Jonathan Wittenberg
Jonathan Wittenberg

Faiths are uniting to support planet but we must repent

Melting ice (Photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash)
Melting ice (Photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash)

From across the globe Jewish leaders from all parts of the religious spectrum will participate in COP, or Conference of the Parties, meaning states that have signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

From pupils in school, through youth movements, to members of XR Jews and the increasing number of congregations signed up to EcoSynagogue, we are passionately concerned about the future of our world. We care as Jews, as human beings, and as part of the vast interdependent community of all living beings.

Before the covenant at Sinai, we were a part of the ancient, universal bond between God, humanity and all life on earth. It was established with Noah after the first great destruction. Only mindfulness of it now can prevent a new environmental disaster.

Ever since God instructed Adam and Eve to work the land with respect while protecting the earth and the rich biodiversity it supports, Judaism has taught that we are not owners but trustees and caretakers because ‘the world and its fullness belong to God’. We are not entitled simply to commodify, monetise and exploit nature. For, as we are reminded in this sabbatical year, the land and all creatures matter to God.

The authors of the Bible, like the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, lived in close relationship with the soil; they knew in their bones our interdependence with nature.

They experienced droughts and floods. They understood the truth taught by Ecclesiastes, that ‘even the king – or prime minister – is subject to the field.’ If they were alive today, they would uphold the demand for climate justice for the world’s poorest populations. For justice is a central value of Torah.

The Torah’s commandment, bal tashchit (do not destroy), forbids wanton destruction. We should interpret this now to include our participation, directly or through investments, in patterns of consumption, extraction and waste, which cause devastation anywhere on earth. We cannot pursue in good conscience a way of life in one part of the world that causes destitution in another.

The Torah forbids cruelty, not just to people but to animals. There can be few greater forms of cruelty than causing their extinction.

Over and above these reasons, I feel passionate concern for the future of the planet because the world is full of wonder and God’s spirit flows through all creation. I’m a lover of forests, streams and mountains; they restore the soul, and our physical and mental health as well. Therefore, I fear for the future of nature.

We owe the world’s children and grandchildren a planet as rich, beautiful and sustaining as it once was and can again become. How can we live with ourselves unless we try to do our best for them and for this earth?

Religions have a crucial role in the climate crisis. With their ethos of collective responsibility, they have the capacity to mobilise whole communities to work for a better world. People of all faiths will be campaigning together at COP and working together afterwards.

We need to engage collectively in environmental teshuvah (repentance). Maimonides describes teshuvah as a process beginning with acknowledgement, followed by reparation and lasting change.

We have to rethink habits of wastefulness, unnecessary consumption and inattentiveness to our impact on the biosphere. We must fall back in love with the natural world and deepen our awareness of the peoples, animals and plants with whom we share our planet. We can join remarkable organisations supporting nature, here, in Israel and globally. We can plant trees and make gardens into miniature biodiverse reserves.

We can pursue environmental justice while filling our lives with wonder.

About the Author
Jonathan Wittenberg is Rabbi at New North Masorti London Synagogue
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