In this hour we, the living [post-Holocaust Jews], are “the people of Israel.” The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets and continued by their descendants are now entrusted to us. We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of ages. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel1
On some positions, Cowardice asks the question “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.2
Rabbi Tarfon said: “The day is short, the work is urgent, the workers are lazy but the reward is great and the Owner is insistent… It is not for you to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing all you can.]” – Pirkei Avot 2:17-18
Here is my long-held vision for Judaism in this time of multiple crises:
To be a Jew is to see the world through the eyes of God, to be unreconciled to the world as it is, to be discontented with the status quo, and to be unafraid to challenge it.
To be a Jew is to be a co-worker with God in the task of perfecting the world, to know that the world remains unredeemed and that we must work with God to redeem it.
To be a Jew is to feel deeply the harms done to others, to speak out in the face of wrongdoing, and to prod the conscience of those who passively accept the status quo.
To be a Jew is to stand apart from the world, to be a non-conformist, to shout “NO” when others murmur “yes” to injustice, and to actively help uplift those in need and try to correct injustices, even if others stand idly by.
To be a Jew is to be intoxicated with a dream of social justice, to have an abiding concern for others, and to have compassion without condescension for people who are poor, weak, and suffering.
To be a Jew means to know that God’s name can be sanctified by our actions, and to try to live a life compatible with being created in God’s image by doing justly, acting kindly, and in all ways imitating God’s attributes.
To be a Jew means to believe in the unlimited potential of people in spite of the evil and injustice around us, and recognizing that we have been chosen to serve as an example, to strive to be “a light unto the nations.”
To be a Jew means of course many specific practices concerning Shabbat, kashrut, and much more. It means study and worship, and most of all action and observance. It means all these things and far more. It is not always easy to be a Jew, but it is always a very significant and worthwhile endeavor.
This book is meant to be a wake-up call – the most urgent that I can make – to alert Jews and others that we must do all we can in applying Jewish values to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. Its primary aim is to show that the world is heading toward a “perfect storm” of existential crises: sudden, catastrophic climate change; severe environmental degradation; devastating scarcities of food, water and energy; widening terrorism; and other critical threats to life as we know and value it. The application of Jewish values can make a major difference in shifting our imperiled world away from its present perilous path. It is meant to represent a cause and a crusade, in the best sense of that term.
Please consider the following brief discussions of some issues that are explored more thoroughly later in this book:
The climate crisis: There is a very strong scientific consensus, involving science academies worldwide and 97% of climate scientists, that the world is rapidly approaching a climate catastrophe, which is largely due to human activities. Glaciers and polar icecaps are rapidly melting, and there has been a significant recent increase in the number and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods. The world has already reached atmospheric CO2 levels beyond what climate experts think are safe.
Threats from radical Islamists: As I review and update this material on December 17, 2015, ISIS has become increasingly aggressive, holding territory and attracting many alienated young people. They have recently taken credit for downing a Russian passenger plane and for murdering many people in terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Paris. An attack by a radical Muslim couple that was inspired by ISIS in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015, which killed 14 people and injured 21, sparked a major campaign to demonize American Muslims, including a widely criticized statement by Donald Trump that no Muslim should be permitted to enter the U.S. The U.S. and countries worldwide have increased efforts to guard against additional terrorist attacks.
World hunger: There is the potential for major food shortages due to (1) increasing population (projected to rise by about 50% by 2100), (2) increasing affluence, leading to an escalation in grain-intensive meat consumption, and (3) increased production of corn-based ethanol. There is also the potential for a decreased production of food due to (1) the conversion of farm land into land used for houses, roads, parking lots, factories, and other needs of the growing population, and (2) the negative effects of heat waves, droughts, floods, and other effects of climate change.
Running out of water: The world is also experiencing increasing water shortages. Climate change causes severe droughts in many parts of the world, even as it is causing flooding in other areas. Trying to grow adequate food for the world’s increasing population (and the growing appetite for water-intensive meat production in the developing world) through irrigation of feed crops causes aquifers to shrink in many countries, and some may soon be completely depleted. In addition, because of global warming, glaciers that replenish water to rivers in the spring are receding rapidly.
Meeting energy needs: Because the burning of coal and oil contributes to climate change and other environmental problems, and there are dangers related to nuclear energy, it is essential that renewable sources of energy – solar, wind, and hydroelectric – be rapidly developed
Climate wars: Many military leaders and security experts are increasingly concerned about the national security implications of climate change. They are concerned that millions of hungry, thirsty, desperate refugees fleeing from droughts, floods, heat waves, storms, wild fires, and other effects of climate change will increase the likelihood of instability, violence, terrorism, and war. Many military and strategic experts believe that major droughts caused by severe climate change resulted in failed farms with many farmers moving to cities, contributing to the start of civil wars in the Sudan and in Syria.
