religious infrastructure that the Temple and its priests offered, and so the holiday went dormant for a while. A long while.

Fast forward to the 16th century in what is today northern Israel, where a young rabbi named Isaac Luria led a revival of Jewish mysticism in Safed. He and his community re-imagined Jewish prayer, practice, and traditions—among them, Tu B’Shvat. The second movement of this holiday, then, has its roots in Luria’s community, which brought to Judaism a Tu B’Shvat seder that ascribes multiple layers of meaning to a new holiday tradition of eating fruits and nuts from the land of Israel.
The third movement of Tu B’Shvat is closely connected to the founding and early years of the modern state of Israel. Picking up on the concept of a New Year for the Trees, a tradition of planting trees—especially in the land of Israel—was born. The metaphor of establishing roots was especially appealing to a people still reeling from the horrors of the Holocaust, and longing for a place to call home.

Today, Tu B’Shvat is undergoing another transformation—one that, as Dr. Ari Elon notes in this article, expands the holiday’s concerns to encompass the whole planet. Tu B’Shvat as the Jewish Earth Day was born out of recent awareness of environmental degradation and concerns about global warming. It has become a day when increasing numbers of Jewish leaders and communities reflect on climate change and other environmental concerns, and consider appropriate Jewish responses.
In this new movement of Tu B’Shvat, people are creatively weaving together strands from previous movements. Tu B’Shvat seders—from the mystical movement—are becoming more popular, though ecologically-conscious Jews in the U.S. might add to or even replace the traditional fruits and nuts from the land of Israel with local foods. Planting trees in Israel is still popular, although many Jews in the U.S. now also plant trees here at home.

This fourth and most recent movement of the holiday is creating some traditions of its own, much of them focused on trees and nature. People go on nature walks, introduce children to the wormy world of food composting, and lift up Jewish teachings and practices that center on connecting with the earth and protecting it as God’s creation. All of these things are good—but they are missing a crucial element, one that Dr. Elon says was the motivation behind the first incarnation of Tu B’Shvat: concern for the poor.

One of the challenges the environmental movement faces is its association in popular imagination with—wait for it…—tree-huggers. We know that climate change will have/is having devastating impacts on glaciers and trees, polar bears and frogs. But we also know that climate change will have/is having devastating effects on people. Especially poor people.

If we are right now in a process of reimagining Tu B’Shvat as a religiously-rooted Earth Day, then into this reimagining we need to better incorporate the central priority of the original observance: making sure that the poor, the widow, the orphan—those on the bottom rungs of society—are cared for by the rest of the community. If Tu B’Shvat was originally a tax whose offerings were redistributed to those in need, then how can we reimagine that practice as part of the holiday’s new, environmental focus—and wouldn’t that, in a way, faithfully bring the holiday full circle to its origins?

Might we collect donations for organizations working on the front lines of global warming impacts—for example, with climate refugees? Plant trees in areas that have been hit by floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes made worse by climate change? Educate our communities about disproportionate impacts on the poor? Advocate for environmental justice in all the places we consider home?

This Tu B’Shvat, I am bringing locally-grown nuts and fruits to a potluck lunch at the office. It’s an interfaith organization, so I’m also bringing an explanation of the holiday and a short, fun video about Honi the Circle Maker. Maybe later in the afternoon, I’ll go for a walk outside with my kids. I love the tree-hugging aspects of Tu B’Shvat. I’d just like us to more actively be hugging people, too.
Here's an example of a great environmental justice-themed reflection on Tu B’Shvat. Thank you, Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt.

The above photo used courtesy of Joaquin Martinez via Flickr Creative Commons.

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