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Seven Jewish values for the ecological challenge

Traditional values have plenty to teach us about dealing with contemporary climate change.
Fred Scherlinder Dobb
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Sun dial in the form of a star of David

Illustration: Avi Katz

Published: 4 October 2019

Last updated: 5 April 2024

OUR ACTIONS, AND THEIR consequences, endure. Our iniquity poisons the wells from which our own great grandchildren will yet drink. That notion is no metaphor, or figure of speech; it’s both Torah and science. Throughout our holy days we recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun (God, God, Ruler who is Compassionate and Kind).  Depending on how you count, that final attribute, v’nakeh, makes just 12.

What’s missing from the original quote (Ex. 34:7) is quite the opposite:  v’nakeh LO yinakeh. And God wipes the slate clean?  No, God doesn’t wipe it clean!  God passes the guilt of parents onto their children; their grandchildren; and onto the third and fourth generation.

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, lasts, on average, a couple decades. This is bad enough. Carbon dioxide endures for a century.  Yes, the coal burned for a moment’s power in Paris or Perth and the petrol consumed to get once around Pittsburgh or Petach Tikva will wreak atmospheric havoc long after we’re gone.

It’s just not sustainable, or just – but that’s the scientific reality in which we’re all complicit. Changes will require moral clarity and spiritual fortitude. Enter Judaism.

Changes will require moral clarity and spiritual fortitude. Enter Judaism.

Jews tend to be pro-science. The Talmudic rabbis who shaped Jewish law sought secular knowledge and empiricism for their rulings. Medieval masters were agronomists (Rashi), doctors (Maimonides), and astronomers (Ralbag, Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon). We thank the maker of the natural world and bring our God-given intellect to its study.

So where are we now, as Jews, on the defining challenge of our times? In the beginning, God announced the interconnected Creation project as tov me’od, (very good, Gen. 1:31) – yet in today’s clear scientific consensus, we are now remaking the biosphere in our image. Our fossil fuel addiction, and the concomitant spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide, shows no sign of abating.

The good news: We can still make a difference. Here are seven key Jewish values for this ecologically imperilled era:

Social Justice (Tzedek): Many of us still feel removed from the most direct consequences of the climate crisis.  The poor, who can least afford the needed adaptions, are the first and worst-hit victims of climate devastation.

If we’re serious about feeding the hungry (see worsening droughts and floods), loving the stranger-immigrant (growing numbers of climate refugees), and protecting the vulnerable (rising sea levels), we’d best curb our carbon, pronto.

Creation Care (Shmirat ha’Teva): Martin Buber said: “Love of the Creator and love of that which God has created are, finally, one and the same.”  To love Creation is “to serve and to protect” it (l’ovdah ul’shomrah, Gen. 2:15); until we emit net zero carbon, we fail this key calling.

Noah was the first endangered species activist, and the rainbow covenant was with all life on Earth, yet countless species go extinct on our watch, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Amazon to our own backyards.

If we’re serious about feeding the hungry, loving the stranger-immigrant (growing numbers of climate refugees), and protecting the vulnerable (rising sea levels), we’d best curb our carbon, pronto.

Humility (Anavah):  In the Mussar (ethical analysis) stream of Jewish thought, we seek to strengthen our own attributes. Here, humility looms large. Do we take up the right amount of space? Collectively, humans now take up far more than we should; the rest of Creation suffers as a result.

Psalm 24:1 couldn’t be clearer: “The Earth is God’s and the fulness thereof” – God’s, not ours. And Deuteronomy 11, also recited as the Shema’s second verse, warns that if we turn away from what’s right and godly, we “will speedily be evicted from the good land.”

Frugality (Kimutz): A more obscure Mussar attribute, frugality, or thrift, is not just financial but ecological. Deut. 20 forbids cutting down even an enemy’s fruit trees in wartime, which undergirds the law of Bal Tashchit, that we should waste nothing. Not even fuel.

The Talmud’s tractate Shabbat 67b has us use either naphtha or olive oil, so different lamps burn more efficiently, which applies just as well to today’s internal combustion engines. “Thou shalt not waste,” 19th Century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said, is “the first and most general call of God.”  We must heed that call.

Life (Chaim): Tradition places pikuach nefesh, the very possibility of saving a life – even when it might not succeed; even when experts disagree – above nearly every other mitzvah (commandment). Today, aware that climate is a life-and-death matter, this core Jewish value puts life before most anything else which props up an untenable status quo.

The Precautionary Principle (Ze’hirut): Most compellingly, we must practice intelligent risk management, and take all reasonable precautions. Deut. 22:8 says: “When you build a new house, put a parapet around its roof – that you don’t bring blood-guilt upon your house, lest someone fall from it.”

Don’t argue over the roof’s angle; don’t delay over the parapet’s height; don’t obfuscate until injuries and deaths overwhelm the industry-funded “studies” claiming that parapets aren’t necessary; just build the darned parapet.  Let it be paramount.

Finally, Shabbat.  On the day of rest, we not only refrain from making or doing, we focus on being and relating. We find greatest meaning when we step out of the rat race of production and consumption, say dayenu (what we have is enough for us), and declare “armistice in our economic struggle with [one another] and the forces of nature” (AJ Heschel, The Sabbath).  Then, and only then, can we begin to make the world livable, unto the third and fourth generation.

About the author

Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, Maryland. He chairs the US Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and serves on the boards of Interfaith Power and Light, and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

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