Pope Francis inspires 300+ rabbis to sign rabbinic letter on climate

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Arthur Waskow

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Even before the papal encyclical on the climate crisis appears, it is having an effect in religious communities beyond the Catholic church. More than 300 rabbis have signed a rabbinic letter on the climate crisis, calling for vigorous action to prevent worsening climate disruption and to seek "eco-social justice."

The rabbinic letter was initiated by seven rabbis from a broad spectrum of American Jewish life, including me as director of The Shalom Center. The other rabbis are Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University; Arthur Green, rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school; Peter Knobel, former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Susan Talve, spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis; and Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

We wrote to our colleagues:

Our decision to do this arose out of our learning that Pope Francis will this summer issue an encyclical to the Church and the World that will address the climate crisis in the context of worsening concentrations of wealth and power and worsening degradations of poverty.

We believe it is important for the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people to speak to the Jewish people as a whole and to the world on this deep crisis in the history of the human species and of many other life-forms on our planet.

Once the seven initiating rabbis had worked out a text that joined an understanding of "Torah of the Earth" with urgent needs for action today, we sent the text broadside into the rabbinic community. Within two weeks, more than 300 rabbis had signed. Key excerpts from the letter follow.

To the Jewish People, to all Communities of Spirit, and to the World: A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis

We come as Jews and rabbis with great respect for what scientists teach us – for as we understand their teaching, it is about the unfolding mystery of God's Presence in the unfolding universe, and especially in the history and future of our planet.

Although we accept scientific accounts of earth's history, we continue to see it as God's creation, and we celebrate the presence of the divine hand in every earthly creature.

Yet in our generation, this wonder and this beauty have been desecrated -- not in one land alone but 'round all the Earth. So in this crisis, even as we join all Earth in celebrating the Breath of Life that interweaves us all:

You sea-monsters and all deeps, Hallelu-Yah.
Fire, hail, snow, and steam, Hallelu-Yah.
Stormy wind to do God's word, Hallelu-Yah.
Mountains high and tiny hills, Hallelu-Yah
-- Psalm 148

We know all Earth needs not only the joyful human voice but also the healing human hand.--break->

We are especially moved when the deepest, most ancient insights of Torah about healing the relationships of Earth and human earthlings, adamah and adam, are echoed in the findings of modern science.

The texts of Torah that perhaps most directly address our present crisis are Leviticus 25-26 and Deuteronomy 15. They call for one year of every seven to be Shabbat Shabbaton – a Sabbatical Year – and Shmittah – a Year of restful Release for the Earth and its workers from being made to work, and of Release for debtors from their debts.

In Leviticus 26, the Torah warns us that if we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will "rest" anyway, despite us and upon us – through drought and famine and exile that turn an entire people into refugees.

This ancient warning heard by one indigenous people in one slender land has now become a crisis of our planet as a whole and of the entire human species. Human behavior that overworks the Earth – especially the overburning of fossil fuels --- crests in a systemic planetary response that endangers human communities and many other life-forms as well.

The unity of justice and Earth-healing is taught by Torah, and also taught by our experience today: The worsening inequality of wealth, income, and political power has two direct impacts on the climate crisis.

On the one hand, great Carbon Corporations not only make their enormous profits from wounding the Earth, but then use these profits to purchase elections and to fund fake science to prevent the public from acting to heal the wounds.

On the other hand, the poor in America and around the globe are the first and the worst to suffer from the typhoons, floods, droughts, and diseases brought on by climate chaos.

So we call for a new sense of eco-social justice -- a tikkun olam (healing the world) that includes tikkun tevel, the healing of our planet. We urge those who have been focusing on social justice to address the climate crisis, and those who have been focusing on the climate crisis to address social justice.

The crisis is worsened by the spread of extreme extraction of fossil fuels that not only heats the planet as a whole but damages the regions directly affected.

  • Fracking shale rock for oil and "unnatural gas" poisons regional water supplies and induces the shipment of volatile explosive "bomb trains" around the country.
  • Coal burning not only imposes asthma on coal-plant neighborhoods – often the poorest and Blackest – but destroys the lovely mountains of West Virginia.
  • Extracting and pipe-lining Tar Sands threatens Native First nation communities in Canada and the USA, and endangers farmers and cowboys through whose lands the KXL Pipeline is intended to traverse..
  • Drilling for oil deep into the Gulf and the Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound off the Pacific have already brought death to workers and to sea life and financial disasters upon nearby communities. Proposed oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic threaten worse.

All of this is overworking Earth -- precisely what our Torah teaches we must not do. So now we must let our planet rest from overwork. For Biblical Israel, this was a central question in our relationship to the Holy One. And for us and for our children and their children, this is once again the central question of our lives and of our God.

One way of addressing our own responsibility would be for households, congregations, denominations, federations, political action -- to Move Our Money, Protect Our Planet: Move from spending that helps these modern Carbon Pharaohs burn our planet, to spending that helps to heal it. For example, these actions might be both practical and effective:

  • Purchasing wind-born rather than coal-fired electricity to light our homes and synagogues and community centers;
  • Organizing our great Federations to offer grants and loans to every Jewish organization in their regions to solarize their buildings;
  • Shifting our bank accounts from banks that invest in deadly carbon-burning to community banks and credit unions that invest in local neighborhoods, especially those of poor, Black, and Hispanic communities;
  • Moving our endowment funds from supporting deadly Carbon to supporting stable, profitable, life-giving enterprises;
  • Insisting that our tax money go no longer to subsidizing enormously profitable Big Oil but instead to subsidizing the swift deployment of renewable.
  • Convincing our legislators to institute a system of carbon fees and public dividends that rewards our society for moving beyond the Carbon economy.

We believe that there is both danger and hope in American society today, a danger and a hope that the American Jewish community, in concert with our sisters and brothers in other communities of Spirit, must address.

The danger is that America is the largest* contributor to the scorching of our planet.

The hope is that over and over in our history, when our country faced the need for profound change, it has been our communities of moral commitment, religious covenant, and spiritual search that have arisen to meet the need. So it was fifty years ago during the Civil Rights movement, and so it must be today.

Our ancient earthy wisdom taught that social justice, sustainable abundance, a healthy Earth, and spiritual fulfillment are inseparable. Today we must hear that teaching in a world-wide context, drawing upon our unaccustomed ability to help shape public policy in a great nation. We call upon the Jewish people to meet God's challenge once again.

[Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder and director of The Shalom Center.]

*Editors note: The original text of this letter read "... America is the most flagrant contributor ..." but the letter writers changed this phrase to "... the largest contributor ..." after this column was posted.

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