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Chaim Strauchler

Today, the average temperature of the Earth’s climate is rising. Though earlier epochs also experienced warming, the continuing increase in average air and ocean temperatures since 1900 has rightfully called attention to climate change. Many of the observed changes are unprecedented in the historical temperature record.

The largest human influence has been the modern industrial economy and its emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. During the 21st century, the global surface temperature is likely to rise a further 0.3 to 1.7 °C (0.5 to 3.1 °F) even in moderate scenarios. Effects of global warming include rising sea levels, regional changes in precipitation, more frequent extreme weather events such as heat waves, and the expansion of deserts. Climate change impacts humans by threatening food security from decreasing crop yields, the abandonment of populated areas and damage to infrastructure due to rising sea levels.

Our leaders appear paralyzed to take meaningful steps to address this problem. Much posturing takes place. Little gets done.

As we pray on Rosh Hashana, we will say the words – ha-yom harat olam – today is the birthday of the world. It is right for us to think about our world on this day. We should consider its future and our part in that future. This has always been the subject of our Rosh Hashana prayers.

Traditionally, we have framed these prayers in terms of the cosmic effects of our decisions, for good and bad. We have the capacity to do mitzvot or to do aveirot – to act virtuously or sinfully. These decisions affect not only us as individuals but also our world, as a whole.

The Talmud records:

Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, says: Since the world is judged by its majority, i.e., depending on whether people have performed a majority of mitzvot or a majority of sins, and an individual is likewise judged by his majority, each person must consider that if he performs one mitzva he is praiseworthy, as he tilts the balance of himself and the entire world to the scale of merit. Conversely, if he transgresses one prohibition, woe to him, as he tilts the balance for himself and the entire world to the scale of liability, as it is stated: “But one sin destroys much good,” i.e., due to one sin that this individual commits, he squanders much goodness from himself and from the entire world (Kiddushin 40a).

Discussions around climate change imbue human action with similar momentousness. Implicit in this science is the presumption that human actions, past present and future, determine the earth’s climate. Yet, in drawing a parallel between traditional Jewish understandings of human agency and that of climate science, we must underscore a crucial distinction. Judaism argues that humanity can do good. The environmental narrative argues that humanity at its best (and with great difficulty) can only not do bad.

What are environmental “good deeds”? Our children learn in school about recycling. Yet, recycling is nothing but a small corrective to the overall damage that human existence necessitates. We all consume. We all leave refuse from our consumption – be it in the production of what we eat and wear or be it in the disposal of that which we don’t. If the best thing that we can do is to stop polluting, is not the best way to stop polluting to stop living? On an environmental level, it would be better if each of us had not been born.

The environmental story involves a reverse Messianism. While our belief in the coming of the messiah sees history improving to a point of ultimate redemption, the environmental narrative pictures a perfect aboriginal world slowly transformed into dystopia; our human follies slowly pave over paradise. The environmental story influences how we see one another and ourselves. If people are detrimental to the environment, perhaps we should have less people. If people are detrimental, perhaps their will and their choices are not so important. The story of democracy is built upon the universal value of all people. Once people are no longer valuable – why should their votes matter?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke in 2017 at the Chautauqua Institution about Cultural Climate Change. He used environmental science as a metaphor for cultural changes in how society understands itself:

We’re passing through one of humanity’s great moments, a cultural climate change. The signs of it are that the weather patterns that existed for so long, the progressive secularisation, the progressive Westernisation, the progressive accommodation of religion to society — those weather patterns no longer hold. We are entering one of the world’s great ages of de-secularisation and it is the rise of non-Western cultures that will shape the 21st century. The end result is — as Rabbi Soloveitchik and Alasdair MacIntyre and others warned us decades ago — that if you lose religion from the mainstream of society, you will lose the sanctity of marriage. You will lose the bond of community and you will lose the social covenant that says e pluribus unum: we’re all in this together.

The link between cultural change and climate change is deeper than the metaphorical link which Rabbi Sacks draws. The climate change story contributes to the cultural change that Rabbi Sacks bemoans. The paralysis of our leaders is itself an outgrowth of the devaluation of humanity that lies at the core of the environmental narrative. If we are all bad for the environment, what point is there to us working together?

The sword by which to cut this Gordian knot is sheathed within the religion that is slowly disappearing from society’s mainstream. The Mishna states:

Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world (Sanhedrin 5:4).

We conceive of the world and its meaning through human eyes – valuing the life of every single person. It was a single person who received the command to work and guard the Earth. If we are to motivate one another to work for the good of our planet, it will be by valuing the human and not degrading it. Humanism emerges from the Torah. It is this humanism, which undergirds our environmentalism. To motivate the human beings who inhabit the planet to work together for the common good, we must value them and value the meaning within their existence. Once we see the ultimate good within one another, we might then work on one another’s behalf for the good of our common humanity and the world that we share. It is this common vision that we speak of in Alenu at the center of our Rosh Hashana prayers. We dream that all humanity will together adopt the yoke of heaven – doing together that which was commanded of Adam in Eden – to work and protect God’s garden.

As we say these words amid a warming world, their realization seems so far away. Yet, their relevance intensifies, both to we who say them and to those who do not. May we work to redeem our world by valuing the humanity whose common effort is necessary to achieve that redemption. Let us work to repair the cultural climate change that might then allow us to together repair the physical climate change.

Chaim Strauchler is the Rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto and an associate editor of TRADITION.

Published on September 27, 2019.

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