A king is subservient to the field”: President Trump would have done well to heed these words from Ecclesiastes, before proclaiming his attention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, signed by 195 nations. Neither he, nor his children, are above the laws of nature. If global warming spirals, America First and the fossil fuels industry will also be cooked.
Why should we as Jews care?
The reasons are rooted in past and future, faith and fact. The Torah regards us as trustees of God’s world, enjoined to “serve and preserve it”. We have authority over other species not to demonstrate mastery, but responsibility. The much-quoted midrash, “Do not destroy My world, for, if you do, there is none to put it right after you”, translates well into the contemporary slogan, “ There’s No Planet B”.
In his masterly encyclical Laudato Si, the leading spiritual document on climate justice, Pope Francis draws repeatedly on the Hebrew Bible, in his reminder that we are “dust of the earth”, breathe its air, are trustees of God’s creation and are especially responsible towards the poor.
In a recent letter to The Times, leaders of all faiths affirmed that “caring for our planet is a sacred responsibility. We are answerable to God, each other and our children’s children for the wellbeing of this earth.”
This takes us to the future. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that a rise in global temperatures above two per cent centigrade will cause uncontrollable warming, threatening the very viability of life across the earth. The recommended figure for the rise we should not exceed is 1.5 per cent.
We have no right to take unprecedented risks with the future of humanity’s children. The Talmud discusses the case of a person who runs risks most others have the humility to avoid: God asks, “Who’s this man who considers himself so superior?” and checks out all his sins.
Even those sceptical about how much of global warming is caused by human activity should agree that it must be wiser to leave our children a cleaner earth, free from toxic air and water, the legacy of fossil fuels and the ever more hazardous processes needed to extract them. A world supplied by energy generated from renewable, non-polluting sources has a better, richer, more just future.
Doubters, too, cannot ignore that issue of global justice. Already significantly greater portions of the earth are uninhabitable or dangerous, due to more frequent drought or flooding. It is widely thought that lack of rainfall was one of the causes of the civil war in Syria, causing people to abandon ancestral villages and head for increasingly impoverished towns. Hundreds of thousands are now refugees.
If global environmental degradation continues, ever more people will have to live on ever less land. Who says we’ve got the right to be secure, while others dehydrate, drown or flee? Who knows when floods may strike us?
Even if there is only a possibility that alterations in human behaviour can prevent further deterioration of the habitability of the earth, Jewish law, with its insistence that we must live by the commandments and not die by them, requires us to pursue such changes.
Across the world many Jewish organisations are doing precisely this. Tzedek supports projects focused on agricultural resilience, like DA, a grassroots organization from West Bengal. When floods made it impossible to grow rice, Tzedek equipped women farmers with the skills for eco-friendly flood-tolerant paddy cultivation.
World Jewish Relief develops resilience in communities struck by environmental catastrophe, helping people to rebuild homes able to withstand future natural disasters and working with farmers to grow crops better capable of resisting damage.
Israel’s foreign aid organisation Mashav contributes to “global efforts to achieve sustainable development” by exporting high tech skills in such challenging areas as combating desertification and adaptation to climate change.
In America, Hazon has transformed Jewish awareness of our relationship with the soil. Many synagogues, such as Bonei Shalom in Boulder, Colorado, have developed links with farmers, supporting local producers and at the same time creating cross-faith ties of friendship and understanding.
Here in the UK my congregation is part of a cross-communal group developing Eco-Synagogue. Adopted with the support of Eco-Church, which has involved over 500 Christian institutions in under two years, it will offer shuls an online survey with practical resources to assess, and alter, our environmental impact in every domain: how we teach and preach; heat and light our buildings; and how we can change the lives of our congregants and local communities.
The programme has a competitive edge, with bronze, silver and goals medals for proven improvement. Further allies in environmental change are Big Green Jewish and The Jewish Vegetarian Society.
Judaism instructs us to be “co-partners with God in creation”. If we do nothing, but continue the same as before, we become co-partners instead in destruction. This is a betrayal of our faith, our planet and our children.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism