“No justice, no peace,” we chant at many rallies in this age of rampant injustice. Every bit as true, but far less pithy, would be: “No steep reduction in our carbon footprint, no justice; no radical rethinking of our values and practices, no peace!” The paucity of good green slogans reflects the diminished urgency many of us sense around what we nonetheless acknowledge to be a true climate crisis.
Ecology holds an odd place in our spiritual activist consciousness. In well-educated communities (including most of Jewish America), environmental awareness is a given; we acknowledge the hole in which we’re digging ourselves, ever deeper. But where our time and resources really go, where there’s critical mass for activist tikkun olam (literally “repair of the world”) efforts, ecology rarely ranks. Polling data bears this out – American Jews are unusually likely to support the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is a major and growing threat, yet quite unlikely to find it imminently and personally relevant (1).
Every issue is important! We must never accept the frame, imposed by some rightists and leftists alike, that various vectors of tikkun olam are in perpetual competition with one another for scarce attention. Rather, they’re all interconnected. How can we tackle poverty or structural racism, without addressing the disproportionate environmental impacts borne by marginal communities? How can we advance global justice and sustainability, without addressing gender (in)equality?
We often affirm with Emma Goldman and Dr. King that “none are free until are all free,” (2) and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Likewise, none are secure from the ravages of a changing climate and denuded world, until all are secure. And given the clear and growing scope of those climate impacts – which exacerbate every challenge, from hunger to refugees to illness to political instability and violence – climate change lies near the center of the tangled web of issues on which we each work.
So, to recycle the name of this initiative: we need to evolve, fast (3). Our thoughts and actions must get in step with the true scale of what humanity is bringing upon ourselves. Luckily, our tradition – especially its forward-thinking branches, which are ever reconstructing Judaism – offers a treasure-trove of perspectives, teachings, and resources for our collective journey towards where spirit meets sustainability (4).
Let’s consider five core values, drawn from the heart of our sacred tradition, each of which points to actions we can and must take. All are offered in the spirit of the final value, tikvah/hope – hope that we can embrace sustainability not just as a needed survival tool, but as a spiritual way of life, as second nature, as sacred opportunity. Let’s tikkun this olam (repair this world), together, pronto.
The most-remembered word of the Pesach seder is also a watchword for the 21st century: Dayeinu, “it is [was] [would be] enough for us.”
Beneath today’s environmental crisis is a crisis of values. We’ve traded our birthright of clean air and water for a mess of material porridge. Most care for the valuations of stocks, and their stockpiles of stuff, over the biosphere on which all life depends. The Earth’s carrying capacity cannot (and with pervasive poverty does not) support 7.3 billion people at upper-middle class American early 21st levels. Large climate-controlled homes, many meat meals, frequent flights, cars wherever and whenever, massive wardrobes!? – we’re not entitled! Beyond bal tashkhit (the oft-cited command to not waste), our consumption needs cathartic cuts.
To really extend kavod (honor) to everyone, we consumer-polluters must develop an ethic of sufficiency, which includes: (1) “Dayeinu.” (2) Shabbat, our weekly retreat from the rat race of extraction-production-consumption-disposal, favoring happy sustainable activities like fellowship and song, prayer and poetry. (3) The core meaning of sacrifice/korban, from sacred/karov – giving up material things, for far greater spiritual benefit. And (4) the Mishnah, איזהו עשיר--השמח בחלקו. “Who is rich – whoever is happy with their lot” (5).
Progressive Jewish values already prefer common-wealth to individual affluence. We must jettison more “stuff,” whittle down our ecological footprint ever further, in order to increase the world’s joy and justice.
Kehillah is community, not “resilience” per se (6). Yet communities powerfully help their members bounce back – preventatively, through strength, health, and education; and reactively, through presence, support, and shared resources. Rabbi Dr. Deborah Waxman, who leads our movement in which community is central, holds that “Judaism, writ large, is about resilience” (7). Resilience and community go hand-in-hand.
Jewish resilience is clearest in shmita (‘release’), the biblical sabbatical year. Despite dubious details, shmita is our asymptote, the tall goal we seek to approach ever more closely. It rolls ecology, social and economic justice, communal resilience, sustainable agriculture, and personal spirituality into one interconnected whole (8). Shmita (with yovel/jubilee) lets the land rest and regenerate, protects workers and servants, frees slaves, annuls debts, restores equality, decenters private ownership, ensures small interconnected communities, protects immigrants and the poor along with wildlife, keeps population reasonably low, and favors a higher quality of life over higher GDP.
