Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

As we enter July (hot hot times here in Israel!), we wanted to bring you a roundup of our posts from the last month, just in case you missed one or two. As always, we’d love to hear your feedback on any of our posts, and on the blog in general. And feel free to let us know your thoughts around the US House of Reps (just) passing the Waxman-Markey Climate Change/Energy Bill- Is it too little? Too much? Just Right? Click Here to leave a response.

Last Month’s Posts:

Envy Based Economics and a Forgotten Tenth Commandment: Rabbi Sinclair challenges an economic system based on the systematic violation of “Thou Shalt not Covet.”

Shavuot is the Green Festival: Dr. Michael Kagan on Shavuot as the bridge back to the Garden of Eden.

Sally Bingham’s “Love God, Heal Earlth”: A Review of Bingham’s Compilation of Essays by Religious Leaders for the Environment.

Video: Founder of Heschel Center, Dr. Eilon Schwartz on what Jews can do about Climate Change: Important Questions and Useful Answers from one of Israel’s most Accomplished Environmental Activists.

Video: Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Naomi Tsur, on how Grassroots Organization can Help Fight Climate Change: From her new post in the mayor’s office, Ms. Tsur still believes meaningful action starts from the bottom.

Global Climate Healing Shabbat: This Parshat Noach: Save the date! In the wake of the Copenhagen Conference to Replace Kyoto, Jews around the world will focus Shabbat around global warming and the climate crisis.

A Green Pope, Fatwas on Illegal Mining, an Evangelical Climate Initiative and the JCI: Zoe Cormier explores the potential for religion to succeed where science and politics have not.

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Today more and more synagogues, JCC’s, families and individuals are going green. Carbon offsetting is a way of counteracting some of our carbon footprint; it can also be incredibly confusing. How does it work? Is it ethical? Is it Jewish? How can I know if an offsetting program is really helping save the world or whether it’s a scam?

At Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), we created the following guide to answer all these questions and more, and also to provide information about the main offsetting projects based in Israel. It can also be a small, seasonal step toward teshuvah, positive transformation in the way that we use energy. We hope our offsetting guide will be a useful resource for you and your community and would love to hear your feedback. And feel free to forward it onwards to family and friends!

Click Here to Download JCI’s Carbon Offsetting Guide

(If you’re having trouble opening the page, right-click on the above link and choose “Open in a new window.” If you’re still unable to open the page, either download the latest version of Adobe Reader or contact us and we’ll send you a copy.)

With best wishes for a Shanah tovah u’metukah, a good, sweet year,

The JCI Team

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By Yannai Kranzler

Democratic National Convention week opened with a first: An Interfaith gathering, hosted by Christian, Muslim and Jewish community leaders from around the the United States.

The gathering focused mostly on abortion and capital punishment, less on world poverty and Darfur genocide, and even less on climate change.

Why would the self-titled “Greenest convention in history,” hosted by a party so determined to move the climate crisis to the heart of political discourse, open with religious leaders all but ignoring climate change?

Obama himself has said that climate change needs to enter the focus of religious dialogue. “It is a responsibility to ensure that this planet remains clean and safe and livable for our children, and for all of God’s children,” he said.

Wouldn’t religious leaders representing his party agree?

What if the democrats’ interfaith gathering had chosen a different religious message- not that “We’re also a religiously responsible party”- but that “We are the only religiously responsible party?”

They could have pointed out Republican environmental and energy policies/lack of policies that have left us with a world in neglect- populations facing starvation, drought, desertization, the aftermath of Katrina and a reliance on fossil fuels that promises more war and economic instability. They could have mentioned ignoring Kyoto, disinformation campaigns on global warming, blood ties with petroleum-laden kingdoms and a lack of investment in renewable energy.

If we, as faith-communities claim it our job to care for the world, then we cannot support a platform that is so against the heart of what we stand for. Republicans can hold themselves on some distorted religious pedestal, praising themselves for saving otherwise aborted babies- but when millions of already born people stand threatened because of their policy of neglect, who cares?

John McCain might be different. I pray that he would be. And I hope that this week’s Republican convention will include religious leaders telling Republican politicians that the way they’ve been is just not okay.

As Obama himself says, we need our religious beliefs to effectively confront climate change. Belief gives us, to use an Obama-ism, the audacity to hope; to believe not only that we should be better, but that we can be better. Religion is not only about faith in God, but faith in man.

A focus on climate change could have provided fuel and inspiration to the greenest convention in history.

