Judaism in the time of Climate Change. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

A spiritual reflection one of the biggest elephants in our room.

It’s basic to our religious system that when human life is in danger, we stop and pay attention. This is true not only when human life is clearly and certainly in danger, but also whenever there is a reasonable possibility that life is in danger. We set aside Shabbat and virtually every other law in order to address even these possible dangers. Equally indicative of this religious attitude are the stories told in Mishna Ta’anit about the circumstances that prompted the Sages to declare days of communal fasting and prayer. On one occasion they declared a day of fasting because a tiny amount of wheat in Ashkelon had been ruined by shidafon, a dry, destructive wind. On another occasion they declared a communal fast when two wolves- capable of killing children – were merely spotted in an inhabited area. This is the way we live. When a real possibility of danger to life lurks, we don’t avert our eyes. As a matter of spiritual course, we take notice, and consider how to respond.

We’re at an interesting and challenging juncture right now in humanity’s journey on Earth. There’s at least a reasonable possibility, and many respected voices insist that it is more than just that, that in the coming years and decades, we will be dealing with a natural world that is less accommodating, and more hostile to human life, than the one we’ve come to know. We will experience bigger and more destructive storms, longer and deeper droughts, more frequent wildfires, and the spread of crop-threatening insects and fungi to places where they didn’t use to appear. These are reasonable enough possibilities that normative Jewish law and thought indicate that we are obliged to pay attention to them – and to their possible consequences. Accordingly, simply as a regular Jew doing what regular Jews do, I recently began the process of trying to place these possibilities into a religious framework, into a framework of appropriate spiritual response. Here are three ideas, drawn from our classical sources, that I believe serve to create this framework, both for today, and more importantly for tomorrow and beyond.

The first idea is SOLIDARITY. Back in the 41st chapter of Genesis, Yosef accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream about the years of plenty and the years of famine that will come, and then finds himself charged with the awesome responsibility of storing food in the good years that would be eaten in the bad ones. In the middle of that story, we find the report that “two sons were born to Yosef, before the years of famine came”. The Talmud wonders about the significance of that last phrase. Why did the Torah specifically point out that the sons were born during the years of plenty? The Talmud then concludes – and this conclusion is codified into law with only with slight modifications – that we are to learn from Yosef’s behavior that it is prohibited to engage in marital intimacy during years of famine. There is a limitation on pleasure-taking during times of suffering.

The medieval Tosafists though challenged the Talmud’s analysis, pointing out that Yocheved the daughter of Levi was born just as Jacob and family were entering Egypt. Clearly, she must have been conceived during the years of famine! And while many answers are offered to this question, one of the most compelling is the one given by a 19th century thinker, Rabbi Boruch HaLevi Epstein. There would have no purpose in Levi’s refraining from marital relations, Epstein explains. The Talmud’s teaching is specifically about people like Yosef, who due to their own personal social or economic circumstances, are not personally affected by the famine. The Talmud is teaching us to vicariously experience other’s people’s suffering, and to consciously cultivate a sense of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by nature’s unfortunate surprises. And out of this solidarity, to develop the will and the strength to make political and economic decisions which respond to the challenging circumstances being experienced by others.

The second idea is PRIORITY, i.e. giving priority to human life over all other considerations. Here we’ll draw upon the example of a halachik decision made by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector in the spring of 1868, in the midst of drought that had dramatically affected numerous crops, leaving peas and beans among the few foods readily available, especially to the poor. Rabbi Spector decided that the custom forbidding kitniyot would be lifted for Pesach of that year. While this may sound like a no-brainer of a decision, we know that rabbis face numerous pressures around decisions such as these. Would he be accused of overstepping his authority? Was he setting a dangerous precedent for the waiving of other time-honored customs? Was such a move especially perilous at a time when Jews in other parts of Europe were abandoning Jewish practices with abandon? Rabbi Spector might have decided differently based upon any of these considerations. But he did not. Because human life and welfare had to be given higher priority than any of the political or historical considerations that in other circumstances might militate against taking action. In times of trouble, human life must the highest priority.

