We were happy to have a piece in the recent special issue of Shma Magazine on Judaism and environment. Enjoy the article below- and check out the edition’s other pieces by a number of leading voices in the field.
(Reprinted with permission from http://shma.com/june_08/halakhak_climate.htm)
Is halakhah a useful tool for addressing climate change?
If it is, then what might climate-change halakhah look like?
Halakah defines and articulates crucial Jewish priorities in a way that influences even Jews who are not halakhically observant; it is the medium through which Jews have traditionally expressed and lived their central norms and values.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is actualized in halakhot about visiting the sick and comforting mourners. Tzedakah, establishing righteousness and justice in our community, is precisely codified by Maimonides and the Shulkhan Arukh. If a majority of American Jews affirms today that a commitment to “social justice” as the cornerstone of their Jewish identity, then that is arguably because of the indelible imprint that hilkhot tzedakah has made on Jewish life over the centuries.
When we turn to the popular commentaries on reducing carbon footprints, we notice they look an awful lot like Jewish law. Open any tabloid newspaper and you will find lists of 10, 20 or 50 detailed ways in which you can modify your daily behavior to help save the planet; walk to the shops rather than drive, take a cloth bag for your groceries, don’t buy produce grown more than 50 miles from your home.
The language of halakhah is unusually well-attuned to the challenge of shifting individual behavior that climate change poses. The minute specificity of these recommendations is only matched in my experience by halakhic sources. Climate change policy shares with halakhic Judaism a recognition that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Raising awareness is all very well, but redemption requires precisely defined action.
Where, then, should we look to find halakhic models that can be applied to the problem? One obvious place to start is ba’al taschit, the prohibition on wanton destruction of property and resources. One could construct a plausible halakhic case for enjoining the turning off of lights, switching to CFL bulbs, and driving a smaller car based on the principle that it is wantonly destructive to use more resources than are necessary to achieve given human purpose. I hope halakhists will begin to do so. However, ba’al taschit is already well-known as a cornerstone of Jewish environmental ethics.
Let me suggest another model:
Hilkhot Shekhenim explores the diverse ways in which neighbors damage one another through their domestic and economic activities and the redress that is available in each case. This body of law balances the legitimate rights of people to do what they want with and on their own property against the rights of their neighbors not to be seriously damaged or inconvenienced by those activities.
It is a principle of Jewish pollution law that there are certain kinds of damage for which a presumptive right to commit them (hazakah) can never be established. Among the damages in this category is pollution caused by smoke. There is some argument among the commentators about whether the smoke needs to be of large quantity and/or of constant duration. Greenhouse gases that cause climate change would appear to meet both criteria.
Of course, these laws were developed to address conflicts between neighbors separated by a garden fence. The rabbis did not imagine our situation in which coal-fired power stations in Michigan may contribute to drought in Mali. Can these sources be extrapolated to damage caused on a global scale and through complex mechanisms of causation by greenhouse gas emissions?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, probably the greatest 20th-century halakhist, takes a major step toward translating the laws of damages between neighbors into an industrial context.
About smoking in a large public place he writes: “And even though one person smoking in a large room such as a beit midrash would not by himself cause damage, nevertheless, since each smoker knows that many other people are smoking, he knows that his smoke is causing damage” (Igerot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat, 2:18).
R. Feinstein here disallows the argument of each individual smoker’s relative insignificance in the big picture. Since each smoker knows that he is a small part of a larger phenomenon that cumulatively is inflicting serious harm on others, he must take responsibility for his role in contributing to that damage.
Although we must assume a quantitative leap in transferring this principle to climate change, it does not require a qualitative one. Once we know beyond reasonable doubt that our actions are part of a mass phenomenon that is causing immense harm, it becomes our moral responsibility to change our actions so that we stop being part of the problem.
How are you and/or your community confronting climate change? Halakha thrives on the discussions surrounding it- let’s do the same with climate change.
Here’s our list at Jewish Climate Initiative. Send us your comments and suggestions!