Let’s think big. Shabbat can save the planet

Rabbi Julian Sinclair and Nigel Savage argue the case for a Jewish response to climate change


There is a strong scientific consensus that humanly-caused climate change is real. It is already contributing to flooding in Bangladesh and drought in Mali. Alaskan villagers have become the world’s first climate-change refugees: tragically, they will not be the last. The human and planetary costs of our extravagant behaviour are becoming clearer to us and the prospect is alarming.

Environmental challenges are today at the top of the public policy agenda in most Western countries. But why is environmentalism still a marginal concern in Jewish thought and practice?

You need read no further than the first two chapters of Genesis to learn that, according to the Torah, creation is good, diversity in creation is to be cherished, and human beings are charged with the responsibility of actively maintaining and conserving life on earth. Such theological and textual justifications for Jewish environmental action have been around for a long time. So why aren’t we already parking our Priuses around the corner from our wind-powered synagogues?

When Jewish environmentalism has attempted to provide further religious mandate for environmental responsibility, it has often focused on sources and practices that were peripheral to Jewish life. Some of the frequently quoted rationales include: ba’al taschit , the prohibition on needless destruction, hilchot shekeinim, laws regulating relations between neighbours, and tza’ar baalei chayim, avoiding cruelty to animals.

These resources within Judaism are certainly authentic and valuable repositories of ecological teaching. However, emphasising relatively marginal facets of the tradition has limited their popular appeal.

Environmental concern must now be grounded in sources and practices central to Jewish life and consciousness. We need to restore an understanding of the precious ecological wisdom carried by many everyday Jewish practices.

Take Shabbat as one example. (One could equally well consider kashrut). We need to recover the ecological value of Shabbat as a day to step back from shopping, manufacturing, flying, driving, and technological manipulation of the world. The ability to set limits on human exploitation of the world is a crucial check on environmental destruction that Western culture lacks and which Jewish tradition possesses.

We need to develop ways for Jews who currently observe Shabbat to deepen their sense of its ecological significance, and for Jews who don’t currently keep Shabbat in a halachic sense to explore aspects of Shabbat observance as an ecological value.

The practical accomplishments of the Jewish environmental movement over the last 20 years are minor partly because environmentalism has never been seen as a central Jewish concern, and partly because we are merely 0.2 per cent of the world’s population. If every Jew in the world stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow, it would have less direct impact on global carbon emissions than decommissioning a dozen or so Chinese coal-fired power stations.

So why should we act? If the arsenal of Jewish sources and ethical arguments marshalled so far have not moved the Jewish community, what can motivate us? Firstly, it is good for us as individuals. Over-consumption has not noticeably made us any happier. Environmental concerns may prompt us to eat more simply and locally, to drive less and walk more, to get on our bikes, to live closer together, and so on. These things are good for us now and not just for future generations.

Secondly, it is good for Jewish life. Some of the sharpest growth in the American Jewish community in the past few years has come from a wide range of new environmental initiatives. If you have not heard of these, check them out these online, for starters: Adamah (Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Centre); Canfei Nesharim; Jewish Farm School; Kayam (Pearlstone Retreat Centre); Hazon Shalom Centre; Teva Learning Centre.

What most of these programmes have in common is a novel combination of hands-on environmental action, outdoor experience and Jewish learning. This has brought thousands of unaffiliated Jews back into the community; Jews who are inspired by a vision of Judaism that includes healing the world.

Finally, Jewish environmentalism is good for Israel. Shai Agassi’s electric car initiative, and Yosef Abramowitz’s Arava Power Company are among dozens of world-leading Israeli clean-technology enterprises. The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Heschel Centre for Environmental Leadership have shown how environmentalism can also help to build peace.

It is true that, by ourselves, we cannot halt climate change. But we are not by ourselves: that is true for each of us as individuals, and it is true as a community. Climate change turns out to be an opportunity to build bridges and alliances with other faith groups, to discover that we share a reverence for creation and an obligation to take care of it.

The Torah requires us to take assiduous precautionary measures to prevent the needless loss of human life. The archetype for this requirement is the commandment to build a protective parapet around the roof of your house to prevent people from falling off and hurting themselves (Deuteronomy 22:8).

If the best available scientific evidence shows that human actions are causing climate change that is likely to lead to massive loss of life, then the Torah requires us to take whatever action we can to avert that threat. This is so, even if there is still a small measure of doubt about the science. Given the immense risks and dangers of delay, the precautionary principle derived from the mitzvah to build a parapet requires that we take action now.

“You are not required to complete the task, but neither can you desist” — the famous words from 2,000 years ago — turns out to be the best advice for responding. We have a moral obligation to do what we can, trusting that we are part of a much broader awakening of concern for the Earth. And doing the right thing may bring also unsuspected rewards.

Nigel Savage, director of Hazon, American Jewry’s largest environmental organisation, and Rabbi Julian Sinclair, co-founder of Jewish Climate Initiative, are discussing how to put ecological responsibility into practice at a meeting of Jewish groups in London today

    Last updated: 4:51pm, May 8 2009