Justice, Religion

The Questions We Must Ask

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Rabbi Peter Stein
Over the last few years, I have come to understand that the laws, teachings and exhortations of the Bible can be summed up in one central idea: What the Bible is trying to teach us is how to build a sustainable society. Specifically, it is trying to teach us how to build a society that is economically, ecologically, socially and spiritually sustainable.
These four criteria are the lens through which we must view everything we do. They are the measure by which we must evaluate every choice we make, whether it is a personal decision, such as where to settle or how to eat; a decision at work, such as what kind of product to market; or a political decision such as land use, taxation or trade policy. Everything is subject to the test of sustainability.
When evaluating a decision by these measures, we must ask many hard questions. I would like to suggest just a few in each area.
When considering if a choice is economically sustainable, we must ask basic questions about propriety and scale and responsibility, the most basic of which is ‘Can I afford this?’ or ‘Can our society afford this?’ We must ask: ‘Will this decision create greater equality or greater inequality?’ ‘Does this choice strengthen the essential connections between ownership, profit and responsibility or does it further abstract these notions, severing these essential connections?’ And most importantly we must ask: ‘How much is enough?’
When considering if a choice is ecologically sustainable, we must first remember the intimate and essential connections between all parts of God’s Creation. Then we must ask: ‘Will this decision lead to greater health for human communities and the natural surroundings on which they depend or will it destroy their health?’ ‘Can this decision be repeated on an on-going basis without degrading the soil, plants, animals, air and water?’ ‘Will this decision deplete the abundance God has blessed us with or enhance it?’
Social sustainability addresses some of the most emotionally and politically charged issues we know, most of which our society is not prepared to deal with. We must ask: ‘Will this decision increase segregation by race and class, or will it reduce it?’ ‘Will it create communities in which people of different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds live together in close proximity and relate as neighbors and equals?’ ‘Will this choice create opportunities for reconciliation and sharing and trust, or will it promote division, fear and distrust?’
Finally, we must inquire if our choices are spiritually sustainable. This is the most difficult of the four to conceptualize, but I think it can be explained in two ways. On the one hand, it is the sum-total of the other three. If our decisions are not economically, ecologically and socially sustainable, they will not be spiritually sustainable. If we make decisions that perpetuate economic injustice, degrade God’s Creation or provoke social tensions, there is no way that we will be on good terms with God or ourselves.
But spiritual sustainability is more than just the sum of the other three. It has its own meaning and its own set of questions. When considering if a choice is spiritually sustainable, we would ask such questions as: ‘Is it beautiful?’ – for the soul needs beauty to survive and flourish. ‘Will this increase my material needs and dependencies or reduce them? – for a spirit reliant on ever more material goods will never be satisfied. ‘Is it meaningful?’ – for if we spend our time doing things that are void and worthless, we will not feel good about ourselves. And finally: ‘Is it humble?’ – for while we were meant to create and aspire and achieve, if we do so without bounds of humility and propriety, we will suffer despair when we one day, unexpectedly, reach our bounds.
These are the questions we must ask.
And we must be very clear about their implications: if we do not choose what is sustainable, then we have chosen what is unsustainable, and what is unsustainable, by definition, will not last. These questions will be hard and they may make us uncomfortable. They may call into question many of the comforts and material standards to which we have grown accustomed. We may not like the answers we find to these questions. But they are the right and necessary questions.
Rabbi Stein can be reached at peterdstein-at-yahoo-dot-com.
Cross Posted on Radical Torah

One thought on “The Questions We Must Ask

  1. I couldn’t agree with your essay more….until comes the question about equality. I can’t understand the concept that all are equal. If we were, we would be clones. We all have talents and responsibilities and they vary. IMHO, as long as each of us aspires to be the best we can be and respect each other and the planet we will have fulfilled our responsibilities regarding sustainability. Where I see the concept weak is that there are those in society who are unwilling to be the best they can be; to hold up their share of the work to the best of their ability. That the abilities of different people vary is in my view irrelevant, as long as they do their best. Can they then be equal in the ‘spoils’ too, the rewards if they act as parasites rather than as responsible individuals contributing to sustainable society? At that point, can they…indeed, should they, be ‘equal’? I think not. For sustainability to work we are obliged to teach them their responsibilities and they must accept them. Should either we or they fail to accept those responsibilites, society will not survive.

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