The Fall 2021 Faculty Fellows met for the first time on Thursday, August 26, led by Rabbi Neil Blumofe, our Community Fellow. Blumofe leads Congregation Agudas Achim, a synagogue in Austin. He presented the concept of “shemittah,” a sabbatical year, a time at which routine is disrupted and the land is allowed to rest. His project—which he is approaching as a spiritual autobiography—seeks to consider shemittah within the framework of land ethics and conservation. His reflections come just before the celebration of the Jewish New Year of 5782, a shemittah year which begins on the evening of September 6th.
Blumofe sees the sabbatical year as a way to disrupt routine and as a way to give poise. He began the session by sharing photos from a recent trip he made to the western USA: open landscapes populated by bison; mountains; and glacier lakes. The two final photos showed sites that mark depletion and the destruction of land, the Minuteman National Historic Site and the Sanford Underground Research Facility, located in an abandoned gold mine. He closed the introduction with song and an invitation to contemplation taken from Rav Kook quote found in David Seidenberg’s essay on Jewish ecological thought:
“Contemplate the wonders of Creation, the divine dimension of their being, not as a dim configuration that is presented to you from the distance but as the reality in which you live. Know yourself and your world . . .”
Blumofe explained that shemittah is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible. Historically, it entailed a pause in the cultivation of land; remission of debt; and the release of enslaved and indentured persons. The shemittah year resets the economy. Private property ceases to exist: plants and animals are given reign over land, and people may access it without restriction. Those in debt are amnestied.
Fellows explored what it means for land to rest. For what purpose? Is it rested because of diminished productivity, so it can produce later? Is it rested so that it may return to some previous state? If there are multiple users of the land, who decides when it should rest? What is the vision for the land after its rest period, and who determines that?
The discussion included different ways that humans interpret land at rest. Human management of land often seeks to restore it to a previous state. Restoration implies modifications of some kind; perhaps the soil is amended, or trees are planted. The goal of restoration is to make the land function as humans think it should. Another way of “resting” land is through preservation, setting it aside and allowing nature to have its way.
Fellows suggested a third term: remediation. Remediation is not a return to pristine state. Whereas restoration is an erasure of history, remediation doesn’t pretend to erase history. It leaves us with something less than pristine. It holds the trace of history and is a reminder of that.
Many classic—and some contemporary— environmentalist and conservationist texts ignore or idealize the perspectives of indigenous and other marginalized peoples and consign them to the past. Fellows grappled with how to read such works. How are these texts considered historically and how do those conversations reverberate with current conversations? How do we think about manumission during movements of abolition? What is the place of reparations?
For Blumofe, the shemittah year provides sanctuary and allows a lessening of the hold of commodification. He understands it as a spiritual model, a perspective that is more than ours, regardless of privilege. To illustrate this, he turned to two texts, Leviticus 25:2 from the Torah, and a 2nd century commentary on that passage. The passage from Leviticus describes Moses on Mt. Sinai, receiving a message from the divine: “the land shall observe a sabbath, a sabbath of the divine.” The commentary focuses on why the concept of the sabbatical year is juxtaposed with Sinai.
Blumofe explained that the commentary asks, what does it mean to speak from a place that is Mount Sinai? It’s aspirational: Sinai is a place where everyone together was able to receive a revelation of hope and aspiration. For Blumofe, shemittah is a way of thinking about reordering, a way to look at the world and find a way through. The juxtaposition gives us a sense of how to live in the world, something to work in our everyday lives. We can also keep it ahead of us. We may not experience the shemittah, or know whose land it is, or even who we are, but we can move forward. The shemittah doesn’t just give you rest from exhaustion, it allows you to do the work.