Climate and Judaism: We Are One

Climate and Judaism: We Are One

Passages in Genesis and other parts of the Torah remind us not to take our hospitable planetary environment for granted, and in the era of climate change and the anthropocene, their importance is driven home constantly by new studies of the Earth’s present and future habitability coming from a myriad of fields. Though the task being put upon us feels insurmountable, looking at our environmental issues on a Biblical scale leads us to reflect on what we can and cannot control, and the ways in which we are both vulnerable and responsible.

The group began with these questions: “When you think about human responsibilities to nature, where do you fall along these scales…

  • Is the world fundamentally a safe or dangerous place?
  • Are human beings as one with nature, or distinct and exceptional?
  • How much difference can humans make to create a better future in your lifetimes?
  • How central is environmentalism to your Jewish experience or practice?”

The following texts all offer different perspectives on these questions.

Richardson, Katherine, et al. (2023). Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries. Science Advances, 9.

This paper by Richardson, et al. draws upon a holistic, systemic framework that includes several different measures, across different disciplines, for the planet’s continued ability to support human life: biosphere integrity (both functional and genetic); climate change (CO2 concentration and radiative forcing); novel entities; stratospheric ozone depletion; atmospheric aerosol loading; ocean acidification; biogeochemical flows; freshwater change; and land system change.

Diagram shows a wheel of nine planetary boundaries providing a "safe operating space for humanity" on Earth, with three color-coded levels of threat: Safe operating space, Zone of increasing risk, and High risk zone. We have transgressed into the zone of increasing risk on six out of the nine: functional, genetic, climate change, novel entities, land system change, freshwater change, and biogeochemical flows. Stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, and ocean acidification remain in the safe zone.

The scientific updates and analyses presented here confirm that humanity is today placing unprecedented pressure on [the] Earth system. Perhaps most worrying in terms of maintaining [the] Earth system in a Holocene-like interglacial state is that all the biosphere-related planetary boundary processes providing the resilience (capacity to dampen disturbance) of [the] Earth system are at or close to a high-risk level of transgression… This implies low/falling resilience precisely when planetary resilience is needed more than ever to cope with increasing anthropogenic disturbances. There is an urgent need for more powerful scientific and policy tools for analyzing the whole of the integrated Earth system with reliability and regularity and guiding political processes to prevent altering the state of Earth system beyond levels tolerable for today’s societies.

Though these measures may seem to describe massive phenomena out of any individual person’s control, tackling this problem involves asking many of the same questions that we ask ourselves about our human communities.

  • Is the world fundamentally a safe or dangerous place?
  • How much difference can humans make to create a better future in your lifetimes?

The Hot Take: We see that through contemporary sources the world is a fundamentally safe place – why? It is safe because there is danger within it now. This implies that we started at some point (maybe even with God!) with a “safe” world – and now humankind is causing harm to it. This helps us consider how we drive towards a sustainable and perpetually safe place – this world we live in.

Genesis 8:17-22 (G-d’s promise never to destroy the world again)

Moving into Biblical sources, the relationship between God and Noah finds Noah humbled.

G-d spoke to Noah, saying,
“Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives.
Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.” So Noah came out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.
Every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that stirs on earth came out of the ark by families.
Then Noah built an altar to G-d and, taking of every pure animal and of every pure bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar.
G-d smelled the pleasing odor, and G-d resolved: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.
So long as the earth endures,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night
Shall not cease.”
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֥חַ לֵאמֹֽר׃

צֵ֖א מִן־הַתֵּבָ֑ה אַתָּ֕ה וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֛ וּבָנֶ֥יךָ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ׃

כׇּל־הַחַיָּ֨ה אֲשֶֽׁר־אִתְּךָ֜ מִכׇּל־בָּשָׂ֗ר בָּע֧וֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּבְכׇל־הָרֶ֛מֶשׂ הָרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ (הוצא) [הַיְצֵ֣א] אִתָּ֑ךְ וְשָֽׁרְצ֣וּ בָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָר֥וּ וְרָב֖וּ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

וַיֵּ֖צֵא־נֹ֑חַ וּבָנָ֛יו וְאִשְׁתּ֥וֹ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנָ֖יו אִתּֽוֹ׃

כׇּל־הַֽחַיָּ֗ה כׇּל־הָרֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְכׇל־הָע֔וֹף כֹּ֖ל רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם יָצְא֖וּ מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה׃

וַיִּ֥בֶן נֹ֛חַ מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה וַיִּקַּ֞ח מִכֹּ֣ל ׀ הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה הַטְּהֹרָ֗ה וּמִכֹּל֙ הָע֣וֹף הַטָּה֔וֹר וַיַּ֥עַל עֹלֹ֖ת בַּמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃

וַיָּ֣רַח יְהֹוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹ֒חַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִ֠ף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

עֹ֖ד כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ זֶ֡רַע וְ֠קָצִ֠יר וְקֹ֨ר וָחֹ֜ם וְקַ֧יִץ וָחֹ֛רֶף וְי֥וֹם וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃

Questions to Consider:

  • Are human beings as one with nature, or distinct and exceptional?
  • How central is environmentalism to your Jewish experience or practice?

