‘God is life,’ Rabbi Yonatan Neril on ecological conversion and the war in Ukraine – Religion News Service

Posted By on August 22, 2022

(RNS) Not long after Russias invasion of Ukraine in late February, Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Yonatan Neril found himself surrounded by 25 different religious leaders, including bishops, rabbis and sheiks, in Jerusalems Moscow Square as he affixed a letter calling for peace to the wall of the Russian Orthodox church.

The letter, signed by more than 150 religious leaders worldwide, including the Dalai Lama, called on Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who has close ties to President Putin, to implore the Russian president to de-escalate the armed conflict and seek peace.

In this moment, religious leaders are called to rise to the occasion on behalf of God, people, and all creatures, read the interfaith letter Neril placed in Moscow Square.

Nearly six months later, the war in Ukraine rages on, bringing with it a growing list of both humanitarian and ecological concerns ranging from massive grain shortages to recent shelling around Ukraines largest nuclear power plant.

Neril is concerned about both. He is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development a Jerusalem-based nonprofit engaged in revealing the connection between religion and ecology worldwide and co-author of the best-selling Eco Bible, an ecological commentary on Hebrew Scripture.

God is life, Neril told RNS in a recent interview. We exist because every moment God is reinvigorating creation with life.Neril also spoke with RNS about the spiritual crises he sees at the root of both ecological degradation and warfare, and the role religion can play in response.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis. Its not just about nature and bees and the birds and the trees and the toads. Its also about human beings and how we live as spiritual beings in a physical reality. And so, you know, with all due respect to Elon Musk and everyone buying a Tesla, were not going to curb climate change with Teslas alone when the operating system of billions of people is consumer-driven.

The only force in the world that changes this operating system of consumerism is religion and spirituality. The root issues were talking about are greed, short-term thinking, egoism, seeking pleasure in the physical.

The spiritual solutions to those are humility, long-term thinking, caring for other people and creatures. The only institutions in the world that can deliver that are religious institutions.

Scientists cant promote this transition. And politicians cant do it either. And business people also, I dont think can do it. The transition that Im thinking about a spiritual ecological transition it is about composting and its about clergy speaking from the pulpit about composting and its about that push being part of religion. But its, at a deeper level, about finding the center of our pleasure satisfaction in family and community and spirituality instead of finding that in fast food, new smart phones and cheap airplane travel.

Yes. Or another way of phrasing it would be an expansionist mentality. Which is a related topic I also occasionally speak about. I think we need a transition within religion from religions trying to expand their base of followers.

Pope Francis talks about ecological conversion of how essentially we need to transition to an ecological lifestyle. And I think its important that religions transition today to focus on that instead of focusing on trying to win more adherents to their particular religion.

At the end of the day it doesnt matter how many people of each religion there are in the world if we dont have a sustainable planet, because were all going to be held accountable by God for destroying the planet. Its not like the game ends and the religion with the most numbers of adherents wins. The religion with the most number of adherents on a destroyed earth loses, together with every other religion.

With the fighting around Europes largest nuclear reactor right now, were not just talking about Cain and Abel where Cain has a rock and hes killing his brother. Were talking about 8 billion people, all species that God created, and if something goes wrong, there could be a nuclear explosion. Or there could be a nuclear conflict between Russia and other nuclear powers. And so everything is at stake here.

We need to raise our level of spiritual awareness. It doesnt matter whether Russia has more territory. It doesnt matter that the Russian Orthodox Church has more faith adherents. What matters is doing what is right and proper in the eyes of God, to quote a verse from the book of Deuteronomy.

And in this case that means seeking peace and stepping back and doing it on behalf of the people in Ukraine and Russia. And doing it on behalf of all people, including the hundreds of millions of people who now have less to eat as a result of the conflict.

Yes, I think so. At the end of the day, caring for Gods planet, caring for our home is a value that we all should have whether we are progressive or conservative. That was part of the reason I wrote and published Eco Bible. The environmental movement began 50 years ago. For the past 50 years, most mainstream religious groups and clergy have not gotten onboard the ecological bandwagon partly because they see it as a progressive or tree-hugger cause.

Some of my values you might describe as conservative and some of them you might describe as progressive. The environmental movement is not going to succeed to convince conservatives to be progressives. But what I think faith-based ecological activists (could do), is try to speak with conservative people about how caring for Gods creation is a religious value. Its not a left wing thing, its something that is part of our religions and that God wants of us. And to properly be a religious person in this moment of history requires that we live a more ecological lifestyle.

We need to come together. First of all, when I say strength in numbers, it means that the messaging is stronger when were together. The more that religious leaders publicly speak about this issue, along with scientists who have been speaking about this now for decades, the more I think it will be convincing.

You know if the Dalai Lama, Ecumenical Patriarch (Bartholomew), Pope Francis and Rabbi (Jonathan) Sacks, of blessed memory, came together (to discuss the climate crisis), theres a certain seriousness with which you can take the issue. These are conservative religious people who, from a spiritual place, are able to understand that something is off here. And the melting of the ice caps and the record fires and droughts and flooding these are all signals that earth is messaging to us that we need to change. Religious leaders are in agreement about that. Thats the whole idea of bringing them together.

And then similarly with the war in Ukraine, if 150 religious leaders say to Patriarch Kirill, Were calling on you to seek peace, theoretically he should listen. You know, thats the idea. They are supposed to be his peers.

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'God is life,' Rabbi Yonatan Neril on ecological conversion and the war in Ukraine - Religion News Service

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