As religious people, we have been talking about stewardship in theory for thousands of years and it is time for us to step up. “Take care not to destroy my world,” God tells Adam (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:28).  Well we risk a lot more right now than getting kicked out of some garden and it doesn’t look to me like we’ve got our eye on the ball.

Truth is though, that we’re religious people- We thrive on learning from mistakes. Our scriptures show History dabbling in ultimate disaster, but in the end promise peace. Jewish tradition claims that those who “Do better next time” are on a higher level than those that never did wrong at all.

So let’s do better next time.

Obama has repeatedly made religion an integral part of his campaign. Here’s his take on Religion and Climate Change:

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Last month Al Gore gave a rousing speech on climate change. He threw down an audacious challenge to the American people. By 2020, Gore declared, let America be powered 100% by renewable sources of energy.

Gore appealed to the Apollo Project as the model for an enterprise of such grandeur.

In 1961 President Kennedy announced his goal that America put a man on the moon within a decade. Kennedy’s challenge captured America’s imagination and galvanized the American computer, aeronautics and space industries. As wildly ambitious as the aim at first appeared, the United States reached it with 15 months to spare. Today, Gore announced, we need a new Apollo Mission for energy.

Here’s the video of the speech:

Painting a vision of this magnitude represented something of a departure for Al Gore in his thinking about how to move people on climate change. He has done more than anyone to raise awareness of the issue, but at first he appeared to think that simply laying out the inconvenient truth about global warming would be sufficient to mobilize action. When it didn’t, he started musing about the inconvenient evolution of the human fear gland that was designed to respond to immediate, emotional stimuli rather than cognitive and scientific input.

In his Apollo speech, Gore was adopting the approach of two renegade activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” argued that environmentalism was too fear-based, too narrow and too policy wonky to ever make a real difference on climate change. The piece set off a firestorm of controversy in the green movement. After all as former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach observed, “nobody likes to be called dead, especially when they think they are still alive.”

Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility” is the updated book length version of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s thesis. It’s an important book as it encapsulates a body of thinking that has done much to reorient the US environmental movement’s response to climate change, from Al Gore downwards.

In “Breakthrough,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger expand on their critique of classic environmentalism and broaden it into a new vision of progressive politics.

The starting point of their critique is that the doom-mongering discourse of climate change doesn’t work. It just paralyzes people. They quote the most quoted lines of their earlier essay:

“Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare speech” instead.” (p.1)

Shellenberger and Nordhaus

Environmentalism has for forty years been giving “I have a nightmare” speeches. As the nightmares have become more lurid and terrifying, culminating in the four horseman of the apocalypse predictions on climate change, people have stopped listening.

Focusing on problems has been problematic for environmentalists for other reasons too, the authors claim. It has turned the movement into a special interest group concerned with its own particular category of problem objects, polluted water, air, endangered species etc, to the exclusion of other people’s problems, such as jobs, race, women’s rights etc. Furthermore it has led to environmentalists speaking a jargon of technical, legal and bureaucratic solutions to their problems (CAFÉ standards, cap and trade etc.) as if the American electorate was made up of “one hundred million policy wonks.”

Breakthrough argues that the way forward for environmentalism is to become part of a progressive politics that emphasizes possibilities rather than limits and that recounts an inspiring story rather than a litany of problems and grievances. It needs to recognize Americans aspirations for meaning and fulfillment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger urge progressives to look across the chasm of the culture wars and learn from what those on the other side are doing right; the Republicans have been telling a story about American national greatness and moral strength that resonates across the income groups and Evangelicals such as Rev. Rick Warren have drawn tens of thousands to their mega-churches by preaching the spiritual greatness and uniqueness inherent in every person.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger exhort environmentalists and progressives to find a way to tap into these rich sources of inspirational and electoral power. In particular, they urge the left to unite around the New Apollo Project, a program for combating climate change that will invest $300 billion in renewable energy R and D. They estimate that the program will create 3 million jobs, undercutting the claim that environmental concern must come at the cost of trade union jobs and so helping to create a broad backing coalition. The Project is wrapped in an uplifting story of how American inventiveness, know how and get-up-and-go will once again come to the world’s rescue.

Some of Breakthrough’s points are spot on; about the enervating effect of doom and gloom, the fragmenting consequences of environmentalists’ focusing on things, and the key role of vision and values in mobilizing action on climate change. It’s a bracing read too, grappling with Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, Paul Berman’s elergy to the sixties generation, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” John Dewey, and the American Transcendentalist tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, among other sparring partners.

