May Day and Torah: Biblical Ecology and Economics for the 21st (or 58th) Century

May Day is coming! Two of them, actually. For there are two May Days in Western cultural tradition, one earth-centered and one social-justice-centered. In U.S. politics, these two concerns are mostly separated. But in passaages of ancient Torah that this year we read on May 4, they are unified.

One May Day is rooted in ancient pagan celebration of the spring, including Maypole dances. When I was in public elementary school, there was an annual Maypole dancing -- alongside compulsory recitation of the Christian "Lord's Prayer" and a psalm each morning. Although there were erotic overtones to the original pagan Maypole dancing as a celebration of renewed vitality in spring, there was no conscious hint of those overtones in my school.

The second May Day is rooted in the struggle of American workers beginning in the 1880s to win limits on the workweek to five days of eight hours. One apt slogan: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will." A recognition that social justice required not only decent pay and treatment for workers and their unions, but also time -- free time -- for the workers' own intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth.

Out of that history, May Day became a world-wide celebration of labor unions and Socialist parties. In the USA for the past few years, it has taken on new energy as a day to call for justice for immigrants.

Is there some subterranean -- even subversive -- connection between spring celebration of the Earth and spring celebration of work and time for rest?

One would scarcely think so from our public behavior. The two versions of May Day have remained unconnected. And in the political world, the two focuses -- social justice and healing of the Earth -- have also remained mostly segregated from each other.

Though the U.S. and the world are struggling with both economic and ecological crises, most people see them as unconnected. In the secular "social justice" world, many organizations ignore ecological issues. In the secular "environmental" world, many organizations ignore issues like disemployment or income inequality or overwork.

Even in the religious world, the most audible voices in American Christianity affirm an economics of minimal regulation of private property and competition, and minimal protection for the Earth from human exploitation.

But on Shabbat May 4, the calendar of biblical readings in Jewish tradition brings the urge toward social justice and the urge toward healing Earth together. It is as if the Torah -- after watching the alienation of two May Days from each other -- had shrugged impatiently and said: "Now here's the way to do it!"

On May 4, the traditional Torah reading is Leviticus 25 and 26. It calls for an entire year of rest for the land and its workers, every seventh year. Deuteronomy adds that in that year, everyone's debts are annulled (Deuteronomy 15:1-3). Thus the Bible sees economics and ecologics as intimately intertwined, and calls for a practice of strong, spiritually rooted regulation of both.

Leviticus calls this seventh year a Shabbat Shabbaton -- restfulness to the exponential power of Restfulness, an echo and expansion of the restful seventh day. Deuteronomy calls the year shmitah -- "release" or "non-attachment."

And Leviticus 25 goes even farther: In the year that is 7x7+1=50, all land must be redistributed into functionally equal amounts to each family and clan, so that the rich give up their surplus and the poor come into their own.

Why all this? Because, says YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, The Interbreathing of all life, "The earth is Mine. You are but sojourners, temporary visiting-settlers, with Me" (Leviticus 25: 23).

If we understand YHWH not as a Lord, a King, in the sky but as the Interbreathing that connects all life, this is literally and scientifically true. None of us "owns" where we live, what we eat. It is the weave of life -- we breathe in what the trees breathe out, the trees breathe in what we breathe out -- that keeps us alive. Not only life on the "outside" but the myriad bacteria that live inside our own guts keep us alive.

And this is not only a scientific fact but a spiritual truth. It calls us to behave toward each other with respect, concern, love -- because we cannot exist without each other.

It is also a political commitment. Because the Holy One owns all "property," says the Bible, every landholder is obligated not only to surrender surplus land once a generation and to free the land from being worked every seventh year and to annul debts owed to the lenders in that year.

Still more: In every year all along, each landholder must allow the landless to glean grain, olives and grapes from their fields and orchards; and each must pay tithes -- an income tax of 10 percent -- to support the poor and the Levites, who had no land.

Recently an American politician called taxes "robbery" from private property. That worldview assumes each one of us has "private property" and that someone is stealing "our" property if we agree as a community to insist that the affluent share some of their abundance for the common good. That decision to share for the common good, agreed on democratically, is what we call "taxes." Calling such taxes "robbery" is exactly the opposite of the Biblical teaching.

And the sense that all "property" is really shared not only with other human beings but also with the soil, the seed, the rain, the rivers, the myriad sorts of animals and plants and microbes -- with YHWH, the Breath that connects us all -- is actually to be affirmed and made a practical practice by the rhythm of restfulness, through the sacred seventh day, seventh month, seventh year, 50th year.

Torah warns with horrifying images that if the people refuse to allow these pulsations of restfulness, the land will rest anyway -- through famine, drought, plague, exile (Leviticus 26, especially 13-16, 33-35, 43-44).

So Torah calls for neither unending "economic growth" nor economic stagnation -- but for what might be called a "pulsating economy." A sustainable society. Internally sustainable, since the rage of the poor and the arrogance of the rich are both replaced with sharing. "Externally" sustainable, since the arrogance of human beings (adam) and the exhaustion of the Earth (adamah) are both replaced by sharing.

Industrial modernity rejected this whole model of society. Whether it called itself "capitalist" or "socialist," it focused on unending economic "growth," purchased by burning fossil fuels and by taking over more and more territory for human beings in ways that have led to the speed-up extinction of other life forms.

For about 300 years, larger and larger, deeper and deeper parts of the Earth have been allowed no Shabbat. Indeed, Shabbat itself has come to seem a waste of time. A waste of time that could have been put into more intense production.

We have taken great pride in the achievements of industrial technology: cures for diseases, swift global communication, the production of so much food as to make possible the reproduction of 7 billion humans (going on nine).

But no Shabbat. And so at last, we have reached the point described in Leviticus 26:

  • Long, long lives for some billions, wretched starvation and disease for other billions.
  • Unheard-of wealth for a tiny few.
  • Extinctions of species at a rate unknown in all of the existence of the human race -- indeed, since the Great Asteroid of 65 million years ago.
  • Extremely dangerous changes in the very chemistry and climate of the planet.
  • Can we, should we, out of devout commitment to the Bible "abolish" the industrial technology that has, unchecked, led us to the edge of the precipice? No!
Truly devout commitment to the biblical vision calls us now to a profound question, perhaps the most profound in human history: Can industrial-age and information-age technologies with all their benefits and dangers be reshaped to fit into the Bible's vision of abundance shared by humans and with our sister life-forms, a sustainable society, a rhythm of restfulness, a pulsating economy, a respectful ecological consciousness and conscience, a constant awareness of the Interbreathing of all life?

For a fuller unfolding of these ideas, see my book, "Godwrestling -- Round 2" (Jewish Lights, 1986). See especially one chapter at .