This year, Earth Day (April 22) falls on a Saturday, providing an excellent opportunity to turn the day into an “Environmental Shabbat.” I am working with others to encourage rabbis all over the world to give sermons and/or classes on that day about Judaism’s splendid environmental teachings and how they can be applied to reduce current environmental threats.
A list of supporting organizations is at the end of this article.
Among the many rabbis supporting this initiative are Nathan Lopes Cardozo, dean of the David Cardozo Institute and author of many Judaica books, including Jewish Law as Rebellion; Yitz Greenberg, President of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life; Yonatan Neril, founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and co-editor of Eco Bible, volumes 1 and 2; David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and now Director of International Inter-religious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee; Jonathan Wittenberg, leading UK Masorti rabbi; David Wolpe, leading US Conservative rabbi and author; and Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and director of Uri l’Tzekek and Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy, and author of many Judaica books.
Many activities suitable for an “Environmental Shabbat” are at the website of the Green Sabbath Project, https://www.greensabbathproject.net/sabbath-activities
Reinforcing this initiative, the Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA) is encouraging Christian clergy to give environmentally-related sermons and/or classes on the Sunday immediately after Earth Day.
Among Judaism’s many environmental teachings are the following:
1. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to guard/protect it” (Genesis 2:15). Based on this and other Torah verses, Jews are to be shomrei ha’adamah, “guardians of the earth, co-workers with God in protecting the environment.
2. In wartime, Jews are not to cut down fruit-bearing trees to build a battering ram to overcome an enemy fortification (Deuteronomy 20:19). The Jewish sages extended this prohibition into a general one against unnecessary destruction and wasteful use of resources.
3. Human beings were given dominion (Genesis 1:26). This verse has often been misinterpreted as giving people the right to freely exploit nature, but the Jewish sages interpreted it as mandating responsible stewardship, consistent with the two teachings above and other Torah teachings.
4. There is a midrash (rabbinical teaching) that, “In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, God showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28). For many years, people must have wondered: is it really possible that the world could be destroyed.? Unfortunately, as discussed below, it is possible and arguably likely today due to increasing threats from climate change.
It is essential that we recognize the very unfortunate truth that the world is rapidly approaching an unprecedented climate catastrophe. This is happening to such an extent that most, if not all, of human life could be eliminated before the end of this century, unless major positive changes soon occur.
A major exaggeration? Unfortunately not. Please consider:
- In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization composed of climate experts from many countries, warned that “unprecedented changes” were needed by 2030 for the world to have a chance to avert a climate catastrophe. Despite that warning, in May 2022 it was announced that atmospheric carbon dioxide had reached a record level, indicating hat the world is still heading in the wrong direction with regard to climate change.
- Because of many dire warnings, like the one above, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that the climate situation is a “Code Red for Humanity” and that “delay means death.”
- The year 2022 was unprecedented for the frequency and severity of droughts, heat waves, wildfires, storms, and floods, with many records being broken. Also, glaciers, polar ice sheets, and permafrost are rapidly melting.
As devastating as recent climate events have been, prospects for the future are even more frightening, for four very important reasons:
- While all the recent severe climate events have occurred at a time when the global temperature has risen about 1.1 degrees Celsius (about two degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the industrial revolution, climate experts project that this will at least triple by the end of this century, triggering far worse climate events.
- While climate experts believe that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide is a threshold value to avert the worst effects of climate change, the world has reached 420 ppm and it is increasing by 2 – 3 ppm per year.
- Climate experts fear that self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) could result in an irreversible tipping point such that global warming will rise uncontrollably, with catastrophic results. One example is that as the world gets hotter, more air conditioning will be used, meaning that more fossil fuel will be burned. This will release more greenhouse gases, heating the atmosphere even more, resulting in still more use of air conditioning, etc.
- Military experts are warning that there will likely be tens of millions of desperate refugees fleeing from severe heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, and other climate events, which will promote social and political instability, terrorism, and war. Severe droughts already caused major migrations that resulted in civil wars in both Sudan and Syria.
