April 15, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.
The tragedy of the global pandemic has taught us an Earth Day lesson that should be the foundation of a faith-based response to the climate crisis: our destinies are inextricably linked.
We learned that, despite its vastness, the world is a small village. When highly contagious disease erupts in one corner of our planet, all of us are ultimately in its stealthy path.
We learned that all, or at least most, of humanity needs to be vaccinated, if we are truly to stop the death and sadness.
These pandemic realities are the same realities of our climate crisis. Here too, our destinies are inextricably linked. Or — in an expansion of a particularist Jewish aphorism to its universalist application — all human beings are responsible one for the other. (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a)
We have learned that, in addressing the climate crisis, we can fulfill the greatest of commandments through our actions, literally saving lives as we work to save our planet. Most of us are not health professionals or first responders, and yet we can answer the call found in both the Talmud and the Qur’an (5:32): “He who saves one life . . . it as if he has saved an entire world.” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5) If we can save our planet, we will be saving many individual lives.
Our very large world is, indeed, very small. What happens in one geographic climate, in one localized atmosphere, devastatingly, can migrate to the rest of us. Sometimes we can physically see it. More often, climate change is like the now familiar unseen disease which grows over time. It also causes another type of migration, the desperate movement of peoples and all the insecurities which ensue, including poverty and violence.
We have learned that we need the whole, or at least most of humanity, on board. Fixing one country’s climate will not suffice. It will never be enough if nations go it alone. We need each other.
Many of the values needed to manage the climate crisis were foreshadowed by the earliest faith texts and teachings centuries before we knew of today’s threat to the planet.
In the Jewish tradition, creation begins with one human being or, if you prefer, two, but not more, positing that we are all from the same father and mother and none is superior to the other. This idea, found in the aforementioned mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), teaches us that from the moment of creation we are all inseparably connected, as we surely are in the climate crisis.
The Torah’s story of humanity begins with creation from Mother Earth, as Adam is fashioned from the dust of the earth he will be charged with protecting. It is a narrative that begins in a garden and ultimately leads to Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden “l’avdah u-l’shamrah,” “to develop it and to preserve it” (Genesis 2:15), to benefit from the land but also to protect it.
The “rules” of this small but profoundly exemplary world are simple, but emergent humanity has trouble with the test — the first failure of humanity is related to the land, to the earth. They are told, this tree is protected, do not eat of it, but the godly commandment is too daunting, and the first human failing is with the tree, with the earth. How prophetic that seems in retrospect, as we continue to fail ourselves and God in our stewardship of the planet.
Eden is presented as an idyllic place, with humanity at one with its environment. Adam first looks for companionship within God’s wider creation, even giving names to the animals, an almost messianic, eschatological peacefulness. The first couple is vegetarian; we would be in a different place today environmentally had that been sustained. Not until Genesis 9 is the omnivore’s diet presented as a Divine concession to accommodate the weakness of humanity. Our response to the climate crisis may not require all of us to become vegetarians, but it does require us to be more thoughtful, minimally, about the ways we raise and eat animals.
This Earth Day is a true moment of opportunity. There are political and economic developments that indicate we are on the cusp of renewed world leadership in the climate crisis. We must seize the day, galvanize humanity, and hold political leaders accountable regarding reduction of carbon emissions, prevention of deforestation, and more to restrain and reverse undeniably catastrophic global warming. As it has been the case since creation, our world’s preservation is in our collective hands.
Rabbi Noam E. Marans is American Jewish Committee’s Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations. This column is adapted from his presentation to the “Faith and Science – Towards COP26” leadership meetings sponsored by the Vatican and the British and Italian embassies to the Holy See in preparation for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference.