I’ve always loved people, animals and plants. My nightmares are full of fears about what might destroy them: terror and violence, or pollution and greed.
I imagine the following conversation as Noah’s flood engulfs the Earth.
A father is chivvying his son up the mountain. The boy asks: “Daddy, why didn’t you listen when they warned you?” He has no answer, only guilt and sorrow.
The Talmud notes that it took decades to build the ark, during which time Noah unremittingly urged his contemporaries to change their ways. They mocked his rebukes and countered his every warning with “O, but we have technological answers to that”.
In worse moments, I imagine that conversation happening between myself and my future grandchildren: “Why didn’t you listen when they told you the way you live was destroying the world?” What will I say then?
The forthcoming climate talks in Paris may be our last best chance to create legally binding international agreements to prevent the world’s temperature rising by more than two degrees centigrade. Global warming isn’t a specifically “Jewish issue”; it doesn’t address our most prepossessing anxieties: Israel, antisemitism, terror, assimilation. But it unquestionably is a Jewish issue, because regarding the survival of life on Earth, the fate of one is the fate of all.
Pope Francis’s outstanding encyclical Laudato Si speaks of the Earth as “our common home”, drawing on the Hebrew Bible as its primary source.
The rabbinic phrase “partners with God in creation” encapsulates exactly the nature of the responsibility to which he calls people of all faiths and none: “I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet…the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots… affect us all.”
There is no room, he insists, for obstructionism, indifference or blind belief in technology.
Contrary to how it has often been represented, the Pope notes that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures”. Rather, we are stewards entrusted with the wellbeing of all creation. Equally, as Naomi Klein states bluntly in This Changes Everything, there’s no place for the unregulated power of money and economic growth as the unrivalled determinant of what societies mean by success. We therefore need to change both out thinking and our conduct.
Where is the Jewish voice in this crisis of civilisation?
Contemporary theologian Arthur Green focuses on the spiritual dimension of ecology, God’s presence in all living being. He finds the call to action in God’s one-word challenge to Adam in Eden: “Where are you?” What God means is: “Where are you in helping me to carry this project of creation forward?” We must deepen our awareness of the basic unity of all life and our responsibility towards it.
He has therefore reintroduced the ancient tradition of ma’amadot, vigils, at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, where he’s principal. In Temple times, when the priests from any town ascended to Jerusalem to serve their shift at the altar, the local people gathered daily for ma’amadot, the recitation of the section from Genesis I, recounting the creation for that day of the week. Explaining the practice, the Talmud quotes Jeremiah: “God has a basic covenant with day and night, with the very laws of nature” (33:25).
Our way of life risks undermining those laws and making our world uninhabitable. The ma’amadot teach us to change. Through daily attention to each facet of creation, light, water, plants, animals, humankind, we deepen our appreciation of it, our determination not to pollute or destroy it and our commitment to work for ecological harmony and justice.
A ma’amad can be as simple as reciting the verses for the appropriate day. It can be a solitary meditation, or a reading in the presence of hundreds. It can be enhanced by poetry, music, pictures and reflections. But it should lead to commitments. The phrases are familiar: conserve more, waste less. Every individual can do something; communities and corporations can do more. Ultimately essential are national and international commitments to renewable energy and a limit on fossil fuels. We mustn’t invest in enterprises which destroy the world. We mustn’t consume their products. We’re all guilty and must all modify how we live.
I’m a lover of woodlands and wild places, but climate change isn’t just about nature. It’s about stopping making the poor pay for our wealth by contributing directly or indirectly to the destruction of their incomes, homes and countries. As Jews we empathise, rightly, with refugees. If we fail to act on climate change we will see refugees in even greater numbers as entire peoples strive to escape floods, droughts and wars over the still habitable corners of once fertile lands.
We owe it to life itself, and to this beautiful world with which we are entrusted, not to let that happen.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.