Israel is especially threatened by climate change because the Middle East is becoming hotter and drier than most areas, increasing the potential for future violence, terrorism, and war, and the coastal plain where most of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located could be inundated by a rising Mediterranean Sea.
A Jerusalem Post article, “Unprecedented, extreme weather to hit Mideast, Med” (September 8, 2022), indicated that, by the end of this century there could be “an overall warming of 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit), more than four times the present warming since the start of the industrial revolution, and Israel and neighboring countries “are going to be affected by unprecedented and societally disruptive extreme weather events, including heat waves, droughts, dust storms, and torrential rains.”
Because of the above factors, averting a climate catastrophe must become a central focus for civilization today. Every aspect of life should be considered in terms of reducing “carbon footprints.” Among the many positive steps that should be taken are shifting away from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and other renewable forms of energy; designing more efficient cars, lightbulbs, and other items; improving public transportation; recycling; and composting.
However, as president emeritus of Jewish Veg and author of “Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism,” I want to stress that there is one approach that has by far the greatest potential to help avert a climate catastrophe and that is through a societal shift toward vegan diets. Such a shift has a major advantage that the approaches mentioned above do not have. It provides the only approach that not only significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, because there would be far less cows and other farmed animals emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas with over 80 times the ability to heat up the planet as CO2 per unit weight. It also has the potential of dramatically reducing CO2 presently in the atmosphere by permitting reforesting of the over 40 percent of the world’s ice-free land that is currently being used for grazing and raising feed crops for animals. This could reduce the current very dangerous level of CO2 in the atmosphere to a much safer one. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening., as indicated, for example, in a Jerusalem Post August 14, 2022 article, “Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest through July hits new record.” The world is slowly committing suicide, eating our way to extinction.
Systems engineer Sailesh Rao, PhD, argues in his paper, “Animal Agriculture Is the Leading Cause of Climate Change,” published in the Journal of Ecological Society, that, taking the opportunity cost of not reforesting into account, 87% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is attributable to animal agriculture.
Bottom line: To have a chance for a decent, habitable, environmentally sustainable world for future generations, there must be a society-wide shift toward vegan diets. A Utopian dream? Perhaps, but, as the title of a book by Buckminster Fuller puts it, we may have a choice today between “Utopia or Oblivion.” And it would not be utopian if people become aware that the climate situation is a “Code Red for humanity,” and that they can get plant-based substitutes with the appearance, texture, and taste indistinguishable from meat and other animal products.
It is essential that Jews and others “choose life” by shifting to plant-based diets that are good for our lives and health, the lives of animals, and the life of our precious planet. This would be consistent with the Jewish mandate to be a “light unto the nations,” and could inspire many others to make similar dietary changes, helping to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. It would also be consistent with Jewish mandates to preserver our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help the hungry, and pursue peace.
Making Earth Day 2023 an Environmental Shabbat, with sermons, classes, environmentally-conscious meals and other environmentally-related activities would be an important step toward moving our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path and revitalizing Judaism.
It is essential that this happen because there is no planet B. Nor is there an effective Plan B.
List (in formation) of Jewish Organizations Supporting the Initiative to Make Earth Day in 2023 an “Environmental Shabbat”
Aytzim: Ecological Judaism, Parent organization of: EcoJews, Green
Zionist Alliance, Jewcology.org, Jews of the Earth, Shomrei Breishit:
Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth (aytzim.org)
Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (chai.org.il )
Hakol Chai (chai.org.il)
Green Zionist Alliance (aytzim.org/greenisrael)
Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (interfaithsustain.com)
International Jewish Vegetarian Society (Jerusalem)
Jewish Vegetarian Society of the UK. (jvs.org.uk)
Jews of the Earth (aytzim.org/jote)
Own Your Judaism (ownyourjudaism.org)
Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy (shamayim.us )
Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth (aytzim.org)