Thinking Green: It’s Not Just a Virtue — It’s Your Jewish Duty

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published December 24, 2007, issue of December 28, 2007.
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The rhetoric of Jewish environmentalism has long been kind and gentle. Like much of American environmentalist talk, it accentuates the positive: what we can do, how you can help. This is Left-Wing Activism 101: Fight despair, and don’t alienate anyone. And it’s abetted, in both secular and Jewish contexts, by the propensity of tree-hugging liberals to be, well, tree-hugging liberals — nice people who, when not urging recycling and conservation, are also practicing nonviolent communication and advocating for pacifist politics.

But does touchy-feely rhetoric work? And is it really the Jewish way? No on both counts.

First, “accentuating the positive” allows corporations to greenwash their way out of accountability, and individuals to view environmentalism as a virtue and not a responsibility. When going green is a matter of symbolism (“beyond petroleum”) rather than substance, anyone can buy it, as long as he’s got a good publicist. We may be afraid of pointing fingers, but fingers need to be pointed: At the Republican Party, for blocking the Kyoto climate treaty; at the fossil fuels industries, for creating doubt where there isn’t any; and at every politician who blocks commonsense solutions like better mass transit.

I submit that this sternness of vision, rather than the soft stuff, is what our Jewish tradition demands. The Ten Commandments are not suggestions. The Golden Rule is not a “guideline.” If Judaism means anything, it means taking seriously our ethical responsibilities and not waffling on the details. It’s also good politics; last I checked, the fear-mongering over the “War on Terror” and “threats to the American family” has done pretty well. But even if it were political suicide, it would be the Jewish way. Were Moses, Isaiah and Rabbi Akiva worried about “not alienating anybody”? No. Jewish law is famously human, accommodating and livable; but the values are crystal clear.

Of course, there’s no environmentalism in the Torah. Environmental stewardship only makes sense when you have an alternative, and we’ve only been able to destroy large swaths of the planet in the past two centuries or so. Searching the Torah for evidence of recycling is like expecting our laws today to govern life on Mars. Sure, there are important norms that can easily be extended to today — the prohibition on waste, the Talmud’s rules about controlling pollution and God’s

much-contested injunction to rule over/take care of the earth. But they’re not enough. They miss the heart of the problem, and they seem peripheral to “real” Jewish concerns, like antisemitism (also not mentioned in the Torah).

If we get real about what climate change means for future generations, suddenly it’s not so peripheral. It’s bad form to trot out doomsday scenarios, and since they’re all based on projections, they really are uncertain. But if even one of them comes to pass, then there is a direct causal nexus between our actions today and our children’s suffering tomorrow. We are causing millions of people to suffer, struggle and possibly even die — it’s just that many of them haven’t been born yet. (If I seed my yard with landmines, can I really escape Jewish ethical responsibility for injuring the people who just happen to step on them? After all, no one can predict the future….)

Add to the mix that, as Israeli environmentalist Alon Tal reported in Zeek magazine recently, the local effects on Israel of global climate change could be quite severe: decreased agricultural productivity, increased drought (as if Israel’s water crisis weren’t severe enough), increased “severe weather events” and loss of valuable beaches. Even if you’re not too concerned about your responsibilities to your grandchildren, if you care about Israel, you must care about climate change.

Preventing climate catastrophe is an ethical responsibility rooted in the fundamental values of our religious tradition. Like not doing unto others as we wouldn’t want them to do unto us. Like not stealing the resources of the future for our wasteful enjoyment today. Like not destroying God’s creation without regard to others who may want to use it. This isn’t tree hugging; it’s Torah.

And that has consequences. First, synagogues should take a stand on the issue — not merely hortatory sermons from rabbis, or committees made up of a few eco-Jews, but real policies. Non-hybrid SUVs should not be allowed in synagogue parking lots. Buildings should be built responsibly, from fluorescent light bulbs to improved insulation and efficient climate-control systems. And while people should of course remain wholly free to be as wholly unethical as they want, within the law, communities should be as disapproving of carbon-hogging behavior as they once were (and in some cases still are) of intermarriage.

Second, ignorance is no excuse. If you still think there’s real debate, pore over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. Read between the lines of such mass-media products as the 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth” to appreciate the subtleties and complexities of the problem. But don’t claim that because you don’t know enough about climate change, nobody else does, either. The truth is that, just as every scientist except those in the pocket of Big Tobacco knew that smoking was bad for you, so, today, every scientist without a political or financial tie to certain industries knows the truth about climate change. If you don’t want to do the research yourself, then you have a responsibility to be sure you’re acting ethically, and err on the side of caution.

Finally, for religious Jews, this matters to God. Just as it’s hypocritical to be ritually pious but never give tzedakah, so, too, it’s fundamentally inconsistent to pray three times a day but still lead a wasteful, Styrofoam-laden lifestyle. We’re not talking here about political correctness or being a vegetarian. This is about waking up to the way our society transgresses ethical norms, defaces the Divine creation, and pretends that it isn’t to blame or that it doesn’t know any better.

American Jews have often risen to the challenge of our prophetic tradition. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish labor unionists and, more recently, the Jewish leadership on the Darfur issue are all examples of Jews realizing that their commitment to Jewishness required them to act. To be sure, there have always been opponents: For every Heschel, there were other rabbis condemning his “agitation.” But — and as a Jewish Buddhist I’m not one to advocate for more righteous indignation — at least there was a tone of seriousness to the debate. I’d even prefer the rancor of the left/right name-calling over Israeli politics to the moral minimization of environmental issues. Disagree if you want. Learn the facts if you want. But don’t yawn and call yourself a Jew.

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