With Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on climate change due out on June 18, religious communities are preparing to seize this rare moment of environmental spotlight. The much anticipated papal declaration will lay out the church’s views on the subject, and now members of the Jewish community — inspired by the church’s efforts — have released a letter of their own calling for “vigorous climate action.”
The Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, which was initiated by seven rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish faith, has been signed by more than 340 rabbis. Released in late May, it calls for “spiritual leadership of the Jewish people to speak to the Jewish people as a whole and to the world on this deep crisis in the history of the human species and of many other life-forms on our planet.”
In other words, it is a call for a “new sense of eco-social justice.”
According to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center and one of the seven authors, the the rabbis came up with three main reasons to take immediate action on climate change.
As laid out in an article in the American Jewish publication Forward, Waskow states that the rabbis wanted to bring “unique Jewish wisdom” to the efforts to heal the world from climate change; to remind the Jewish community that the “relationship between humans and the earth is encoded in the Torah;” and to connect with the younger generation of Jews who are concerned about the damaged world they and their children may inherit.
What are the sections of the Torah that most specifically relate the the climate crisis?
The rabbis found these to be Leviticus 25–26 and Deuteronomy 15, where the scripture calls for one year of every seven to be “Shabbat Shabbaton” or Sabbatical Year — “a Year of restful Release for the Earth and its workers from being made to work, and of Release for debtors from their debts.”
“In Leviticus 26, the Torah warns us that if we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will ‘rest’ anyway, despite us and upon us — through drought and famine and exile that turn an entire people into refugees,” the letter states.
The rabbis acknowledge that for centuries the attention of the Jewish community has focused on the “repair of social injustice” as the Jewish people experienced such traumas in their own history of exile. Now, it is time to focus on the deeper environmental crisis of which the Jewish tradition “has always been aware.”
“We urge those who have been focusing on social justice to address the climate crisis, and those who have been focusing on the climate crisis to address social justice,” state the rabbis.
What sort of action does this new eco-social justice entail? The letter offers some directives:
- Purchasing wind power rather than coal-fired power.
- “Organizing our great Federations” to give grants and loans to Jewish organizations to help make their buildings solar-powered.
- Moving bank accounts from those that invest in “deadly carbon-burning” to those that invest in local neighborhoods, such as credit unions.
- Divesting endowment funds from fossil fuels and putting them into “stable, profitable, life-giving enterprises.”
- Demanding that tax money no longer goes towards subsidizing fossil fuel companies, but instead to the rapid growth of renewable energy “as quickly in this emergency as our government moved in the emergency of the early 1940s to shift from manufacturing cars to making tanks.”
- Convincing lawmakers to put in a place a system of “carbon fees and public dividends” that incentivizes society to move beyond the “carbon economy.”
The rabbis place a strong emphasis on the United Nations climate talks at the end of the year in Paris, where world leaders hope to finalize a global agreement to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
“If past governmental behavior is any indication, the governments will probably get stuck in Paris — unless we, the peoples, insist on action,” writes Rabbi Waskow. “What we do during the next six months will decide what happens in Paris.”
Together the United States and Israel are home to more than 80 percent of the world’s Jews. This significance is not lost on the rabbis, who note that while the U.S. is one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis, Israel is one of the more vulnerable. The letter states that that Israeli scientists have predicted that under a business-as-usual scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions are not heavily mitigated, “the Negev desert will come to swallow up half the state of Israel, and sea-level rises will put much of Tel Aviv under water.”