This past February, religiously rooted climate activists began to hear from our contacts at the Vatican that Pope Francis was preparing an encyclical — a major statement of the Church’s teaching — about the climate crisis.
Seven well-known rabbis — three of them from Philadelphia, and one a long-time former resident here — decided it would be valuable to create a Jewish analogue, in the form of a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis.
The seven initiators were Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University; Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the (Boston) Hebrew College rabbinical school; Rabbi Peter Knobel, former president, Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Rabbi Susan Talve, renowned spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis; myself, director of The Shalom Center; and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. They were joined by Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, a leader of the Orthodox community.
Early in May, we completed a text for the Rabbinic Letter, and invited a broad spectrum of American rabbis to sign. More than 340 rabbis — inspired by the climate crisis, the Torah’s call for a Sabbatical Year of releasing the Earth from overwork and, especially, the impending Papal Encyclical — have joined their voices in a call to action to prevent further climate-fueled disasters and work toward what they named “eco-social justice.”
Although the immediate inspiration for the Rabbinic Letter was news that Pope Francis would be sending out an encyclical on the climate crisis, many of the initiators, other rabbis and many others in the Jewish community have been working on issues of climate change for at least a decade; and the Rabbinic Letter speaks in the language of Torah and draws on the deepest teachings of Jewish text and tradition.
Pope Francis’ encyclical on the climate crisis was published to the world on June 18. He has entitled it “Laudato Sii” (“May the Creator Be Praised” in Latin), a phrase from St. Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer celebrating Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and all the other aspects of God’s Creation.
In the letter, the rabbis speak out especially against certain extremely destructive ways of extracting fossil fuels, including fracking, off-shore drilling in the Arctic, oil trains and the disproportionate impacts of these practices upon low-income communities and communities of color.
The call also notes America’s impact upon other more vulnerable nations, stating, “America is one of the most intense contributors to the climate crisis, and must therefore take special responsibility to act. Though we in America are already vulnerable to climate chaos, other countries are even more so — and Jewish caring must take that truth seriously.”
The rabbis point out that among these especially vulnerable countries is the State of Israel. Israeli scientists have warned that if carbon business as usual continues, the Negev desert will expand to swallow up large parts of Israel, while much of Tel Aviv will find itself under water as sea levels rise.
The Rabbinic Letter draws on the Torah’s story of Exodus to describe Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Gas as “Carbon Pharaohs” because they endanger human beings and bring plagues upon the Earth.
The call suggests that Jewish households, congregations and institutions move their money away from purchasing their electric power from coal, and purchase wind power instead; that they shift investments to life-giving enterprises, away from the Carbon Pharaohs; and that as citizens and voters, they insist that Congressional and state governments move subsidies away from Big Oil, into development and emplacement of renewable energy.
And the Rabbinic Letter urges that an ancient Torah teaching that the Jewish people assemble every seventh year during the harvest festival of Sukkot be carried out this fall. The letter suggests calling public assemblies to explore Jewish and multireligious responses to the climate crisis. Such assemblies could point toward demanding strong governmental action at the international conference on climate due to take place in Paris this coming December. The Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council, a division of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish Federation, has begun planning for such an assembly.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder and director of the Shalom Center.