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Religion in service of climate

Once people understand that it's God's will that we protect our world, many more should be willing to embrace the environment as a worthy cause
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (4th from left) together with interfaith religious leaders at the recent conference 'הדת בשירות האקלים'

One of the most powerful lessons from the Torah relates to the order in which it was written, specifically in how it begins. An event that from a national or religious perspective would seem to be the penultimate event to begin the Torah would be the covenant between God and the Jewish people. While this is certainly a topic given great prominence later on in the text, the Torah begins somewhere else altogether. The Torah begins with the creation of the world, an event of universal importance to all peoples of all religions.

The Torah furthermore makes no religious distinction and writes that all humanity has been created in the image of God and we are all an outgrowth of Adam. The text continues and writes “’Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.” This is a universal commandment, not limited to any people, based on faith or belief. In so doing, the Torah makes it very clear that our original focus is on the common themes amongst all humanity, and not what might divide us.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons that we can take from this is the significance of being created in the image of God with regard to our responsibility towards the world around us. This is a responsibility that is expanding because it is abundantly clear that we — as humans — are the ones who do more damage to the environment than any other living thing. It is also we (alongside all other living things) who will bear the brunt of that reality if our world is destroyed.

I would therefore argue that religion and religious leaders must act at the center of the effort to preserve our environment and advocate for measures that will create a more sustainable world.

Religion is uniquely positioned to take on the ambitious task. While environmental protection is of course motivated by universal human interests, once people understand that protecting our world is also God’s will, many more will inevitably be willing to embrace this cause.

Indeed, many of the world’s leading religions already have sustainability built into ethical codes. Judaism itself prohibits cutting down fruit trees during times of war, explained by many commentators as a general prohibition from environmental destruction. Shabbat is an additional example, for even though it presumably was not intended as an environmentally-friendly institution, the very fact that we stop travel, production, industry and other polluting activities every seven days has a definite positive effect on ecology.

Moreover, religion for the most part urges believers to abstain from overly materialistic lifestyles and favors values like spirituality, kindness, and compassion over the drive for the newest, the best, the most.

Of course, religion is not always used as a champion for good and we know that many millions of people have been killed by those acting in the name of religion. It is therefore imperative that our religious leaders act responsibly to advance causes that will protect our environment which we hope can also create a more harmonious and peaceful world.

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.
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