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What the Pope’s Climate Change Edict Means For Jews

Today Pope Francis made history. He just published a much anticipated encyclical on the environment, called Laudato Si’ (Praised Be).

This is the first time that someone who may well be the moral and spiritual leader of the world has made preservation of the environment part of official Catholic moral teaching. Right off the bat we should realize that there are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world. An encyclical is the second highest level of official papal pronouncement, similar to an official rabbinic commentary to the Talmud during the period when the rabbinic movement of the Jewish community was far more centralized than it is today. The encyclical’s publication comes at a critical time in the history of our environment. The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is growing at an alarming rate and the vast majority of scientists know that we are approaching the point where the potential for catastrophic climate change will threaten human civilization. Hurricane Sandy will simply have been an early tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The entire world is benefitting from the wisdom of the Pope. This year there will be a new treaty on climate change that will be finalized in Paris in December. The Pope will be visiting the United States in September right around Yom Kippur to speak to the United States Congress and the United Nations. And all over the world people will be speaking out, marching and taking other mass actions to demand that the Paris treaty actually accomplishes what needs to be done. And most importantly, the encyclical is not only addressed to Catholics or Christians but to everyone on Earth: “…faced as we are with global environmental deterioration. I wish to address every living person on this planet.”

Why should Jews care about Pope Francis’ encyclical? First, because the Pope is one of the most beloved religious leaders in recent memory and his words will impact everyone’s thinking. Climate change is a universal human crisis that affects all of us and the Pope’s encyclical will have a major impact on the treaty process. He also has a long history of strong and close relations with the Jewish community dating back to his days as an archbishop in Argentina.

The Pope uses Biblical texts to explain the essential values on which the encyclical is based. His recurring themes of the dignity of human beings is based on Genesis 1; the origin and connection of humanity to the earth itself is found in Genesis 2; the interconnection and inherent value of all life comes from Psalm 148; the connection of the degradation of the environment to the degradation of the poor are based on the stories of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, as well as other quoted texts. He also utilizes many of the same laws in the Torah that Jewish environmentalists have been quoting for decades: the laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee from Leviticus 25, the protection of species from Deuteronomy 22:6-7 and the Sabbath imperative to rest from Exodus 23:12.

As concerned as the Pope is about climate change, he is even more focused on its impact on the poor. His encyclical looks right at the moral and spiritual crisis that climate change will bring to the fore: moral, because of its disproportionate impact on the poor, and spiritual because it highlights our disconnection to creation. He also makes a deep and thoughtful critique of the modern economy, consumerism, the current concept of progress, and the way in which technology can have a negative impact on the environment if not properly regulated. He calls for an open and honest discussion among all people to find effective solutions to this growing crisis.

We believe that Jews, as people of faith, should use this holy moment in the history of the planet to speak out forcefully. Our future is at stake just as is everyone else’s future..

Israel will be affected severely by climate chane. For years there have been worries about disappearing Tel Aviv beaches and a rapidly decreasing agricultural capacity. Now many scientists and global strategists have looked at the rise of ISIS and believe its meteoric growth has been intensified by the extreme drought in the Middle East enticing the people of the region to look to violent radical politics to find some solace to alleviate the agony of their miserable lives. In 2010 Israel pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020. At that time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The recent dry months, including the driest November in the history of the state, are a warning light to us all that the threat of climate change is no less menacing than the security threats that we face…. In a country that suffers from a severe water shortage, this is an existential struggle,”

The Jewish community through all its institutions, religious and otherwise, must engage in a in a campaign to ask rabbis to preach about climate change during this year’s High Holiday Season. Members of our community should make it clear that they welcome Pope Francis to the United States and support this efforts described in the encyclical. Op-eds should be placed in newspapers, letters written to editors, and calls made to elected representatives asking them to urge forceful American engagement in our country’s response not only to the universal spiritual and moral call of Pope Francis but to the agreement that will be hammered out later this year in Paris.

Steve Gutow is president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and chair of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Lawrence Troster is the coordinator for Shomrei Breisthi: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth.


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