The main weakness of the book is that the authors are fixated on the question “how are we going to get a Democrat into the White House and blue majority in both houses of Congress?” This leads them to discount potentially good solutions to climate change because they aren’t politically sexy. For example, they give Cap and Trade short shrift (p258) because it’s a problem based solution and “politicians who vote against such initiatives won’t pay a price at the next election.” In other words, it can’t easily be explained in a ten second sound bite. Nevertheless cap and trade is indispensable for leveling the energy playing field and bringing renewable sources on stream sooner.

The political slant of the book also leads the authors to reject any approach that might make Americans feel bad about their role in creating the world’s environmental crises. We are repeatedly told that Americans respond to a vision of aspiration and possibility far better than to the old environmental politics of limits and constraints. That may be empirically true, but maybe the fact that the United States, with 4% of the world’s population, has produced 30% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should prompt some soul searching about whether a few limits might indeed be in order. And if politicians can’t do the prompting, then perhaps someone else needs to. Religious leaders, for example.

In fact, anyone who has thought about the intersection of religion and ecology will be struck by the weirdly ambivalent relationship that Shellenberger and Nordhaus have to religion. They admire Evangelical churches for giving their congregants an overarching moral framework, and a strong sense of esteem and belonging and wish that there were liberal institutions that could do the same in a way that wasn’t as patriarchal and reactionary as they find the Evangelicals to be. But the authors are unconvincing about where the progressive counterparts to such values might come from.

At the end of “Death of Environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote:

“Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.”

In Breakthrough, they do not repeat this call for a turn to religion as a source for ecological thought. The story of American greatness has become the aspirational myth that can inspire the fight against climate change. But it was a Puritan pastor, John Winthrop who first sketched the vision of the “Shining City on the Hill”, and the “I have a Dream” speech was drenched with biblical references. Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?

“Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the politics of Possibility.” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Houghton and Mifflin 2007.

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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)

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

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!

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In memory of the late George Carlin, we’d like to present to you his take on environmental protection and, “Saving the Planet.” We’ll offer our take at the end, too. Enjoy!

(If you can’t see the video player, click here)

Absurdities aside, Mr. Carlin makes some important points:

1. Environmentalists have often inspired people to worry, not to change. Those who aren’t worried find it hard to take them seriously.

We need to acknowledge potential crises without clouding them in doom. Awareness is a good thing! The chance to live better is even better!

2. Carlin’s right- “The planet’s not going anywhere. We are.” (If we don’t make some big changes.)

As my wife’s ecology professor likes to say, when we’re gone, “The roaches will still be here,” as will many of their friends. Our fight to control climate change, desertization, water-shortages, etc. are essentially fights for our survival.

Environmentalists biggest mistake was to identify the cause as saving something called “the environment.” When they did that, they made it external to us. By calling eco-crises “of the environment,” they were placed in a class with trees and bees, whales and snails. I’m a backpacker and love mountains and trees- and bees and snails. But the ecological challenges we face today are of a very different nature than protecting Nature.

3.. Plastic is one of earth’s children.

Okay, that part’s not true. Probably not, at least.

We have a powerful role in earth’s ecosystem, and we can choose whether we want that role to be one of nurturing life or abuse and destruction.

Choose life!

A big thanks to Mr. Carlin. Rest in peace and good humor old man!

By Yannai Kranzler

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In the debate between environmentalism and ecology the two can be differentiated along the male-female dialectic.

Thus the former can be loosely viewed as the identification of a problem and its attempted solution – a sort of head to head approach – a stereotypical male stance. Whereas the latter is about the welfare of the house (ecology is Greek for ‘the knowing of the House’) and the concern for the myriad complex relationships that take place in the home environment – a stereotypical female stance. So it is more about relationships than it is about problem solving or struggle or apportioning blame or lobbying.

In the scheme of the festival cycle (see the introduction to the Holistic Haggadah, Urim, 2004) Shavuot is the most overwhelmingly feminine of them all.* Its prime foci are: the ‘wedding’ at Sinai, the Book of Ruth, the eating of milk products, the greening of the synagogues, and the chanting of parts of the Zohar in the Sephardi Tradition.

Starting with the last and working backwards: in the Sephardi tradition the purpose of staying up all night (tikun liylah) is not for the sake of intellectual achievement or for the gaining of a little bit more knowledge (this should be done all year round) but rather to prepare for The Receiving by chanting (not studying) mystical texts that bypass the cerebral cortex raising the energy of the Receiver – a sort of Mystical Union. The greening of the synagogue is a visceral reminder of the Garden of Eden** – the original womb – where we roamed at peace with the animals, drinking of their milk and not of their flesh. And milk is the symbol of motherhood, of lovingkindness, of Giving which is the attribute of Ruth – the woman of lovingkindness (for isn’t ruthless the absolute lack of lovingkindness?).