And finally, we come to PRAYER. The model here is the prayer attributed to Avraham on the morning after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prayer which our morning Shacharit is modeled upon. The Torah records that in the morning Avraham returned to the spot overlooking the cities, and saw nothing but smoke. The feared destruction had occurred. We can’t help but wonder, “What kind of prayer would he have said at that point?” I think that we must assume that it was a prayer similar to the one that we ourselves say each morning. “Place in our hearts the ability to understand and discern”. Teach me, God, what I should be doing differently. What changes I need to make in the way I conduct my own life, in the way that my household and my society conduct their lives, so that next time the outcome will be different, so that destruction can be averted? “You, who shine light upon the earth and its inhabitants with compassion”. You, God, are a benevolent God, who created out of love, and who does not desire the death of His creatures. Standing in Your presence, we do not despair. We continue to look forward, for we know we stand before God who desires life.

This is the prayer of our time and for the decades to come. It is the third element of the spiritual framework. We know before whom we stand. And we know what He expects of us, when we live in challenging times.

10 Responses to Judaism in the time of Climate Change. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

  1. I can’t believe you are taking this “climate change” hogwash seriously. Earth’s climate changes constantly, always has, always will.

    Right now we may or may not be in a period of slight global warming, and if the climate is warming, it may or may not be because of human activity, and also, it may or may not cause any harm to humans — maybe a slighter warmer earth will actually be beneficial for food production!

    All the alarmist projections are fifty or a hundred years down the road. It would be absolutely insane to throw the world’s population into poverty now to prevent a very, very questionable harm half a century from now! Besides, even if we listen to al-Gore and stop driving cars, heating our homes or flying airplanes, the Chinese and Indians are not going to stop mining and burning coal any time soon.

    All this climate change garbage is nothing but anti-Western and anti-free market propaganda. Personally I would much rather live the way al-Gore actually lives (not that I have the money to do so) than live the way he preaches.

    • The comment above is an example of the denial of so many people about arguably the greatest threat to humanitry today. This is not just my opinion but that of science academies worldwide, 97% of climate experts, and 99.9% of peer-reviewed articles on the issue in science journals. Deniers like Toby Bulman Katz are ignoring that atmospheric CO2 has now exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history, an amount above the 350 ppm that climate experts beleve is a safe threshold. They are also ignoring the rapid melting of glaciers worldwide and polar icecaps and the major increase in the number and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms and floods. Conditions in Californial are so bad that its governor Jerry Brown has said that “humanity is on a collision course with nature.”

      It is time for the Jewish community to play a leading role in efforts to avert a climate catastrophe and to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.”

      Kudos to Yosef Kenefsky for this wonderful article. Please help spread it widely.

      • cipher says:

        I no longer read this blog, chiefly because its comment threads have become a hangout for right wing frum people who live to excoriate liberals, both theological and political. I was directed here by a friend’s Facebook post.

        I merely want to thank you once again, Dr. Schwartz, as I have elsewhere, for all that you do. I don’t know how you put up with all of the fundamentalist invective and condescension. Rabbi Gershom has told me you have tremendous patience. I don’t doubt it.

  2. Michael Stein says:

    While Rabbi Kanefsky’s comments are certainly well-intended, I’m afraid there is a certain naivete to them, and a pointlessness that hounds most of the climate change discussion. Point by point. First, solidarity. Solidarity with whom? It’s not really possible to identify the “victims” of global warming. Who are they? Certainly the victims of a flood or hurricane of course deserve our support. But they may or may not be victims of climate change. There have always been such victims. Perhaps there are more in recent years. They are no less deserving of support for being more numerous. But how does that morph into climate change? That’s a separate issue. In fact, many of the policies intended to slow climate change will cause economic pain to many individuals, without any certain gains in the climate change front. So, with whom are we supposed to sympathize? Second, Priority. People first. Does that mean we should sympathize with the poacher who kills the last rhinoceros for it’s horn’s supposed effects, because he’s a person, and the rhino a mere animal? Or is the point that halacha needs to be bent to allow for climate change policies. The story of Rabbi Spector is interesting, but I’m not sure how it illustrates anything meaningful in the context of this essay, looking forward. Finally, Prayer. Here, I think we can all agree that praying for the health of our earth, and for solutions to pressing problems, is a worthwhile thing. On this point I certainly agree. But when it comes to action, climate change is a profoundly problematic matter. And the worst thing we can do is let our finest religious instincts be channeled into a facile political position. Should we religiously be supporting a dramatic increase in nuclear energy? That’s the only viable alternative to fossil fuels in today’s world? But the same parties who tell us that climate change is a disaster, mostly oppose nuclear energy. Should we religiously be supporting wind and solar energy? Since when does our religion translate into political support for what until now has been a tremendous boondoggle and waste of money, channeling millions into the pockets of the well-connected (including the billionaire founder of Tesla)? Yes, I drive a hybrid and I have installed high-efficiency HVAC equipment in my home. I try to be alert to my already high carbon footprint. But I’m also keenly aware of how impossible it is to approach these issues with anything close to certainty about what works and what doesn’t. And how dangerous it would be to infuse our political response to climate change with religious fervor.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Toby, why are you ignoring that every science academy worldwide, 97% of climate experts, and 99.9% of the peer-reviewed articles on the issue state that climate change is largely human-caused and is a great threat to humanity? Are you aware that atmospheric CO2 has now passed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history, far above the 350 ppm that climate experts feel is a safe threshold? Have you not noticed the major increase in the number and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods? Conditions recently in California have been so severe that Governor Jerry Brown has said that, humanity is on a collision course with nature.”

