Students interested in the intersection of religion and environmental studies can engage in a special interdisciplinary course this month at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
Starting Thursday night, a three-part series of classes on the intersection of environmentalism and Jewish ethics will be taught by Noah Cheses, an associate rabbi at the Slifka Center, and Willis Jenkins, the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The educational series will explore how the Jewish traditions and texts can be used to approach environmental moral issues, Jenkins said.
“If we have a few people who want to look at some texts with some new critical lenses, then we’re undoubtedly going to have interesting conversations,” he said.
Cheses said that while the course is geared toward Jewish students interested in the environment, everyone is welcome. He added that the classes will likely contain a mix of undergraduates and FES students both of Jewish and non-Jewish faiths.
The idea for the course began when a group of undergraduates approached Cheses in the final weeks of fall semester asking for guidance on Judaism’s view on environmental issues such as climate control and urban pollution, he said.
“I actually had no clue how to respond,” Cheses said, adding that these questions led him to investigate and research the Jewish tradition for answers. After sharing his findings with FES and undergraduate students, the group decided to create a three-part class series based on these issues.
Jenkins said his personal goal for the course is to engage in stimulating conversations. On the first day, the group will look at the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis — which differ on whether God’s mandate to humanity was to dominate or serve the environment — and explore the role of man in nature.
The second class, Cheses said, will explore how a legal system can shift in the face of new problems. Since the environmental crisis did not exist when Jewish law was formed, the second meeting will focus on how tradition adapts, he added. The final class will examine ethical and historical issues that the Jewish wisdom texts raise about environmentalism, Cheses added.
Although religion and environmental studies are distinct fields, Cheses said both focus on thinking beyond the individual self.
“Religion and environmentalism try to transform the language of ‘I and now’ to ‘we and forever,’” he said.
Jenkins added that he hopes students leave the course with a sense of the resources in Jewish traditions for thinking about environmental problems, as well as how modern ecological problems raise questions about Judaism.
Cheses said he would love for the class to evolve into a more task-oriented group that will apply the information learned to the community. If the class receives serious interest, he added, there might be an opportunity to bring a similar course to FES or the Divinity School.
“I think that people who come from faith backgrounds — and even people who don’t — can look toward faith as a real reservoir to inform their environmental passion,” Cheses added.
Hody Nemes ‘13, a member of the steering committee for the class, is active in environmental and Jewish groups on campus. He said he hopes this course will teach him how the two realms of his life intersect.
“I’m excited to delve deeper,” he added.
Classes will be held Thursdays from 7:15-8:30 p.m. in the Slifka library.