Jew Don’t Know Ethics Like Jews Know Ethics


By: Brett Cassette

  Since the release of Dickinson’s Strategic Plan II in 2005, the phrases “engaged citizens” and “environmental sustainability” have become almost unnervingly overused in campus discourse, and yet when these ideals are well-integrated into unexpected coursework like Professor Lieber’s Jewish Environmental Ethics course, it becomes apparent that these objectives are the backbone to a practical education. 

There seems to be a degree of skepticism on campus that sustainability has a place in all disciplines. It’s a fair question: just how does environmentalism intersect with Judaism to create a larger land ethic? Or does it at all? The room seems to get “the professor is making this up” look on their face. Last month, when I traveled to a conference with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, I discovered that this skepticism seems to be shared in some degree by many higher ed. institutions—even among the faculty. 

Yet Professor Lieber’s service-based learning course, which will travel four times to five Jewish non-profit organizations over the course of this semester in order to help them reduce their environmental impact, helps to display the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability education. Each site, from four synagogues to a Jewish community center, has different needs which the students have worked to identify with their various leaders, and at each site they’ve begun projects after deciding which were feasible. 

“At Beth El Temple,” says Annabelle Mac Auley ’11, “we’ve begun five focus projects. Since they’re a school and an office, we’re working on paper and cardboard recycling to supplement their current can recycling. We’re switching them to compostable greenware like we use here on campus. The director is very excited about a grant he’s received to overhaul the lighting in the main hall and we’re also trying to start a children’s organic rain garden to teach sustainability at the school.”

When asked if the students were running into problems of implementation, Professor Lieber noted that initiatives were often expensive, there was sometimes no economic incentive and that these groups were non-profit. Yet, in the face of practical barriers, Lieber asked the students to approach these groups with the ethics taught in the Torah.

“I can give you ten different Jewish texts that say we’ve inherited a certain set of natural resources and that we have the obligation to assure these same resources are available not just to our children, but to their grandchildren,” says Lieber. “But, depending on the institution, I think, there’s a certain amount of eye-rolling at ‘moral obligation.’ In a way, I think that makes the learning experience even more important for students because it’s very real life. If students come in with this academic or philosophical idea that ‘Jewish tradition prohibits waste,’ and the institution still ends up prioritizing the bottom line, then I think that’s a valuable learning experience.”

Yet Lieber’s idea s can inform cultural beliefs and views of nature has also been echoed recently in Michael Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change and James Calvin Davis ‘92’s In Defense of Civility. In particular, Davis argues for the ability of religious ideologies to unite us on social issues like sustainability.

For instance, one of Lieber’s students, Caroline Fortin ’11 says, “Because we’re working with an orthodox synagogue, and therefore a fairly religious population, we’re working with a group that isn’t driving on shabbos. In some ways, the ritual practices of Judaism allow for mass sustainability. If a hundred people aren’t driving cars from Friday night to Saturday night—if you see a hundred people walking to synagogue—then that’s not insignificant.”




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