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Judaism and global climate change - opinion

By MICHAEL M. COHEN
Photo by: Margot Richard/Unsplash

A discussion about Jewish responsibility to preserve our planet’s environment, when too many people these days deny global climate change, begins with a pillar of biblical Judaism: its stance against idolatry. 

Why does the Bible have such a strong negative attitude toward idolatry? 

At its core, monotheistic Judaism sees idolatry as a narrow outlook with a limited understanding of the world and reality. It sees idolatry, its locus a god in a thing, as a reductionist theology running counter to the core of Jewish belief of how the world and universe are constructed. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan teaches, “The unity of God, or monotheism, implies that all things that exist do not constitute a multiverse but a universe, and that the universe is so constituted that by conforming to that which makes it a universe, particularly the cosmic polarity of independence and interdependence, people and nations can achieve fulfillment or salvation of their total nature” (The Ten Commandments Today, p. 5). 

In other words, monotheism is about connecting the complexity of the dots of existence.

What does this have to do with global climate change? When people say our planet has experienced other periods of extreme climate change, they are absolutely correct. From that scientific and historical fact, they come to the conclusion that our present global climate change is nothing to worry about. On that score, they are dangerously wrong. While we have seen dramatic changes in the environment in the past, the era we are in now, unlike previous eras of environmental change, beyond any scientific doubt is the result of excessive human activity. As the Psalmist observes of idols and idolaters, “eyes they have, but they see not” (Psalms 115:5). We are called upon to see the unambiguous effects of human activity upon the changes taking place during this era of global environment change; failing to do that is a form of idolatry.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

This collective responsibility stems from a profound understanding and belief that the world is on loan to us from God: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1). There is a difference between how we take care of something on loan and something we own. With the former, we are more careful. That should be our approach to the earth; it is on loan to us.

The Torah opens during the week of Creation, where God sees the diversity of everything before humans were created, and calls it good. In that context, the environment has an intrinsic value in itself, which is not based on our human needs. When humans are created, God calls it “very good,” not because everything was created for us, but because the totality of diversity, with humans being the last piece of the puzzle, is “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Relatedly, Noah is remembered as a righteous person who saves the diversity of the animals. At the end of the story, God gives Noah a sign of God’s covenant with humanity, the rainbow, which is also a symbol of diversity. 

This is followed by the incident of the Tower of Babel. Most people read the story as if the babel of languages was a punishment, but another reading says it was a blessing. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who grew up in Poland at the beginning of the last century, said that if you look at Babel, it is a place where everyone speaks one language, and the whole society is focused on one thing. He says it resembles a fascist society, where the individual and diversity are worthless. In Leibowitz’s reading of the text, the babel of languages at the end of the account is a corrective step back to how things had been (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31) and how they are supposed to be.

We know that the more diversity within the environment, the healthier it is. Coral reefs and rain forests are so important to the health of the earth’s environment because of their immense diversity. We note that diversity plays a significant role four times in the first 11 chapters of the Torah! The message is clear: diversity is the key in which the symphony of life on earth was written in. Preserving and protecting the diversity of the earth’s environment are essential and should guide our decisions and actions vis-à-vis the environment. 

WITHIN THE rhythm of the Jewish year, Shabbat comes along as a weekly reminder of our relationship with the environment. Environmental theologian and activist Rabbi Ellen Bernstein teaches, “The Sabbath, the crown of creation, is the day that people stop working, and nature is left untouched (one-seventh of the year). The rabbis derived a no-work ethic for the Sabbath based in the 39 categories of work necessary to build the Temple.... The Sabbath regulations are designed to give people an experience of all of creation as a unity of which they are a part – not as a thing to be possessed.... The Sabbath provides a self-correcting mechanism when the whole land community stops, rests and resets.”

When it comes to the responsibility for the Land of Israel, we are reminded that while the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am said, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews,” one could also say, “More than the Jews have kept the Land of Israel, the Land of Israel has kept the Jews.” We know that connection to the land contributed in very important ways, both to Jewish identity and Jews remaining Jewish through 2,000 years of exile. All this is to say that our connection to the Land of Israel, our connection to the environment of the Land of Israel, is of paramount importance to Judaism and Zionism. 

Now that we have returned to the land, what do we have to say for ourselves? Yes, we have succeeded in so many ways beyond our wildest imagination. But there has also been a price to pay in the damage we have inflicted on the land and the environment. Our connection to that soil, one of the key elements to Jewish survival for almost 2,000 years of exile, is a reciprocal relationship. More must be done to “guard and protect” it (Genesis 2:15).

At the end of the day, as we say at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, “Nature knows no borders,” meaning that our shared environment does not distinguish between Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians. Such an outlook invites all of us to look at the land not from the perspective of geopolitics, but from a different mindset. 

Abraham, the father of monotheism, understands the fragility of our connection to the land and the responsibilities that come with that connection, for himself and his descendants, Jew and non-Jew. Abraham, having arrived in the Land of Israel, describes himself as a “resident alien” (Gen. 23:3). The Land of Israel – and the entire world, for that matter – is on loan from God. 

That orientation requires humility, forethought and a sense of environmental justice, if we are to effectively repair our global climate. ■

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