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The Jewish Ethicist - Warm World

The Jewish Ethicist - Warm World

What does Judaism say about global warming?


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.

November 4, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) TovaSaul, November 12, 2006 6:19 AM

Thanks for discussing this

A lot more of this kind of discussion needs to be taught by our Jewish leaders. The Jews should be leading the world toward an ethical approach as to how we relate to our planet, especially since our technology, greed, thoughtlessness, and carelessness has lead us to the brink of causing mass extinctions of Hashem's spectacular tapestry of living creatures.
Before anyone opens their mouth to smugly say that global warming isn't a problem, they should know what they are talking about. If not, they will sound like dopes. First see the movie "An Inconvenient Truth" and be informed.

(4) GavrielD., November 6, 2006 7:26 PM

Our obligation is to care for, not conquer the world

Thank you for addressing this important topic. The scientific community is nearly unified in recognizing that the data show the world is warming beyond any historical fluctuations over the past several hundred thousand years. Only the press shows "skepticism" by reporting on politicians and others who ignore the science. Our job as humans and Jews is to emulate G-d. This does not mean that we are allowed to destroy the world because G-d did so with the flood. Rather, we need to recognize that G-d brought the flood because of the evil in the world. Man's continued destructive behavior will be the evil that brings on the next destruction.
Man is given the obligation to obligation to take care of the gifts G-d has given us. This is especially important in Israel. The Arabs are the least of Israel's problems. The Jews are destroying their land in ways that our enemies can only dream of. Our precious soil is being paved over at an alarming rate. Agricultural land receives one of the highest concentrations of fertilizers and pesticides in the world; limited water resources are being polluted and wasted; and polluted air quality is responsible for many more deaths and illnesses than all terrorist attacks combined.
One of the best gifts G-d has given us is Teshuvah. We have the ability to recognize the effect of our behaviour and change our ways. Thus whether you believe the science or not, believe in G-d and fulfill his command to tend the garden and not eat of any fruit you desire.

(3) Fred, November 6, 2006 12:44 PM

You wrote:
"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."

That's the heart of the question - first of all, are "greenhouse gasses" mainly the result of human activity, or more from natural causes - volcanic activity, etc. Secondly, how much of a contribution does human activity make to an environment almost entirely shaped by the activity of the sun's cycles?

It is all very well to say that we should err on the side of caution and do what we can to minimize our own contribution, but requiring radical and sweeping life style changes to effect a symbolic reduction of "global warming" must have its own ethical ramifications.

(2) cjensema, November 5, 2006 10:56 PM

We don't run the world

If there was not worming we would still be in the ice age. The worming IF it is true is not important . It being used for polical gain is !

(1) BarryE.Lerner, November 5, 2006 7:11 PM

global warming

You say, "...a world in which the original natural order is disturbed is a second-best world." Indeed? The natural world would have you shivering in the cold; do you not heat your house? The natural world would have you walk everywhere, yet you use an auto. The natural world would leave much of Israel as desert, but the Israelis brought in unnatural irrigation, "disturbing" the way things were. On reflection, it is obvious that most of our activities are, and should be, intended to effect change.

We can further agree, as you point out, that such change should be made responsibly. But how can we decide what is responsible and what is not? We can, first of all, think about the problem, rather than simply float along in the flood of headline hysteria. In analyzing the situation we find that those most loudly proclaiming the end of the world all have something to gain by so claiming: the news media gain audience, the politicians gain power, and the scientists gain prestige. But most important, all three gain money. We have then, every right, even the obligation, to be skeptical.

Despite your disclaimers, you are concerned that human activity is causing irreparable global harm. This is not the venue to burden you with the mass of evidence to the contrary, but you should acquaint yourself with it; tikkun olam demands no less. There are, unfortunately, many ominous developments about which we must needs worry, but global warming is not one of them. Sleep well.

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