Dear Emanu-El community,
Last summer, as wildfires burned and western cities were enveloped in smoke, I smugly thought our region was relatively immune from the impacts of climate change. This summer, of course, I feel differently. Not only have we experienced days in which the air quality made it unhealthy, and even dangerous, to go outside, but we have been battered with heavy storms and winds. While we have been spared life threatening temperatures, the floods to the north of us, as well as our smokey skies, give us a glimpse of what could be in store.
Jewish communities throughout the world have come to understand that addressing climate change is not only a moral imperative but a sacred duty. Climate change presents a profound challenge to humanity, and from a Jewish perspective, it underscores the need to protect and preserve creation. Jewish teachings and values inspire a response to the climate crisis that promotes sustainability, compassion, and collective responsibility.
At the core of Jewish environmental ethics lies the concept of “bal tashchit,” which translates to “do not destroy” in Hebrew. This principle, drawn from the Torah, exhorts humanity to avoid wastefulness and undue exploitation of natural resources. Through bal tashchit, Jews are reminded of their responsibility as stewards of the Earth, tasked with preserving its delicate balance and abundance for future generations. Today, this ancient wisdom takes on renewed significance as we grapple with the consequences of human activities for the environment.
In Jewish tradition, the Earth is considered a sacred creation, and thus, harming the environment is seen as a transgression against the divine. The Torah teaches that the world was formed with purpose and intention, and it is humanity’s responsibility to protect and nurture this gift. Therefore, addressing climate change and promoting sustainability is a religious duty, reflecting a profound reverence for the holy nature of creation.
Furthermore, Jewish teachings emphasize the interconnectedness of all life forms. Concern for “tza’ar ba’alei chayim” (“[preventing] the suffering of living beings”) requires the compassionate treatment of all living creatures. In the face of climate change, where species are facing extinction and ecosystems are collapsing, this principle urges Jews to advocate for policies that protect biodiversity and ensure animal welfare.
Jewish festivals and rituals also hold important lessons concerning climate change. For instance, Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, teaches the value of simplicity and sustainable living. During this holiday, Jews live in temporary shelters, reminding ourselves of our ancestors’ agricultural connection and the vulnerability of dwelling in a changing environment. This experience encourages an appreciation for nature’s cycles and fosters an understanding of the need to live in harmony with the Earth.
Jewish communities worldwide are increasingly engaging in eco-conscious practices and climate action. From promoting renewable energy initiatives to reducing waste and implementing sustainable food practices, synagogues and Jewish organizations are taking the lead in modeling environmentally responsible behavior. These efforts demonstrate the potential for broader societal change through individual and collective action.
During the coming year, our congregation will have the opportunity to deepen and explore our relationship to the natural world. Our High Holiday gatherings will include options for outdoor experiences and during the four weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I will be teaching a class on Earth-based Jewish spirituality. (See our website for details.) In the fall, I will offer a course about the Jewish holidays, focusing on their environmental origins. As I discussed at our Annual Congregational Meeting, Temple Emanu-El is also part of a collaboration with the JCC to develop Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming, and Environmental Education (JOFFEE) programming. In the coming months, we will have opportunities to engage in a pilot project offering activities in outdoor spaces at the JCC.
I hope you will find interest and inspiration in these experiences as we consider our role in preserving creation for generations to come while appreciating its delights in our own time.
Rabbi Drorah Setel