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God is in the garden: a conversation with Rabbi Noah Farkas

Rabbi Noah Farkas, at Valley Beth Shalom.
Rabbi Noah Farkas, at Valley Beth Shalom.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
Rabbi Noah Farkas, at Valley Beth Shalom.
The food garden at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino has a painting as its backdrop depicting the 7 agricultural products of Israel.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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As we approach Earth Day 2013, we decided to explore the relationship between the environment and religion. I asked people from different traditions to talk about how their faith shapes their attitude towards the natural world. You'll meet them this week. We're calling the series, “God is in the garden,” after a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there."

My first conversation was with Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Noah Farkas. The rabbi tells a good story.  Actually, he says, Genesis does. In that book of the Pentateuch, Farkas notes that “God crafts this garden, and according to rabbinic tradition, when God does that, God walks Adam through the garden, and says, ‘Look how beautiful these trees are, and these plants.’” Farkas pauses. “Then he says to Adam, ‘You need to take care of them for there’s no one who’s going to come after you to repair the damage that you do.’”

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Farkas says that story has taught him that there’s a finality to the choices people make about their environment, their land, their resources. And that finality means “we have to be the steward of the place that God put us in.”

For 60 years, Valley Beth Shalom has served a large Conservative Jewish community in Encino.  The synagogue counts about 1600 families; many of them have children enrolled in its schools. Even on a weekday, every room is full. Clarinet class is in the sanctuary. Small children run around in the ballroom “gym.” Farkas leads me out to a narrow garden with food and flowers, along one wall in the classroom wing. 

“One of the primary values here,” he says, “is this idea of doing what we call gemilut hasadim, which is acts of loving kindness.” Another way to think of that, Farkas says, is social action.

At Valley Beth Shalom, that idea is developed and reinforced each year, starting in the 3rd grade. That year’s curriculum includes environmental stewardship, and weekly time cultivating the small garden.

“There’s a section of the garden that’s a partnership garden with a school in Israel, and we have the seven species native to the land of Israel. So we have a fig tree, an olive tree, grape vines, we have barley and wheat, and we have pomegranate trees.” Farkas says the Jewish people have an “endemic and organic” connection to Israel, and the plants symbolize that.

In recent years, Farkas’ interest in planting has grown beyond the synagogue’s walls. “I started organizing groups of people around the city, mostly Jews at the time, to think about green issues,” he says. Out of that has grown a nonprofit organization called Netiya, Hebrew for planting. “It comes directly from the Book of Genesis, when it says God planted a garden in Eden, that’s the word that’s used,” says Farkas.

Netiya has planted nine gardens; most of the food from those gardens goes to food banks. “We’ve created all of these educational initiatives around the gardens to bring people together to talk about the environment and to inspire people to make better food choices for themselves, for their institutions, and to fight for better food choices for those who are less fortunate,” he says.

Growing food isn’t the only way Farkas connects his faith to environmental values. “I was hearing about the change [due to climate change] that’s gonna happen in the San Fernando Valley, the number of days that it’s going to be over 95 degrees,” he says, shaking his head. UCLA’s Alex Hall wrote the groundbreaking study the rabbi is talking about. Its climate models indicate temperatures in the valley will rise four degrees, on average, by the middle of this century. 

“Someone said you better get a bigger air conditioning system,” Farkas says, cracking a smile. He thinks that’s “the wrong answer to the right question. God wouldn’t have given us the ability to cultivate the earth if he didn’t give us the option to make it better.”

For Farkas, climate change illustrates the difference between the solitary comfort that spirituality offers, and the communal. “In religion, God expects more from us than what we expect from ourselves,” he says. “We can’t become God, but we can become like God. According to our tradition, just as God has created a beautiful world that is good and rich and sacred, we have a rich and sacred responsibility to take care of that world.”

Farkas ends my visit to Valley Beth Shalom with another story, this one from the Talmud, about a man who, while walking along a road, sees a very old man planting a carob tree. “And he asks this old man, ‘why are you planting this carob tree? Don’t you know that it takes 70 years for carob trees to give fruit, before they’re mature enough?’ The old man looks the younger man in the eye, and says, ‘look over there. You see those carob trees, who do you think planted them? Just as my ancestors planted for me, I plant for the future.’”