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‘Eco-Bible’ Reveals the Ancient Roots of Environmental Movement

Rabbi Yonatan Neril.jpg
kerenor 1/2020

There is a widespread belief, especially among some Republicans and conservative Christians, that the environmental movement is essentially a secular, socialist movement born out of the radical liberalism of the 1960s.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril is having none of that.

“I think this idea that religion should oppose ecology because ecology emerged from the 1960s and the hippie movement and the treehuggers – I think that that’s a false idea,” Neril said. “There are deep ecological teachings that are stretching back millennia, from some of the leading religious thinkers in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as in Islam and Buddhism and other faiths.”

Rabbi Neril is the director of the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which promotes the use of solar energy in developing countries. It also organizes conferences around the world to educate religious leaders about the need to start preaching about climate change and other environmental issues from the altar.

To provide evidence of the ancient roots of the environmental movement, Rabbi Neril recently published a book called the “Eco-Bible.” It quotes more than 100 rabbis and other scholars on passages from the books of Genesis and Exodus that discuss sustainability and conservation.

One passage in the Eco-Bible from Genesis, when God tells Adam, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

It’s scripture that is often used by modern conservatives to justify exploitation – but Rabbi Neril provides a counter-narrative.

“The rabbis say, Rabbi Chanina, writing about 2,000 years ago, that if we act in the image of God, then we are given dominion,” Neril said. “But if we do not act in the image of God, then the animals will rule over us. That we will be taken down. And we see that in our time. The coronavirus pandemic is an example of a virus ruling over humanity. And humanity throwing trillions of dollars to try to control it. But at the end of the day, a virus ruling over us.”

That rule may be coming to an end with the distribution of Covid vaccines. But Rabbi Neril argues that scientists don’t really have the power to change human character or provide a moral counter-weight to heartless capitalism -- which is why religious leadership is so important.

“The ecological crisis is not really about climate change and biodiversity loss and acidification of the oceans,” Neril said. “It’s really about greed and apathy and arrogance and short-term thinking. And scientists don’t really have the tools to deal with those deeper root issues.”

The Rabbi’s book …and his organization’s focus …are not unique. A book called “The Green Bible” was published in 2008 – with a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Pope Francis in 2015 published an encyclical that called for religious action from the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to halt the selfishness and exploitation that have devastated the global environment.

Together, all these writings – and the growth of organizations like Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake– show that that the ranks of the religious are not only growing in the environmental movement but have been there since the very beginning.


The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is paid for by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].