So Shavuot is the bridge between now and then. And the Book of Ruth which is more than just a story about women – is the story about relationships, ALL relationships. Almost every relationship that effects one’s life is touched upon in this little book – husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, in-laws, between women, between men (David and Jonathan), between generations, between the insiders and the outsiders, between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the bosses and workers, between family members, between ourselves and the land and nature, between the past, present and future, between this world and the messianic world, between life and death, between mother and child, between lovers.

And finally there is the wedding in which we reaffirm our relationship with the Creator.

Blessings for Shavuot

Michael Kagan

Some of the other festivals can be allotted as follows: Tisha B’Av is male since it is the destructive anger of the father (Av is Hebrew for father); Tu B’Av is the reconciliation of male and female; Rosh Hashannah is more male than female since it is the day judgment; Yom Kippur is more female than male since it is the day of forgiveness; and Succot is the perfected balance between male and female – sitting in the womb like succah waving around a palm fond and fondling an etrog (citrus fruit).

This connection between Shavuot and The Garden is hinted at in the use of the definitive article in the Creation story – and it was evening and morning of THE sixth day (rather than day six as with the conclusion of the previous days of Creation). Rashi asks: to what is THE sixth day referring? And answers: to THE sixth day of Sivan – Shavuot.

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Researchers at the University of Chicago apparently think so.

See this fascinating report in the New York Times about Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s pioneering work applying behavioral psychology to climate change.

One of the things that interests us at Jewish Climate Initiative is the huge gap between knowing and doing in the climate change business. We all know what we’d have to do to drastically reduce our carbon footprints: fly much less, use public transport more, switch to CFL lightbulbs, buy a hybrid car, etc. etc.

But very few of us are doing it.

“This comes as no surprise to behavioral psychologists who have been studying the human penchant for making dumb choices,” writes the NYT.

The good news however is that we do have a strong inclination to do the right thing for the common good if we are given the right nudges and cues.

California utility companies experimented with including statistics about average electricity consumption on people’s electrical bills. This information led customers whose consumption was above average to use less in the next quarter. The problem was that people consuming less than average raised their electricity use. (After all, who wants to be a freier?)

Next time around, they added the following simple refinement to the electricity bills: a smiley face for people whose use was below the mean, and a frowning face for those above the average.

Amazingly, this caused people below the average to keep their consumption low, or reduce it still further.

The studies show that a communal norm together with positive reinforcement towards reaching that norm can have powerful impacts on behaviour, (although do I feel a bit queasy about the authors’ plan for introducing flashing lapel pins that indicate your carbon use.)

This should give pause to anyone who thinks that appealing to people’s pockets is the only way to reduce carbon footprints.

For anyone who believes, as we do, that religions have a potentially powerful role to play in combating climate change, these findings are encouraging, but not hugely surprising.

The Talmud already arrived at the same conclusions. I’ve just been studying the eighth chapter of Bava Kamma, which deals with a number of crucial environmental issues, including Ba’al Taschit, the prohibition against wanton destruction of property and resources, based on Deuteronomy 20: 19-21.

The chapter ends with a long discussion about the power of social norms to influence behaviour for good or ill, (Bava Kamma 92a-93a.) But it also stresses the pivotal power of determined and inspired individuals to reorient social norms by their example.

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It’s water crisis time in Israel again. Spring is here, the turtle dove sings, almond trees blossom, and the winter that’s just passed brought a mere 65% of average rainfall.

This is the fifth consecutive winter to yield below average rainfall in Israel. Some are pointing the finger at global climate change, which is projected to reduce rainfall in Israel by 30% in the coming decades and to cause critical water shortages worldwide. It’s too early to be sure of the connection sure, but the trend is alarming.

As water crises go, this is a bad one. As we look forward to six months of cloudless skies, the Kinneret, Israel’s main water source is 60 cm below where it was this time last year. It’s already close to the lowest “red line.” When it falls below that level, pumping any more water from the Kinneret risks seriously polluting it.

Why are we in this situation? After all, Israeli water engineers have been ingenious in maximizing our access to the water sources available. Yesterday I was hiking through Nahal Amud in the Galilee with a group from Hazon and the Heschel Centre, (see next post) and found myself standing in a stone-filled limestone wadi directly on top of the National Water Carrier.

