Climate change is a Jewish issue

Climate change is a Jewish issue

Rabbi Lawrence Troster

his was inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel, "The Meaning of This Hour," in: Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), pp. 145-151. Heschel originally delivered his essay in 1938 to a conference of Quaker leaders in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.

Now the Lord said to Abram, "Get you out of your country," (Genesis 1′:1) … Said Rabbi Isaac: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. He said, "Is it possible for the building to lack a manager?" The owner of the building looked out and said, "I am the owner of the building." Similarly, because Abraham our father said "Is it possible that the world is without a manager?" the Holy Blessed One looked out and said to him, "I am the Owner of the World." (Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

Earth Day is usually a time for celebration, a time to find the positive ways to reconnect with the natural world. In the many years that I have been speaking and writing about the Jewish view of the environment, I have tried not to sound too pessimistic. I have tried to show that opening our eyes to the awe and wonder of Creation enriches our spirituality. This is still true but now there is an urgency that cannot be ignored. Climate change is happening now and it is no longer a question of if it will occur but how bad will it be if we do not change our behavior. Scientists tell us we may be reaching a point of no return.

Will we finally listen? The world is on fire; rainforests are being burnt down. Practically every year is among the hottest on record. Oceans are warming, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, permafrost is thawing, wildfires are increasing; hurricanes are more frequent and powerful; ice shelves are collapsing; droughts are lingering longer, tropical diseases are spreading north, coral reefs are bleaching and dying; exotic species are invading other ecosystems, causing the extinction of thousands of species each year, and killing fish stocks; coastlines are eroding; and more and more nations do battle over increasingly scarce resources.

The world is on fire, and we may ask, "Who is the Owner and who is the manager?" God is calling out to us to and demanding why we have set the world ablaze. We look around to find out whom else there is to blame, but there are no demons other than us, unmaking Creation and turning it back into Chaos. Increasingly, we can see the future coming: a world in which the Order of Creation will have been overturned, leaving a wretched mess for future generations.

God’s voice has cried to us from the forests and oceans, but it has been drowned out in the noise of our traffic. We have not even heard in our synagogues and homes. We have closed our ears to the songs of Creation even as we gorge ourselves with plenty. As the damage grows, as the life of Creation becomes weaker and thinner, the voice of God will become fainter and fainter.

We may have once been ignorant, but we now we have the full knowledge of what we do. In our every day lives, we have worshipped consumption and gluttony, selfishness and convenience, and have obeyed no law but our unquenchable appetite.

The meaning of this hour is that we as Jews must act.

Why must Jews care about the environmental crisis? First of all, because we are human beings and climate change affects all humanity. This is a democratic crisis: There will be no place to hide from it. Secondly, Jews live mostly in developed countries, which proportionally use a greater amount of resources than the rest of the world. For reasons of tzedek ("righteousness/justice/equity"), we should support environmental justice. Lastly, it is in our best interest as supporters of the State of Israel that the world should wean itself from carbon-based energy sources.

Will we finally be moved? Will we finally reduce our consumption of carbon fuel? Will we finally give up our large cars and SUV’s? Will we demand that the government create a Manhattan-like project for the development of alternative energy sources? The power to do all this is in our hands. We only lack the will.

I have been for the last two years involved with various projects meant to help synagogues and rabbis green their communities. Some might think that this is only a small gesture, not accounting to much in the overall effort to curb greenhouse gases. But religious institutions can become rallying points for change, for hearing the prophetic voices that call out to us. They can and must become models of conservation and energy efficiency, inspiring in this great spiritual change that is coming in humankind.

Let future generations not curse us for our greed and wanton destruction of Creation and for our failing to preserve what the process of Creation took millions of years to generate. We should not spend our lives hunting for trivial satisfactions while God waits for us to repair and redeem the world. We have not survived so that we may waste Creation in vulgar vanities.

God is crying out from the burning world, "I am the Owner. Where is the manager?"