Green Sabbaths: Adapting Tradition for the Anthropocene
Just before the Covid pandemic hit, I founded the Green Sabbath Project. This campaign seeks to adapt the ancient biblical concept of shabbat to serve as one remedy for our collective environmental crises. The idea is to create a mass movement that revolves around a ritualized weekly vehicle for ecological consciousness-raising and actions that stems from a practice that has been indigenous to western culture for nearly two millennia. As a creative, updated practice organically woven into daily life, a weekly green sabbath, a weekly earth day, is grounded in the two pillars of the biblical sabbath: rest, withdrawal, doing “nothing,” minimizing ecological impact, on the one hand, in commemoration of the creation of the world; and regeneration, renewal and repair, on the other, commemorating the liberation of the Israelite slaves from slavery.
Shabbat emerged from the holistic spiritual ecology of the ancient Israelites, devoted to the intertwined well-being of land and people, a quasi-animist, trans-species community opposed to internal socioeconomic inequality and the empires of the region. The Bible connects the weekly sabbath, with its prohibition on work, to the seven-year cycle of the sabbatical year, regarding which we are told explicitly that the land itself desires to rest. In the sabbatical year, all debts were canceled and private agricultural lands became communal. In the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year, coming after seven cycles, slaves were freed and lands reverted to their original owners. The economy in which shabbat is practiced seeks to ensure a circular or slow system, to prevent unhealthy inequality, to counter anthropocentrism.
I argue that from the perspective of our current ecological crises we can no longer afford “minimal” or symbolic observance of the sabbath. In a more “maximal” form, along the lines envisioned by the ancient rabbis, sabbath observers on their sabbath day might choose to not build, operate or work in factories, do business, farm, produce clothes at home, drive cars, fly, use engines of any kind, spend money, hunt, etc. A green sabbath or weekly earth day restores shabbat to its original intention of commemorating the creation of the world (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:7-10).
I am by no means the first to issue such a plea or challenge around sabbaths. Among others, some 30 years ago German Evangelical theologian Jürgen Moltmann called on Christians to observe the sabbath “in the original sense of abstaining for one day a week from all commercial, productive, and industrial activities.”. Like Moltmann and many others, I believe that for religious believers and secular people alike our sabbath days must become a time of active avoidance of environmental vandalism. But more, they must become a time for programmatic individual and collective reflection on how we are undoing creation.
I am drawn to the sabbath’s imperative — counter-intuitive, provocative, never timelier yet still often suppressed even in environmental discourse — to “do nothing.” “Doing nothing” one day weekly is not meant to replace political, economic or technological environmental solutions, but to help reinforce them, to unify them in a meaningful armature of culture and intention. Even the most secular individuals increasingly appreciate these insightful and urgently relevant understandings of the beauties and benefits of the sabbath. We see more and more calls for “sabbaths” from our modern technologies, such as filmmaker Tiffany Shlain’s Technology Shabbats, cities implementing car-free days, such as Bogotá’s popular every-Sunday version, or The Center for Emancipatory Technology’s Freeday for Future. The lesson of taking a break, making do with less, of finding genuine contentment within, the sabbath ethos, is meant to infuse behavior for the rest of the week. This ancient spiritual technology, creatively updated and harnessed for the anthropocene era, offers a holistic vehicle for addressing the intersecting political, economic, cultural, spiritual and psychic causes of human environmental degradation.
While “doing nothing” comprises one main element of green sabbaths, the other is the doing of acts that embody and nurture ecological consciousness. As an idea and practice adapted and updated from its traditional roots in shabbat, green sabbaths can serve as a weekly vehicle for a wide range of creative practices and activities — religious, spiritual, pantheistic, animistic, agnostic or materialist — particularly on the level of the organization, neighborhood, congregation, or municipality. While striving to keep environmental impacts to a minimum, groups might organize on their weekly earth day a clean-up or invasive species removal at a local site that needs some love and care; take a group walk outdoors; make a temporary sculpture or mandala out of found natural materials (twigs, leaves, stones, etc.); read nature poetry out loud; invite elders from within or beyond your community to share stories about the local landscape, ecosystems and history; hold prayer services or a meditation circle outdoors, in a local garden or park; play games that teach environmental lessons, including group simulation games to mitigate climate catastrophe. In addition to such activities, religious communities, meditation centers, or organizations might get members together to write their own prayers for the earth, the rain, their favorite trees or recently lost species and incorporate them into their liturgy or practice; devote sermons or dharma talks to environmental themes; organize a choral performance or community sing-along of selections from The Lost Words, Joanne Shenandoah’s “Dancing on Mother Earth,” Malcolm Dalglish’s “Hymnody of Earth” or his setting of Wendell Berry’s poem, “Great Trees,” Miriam Makeba’s “Meet Me at the River,” “A Place in the Choir” by Bill Staines, or J. David Moore’s setting of Jack Manno’s “Earth Blessing.” The possibilities are as vast as the imagination.
A weekly green sabbath or earth day properly practiced — as radical intervention and not mere lip-service — offers a weekly interruption of the suicidal economic fantasy of infinite growth, a weekly divestment from fossil fuels, a weekly investment in family and local community, a weekly bit of rewilding, a respite for both humans and other-than-humans and a ritualized forum for meditating on how we want to live. As Greta Thunberg has reminded us repeatedly, we already know what the solutions are for our environmental crises. Green sabbaths could provide a recurring greenhouse for incubating the required collective consciousness and willpower — the ultimate renewable energies — to make the solutions reality. Green sabbaths could constitute both a model and a foretaste of an ecologically-sane world to come.
We are looking for neighborhoods, towns and organizations willing to take up green sabbaths as a real-time experiment. I welcome a conversation with your organization or community regarding what this could look like.
Jonathan Schorsch holds the Chair in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History at the University of Potsdam (Germany). At least as important, he is a husband, father and son, eternal student, gardener (when he has access to land), collage artist, and capoeirista. His publications on ecological matters include “The Return of the Tribe: Jews, Counterculture and Native Americans,” Common Knowledge 27.1 (January 2021): 40-85; “Olive Oil, Anointing and Ecology,” Ritual Dynamics in Judaism and Christianity, ed. Claudia Bergmann and Benedikt Kranemann (Leiden: Brill, 2019); “Looking for an Ecological God,” Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, ed. Martin S. Cohen, Saul Berman and David Birnbaum (New York: New Paradigm Publishing, 2019); “Sabbath for the Anthropocene Age,” One World – Many Faiths: Religious Contributions to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, Berliner Reihe für Mission, Ökumene und Dialog (Berlin: Wichern Verlag, 2019); The Food Movement, Culture and Religion: A Tale of Pigs, Christians, Jews and Politics (New York: Palgrave, 2018).