The National Water Carrier is a five feet in diameter concrete pipeline that conveys a third of Israel’s drinkable water from the Kinneret to the centres of the country’s population, and the thirsty Negev beyond. Built in the 50’s and 60’s it was a triumph of Zionist pioneering ingenuity. During its construction, half of Israel’s cement output went into building the pipeline wall. It’s a man made miracle, as awe inspiring in its way as the wadi we were hiking through. Beneath our feet lay the artery which, by pumping precious life-blood to the heart and extremities of Israel has made possible the building of the country.

Today too, Israeli technology enables us to make the most of our limited water resources. Two major desalination plants opened in the past decade and now provide almost a sixth of the country’s water.

But here’s the problem: That’s exactly the amount by which water consumption has grown in Israel over the same period. We now use 796 million cubic meters of water per year, 136 million more than in 2000. As living standards have risen, the gains from new technology have been wiped out by the greater extravagance of our water use.

That’s why technology, though wonderfully helpful, is unlikely to solve this problem alone. We’ll always find ways to consume the blessings that technology yields. To avert future water crises, we’ll have to get into the habit of consuming less.

It can be done. In the face of the water shortage of the early 90’s public campaigns to conserve and reduce water usage cut consumption by 15%.

Everyone knows what to do: take shorter showers, use a bucket and not a hosepipe to wash your car, use the mini-flush lever on your toilet, don’t leave the tap on when you wash the dishes, water the garden at night not at mid day etc etc. All very doable. But when last the crisis passed, water usage bounced back to previous levels and then beyond.

Recently I had the chance to visit the bare and frugal apartment of one of Israel’s leading poskim halakhic decisors) and ask him whether there was any halakhic basis for requiring people to save water.

He looked at me as if I’d just asked him which way was up and answered,

“Of course. We should always consume only as much as we need of the blessings that God puts in in the world.” (He proved this from Mishnah Berurah, Orach Haim 242:4, which says that people should limit their consumption during the week so that Shabbat will be extra special by comparison.)

Most of us cannot live as simply as this rabbi. But we can share his gratitude for the blessing of water and learn to use it with an appreciation of its preciousness.

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The question sounds like the title for a Lunch and Learn session of the sort that I used to give when I was campus rabbi at Cambridge.

The usual format was that hungry students would come and wolf down smoked salmon bagels while I held forth for forty minutes on what Jewish tradition could say about some topic of contemporary interest.

At first sight, the answer to this Lunch and Learn title is “nothing.” There is no “parshat global warming” in the Torah. You’ll search in vain for “tractate climate change” in the Talmud.

But Jews have always been ingenious at applying the eternal wisdom of our tradition to the most pressing issues of every era, at hearing the commanding word of Torah that is addressed to today. What has such extrapolation yielded on the issue of climate change?

So far, almost nothing. If I were a Hillel Rabbi today, giving Lunch and Learn about climate change, I’d struggle to find forty minutes worth of teaching material based on what’s currently out there.

This is odd, seeing as climate change is emerging as the most urgent challenge that humanity faces. Our success in meeting this challenge will determine whether or not we leave a livable biosphere on planet Earth to our children and grandchildren.

Correct us if we’re wrong about this, (and we’d be delighted to discover that we are), but at Jewish Climate Initiative we’re not aware of any serious research that has been done so far to focus the spiritual depth and power of Jewish teaching on this issue.

This is the central challenge that Jewish Climate Initiative has set itself in its first year of operation: to articulate a coherent Jewish answer to this question; a response that’s deeply rooted in traditional Jewish sources, and fully engaged in the reality of contemporary science and policy.

We’ve made a small start in the Ethics section of our website. There we break the question down into several more manageable ones.

What can we say about intergenerational justice, about our role in leaving a habitable world to our descendants?

What can three Talmudic tractates on the subject of damages tell us about our responsibility for stopping and making good the damage we’re doing to our global neighbours through excessive CO2 emissions?

How can the cardinal Jewish principle of pikuah nefesh, saving life, galvanize us into doing something about a problem that could cost hundreds of millions of lives in the next century?

What can we say about a global ethic of consumption that is trashing the planet for the sake of today’s fleeting pleasure?

We’ve barely scratched the surface of these questions. In partnership with scholars, rabbis and teachers around the world we aim to access the wealth of Jewish teaching and develop some compelling answers.

Then we will have a body of wisdom that can serve not just as edu-tainment for Jewish students between lectures. We will have a basis from which we can articulate a Jewish message to the world that addresses humanity’s most pressing challenge

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