Jewish Wisdom for Climate, Environmental and Food Justice: class by Rabbi Natan Margalit

Thanks to Renee Shapiro for her fascinating write-up of the class that JCAN recently put together, with the sponsorship of Organic Torah, the Jewish Climate Action Network, and Open Circle Jewish Learning at Hebrew College. The class was called "Jewish Wisdom for Climate, Environmental and Food Justice" and it was taught by Rabbi Natan Margalit.

About six attendees have come to each of the six classes, which ran from January 30 to April 3. Renee's impressions follow, and then a summary provided by Rabbi Margalit.


In his Organic Torah class, Rabbi Margalit aligned contemporary writings with texts from the Torah and Rabbinic Sources. In doing so, he demonstrated how various Jewish teachings not only relate to issues we currently face, but provide deeper understanding and spiritual support for the work we must do.

For example, our society’s current approach to dealing with pesticide resistance (evolution among insects to evade pesticides) has been to wage an “arms race” with more toxic pesticides, provoking continual evolution of resistance among the target insects, while at the same time endangering wild life and human health. The futility of these actions is can be seen in Michael Pollen’s statement that "many points of contention that humankind thought it had won...turned out to be Pyrrhic or illusory triumphs," citing the example of DDT. We can also go further back to the pithy teaching from Pirke Avot 5:16: "An argument that is for the sake of heaven: both sides will continue to exist; one that is not for the sake of heaven; both sides will not continue to exist."

While we seem to find ourselves making many arguments that are not for the sake of heaven, the texts also encourage us to take even small actions that may have an impact larger than we would predict. "Be very careful in a small mitzvah as in a large one—you never know the reward of a mitzvah" (Pirke Avot 2:1).


In this series of classes we will look at new perspectives on how core Jewish ideas, and ways of thinking can deepen and reinforce our work for justice, sustainability and health. By helping to shift our orientation toward dynamic relationships, getting beyond either/or traps and visioning hope and freedom instead of despair and gridlock, Jewish wisdom can help us become better at creating the change we want to see-- in ourselves and in the world. We will use text study, discussion and experiential exercises.

Organic Torah Principles of Sustainability: Emergence/Minyan – The whole is greater than the sum of the parts (January 30)

The natural world emerges through relationships of networks, patterns and systems – the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. Judaism has also been built on this natural principle. The minyan is only one example. We’ll see how Judaism and the natural world connect through the principle of emergence which allows for flexible growth, newness and strength. In practical terms, new and just solutions to social problems only emerge when we look at the whole and the part that everyone plays in creating it.

Organic Torah Principles of Sustainability: Nestedness/Mikdash – fractal reality and getting past either/or (February 13)

Nestedness is the way of the natural world: cells are nested inside organs, inside bodies, inside families, etc. In Judaism mikdash – the sacred holy center, is nested within the inner chamber, within outer walls, within the city gates, etc. We’ll see how this principle allows for both/and solutions instead of false either/or dilemmas.

Organic Torah Principles of Sustainability: Tipping Points/Mitzvah – Hope, faith and free will: how not to give up (February 27)

In natural systems change isn’t linear, but can jump suddenly from one state to another: the straw can break the camel’s back. Judaism also embraces this principle as we see in the spiritual technology of the mitzvah: doing a small action which may just change everything – but we never know. In ecological work we must know that a small action can have huge consequences – both for bad or for good.

Applying Organic Torah: The Ethics of Eating and Agriculture (March 13)

We will look at how Judaism supports an ethical and sustainable agriculture through changing our perspective to one of gratitude, caring and stewardship.

Applying Organic Torah: Environment and Climate Change (March 27)

We will see how Jewish principles can give us the tools to shift our attitudes and behavior in battling the crisis of climate change.

Applying Organic Torah: Prayer, Holidays and Social Justice (April 3)

In this class we will explore the way that the Jewish holiday and prayer cycles support a consciousness of justice and sustainability.

Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D., was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001. He has taught at Bard College, the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College, and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Natan is Rabbi of The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, in Connecticut and Visiting Rabbi at Congregation Adas Yoshuron in Rockland, Maine. He is Founder and President of Organic Torah Institute, a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society ( He lives in Newton, MA, with his wife Ilana and their two sons.