The Hot Take: Of course we are one with nature. Noah’s entire journey and story is about caring for and saving not only humanity, but wildlife, and by connection, the environment. Noah even connects through “an altar” the image of God to humankind and animal kind. Humans are innately interwoven with nature.

Human Responsibilities to Each Other
  • In what ways do the actions we take here (at BU, in Boston, in our home communities) impact the lives of people within our community? Our nation? Our planet?
  • What can Judaism teach us about our responsibilities to neighbors? To strangers in our community? To people whom we may never meet?
  • The past several months have been challenging, to say the least, and it can be difficult to imagine a world in which we live in harmony with other peoples and with nature. During these troubled times, what are ways that we can take care of our own Jewish and Israeli communities in need, while still building toward a better world for everyone?
Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 71a

To Whom and For What Am I Responsible? – Babylonian Talmud

Translation Original
R. Joseph learnt: If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you: [this teaches, if the choice lies between] a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your own town have prior rights. [Soncino translation] דתני רב יוסף (שמות כב) אם כסף תלוה את עמי את העני עמך, עמי ונכרי – עמי קודם, עני ועשיר – עני קודם, ענייך ועניי עירך – ענייך קודמין, עניי עירך ועניי עיר אחרת – עניי עירך קודמין
  • Are human beings as one with nature, or distinct and exceptional?
  • How central is environmentalism to your Jewish experience or practice?

The Hot Take: If we are to assume that Noah teaches us that we are one with nature, then the world is our own. Our oral tradition teaches us, through the rabbis, that we MUST care for our own, and we must care for the poor. The “poor” in our discussion is the entire world – one that is suffering, lacking, needing attention, and requiring great empathy.

Human Responsibilities to the Land and Other Living Beings
Odenheimer, Micha (2018). Aniye Ircha Kodmim. Tevel B’Tzedek.

As the founder of a Jewish-Israeli NGO whose raison d’etre is [addressing global poverty], I often encounter people who argue that we should not. “The poor of your own city take precedence,” they say, quoting a Talmudic dictum, usually with some degree of indignation. If they are from the political left, they will add “There are plenty of Palestinians you should be helping first.” If they are from the right, replace the word Palestinians with Jews; the rest of the formula can remain.

As full participants in the contemporary economic system, which is global in every respect, we cannot make ethics the single exception. Instead, it behooves us to become active participants in shaping the moral contours of our world… If we are to reinvigorate Judaism, we must allow Jewish tradition and values to become part of the crucial discussion taking place about how to insure a more just and beautiful future for humanity. This means, first of all, experiencing first hand the lives and struggles of the 2 billion people who struggle every day to feed themselves, and who often lack access to clean water, sanitation, and basic education and health care. It means understanding the often hidden consequences of the way the world is being run today.

  • What does a “reciprocal relationship with the land” look like for you? How might this connect with Jewish holidays and traditions?
  • The JNF reading encourages us to honor G-d and the land by “letting go”. The Kimmerer reading proposes honoring the land through reciprocity. Based on your understanding of the science and your own ethical framework, how active should humans be in restoring/maintaining ecosystems? When is it appropriate/necessary for humans to step back and remove themselves from ecosystems?
Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2013). “The Honorable Harvest”, ch. 17 in Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions: Minneapolis, MN.

“I’ve heard it said that sometimes, in return for the gifts of the earth, gratitude is enough. It is our uniquely human gift to express thanks, because we have the awareness and the collective memory to remember that the world could well be otherwise, less generous than it is. But I think we are called to go beyond cultures of gratitude, to once again become cultures of reciprocity…

The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.”

Human Responsibilities to Future Generations

Shmitah – The Wisdom of Letting Go. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund. 

“Underlying the commandment of the sabbatical year are social concepts, such as equal distribution and reducing gaps between the rich and the poor.  Money lenders are commanded to forgive debts, and land owners are commanded to allow all people and livestock free access to their lands and all its yields, as specified in Exodus 23:10-11:

‘And six years thou shalt sow they land, and gather in the increase thereof;
but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat.
In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard.’

There are also important spiritual concepts to Shmita, such as trusting in G-d and G-d’s ability to provide, and devoting extra time for prayer, Torah study, spiritual enrichment, and good deeds. Shmita is also humbling, in the way that it reminds us that all land ultimately belongs to G-d, and our job is to take care of it.

Letting the land lie fallow also strongly resonates with today’s growing environmental awareness of the importance of treating natural resources responsibly and not over-farming the soil.”

  • Some have posited that the planet would be a better place if humans were not around. In your view, how important is it to ensure that humanity continues to exist for many generations to come? Why (or why not)?
  • To what extent are your environmental values tied to responsibilities to past/future generations? What are ways way can invest in future generations, both our own direct descendants, and as a society?

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Boston University Hillel, which was one of fifteen communities chosen for the current round of Scientists in Synagogues, came together on November 17, 2023 for a Shabbat evening educational session and group discussion on climate change and Judaism for Climate Week, led by Jared Pincus, a PhD student in computer science).


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