Debate | Is There a Jewish Responsibility to Fight Climate Change? | Arthur Waskow
Is there a Jewish responsibility to fight climate change?
Yes! With an exclamation point! The scientific consensus that we face serious climate challenges is overwhelming, and our responsibility for the earth goes back to the origins of the Jewish people. The biblical tradition, much more than the later rabbinic tradition, was rooted in the people’s connection with the earth. They were shepherds and farmers. Many aspects of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, are actually about what it means to have a functional versus a failed relationship with the earth. The story of the Garden of Eden is the story in which God, speaking for Reality, says, “There is amazing, wonderful abundance here, eat of it, enjoy it. Just exercise a little self-restraint!” And the humans can’t restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes. And at the end of the story, Reality, or God, says, “Now you’ll have to work every day of your life with sweat pouring down your face to get barely enough to eat.” It’s like what happened in the Gulf of Mexico 11 years ago, when the lack of self-restraint by the oil company cost the lives of workers and poisoned much of the life of the Gulf.
Later there’s another story that’s more redemptive. When Pharaoh enslaves human beings, the result of his cruelty is a series of what we would now call ecological disasters. The worst hailstorm in Egyptian history! Undrinkable water! And after the liberation comes the story of the Jews in the desert receiving manna—and Shabbat. It says Earth is fruitful and abundant if you restrain yourself in a new way—joyfully.
What Jewish principles should be governing our policy choices?
Joyful self-restraint is a big one. The idea of Shabbat expresses this value. In Leviticus 25, the Torah teaches that every seventh year the whole land must rest. Every shepherd knows that if you let the sheep eat the same meadow every time, the meadow dies and the sheep die. The shmitta year lets the earth rest, and the people rest, too: They get relief from their debts. Right after that, Leviticus 26 tells what happens if you won’t let the earth rest. It comes right out of the climate science of this era: You’ll have plagues, droughts, famines, floods, mass exile.
Later, in the post-biblical era, we lost that connection with the land, so we focus on social justice. But when all life on Earth is at stake, social justice can’t be separated from earth justice, ecological sanity. That’s where we are now, and the Jewish people are obligated to create a synthesis of the biblical focus on the earth and the rabbinical focus on society. We have a Jewish as well as a human responsibility.
What should we do right now?
At The Shalom Center, we’ve been urging congregations to create neighborhood solar energy co-ops. First, it saves money on electric bills—even more money if you do it cooperatively. Second, it brings the community together with a shared purpose that doesn’t have to be limited to the solar installation. It creates the possibility of a joyful community, not a grudging and despairing community.
What will earth look like in 50 years?
If we don’t act, it’ll be denuded. There was just a report from the UN that we’re facing extinction of a million species, the sixth great extinction in Earth history. If humanity survives, it will be in a terribly reduced state. We depend on this whole weave of life around us. The real existential threat to the State of Israel is that it’s being squeezed between the sea and the desert: The Negev is moving closer, and the Mediterranean is rising. If South America and Central America become unlivable, it will take a lot more than a wall to keep refugees out. That’ll happen in the Middle East, too. Human beings can’t live in a continuous 120-degree temperature. It will be like Leviticus 26. And it doesn’t need to be! The proposed Green New Deal is the closest thing we have to what the shmitta year was—a combination of social justice and ecological sanity. People say, “Oh, the Green New Deal is a dream.” Well, as Theodor Herzl said, if you will it, it is no dream.
Do any of the proposed climate change policies pose a danger to the economy?
They certainly pose a danger to the economy as it is. But that’s because it needs to be transformed. When we talk about renewable energy, the coal miners and the oil industry say, “What about us?” Those questions will have to be answered if it’s going to be politically possible—never mind morally or ethically—to do what’s needed. The concept of the Green New Deal is that it will take a lot of work—with hands and brains—to transform the economy, and we need to reward that work with well-paid jobs. Look, when the United States entered World War II, FDR essentially said that we’d have to destroy the auto industry by converting it to make tanks. I grew up with a victory garden in the backyard; all over the country, people grew food in their backyards so that the U.S. economy could be transformed to meet the needs of the war. But those wartime changes saved the economy by creating a new one. So there’s no question we’ll have to have a different economy. Can we get there in a decent and just way, without screwing people, including coal miners and gas refinery workers? That’s the challenge.
Some of the people who say fighting climate change is going to destroy the economy are those who now benefit to the tune of billions of dollars a year from the economy as it is. What they don’t say is that their economy is destroying itself and will take everybody else with it. We’ll have to create a new one to make this one work at all.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder of The Shalom Center. He is the author of 24 books, including Godwrestling–Round 2.