I was startled as well as saddened to read of the death of my colleague, Rabbi Lawrence Troster. As many readers of this column have experienced, when one loses a parent or a member of the older generation, that is one kind of mourning; but when one loses a peer, the backwash from the wings of the Angel of Death is much more turbulent.
Larry and I had been study partners during our rabbinical student days at the Jewish Theological Seminary, some 40 years ago. We shared an interest in the relationship of religion and science and a commit to environmentalism. I specifically recall our mutual amusement upon discovering the page in the Talmud where the Rabbis debate whether there are two heavens or seven heavens! A few years later, Larry and I had the privilege of co-editing a special issue of Conservative Judaism magazine devoted to the relationship of science and Judaism.
Larry was also among the founding members of GROW—Group for the Rabbinic Ordination of Women, and within a brief span of time, he recruited me; I was happy to join once I knew of the organization’s existence. This was during the turbulent days of debate at our school over the question of whether or not to admit qualified women candidates for the rabbinate. The school was then dominated by Old World-formed faculty, and the struggle was prolonged until after the death of the most distinguished member of the old guard, Professor Saul Lieberman. But ultimately, the Chancellor, Gerson Cohen, who came around to support women’s ordination, along with a majority of the faculty, voted for the change, and my last foray into student activism came to a satisfying end.
Larry’s lifelong causes were social justice, environmentalism, and environmental justice. An accomplished scholar and an outstanding critical thinker, he authored many of the seminal articles articulating the world-view and shaping the activism of the Jewish environmentalist movement.
To that end, he was a founder and leader of several Jewish ecological initiatives, including Aytzim: Ecological Judaism and its associated project, Shomrei B’reishith—Guardians of Creation. This is its statement of purpose:
“The world is on fire and God is calling us to act. Rabbis and cantors are meant to wake us from torpor, evoke moral courage and speak in the tradition of the prophets. We need awakening now in the face of the climate crisis, one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. In response, Ayztim and GreenFaith have formed Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, an international, multi-denominational network of rabbis and cantors providing a Jewish voice on climate change and environmental justice.
“Shomrei Breishit has released an initial statement signed by a sanhedrin's worth of leading rabbis and cantors worldwide. This isn’t a normal statement that simply calls on others to take action. It’s a personal commitment from the signers, who have pledged to become carbon neutral through conservation, purchasing offsets, and using renewable energy, to begin to disinvest their own funds from fossil fuel holdings, and to reinvest a portion of these funds in sustainable-energy development.
“Shomrei Breishit will play a leading role in organizing Jewish participation in OurVoices.net, the international, multi-faith campaign for a strong climate agreement, encouraging Jews around the world to participate in a global vigil in support of a climate treaty. The network also will offer environmental education and training opportunities for Jewish leaders and organize an environmental voice at the World Zionist Congress. Within the United States, rabbis and cantors affiliated with Shomrei Breishit will take part in climate change advocacy at state and federal levels.
“Rabbis and cantors are acting now,” said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, the network’s founder. “This network is about truly putting the environmental teachings of our tradition into action.”
Since 2001, Aytzim: Ecological Judaism, the parent organization of Jewcology and the Green Zionist Alliance, has educated and mobilized people around the world for Israel’s environment. Its work has led to millions of trees being planted, hundreds of miles of bike trails being built, and the preservation of natural areas that have saved endangered species from extinction.
Larry was also a supporter of Arava, an Israel-based organization promoting environmental stewardship, sustainable development of Israel’s arid regions, and the training of people, across political boundaries, to cooperate for the ecological preservation of Israel’s region. Its motto is “the environment can not afford to wait for peace.”
It will be no surprise to learn that—as is so often the case—the portion of the Torah we are engaged in studying this week addresses this issue. In the “Rebuke” portion of Leviticus, Israelites are threatened with exile from the homeland as a consequence of repeated and grievous sinfulness. The Torah then considers what will become of the land itself:
Then the land will find-acceptance regarding its Sabbaths
All the days of desolation—
when you are in the land of your enemies—
Then the land will enjoy cessation
And find-acceptance regarding its Sabbaths
All the days of desolation it will enjoy-cessation
Since it did not enjoy cessation during its Sabbaths
When you were settled on it. (Leviticus 26:34-35)
The warning is clear, and not only for the Jewish people of the early Iron Age, but—and even more so—for our century: The earth will continue, but we can destroy the conditions allowing us to live in peace and prosperity. A blasted earth, an overworked earth, an earth whose life-sustaining balance our greed, and the policies we are pursuing, are destroying, will be a very different planet, and very soon, too, if we do not heed the dire warnings to stop worshiping our power rather than God, Author of nature. As I mourn the loss of my colleague, I believe that the best way to honor his memory is to redouble support for the cause of saving God’s creation from human folly and rapine. Larry called upon us to be Shomrei B’reishith, Guardians of Creation. Be a shomer b’reishith.
Rabbi Michael Panitz