In our times, we are beginning to witness the planet's ecological
balance weakening due to human influence: rainforests shrinking, deserts
expanding, hurricanes intensifying, the planet heating. What is driving
the deterioration of the natural world? To be sure, there are physical
reasons, but for 'fossil fuels' or 'wood use' or even 'consumerism,'
they would provide only partial answers.
In order to truly
understand a problem, we need to look under its surface to understand
the root causes. In regard to the great loss of the first and second
Temples, the Jewish sages focus not on the destroying armies, but on the
spiritual deterioration which made way for the destruction of the
physical structures. For many ecological issues, the root issues beyond
the physical symptoms lie in the spiritual health of human beings.
one only sees physical causes, one may incorrectly view them as the
only reason for an effect occurring. The response to the problem then,
will also be limited to the physical level alone. Yet if we neglect the
underlying spiritual source, the problem will keep reemerging in
different physical forms, growing from the underlying root. On the other
hand, as Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (the Rashba, Spain, 13th century)
taught, when you address the roots of a problem, the outer problems will
naturally fall away.
Over the last decades we have seen, and
at some level addressed, numerous environmental challenges, from
reducing the depletion of the ozone layer to decreasing garbage through
recycling campaigns. Still, environmental problems continue to spring up
including climate change, deforestation, water insecurity. This is
because we have not addressed our environmental challenges at the root.
usual pattern today is to turn to scientists and politicians for
technological solutions to our environmental challenges. If the problem
is too much carbon in the atmosphere and too much fossil fuel use, the
solution must be hybrid or electric cars, incandescent light bulbs, and
other technological solutions. Yet these solutions are not sufficient to
address today’s global problems. For example, a report from the
McKinsey Global Institute cited how China relies on coal-burning power
plants to produce as much as 85% of its electricity. The report
estimated that, were China to replace gasoline-powered cars with
similar-size electric cars, it would only reduce the greenhouse
emissions from those cars by 19 percent. This is because the electric
cars would draw on electricity generated by burning coal. Scientists
have stated that humanity must reduce its emissions by many times that
amount in order to reduce the impact of climate change.
the physical causes, the widespread degradation of the natural world
indicates that our way of life is out of balance. Thus, the
environmental crisis also reflects a spiritual crisis. Human-caused
disruptions to the natural world emerge from the inner imbalance within
billions of human beings. The change required of us to correct this is,
to a significant degree, of a spiritual nature. This insight may be one
of the most important contributions of a Jewish environmental approach.
are the roots of our contemporary environmental challenges? There are
many. One that we can all address is learning to take responsibility for
our actions. As the Torah teaches, G-d placed humans in the Garden of
Eden l’ovdahuleshomra, “to work it and protect it.” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin teaches that to be a shomer
(a protector) means to be responsible. His rabbi, Rabbi Joseph
BerSoloveitchik taught this core Jewish value: I am responsible,
therefore I am.
Being responsible and taking responsibility is
core to being human. This is very clear from Cain's response to God when
asked of Abel's whereabouts: "Am I my brother's keeper?” The term used
is shomer, in the same sense of “protection” mentioned in the Garden of Eden. The Bible resoundingly answers, yes!
failure to take responsibility for our actions on a planet of seven
billion people has major environmental consequences today. We use the
resources of the world – trees, mineral ores, petroleum – without
sufficient attention to how these resources are produced, transported,
and disposed of. We likely do not see the impacts on our air and water
and on people’s health in faraway places.
To awaken the Jewish
value of being responsible, we must broaden our perspective to include
people we do not know, and the children of the next generation. You can
try to address this root in your own life by expanding your sense of
responsibility for others and your small, invisible impacts on them.
Then, try to think of one specific action you can do to take on greater responsibility for how you live and consume.
will use our resources more responsibly if we can be attentive to the
broader effects of our actions. Let us live up to the challenge.
Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages
and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. He
has worked with Canfei Nesharim for the past six years in developing
educational resources relating to Judaism and the environment.
materials are posted as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on
the Environment,” in partnership with Canfei Nesharim. Learn more at http://www.jewcology.com/content/view/Year-of-Jewish-Learning-on-the-Environment.