Shuki Friedman
Shuki Friedman
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Environmental protection is a Jewish matter of life and death

As long as rabbis see climate issues as marginal to their religious thinking, Israel's policy will continue to neglect these critical threats to human lives
Illustrative: Climate change. (Chonticha Wat; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Climate change. (Chonticha Wat; iStock by Getty Images)

Last month, we marked the beginning of the new year, 5782, a shemitah (sabbatical) year. This provides an opportunity to examine our attitude as a Jewish state to the environment. Unlike much of the world, it seems that many Israelis, especially in the religious and Haredi sectors, are quite indifferent to pressing ecological concerns.

To many Israeli Jews, the subject is treated as if it is something happening somewhere else, not our problem. The rapidly changing reality caused by climate change, and especially the cost to the soul that increasingly frequent environmental disasters exact, necessitates a change in attitude and a deeper examination of our relationship to the environment through the lens of mind control. The most basic definition of the shemitah year is that it is a “sabbath” for the land, which comes with a prohibition on tilling it and working to develop it for further use. This gives the land, and those cultivating it, an opportunity to renew their energies and limits the exploitation of the earth’s resources.

Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the images that bombard us from the news channels — floods, droughts, fires and severe heat and cold waves —¬†sometimes elicit a sense of the end of the world. The extent and intensity that characterized the events of the past year, and the growing psychological damage resulting from natural disasters make it clear that we are facing a different reality. Global warming, to which most experts believe human activity has significantly contributed, is no longer a distant threat but a tangible crisis. Human behavior can still mitigate it, and in so doing ensure the future of our planet.

In Israel, environmental protection and sustainability seem to receive less public attention than in other Western countries. The attention paid to the issue by many in the religious and Haredi sectors is even lower. Compared to other matters related to state conduct, the values of environmental protection are treated very poorly in religious thinking. As long as the religious position of rabbis and thinkers is that these issues are incidental and are only touched upon in a few verses of Genesis and some esoteric sources, this will continue to be the case. In some instances in recent years, the Haredim and religious have even blocked laws designed to protect the environment.

Policy formulation depends on striking a balance between disparate values. In the face of our global reality, this religious-value perception must change. It is clear that human actions affect the environment, and that the disasters caused by climate change and other environmental factors take human lives. Therefore, from now on, examining policy on these issues should be through the lens of Pikuach Nefesh, the undisputedly supreme Jewish ethical value of the sanctity of human life.

One of the essential challenges of a Jewish state is to design a Jewish-values approach to policy issues that do not conspicuously appear related to the religious realm. Religious thinkers and arbitrators should internalize the truth that these questions concern human life and mindfulness no less than “classical” religious issues. If this happens, their attitude, and consequently the values balance regarding these issues, will change. Israel will be a partner in the global effort to bring about a change in the calamitous trend, precisely because it is a Jewish state.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center.
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