Other threats: Unfortunately, there are many other threats to humanity’s future. These include: deforestation, desertification, rapid species extinction, pollution, increasing poverty, soaring financial deficits in some countries, and the inability of many countries to meet the needs of their people.
Everything possible must be done to avert the potential catastrophes indicated above, since they threaten humanity and all life on the planet. This book argues that the application of Jewish values, such as pursuing justice and peace and working as partners with God in protecting the environment, can contribute greatly to solving these problems. Fortunately, other religions have similar values, and hopefully others will increase efforts to encourage their co-religionists to apply their religions’ values to today’s crises.
A main theme of this book is that, in the face of today’s urgent problems, Jews must return to our universal Jewish values and to our missions: to be “a light unto the nations,” a kingdom of priests and a holy people, descendants of prophets, champions of social justice, eternal protestants against a corrupt and unjust world, and dissenters against destructive and unjust systems. Jews must become actively involved in the missions of global survival and Jewish renewal, working for major changes that will lead to a society where there is far less oppression, injustice, violence, hunger, poverty, and alienation.
Unfortunately, as with other religions (with significant exceptions), there has been too little effort by Jews to apply Jewish values to the many critical problems that threaten the world today. In fact, as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, along with the many positive developments in Jewish life today there has been a shift by many Jews away from these basic Jewish values just when the world needs them more than ever before.
I hope that this book will contribute to help expand widespread open dialogues about Jewish teachings concerning these critically important issues and will play a part in moving ourprecious planet away from its present perilous path onto one that is more just, humane, peaceful, and sustainable.
The Challenge of Writing This Book
This is my fourth book, not counting revised editions and shorter booklets, and it has been by far the hardest to complete. It took me about ten years to write the first edition, and I had many stops and starts along the way before I mustered enough courage and momentum to complete it.
Although I have become increasingly frustrated as many Jews are passive and/or have moved toward disturbingly conservative, often non-traditionally-Jewish, positions, I wondered if it would be chutzpah to challenge the prevailing views in much of the Jewish community, including sometimes those of members of my own family and of many of my friends and fellow congregants. At a time when the State of Israel is so threatened, anti-Semitism is increasing in many countries, terrorism is becoming an increasing concern, and Jews (among others) are facing economic and other challenges, would I be worsening the situations?
On the other hand, I thought about the importance of trying to make Jews (and others) more aware of Judaism’s eternal teachings and how essential it is to apply Judaism’s basic values to today’s critical issues. And I wanted to try to counteract conservative forces that have been shifting Judaism away from its historic, progressive roots. Taking all this into account, and knowing that I am sure to stir up criticism of some of my views, I decided that it was important to go ahead, because it is essential that there be respectful dialogues on how the application of Jewish values can help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
For Whom Is This Book Intended?
For Jews who look to Judaism for moral and spiritual guidance, but who find that contemporary interpretations of our faith and traditions do not address the pressing issues of today. For Jews who are seeking a Judaism that will make a difference in responding to the crises of today and will help guide humanity in directions that can bring a more just, compassionate, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable future for generations to come. For Jews who recognize that the Jewish calling to be a light unto the nations gives them a special responsibility to live in ways that benefit all of God’s creation. And, since other religions have similar problems and concerns, I believe that many non-Jews will also find this book interesting, challenging, informative, and valuable.
More information about the issues in this book can be found in the sources mentioned in the bibliography, including my books Judaism and Global Survival and Judaism and Vegetarianism. Both of my books are available to read freely online at www.Jewishveg.com/Schwartz, where you can also find over 200 related articles written by me as well as about 25 podcasts of my talks and interviews. These issues are also presented in a documentary called A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World that I helped produce with multiple-award-winning producer, director, writer, and cinematographer Lionel Friedberg. It can be viewed for free at www.aSacredDuty.com.
This is a book about Jewish values and ethics, not a work of Jewish law, concerning which I do not claim to be an expert. Anyone who desires practical guidance in these matters should consult a qualified rabbi. If you have specific questions, points of disagreement (or of agreement that you would like to share), suggestions about promoting the ideas in this book or just points you would like to discuss, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome your comments and suggestions, especially about how to get dialogues started about the application of Jewish values to current critical issues. Many thanks!
1 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Earth is the Lord’s (New York: Harpers, 1966) 107.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” an address at the Episcopal National Cathedral, Washington D.C., March 31, 1968.