Shmita is the grand unification theory of progressive Judaism! In today’s imperiled world, “shmita-consciousness” might be among Judaism’s greatest gifts.
The Sierra Club’s motto – “Explore Enjoy Protect” – is a modern eco-version of Deuteronomy 8:10: “You ate; You were satisfied; You bless.” In both cases, we can’t just take in the world’s bounty; moved by our experience, we must give back, materially and spiritually. This is responsibility.
Alan Morinis describes Mussar, the Jewish approach of ethical contemplation, in ecologically-sound terms: “Take responsibility, it says. If you made that mess, clean it up. Better still, foresee the mess and take responsibility before it happens, so there won’t even be a mess” (9). This goes equally for the mess in our household, our town, or our world – in each case, as the Talmud insists, we’re responsible (10).
“The material needs of another are an obligation of my spiritual life,” wrote Mussar master Israel Salanter; Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm called this “bearing the burden of the other.” Today’s others include climate refugees, victims of rising seas and strengthened storms, those hungry from longer droughts, and so on. Justice delayed, via our glacial progress in addressing climate change, is indeed justice denied.
We in developed nations, wealthy from centuries of exploiting nature and people alike, must take real responsibility for climate mitigation (reducing emissions), and adaptation (lessening adverse impacts). The only other outcome is suffering, of which much is already locked in, and more yet depends on how quickly we mitigate and adapt (11). Per Mussar, carbon neutrality and adaptation assistance are now core spiritual goals.
Our many words for ‘justice’ fall on a spectrum – hesed / loving-kindness; tzedek-tzedakah / righteousness; mishpat / right relations; din / legal judgment (12). Each bears new meaning in the Anthropocene, our climate-imperiled era: Love, guiding all our actions. Interpersonal righteousness, measured and expressed by reducing our ecological footprint. Right relations, not just among people, but between humans and the rest of Creation (13). Environmental regulations and laws, defended and strengthened, to protect all we hold dear.
Climate considerations loom large – again, mitigation and adaption – in our redifat tzedek, pursuit of justice, as mandated in Deuteronomy 16:20. Further green nuance comes through the question of time scales: “Certainly much social-change activism needs to respond to immediate needs,” notes Rabbi David Jaffe, while expounding on savlanut/patience. “At the same time, lasting social change often takes years if not decades. How do we engage in fixing the world while holding a perspective that our efforts could take generations?” (14) Indeed, thinking intergenerationally is thinking ecologically.
Two of God’s thirteen attributes (Exod. 34:6-7): “extends lovingkindess to the thousandth generation;” “visits sins unto the third and fourth generation.” The bad news? Carbon emitted today will continue to wreak atmospheric havoc for about a century, some three or four generations – so we now imperil our own great-grandchildren, scientifically as well as spiritually speaking. The good news? Loving-kindness lasts orders of magnitude longer.
We close with the hardest, most important value. How to affirm hope given climate science, obfuscation, backsliding, and mounting suffering?
Start with Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz’s “Five Big Facts” – “Scientists agree. It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. But there’s hope!” (15) Acknowledging the complexities, and citing data behind each terse truth, he expounds: “Our job is to convey these ideas effectively, so that the conversation around climate change becomes one about solutions and hope.” One concrete example? Some 21 million Americans have joined, or appear willing to join, a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming. “By contrast, the NRA is around 4 million. Think of the influence an organized group of 21 million climate champions could have!”
As Rabbi Dr. Deborah Waxman and I have publicly discussed, this is all resilience (a word with positive connotations). “Instead of focusing on [our] hot, crowded, denuded world, we can focus on the resilient potential within nature and within us,” (16) to become more effective, hope-filled climate communicators.
Again, to keep hope alive, we must keep our eyes on the intergenerational prize – thinking long-term, ala Dr. King’s long moral arc of the universe, helps greatly. Other sources of hope abound in our sacred texts, like Isaiah 57-58 (the Yom Kippur Haftarah)’s promise that once we enact true justice and sustainability, our light shall “break forth like the dawn.” And Hatikvah, seventy-year-old Israel’s national anthem, references the Jewish people’s “2000-year hope to be a free people in our land” – a microcosm of today’s global hope, that all people may dwell, securely and sustainably, with the land.
These are just five briefly-outlined values, from among the countless gifts our tradition can bestow upon those doing the most literal sort of tikkun olam / global repair. Let’s keep turning tradition around and around, applying all that’s within it to the “fierce urgency of now” which compels our caring for Creation, from generation to generation (17).