Q. Does Jewish tradition have any special lessons about global warming?

A. Let's begin by explaining what global warming is. Reliable thermometers have been around for generations, and scientists are convinced that the earth is significantly warmer than it was a century ago. Many researchers believe that the main cause of this warming is carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity, particularly industrial activity. Others are unconvinced, but most acknowledge that such gases do tend to warm the environment and thus accelerate what may be underlying natural climate cycles.

There is also great uncertainty as to the impact of this phenomenon. Some predict global disaster, including inundation of coastal areas, violent storm activity and disrupted rain patterns leading to widespread desertification. Others conclude that global warming will be more of a nuisance than a catastrophe, and that we will merely have to build a few dams, alter our agricultural patterns a bit, and invest a little more in air conditioning and less in heating. This column is not meant in any way to arbitrate the conflicting scientific opinions on these issues.

It would be presumptuous to claim that there is a unique "Jewish approach" to global warming. At the same time, the Mishnah tells us, "Search [the Torah] again and again, for all is found in it." (1) Our tradition is an inexhaustible well of insight and inspiration, even when it doesn't provide definitive answers. In this spirit, I would like to present a fascinating Talmudic story which I think provides an interesting perspective on the issue of global warming.

The Talmud provides a vivid description of the final judgment of the various nations of the world. This story, like the many others in the Talmud, uses a descriptive and somewhat fanciful narrative to transmit a profound moral lesson.

The Talmud relates that in the time of the future judgment, many nations of the world will be harshly judged for their arrogance, selfishness, and cruelty, while the people of Israel will be rewarded for remaining faithful to their covenant with God. The nations then complain that this judgment is unfair! The people of Israel obtain their merit by adhering to the dictates of the Torah, but the nations of the world are not subject to the Torah, and thus are disadvantaged in their pursuit of God's favor. The Talmud points out that this claim is really unfounded, because these nations are being condemned for violating the basic principles of ethical behavior binding on all mankind. All humans have the ability to obtain a favorable judgment by fulfilling the specific obligations applying to their situation.

Even so, to be absolutely fair, God gives these nations a last chance: He suggests that once they be given the ability to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah, the booth Jews are commanded to dwell in for a week during the Sukkot holiday. When they agree, God then "withdraws the sun from its sheath," bringing intense heat to the world. Annoyed by the heat, the wicked nations then abandon their booths in disgust, thus spoiling their last chance for redemption. The Talmud then points out that we are not even required to sit in the sukkah in intense discomfort, so such heat in fact makes us exempt from the sukkah! It turns out that the ultimate condemnation of these nations is not because they failed to fulfill the mitzvah. It is because they didn't have a true desire to fulfill God's will, for if they did, they would have been disappointed and sad at the intense heat, instead of disgusted and angry. (2)

Awareness of God's presence is greatest in the natural world mankind was born into.

To analyze this story, we suggest that the sukkah has two closely related messages. The details of the commandment of sukkah symbolize the idea of harmony between man and the natural environment, with neither dominating. Nature is the basis, as the sukkah must be made of natural materials; a sukkah made of artificial roofing is invalid. Yet man must take part too; we can not fulfill the commandment of sukkah by sleeping under a tree, or under a pile of waste wood. (3) The sukkah must be purposefully put in place to serve as a shelter. The message is that while during most of the year we do strive to conquer the natural world, according to the admonition to Adam to "fill the world and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28), we set aside one week each year to appreciate a more equal sharing of roles, yet one in which our unique human stature is still emphasized.

The sukkah also represents putting our faith in God. The Talmud tells us that the word "sukkah" doesn't only mean a booth; it also refers to the special clouds of glory that accompanied the wanderings of the Jewish people following the Exodus. In these "clouds," the people had a heightened awareness of God's presence. (3) Putting these messages together, at Sukkot we remind ourselves that while we may put great trust in our ingenuity and our ability to manipulate the world, ultimately we too are creatures of nature and are dependent on God's benevolence. We obtain closeness to His presence when we recognize this fact.

It seems that this is the final lesson for mankind to learn, the final opportunity for judgment. Despite the persistent thread of arrogance and cruelty in human history, God is always willing to give us a final chance to recognize His supremacy and the ideal of coexisting in harmony with the natural world He provides. In the end, redemption is available if we only accept the mitzvah of sukkah.

In the end, it may turn out that we are unable to fulfill the mitzvah. The natural world may be one in which the "sun is drawn from its sheath," an inhospitable world. Even so, we can find favor with God if we at least regret the lost opportunity to enjoy the world as He originally created it -- a nurturing natural world where we have a heightened awareness of His constant presence.

We have to recognize that a world in which the original natural order is disturbed is a second-best world. Whatever has happened in the past, we should take pains not to bring about dramatic climate change in the future. Awareness of God's presence is greatest in the natural world mankind was born into. When we attain this recognition, we will sincerely regret any destruction of our destined natural order and work to prevent any irreversible degradation of our natural environment.

SOURCES: (1) Avot 5:22. (2) Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zara pp. 2-3. (3) Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 11b.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.