Torah law demands belief in climate change

Torah law demands belief in climate change

Regardless of whether you choose to believe in the science behind climate change and its disastrous effects on our planet (surveys show that one out of every five Americans believe it to be “fake news”), Jewish law insists that we must believe in the science just in case. It also requires us to act on that belief in every proactive way possible.

Not only was 2023 the hottest year on record, but the world’s weather last year was the worst it has been in a number of other important ways.

Prolonged, intense droughts hit regions of Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America, often fueling devastating wildfires, including in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Unusually heavy rainfall triggered widespread and at times unprecedented flooding events in Asia, Africa, and Australia. Strong tropical storms and hurricanes devastated coastal areas worldwide.

Record-breaking heat caused ice sheets and glaciers to melt. Sea levels continued to rise. (In fact, the sea level has risen faster in the last 124 years than it did since Noah’s ark settled once again on dry land.) The extreme heat increased the risk of heat stress, dehydration, and heart and respiratory diseases among humans and contributed significantly to the spread of infectious diseases, particularly those transmitted by mosquitoes.

That all pales in comparison, however, to these two statistics: As many as 5 million people died around the world last year due to either excessive heat or excessive cold, while another 7,000 or so died because of extreme weather-related events, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and the like.

More than 61,000 people died in Europe alone in 2023, where historic heatwaves often pushed temperatures well above 100°F in many places. Heatwaves also wreaked havoc across multiple continents. At least 30,000 people apparently died here in the U.S. last year for that reason, although a final tally has not been released as yet.

Weather-related deaths are increasing. From 2020 through 2023, for example, 20.9 million people died because it was either too hot or too cold, Another 32,500 people died in extreme weather-related events.

As of today, when 2024 only begins its third month, the deaths are continuing unabated. Nearly 100 people have died in the U.S. alone since January 1 because of weather-related events. During the week of February 4, 123 people died in Chile, for example, because of a huge forest fire brought on in large part by an extreme heat wave.

That week, a 162-mile-per-hour wind hit Ward Mountain in California. For several weeks leading up to that event, historic downpours resulted in hundreds of mudslides in southern and northern regions of the Golden State, as well as deadly flooding and overfilled reservoirs.

California, in fact, has seen so much rain that a normally bone-dry salt flat in Death Valley National Park now has a lake running through it deep enough for kayaking. The 2024 “water year,” as hydrologists call it, begins annually on October 1 and runs through September 30. Los Angeles has already received a year’s worth of rain in the first five months of the “2024 water year,” with seven more months to go.

This is a small part of the picture, mainly from just the first six weeks of 2024. There have been other extraordinary weather events in the three weeks since then, and calendar 2024 still has 10 more months to go. Last week, AccuWeather meteorologists expressed “serious and growing concerns” about the likelihood that we will see a supercharged hurricane season that begins in June.

The amount of heat stored in the ocean’s upper layers also reached a record high last year, which helps explain why storms are becoming so much more intense and destructive. The warmer the oceans are, the more energy they provide for these storms. That heat also contributes to the dangerous rise in sea levels.

Naysayers notwithstanding, we are in the midst of a very severe climate crisis.

Climate change, its causes (including the huge human contribution) and its effects are real. A 2021 Cornell University study found that more than 99.9 percent of the 88,125 relevant climate-related reports researchers studied agree that this is a fact. Unless we get a handle on that climate crisis — and soon — we are likely to see more frequent and more extreme weather events over the next 50 years. As many as 200 million more people may die from these events through the first half of the 21st century.

Many of those deaths are preventable, but only if all humans on this planet take the climate crisis seriously.

We who are Jewish have no choice but to take it seriously and to act accordingly, as I noted above, and not just because, from the Torah on, Jewish law mandates that we must protect our world. There is an even greater mandate — an overarching one, in fact — that we are required to consider. Jewish law puts pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, above virtually all the other 613 Torah commandments, and above virtually all of the subsequent laws that flowed from those commandments over the millennia.

That mandate to preserve life alone requires us to be productively involved in helping to resolve the climate crisis. As I noted above, this even applies to the skeptics among us. Pikuach nefesh concerns must always be approached as if the threats are real — “just in case.” (See, for example, the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma 84a and b.)

Judaism, of course, has much to say about protecting the environment.

I often quote a 1,500-year-old midrash that could have been written today. God took the First Human — Adam, if you will — “and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and God said to him: ‘See how beautiful and valued are My creations….Be sure that you do not ruin and destroy My world because, if you do destroy it, there will be no one to come after you to repair it.” (See Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1.)

Nowhere is the Torah’s concern for the environment more evident than in its commandment in Exodus 23 and more expansively in Leviticus 25 for us to give the land a year-long Shabbat of its own every seventh year, so that it can rest and replenish. Endless farming depletes essential nutrients in the food that the land produces. Studies have shown that a field that lies fallow for just one year produces a higher crop yield when planting resumes. The land regains its fertility by raising levels of carbon, nitrogen, and organic matter in the soil, by bringing deeply buried potassium and phosphorous up to near the surface, and by accumulating water, all of which benefits subsequent crops.

Pikuach nefesh enters into this. Right now, nearly 800 million people worldwide lack sufficient nutritious food they need to live active, healthy lives. Nearly 350 million of these people around the world are suffering from the most extreme forms of hunger right now, and nearly 49 million of them are said to be on the verge of famine. On average, approximately 9 million people die from hunger every year, including 3.1 million children under the age of 5.

The more nutritious food arable land produces, the more lives can be saved. The Torah addresses this problem in part by giving that land a Shabbat of its own, as well as in other important ways.

Then there is one of my oft-quoted and favorite verses, Deuteronomy 20:19, which states that, in times of war, “You shall not destroy the food-bearing trees of the enemy….”

As I often have noted, this simple statement leads to the halachic principle known as bal tashchit, meaning “do not destroy.” It is a blanket prohibition against “uprooting [anything] without any purpose,” as Maimonides, the Rambam, summarized a millennia’s worth of rulings by our Sages of Blessed Memory and the rabbis who came after them. (See his Responsa, No. 54.)

I also often quote Rabbi Aharon Halevy of Barcelona, who advocated for recycling in his own 14th-century way. As he wrote, “If it is possible to save anything that is being spoiled, [the pious] spare no effort to do so.” (See his Sefer Ha-Chinuch No. 529.)

This land is God’s land. As God said at Sinai, “All the earth is Mine.” Immediately after saying this, however, God added: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (See Exodus 19:5- 6.) There is a powerful message in those statements being joined together. We are meant to deliver all of God’s messages to the world, beginning with the message that God is the landlord, and we are obligated to care for all of God’s property — all of God’s Creation. This includes preserving human lives and the lives of all creatures, great and small.

Take time this Shabbat to consider what you can do — great and small — to help save lives by saving our planet, and then begin putting your thoughts into practice. To paraphrase the midrash I cited earlier, if we keep damaging our world, there is no one out there to come down from the heavens to fix it.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed -a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is

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