Earth Etude for Elul 20: An Old Problem
by Rabbi Jacob Siegel
~ I like to think of climate change as an old problem.
True, human-made climate change and the potential it has to wreak disaster on our earth’s ecosystem are new and unprecedented. Every year extreme temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more common. These are challenges we have never faced.
On the other hand, this is an old problem. We, as the Jewish people, know what it means to face a crisis of existence after a cataclysmic destructive act − the destruction of the Temple – which itself was destroyed because of a moral failure of society, sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. We also have a deep wisdom of thousands of years of debate on issues of moral and societal responsibility – an entire heilek (section) of the Shulchan Aruch, a formative code of Jewish law, is devoted to them, as is an entire seder (section) of gemara, the Oral Torah from 1500 years ago containing the words of the rabbis.
In fact, one whole chapter of one book in the gemara, Bava Basra, focuses on the responsibilities of property owners to their neighbors and to common space. Mishnah (paragraph)Five outlines how far away one must keep a dovecote from a town in order that the doves not eat the seedlings in the gardens, and Mishnah Seven notes how far away one must plant a tree in order to protect the appearance of the city.
It is an interesting question how to frame climate change from a halakhic, or Jewish legal perspective. There is a halakhic category of deeds, performed in my own domain, that cause damage after a delay of time. Does climate change fit into this category? But the Talmud considers such deeds permissible – I am doing them in my own property and not immediately damaging others.
Or, is climate change more of a special case, a societal imbalance demanding intervention, like when fish sellers in Eastern Europe were raising their prices before Shabbat to exorbitant amounts? The Mishneh Brurah, written in 19th-century Eastern Europe, argues that in such a case, the town should impose a decree and have no one purchase fish for several weeks until prices declined again (242:2).
Or, is climate change a personal moral problem? Of a sort that even if we can’t find a technical prohibition against emitting too much carbon, it might be “hayav be’dinei shamayim” – liable in the heavenly courts?
I often feel tempted to see climate change as something new and unprecedented. This can contribute to a sense of fear and desperation, a panic that can sometimes lead us to reckless choices in forming our long-term strategies. I remember once hearing a quoting of the Talmud, though I regretfully don’t remember the citation: “life is very short, so we must move very slowly.” Let’s work together to delve into our rich mesorah (tradition) of experiences and texts, so we can approach climate change with the full wisdom of our Jewish experience.
Rabbi Jacob Siegel is a passionate and dynamic Jewish educator on environmental issues. He received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, an open and modern Orthodox rabbinical school based in New York. He is a certified shochet (kosher butcher), having first trained in Jerusalem and received additional certification with Yeshiva University. He offers demonstrations and workshops at Hillels and congregations across the country on issues of kosher and sustainable meat. Jacob has directed the wilderness program at Eden Village Camp, directed a community Hebrew School in Westchester County, and served as student rabbinic fellow at Hazon, the country’s largest Jewish sustainability organization. He received his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis. He currently lives in Eugene, Oregon.