  4. Mirele Batsion Goldsmith says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and moving post. Now that we can see that the climate is changing all around us, we must act consistently with our values and beliefs. I saw how much Jewish communitirs can do in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to relieve suffering. Now we need to also be proactive and do everything we can in our own lives, synagogue communities, and in the public sphere,

  5. Mirele Batsion Goldsmith says:

    Thank you for this moving and inspiring post. After Hurricane Sandy I saw how much Jewish communities can do in response to suffering. Now we need to be proactive – personally, in our synagogues, and in calling for a switch to renewable energy that will save lives now and in the future.

  6. ccsfpols1 says:

    This is a fascinating essay and an important call to action for Jews (and others). Yasher ko’ach, Yosef.

    Toby’s comment is unfortunate, as he is taking a decidedly anti-scientific perspective, which is inconsistent with Judaism. 97% of climatologists and 100% of scientific and environmental societies, organizations, and journals (as well as universities, the US military, et al.) agree that climate change is real, serious, worsening, and anthropogenic (human-induced).

    I’d like to take this discussion a critical step further to action. One of the best things we can personally do to combat climate change, as well as increase our personal health, increase public health, show compassion, save precious resources, reduce deforestation and species extinction, fight world hunger, increase kashrut, and more, is to eat plant-based meals.

    We also, of course, need to transition to renewable energies, reduce consumption, protect resources, increase efficiency, recycle and compost more, waste less, and so on.

    Please visit The Veg Mitzvah at http://www.brook.com/jveg and Jewish Vegetarians of North America at http://www.JewishVeg.com for more information about this vital subject.

  7. rdeych says:

    Kudos to Rabbi Kanefsky’s thoughtful article. I hope it inspires many to work towards Tikkun Olam. Please watch the award-winning documentary A Sacred Duty (at http://asacredduty.com), which illustrates ways in which we can all work together for this very purpose.

  8. malouis says:

    I agree, in spirit, with what Rav Yosef is trying to communicate however I take issue with the assertion that changing climate is largely influenced my man’s activities. I’m not saying that it isn’t at all. I’m not saying that the climate isn’t changing – it always is. I’m simply putting forth that the scientific process by definition implores us to always question and test hypothesis in the pursuit of the a . “97%”, “99%”, etc; a consensus, or consensus science is not in itself a scientific determination of fact or truth. And to state that climate change science is “settled” is also disingenuous if you are truly an objective and intellectually honest pursuer of facts and truth via the scientific method.

    At the turn of the last century, the early 20th century, the vast majority physicists believed that we understood the nature of our physical world thus the science of physics was a “settled” science. That was until a patent office employee by the name Albert Einstein rocked the entire scientific world with his theory of relativity. Was he challenged, yes. Was he attacked and were repeated attempts made by those in the scientific community to discredit him, yes. My point, don’t be quick to call out those who are not convinced that man-made global warming is prominently man-made and that it may not be eminently threatening our existence as “deniers” or “right wing nut cases”. Is it not inherently Jewish to question and to seek better understanding.?

    Simply, I’m not convinced that we really understand how much of an impact man has on climate let alone that we have the ability to predict with any reasonable certainty that the calamities foretold by non-scientist layman such a Al Gore, or others, have high enough certainly of coming to pass that we need rally to worlds rescue. I am a passionate supporter of “tikun olam” but i’d rather put my efforts in the desperate needs of today vs. gearing up for an uncertain future world calamity. No, I am not a climate expert, but I am a scientist who understands the scientific method. My goal is not to persuade you to not believe in climate change, but to, perhaps, think more like an objective scientist when considering different theories on what influences changes in world climate.

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