Sacred texts and ecology

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Biblical writers relied on the metaphors of seedtime and harvest. Everybody knew how small mustard seeds were, and what it meant to winnow grain.

Modern readers of scripture, however, do not live as close to the land. This hasn't stopped a number of congregations from looking deep into sacred texts for an ethical framework in which to make decisions affecting the environment.

Last week, Jews celebrated Tu B'Shevat, an occasion that in biblical times marked the new year for the tithing of fruit. Fruit trees were so valuable that Jewish law forbade their destruction; not even an enemy's trees were to be cut down.

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The observance has evolved into a kind of Jewish Earth Day, with rabbis weighing in on the importance of preserving the earth's resources. They aren't alone. Temples and churches are learning about ways to conserve (see story, right).

Environmental activists have been derided as out of the mainstream. Churches kept to the sidelines rather than appear to endorse a political agenda. But no longer.

By delving into such religious principles as the Jewish bal tashchit, which means "do not destroy or waste," congregants have found a basis for action that transcends temporal politics.

Christians, too, are being reminded of their earthly responsibilities. An evangelical group garnered headlines when, in response to the popularity of SUVs, it started the slogan, "What would Jesus drive?" While some dismissed the question as frivolous, the Rev. Jim Ball said that before his campaign, few people thought of transportation as a moral issue.

Today it's clear that people are looking at the environment through the lens of religious teachings, and asking those moral questions.

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