Will it Redeem Our World?

“… seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).

The greatest of all architects was not Frank Lloyd Wright, but God. His creation was intended to be good; the ability to create has been given as a good gift to mankind, his created ones. It is not difficult to find in the Bible evidence that God intends for there to be a continual effort to both repair and redeem his world. Yet it is evident that the care and utilization of resources to both build and sustain God’s creation often results in exactly the opposite, where precious resources are diminished or destroyed.

The relationship between the earth and its human earthmovers has given birth to sustainable “green” architecture that is designed to “take less from the earth and give more to people.”[1] Resources are to be renewed and restored. Energy practices are to become more efficient and conserved. Earth’s elements are to be utilized, but not used up.

In the Jewish world, efforts are being made to wed secular concern for the environment with more eternal values, where protecting the environment is viewed as a mitzvah. Stewardship of the earth is considered to go hand-in-hand with being Jewish. Today, many synagogues and other centers of Jewish life are being built with this sacred call to sustainability in view.

One such synagogue is the Jewish Reform Congregation in southwest Chicago, a sustainably built edifice designed to connect to its environment and enhance the spiritual life of its congregation. As one member wrote:

When I enter the sanctuary to pray, the large windows reveal the trees outside as they weather the changing seasons. As I witness them from this sacred space, my connection to them is unavoidable. Sacred space should touch you in a way that leaves you transformed … touched, I seek to connect with those around me. Transformed, I seek to act.[2]

Other synagogues across the country are building or renovating their facilities to be green-friendly. The Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, was recently constructed with recycled and sustainable materials; the ark boasts above it a solar-powered ner tamid, the eternal flame. Rabbi Richard Jacobs felt it was a “moral imperative” to build an environmentally conscious building.[3]

Another example is Beth David Synagogue in San Luis Obispo, California. There are 194 windows and 10 skylights, as well as non-toxic paint, recycled newspaper insulation and hand-troweled straw bale walls (a material made of bales of straw from oats, wheat, rice and rye).

The Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois was re-opened in 2008 after undergoing massive remodeling and reconstruction. Not only did the congregation revamp the building, but they also established green living policies, set up docent-led tours of the facility and created a lay-led environmental task force to work with the congregation on how to live sustainably.

Along the same lines, some Israeli kibbutzim have established the Green Kibbutz Group. Kibbutz Lotan, one of the greenest in the group, has constructed its adobe walls with old tires. The kibbutz is also exploring the use of sloping stable geodesic domes to make significant use of renewable resources in buildings. In a concept created by German mathematician Walter Bauersfeld in 1922, the domes are constructed in an exoskeleton of triangles.

Renewal, Repair and Redemption

Perhaps two of the most momentous choices that any of us will make are the kind of house we live in and the place in which we worship. As Jews, we recognize that issues of sustainability are especially valid and important when it comes to protecting or insuring the renewability of resources for future generations of our people.

Tikkun olam stresses the healing or repair of this present world.  Redemption stresses the healing of the soul, as well as insuring a place in the world to come.

Yet all repair—whether it is of shoes, relationships or the environment (for example, through sustainable architecture) is temporary, no matter how tenacious the glue of our efforts. The world is decaying, not just because forests are being cut down and the carbon footprint is encroaching at our doorsteps. The world is meant to decay, or perhaps, is destined for it. Even the best and most qualified efforts to sustain our environment must be tempered by the realization that sustainability will not bring permanence. The world is “continually passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).

What, if anything, does redemption of the world mean in relationship to how we build our homes or our houses of worship—or our lives, for that matter? Redemption and sustainability are not the same in that the former is a buying back by means of a costly sacrifice; the latter stresses repair, which can go up and down, back and forth, and is affected by the winds and wiles of nature and time. Redemption is permanent; renewal requires vigilant maintenance.

The most significant edifice of Jewish life—the Temple—provided the setting in which we could be assured of something greater than sustainability. It was the most “truly green” of all Jewish sites, because within its Holy Place people were more than repaired; they were redeemed.

The Temple no longer stands, but the truest of all Jewish architects—the Messiah Yeshua—insured our renewal, repair AND redemption: “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption”  (Hebrews 9:12).


[1] Barnett, D. L. and W. D. Browning, A Primer on Sustainable Building (Rocky Mountain Institute: Snowmass, CO, 1995), p. 2.

[2] Carole Caplan, “Building the Sacred Inside and Out: Green Architecture for Houses of Worship,” April 26, 2011

[3] “Westchester Reform Temple Awarded LEED Certification,” July 4, 2011