Richard H. Schwartz
Vegan, climate change,and social justice activist

Rosh Hashanah: A Time to Start Shifting Our Imperiled Planet onto a Sustainable Path

Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is a good time to assess how we are doing in fulfilling our mandated role of being co-workers with God in preserving the environment.

When God created the world, He was able to say, “It is very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, and the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?

What must God think when the rain God provided to nourish our crops is often acid rain, due to the many chemicals emitted into the air by industries and automobiles; when the abundant fertile soil God provided is quickly being eroded; when the vast numbers of plan and animal species God provided are disappearing at possibly the fastest rate in history, before we have even been able to study and catalog many of them; when the climatic conditions God designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?

At this time, when almost daily reports of severe heat waves, storms, floods, droughts, wil fires and melting ice seem to indicate that the world is rapidly approaching an unprecedented catastrophe, it is essential that tikkun olam (the repair and healing of the world) become a central focus on Jewish life today. We must apply Jewish values to help shift our greatly imperiled world onto a sustainable path.

An ancient rabbinic teaching has become all too relevant today:

In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He,
created the first human being (Adam),
He took him and let him pass before all the trees of
the Garden of Eden and said to him:
“See my works, how fine and excellent they are!
All that I have created, for you have I created them.
Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My world,
For if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.”
Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28

Today their seem to be almost daily reports about record heat waves, severe droughts and major forest fires, the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, an increase in the number and severity of hurricanes and other storms, and other effects of global warming. All of the above and much more has occurred due to a temperature increase in the past hundred years of a little more than one degree Fahrenheit. So, it is very frightening that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group composed of thousands of the leading scientists from many countries, has projected an average temperature increase of 3 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the next hundred years. Some leading climate experts, including James Hansen of NASA, have stated that global warming may reach a tipping point and spin out of control within a decade, with disastrous consequences, unless major changes soon occur.

All countries, including Israel, are affected by climate change. A report by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in 2007 indicates that global warming could cause a triple whammy, each and all of which would heighten tensions and suffering in and around Israel: (1) a rise in temperature of about 6 degrees Fahrenheit; (2) a significant increase in the Mediterranean Sea level, which would threaten the narrow coastal strip of land where 60% of Israel’s population lives and where major infrastructure, such as ports and power plants, would be destroyed; and (3) a significant decrease in rainfall, estimated at 20-30%, which would disrupt agricultural production and worsen the chronic water scarcity problem in Israel and the region. Making matters even worse, much of that rainfall would come in severe storms that would cause major flooding.

The recent devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the many other reports of severe climate events makes working to reduce climate change increasingly urgent.

Fortunately, there are many Jewish teachings that can be applied to shift the earth to a sustainable path. Briefly, these include:
* Our mandate to be shomrei ha’adamah (guardians of the earth), based on the admonition that we should “work the earth and guard it” (Genesis 2:15);
* the prohibition of bal tashchit, that we should not waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value (Deuteronomy 20:19. 20);
* the teaching that,”The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1), and that the assigned role of the Jewish people is to enhance the world as “partners of God in the work of creation.” (Shabbat 10a);
* the ecological lessons related to the Shabbat, sabbatical, and jubilee cycles.

As co-workers with God, charged with the task of being a light unto the nations and accomplishing tikkun olam (healing and restoring the earth), it is essential that Jews take an active role in applying our eternal, sacred values in struggles to reduce global warming, pollution and the waste of natural resources. Based on the central Jewish mandates to work with God in preserving the earth, Jews must work with others for significant changes in society’s economic and production systems, values, and life-styles. So at the start of a new year, we can seek to reduce our environmental impact The fate of humanity and God’s precious earth are at stake, and if we fail to act properly and in time, there may be “no one after us to set it right.”

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But aren’t there scientists who disagree with the above concerns? Yes, but relatively few, and there was a wonderful cover story in Newsweek a few weeks ago debunking the claims of global warming deniers and pointing out how much of such campaigns are funded by companies who benefit from a continuation of the status quo.

In summary, the above considerations and much more point to a conclusion that the world faces an impending catastrophe unless major changes soon occur. Even if this is agreed to, what does this have to do with Hazon’s upcoming food-related conference? Well, there is a strong connection between the production of food and global warming and other current environmental threats.

As discussed in other postings, the 2006 UN FAO report indicated that animal-based agriculture contributes more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all of the cars, trucks and other forms of transportation worldwide (18% vs. 13.5%). What makes the situation far worse is that the same report projects that the number of farmed animals will double in the next 50 years. If that happens, increased greenhouse gas emissions from ‘livestock’ agriculture would negate the reductions from many other positive changes, such as increasing automobile fuel efficiencies, switching to more efficient light bulbs, etc.

Hence, while many things should be done to reduce global warming, an essential step is a major shift toward plant-based diets.

Hazon can do a tremendous Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name) by leading efforts to increase awareness of the necessity of dietary changes. And the upcoming Hazon food-related conference would be a great time to start.

Two other important considerations re the importance of seriously considering a switch to plant-based diets:

1. Animal-based diets are contributing to an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities.

2. The production and consumption of animal products violate basic Jewish teachings re preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources and helping hungry people.

For further information on these issues, please see my over 130 articles at JewishVeg.com/Schwartz. I would be happy to contribute complimentary copies of my books “Judaism and Vegetarianism” and “Judaism and Global Survival” to the group, and perhaps discussions can be built around them. Also, I would be very happy if the documentary that I have been working on A SACRED DUTY: APPLYING JEWISH VALUES TO HELP HEAL THE WORLD was shown at the Hazon conference. It discusses many of the issues mentioned in this message from a very positive Jewish perspective.

In summary, Hazon can play a major role in getting the issues of global sustainability and why the application of Jewish values in responding to current threats is so important onto the Jewish agenda and eventually onto other agendas.

About the Author
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at JewishVeg.com/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and President of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” He is also a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the City University of New York.
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