AuthorWaskow, Arthur

Is there a Jewish responsibility to fight climate change? Yes! With an exclamation point! The scientific consensus that we face serious climate challenges is overwhelming, and our responsibility for the earth goes back to the origins of the Jewish people. The biblical tradition, much more than the later rabbinic tradition, was rooted in the people's connection with the earth. They were shepherds and farmers. Many aspects of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, are actually about what it means to have a functional versus a failed relationship with the earth. The story of the Garden of Eden is the story in which God, speaking for Reality, says, "There is amazing, wonderful abundance here, eat of it, enjoy it. Just exercise a little self-restraint!" And the humans can't restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes. And at the end of the story, Reality, or God, says, "Now you'll have to work every day of your life with sweat pouring down your face to get barely enough to eat." It's like what happened in the Gulf of Mexico 11 years ago, when the lack of self-restraint by the oil company cost the lives of workers and poisoned much of the life of the Gulf.

Later there's another story that's more redemptive. When Pharaoh enslaves human beings, the result of his cruelty is a series of what we would now call ecological disasters. The worst hailstorm in Egyptian history! Undrinkable water! And after the liberation comes the story of the Jews in the desert receiving manna--and Shabbat. It says Earth is fruitful and abundant if you restrain yourself in a new way--joyfully.

What Jewish principles should be governing our policy choices? Joyful self-restraint is a big one. The idea of Shabbat expresses this value. In Leviticus 25, the Torah teaches that every seventh year the whole land must rest. Every shepherd knows that if you let the sheep eat the same meadow every time, the meadow dies and the sheep die. The shmitta year lets the earth rest, and the people rest, too: They get relief from their debts. Right after that, Leviticus 26 tells what happens if you won't let the earth rest. It comes right out of the climate science of this era: You'll have plagues, droughts, famines, floods, mass exile.

Later, in the post-biblical era, we lost that connection with the land, so we focus on social justice. But when all life on Earth is at stake, social justice can't be separated from earth justice, ecological sanity. That's where we are now, and the Jewish people...

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