The Assisi Conference of 1986 was ahead of its time in the climate-change debate.
Incorporated into the conference were statements from many of the world’s religions. One part of the Jewish delegation’s statement was simple, yet profound in its implication.
“Our ancestor Abraham inherited his passion for nature from Adam,” the statement says. “The later rabbis never forgot it. Some twenty centuries ago they told the story of two men who were out on the water in a rowboat. Suddenly, one of them started to saw under his feet. He maintained that it was his right to do whatever he wished with the place which belonged to him. The other answered him that they were in the rowboat together; the hole that he was making would sink both of them. (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6).”
Many countries and individuals are rowing the boat and reducing their carbon footprint. However, many others are sawing faster than humanity can row.
“The Talmud … tells us (Shabbat 151b) that heaven rewards the person who has concern and compassion for the rest of creation, but this assurance of reward is not the major moral thrust of Jewish teaching,” the statement notes. “Our tradition emphasizes that Jews are commanded to do what is moral, ‘not for the sake of receiving a reward’ (Abot 1:3). The good is necessary even when it does not redound to our immediate, personal benefit.”
The Jewish delegation spoke of the “encounter of God and man in nature,” conceived in Judaism, “as a seamless web with man as the leader and custodian of the natural world.”
“And yet it must be said, in all truth, that this question of man’s responsibility to the rest of creation cannot be defined by simply expressing our respect for all of nature,” the statement notes.
“There is a tension at the center of the Biblical tradition, embedded in the very story of creation itself, over the question of power and stewardship. The world was created because God willed it, but why did He will it? Judaism has maintained, in all its versions, that this world is the arena that God created for man, half beast and half angel, to prove that he could behave as a moral being. … Man was given dominion over nature, but he was commanded to behave towards the rest of creation with justice and compassion. Man lives, always, in tension between his power and the limits set by conscience.
“… We have a responsibility to life,” the statement continues, “to defend it everywhere, not only against our own sins but also against those of others. We are all passengers together in this same fragile and glorious world. Let us safeguard our rowboat — and let us row together.”