Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Does Judaism Say About Climate Change?

The question sounds like the title for a Lunch and Learn session of the sort that I used to give when I was campus rabbi at Cambridge.

The usual format was that hungry students would come and wolf down smoked salmon bagels while I held forth for forty minutes on what Jewish tradition could say about some topic of contemporary interest.

At first sight, the answer to this Lunch and Learn title is “nothing.” There is no “parshat global warming” in the Torah. You’ll search in vain for “tractate climate change” in the Talmud.

But Jews have always been ingenious at applying the eternal wisdom of our tradition to the most pressing issues of every era, at hearing the commanding word of Torah that is addressed to today. What has such extrapolation yielded on the issue of climate change?

So far, almost nothing. If I were a Hillel Rabbi today, giving Lunch and Learn about climate change, I’d struggle to find forty minutes worth of teaching material based on what’s currently out there.

This is odd, seeing as climate change is emerging as the most urgent challenge that humanity faces. Our success in meeting this challenge will determine whether or not we leave a livable biosphere on planet Earth to our children and grandchildren.

Correct us if we’re wrong about this, (and we’d be delighted to discover that we are), but at Jewish Climate Initiative we’re not aware of any serious research that has been done so far to focus the spiritual depth and power of Jewish teaching on this issue.

This is the central challenge that Jewish Climate Initiative has set itself in its first year of operation: to articulate a coherent Jewish answer to this question; a response that’s deeply rooted in traditional Jewish sources, and fully engaged in the reality of contemporary science and policy.

We’ve made a small start in the Ethics section of our website. There we break the question down into several more manageable ones.

What can we say about intergenerational justice, about our role in leaving a habitable world to our descendants?

What can three Talmudic tractates on the subject of damages tell us about our responsibility for stopping and making good the damage we’re doing to our global neighbours through excessive CO2 emissions?

How can the cardinal Jewish principle of pikuah nefesh, saving life, galvanize us into doing something about a problem that could cost hundreds of millions of lives in the next century?

What can we say about a global ethic of consumption that is trashing the planet for the sake of today’s fleeting pleasure?

We’ve barely scratched the surface of these questions. In partnership with scholars, rabbis and teachers around the world we aim to access the wealth of Jewish teaching and develop some compelling answers.

Then we will have a body of wisdom that can serve not just as edu-tainment for Jewish students between lectures. We will have a basis from which we can articulate a Jewish message to the world that addresses humanity's most pressing challenge

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