Yuval Cherlow

Amidst our current challenges, we cannot forget the natural world beyond

World Environment Day, marked today, June 5th, is designed to highlight the international need to protect the world we live in.

Here in Israel, it is only natural that our current focus isn’t on such “long-term issues” like the ecological and environmental challenges facing the globe, as our attention is on far more immediate fears of security and survival.  That’s certainly a more than understandable human response and, on a very practical level, there is no doubt that this is where our national attention must lie. We are also living in a period where Israel’s faith in any international institution is being deeply challenged by the global response to our legitimate rights in this war.

Yet even with those caveats, it is worth taking a moment to remember that the future of our world remains an issue and challenge that does, and certainly will, affect each and every one of us. Tragically, so much of the damage that is being done is a result of actions that we are taking.

We often make the mistake of mitigating our human impact by asking the question of how much damage could I possible be doing by my actions within the massive scope of all the pollution taking place globally? Indeed the scope is immense and touches nearly everything we do in life. Our water and air is being contaminated, our natural surroundings are being filled with garbage that will effectively never be destroyed, radiation exposure from all sorts of sources is harming our health in ways we likely don’t even begin to understand, the list goes on and on…

When we come to that recognition, it becomes critical that we begin to use a completely different language when confronting these issues; the language of pikuach nefesh (life-saving). And once we adopt that language, we can appreciate that it is not simply a social or environmental issue, but also a halachic one.  Because even if we can make the argument that our ability to affect change might be minimal in the face of the vastness of the problem, halacha mandates that when there is even a doubt that our actions could save life, we are required to do everything possible to reduce the possibility that a specific action could cost one his or her life.

Internalizing this shift in understanding can also be critical to changing our overall approach on issues of environmental defense. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in any social movement, defending the environment being one of them, is the challenge of identity politics. Whether we like it or not, environmentalism is generally associated with more liberal elements on the political spectrum and certain people avoid too closely associating with this cause. We avoid advocating for a safer and healthier world because we disagree with proponents of environmental activism on other issues. But once we come to accept that this isn’t a social or political issue but very much a life-saving one, we can begin to accept that the obligation to promote environmental friendly practices is something that we all need to accept and support.

Similarly, embracing that environmentalism has a distinctive religious and spiritual element will expand the understanding that protecting our world is part of our responsibility as Jews and, in particular, part of our responsibility to future generations.

So while we remain focused on the events of today and the fears and uncertainty that comes with them, we cannot forget that with God’s blessing we will be victorious and we bear a responsibility to preserve the future in all ways possible.

About the Author
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.