Some Jewish Environmental Thoughts for Earth Day
Richard H. Schwartz
And the Lord God took the man [Adam] and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.–Genesis 2:15
The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God’s earth, and everything on it [must be seen] as God’s creation, and [animals recognized as] your fellow creatures—to be respected, loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God’s will . . . –Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, Letter 4
The world is severely threatened by climate change and many other environmental problems. Yet in spite of Judaism’s many powerful teachings on environmental stewardship, the Jewish community (along with most other communities) is not adequately responding to today’s environmental crises. This failure of the Jewish community to sufficiently address these environmental threats is one major reason that I believe my religion—our religion—has been stolen.
While there are a number of Jewish groups, including the under funded, under supported Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox Jewish environmental group, which work diligently on environmental issues, the Jewish community as a whole is far from seriously involved. It is urgent that Jews play our historic role to be a “light unto the nations” and apply our eternal teachings in response to the many environmental threats that face our planet in this generation.
What Must God Think When Observing Current Environmental Conditions?
When God created the world, God was able to say, “It is very good” (Genesis 1:31). Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, and the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today? How must God look upon our beleaguered and contaminated planet when the rain God provided to nourish our crops becomes acid rain, darkened by the many pollutants spewed into the air by smokestacks and tailpipes; when the endless diversity of species of plants and animals that God created are becoming extinct at an alarming rate in tropical rainforests and other threatened habitats, before we have even been able to study and catalog most of them; when the abundant fertile soil God provided is quickly being depleted and eroded; when the climatic conditions that God designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?
Our Modern Ten “Plagues”
Today’s environmental threats bring to mind the Biblical Ten plagues that appear in the Torah portions read in synagogue in the weeks leading up to the environmental holiday of Tu B’Shvat. An enumeration of today’s Ten Plagues might include:
1. The rapid melting (due to global warming) of polar ice caps and sheets, of permafrost and mountain glaciers, which could soon precipitate a disastrously sudden—for humans and other creatures—recalibration of the earth’s climate.
2. A permanent increase both in severe droughts (due to the drying effect of heat where water is scarce) and severe floods (due to the evaporative effect where water is plentiful), straining humanity to the limits of our ability to cope and survive.
3. Extreme deforestation (about half of the world's rainforest has already been destroyed), decimating one of the world’s most valuable providers of natural goods and services and, by slashing the planet’s ability to sequester carbon, further exacerbating climate change and all its consequences.
4. Severe heat waves, with each of the last five decades being warmer than the previous one and record temperatures being recorded in many areas.
5. Rapid loss of species, faster than any previous time in history.
6. Widespread soil erosion and nutrient depletion, reducing fertility, increasing desertification, and severely compromising humanity's ability to feed itself.
7. The serious pollution and, in some cases, “killing” of fresh water bodies by runoff contaminated with pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, and animal wastes from factory farms, as well as by fallout from smokestack and tailpipe air pollution.
8. An epidemic of heart disease, many types of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases, largely due to gluttonous consumption of animal products and junk foods, sedentary lifestyles, and a glut of toxic environmental chemicals.
9. Increasingly widespread and severe wildfires because of warmer temperatures and the resultant dryer environment in many areas.
10. Increasing hunger as global demand for food increases due to rising population, increased affluence leading to rising demand for animal products, and increasing use of biofuels, along with decreased food production due to shrinking glaciers and aquifers, droughts, floods, heat waves, and other damaging effects of climate change, and the loss of farm land to urban sprawl.
While the Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, the modern plagues threaten us all at once. We are in the process creating a potential catastrophe comparable to the Biblical flood.
The Jews in Goshen were spared most of the Biblical plagues, while every person on earth is imperiled by these modern plagues. It is we ourselves who are the authors of these plagues, though it is future generations who will be most severely afflicted.
Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, waste, and lack of recognition of our precarious relationship with nature that are at the root of the current environmental threats.
God provided the Biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today we must ourselves apply God’s teachings in order to save humanity and our precious but endangered planet.