'Rabbis Should Grow a Spine': Why Politics Trumps Religion When It Comes to Climate Change

Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel call for a Jewish response to climate change, but others in America say it's 'delusional' to think rabbis can influence the government on such a hot-button issue

A bus is stuck on a flooded road in the Negev desert, October 2013.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Global climate change is not a crisis of nature – it is a crisis of religion,” Rabbi Yonatan Neril declared at a panel in Jerusalem sponsored by the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, a Jerusalem-based environmental nongovernment organization he heads.

“Religions are the biggest, richest NGOs in the world. Studies have shown that 85 percent of the people in the world identity with religion. They have huge resources, land holdings, media networks. They must be involved,” he said.

Last week, the Interfaith Center issued a public letter, signed by 37 Israeli Orthodox rabbis, calling for a Jewish response to global climate change. Over the past year, Neril has worked with Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders to reach a consensus on the common religious basis for environmental sustainability.

Yet, Neril acknowledged, despite its strength and potential, when faced with humanitarian issues caused by political conflicts, such as the crisis in Gaza or U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, religion usually backs down.

Smoke from the Mittal Steel factory rises in the air in Zenica, Bosnia, June, 2, 2017.
Almir Alic/AP

In their public letter, circulated in the media and addressed to Israeli authorities, the signatories affirm, “We, the Israeli Orthodox rabbis whose signatures are below, believe that Jewish teachings mandate that we do everything possible to help avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters and to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.”

The list of signatories includes Anglo- and Israeli-born rabbis, some of whom have been associated with progressive causes as well as others who are more mainstream in the national-religious yeshiva movement.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Emit Orot Shaul yeshiva and known for his responses to questions of Jewish law on popular Israeli internet sites, told Haaretz that signing the open letter was “an obvious choice. Paying attention to the environment is part of my Jewish identity and responsibility as a rabbi. We are taught that all people are created in the image of God. To care for other human beings, we must care for our environment.”

Speaking at last-week’s interfaith panel, Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders addressed their commonalities. Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, explained that according to Christian teachings, “St. Francis said that we must care for our brothers and teachers, our sisters and mothers. We are part of creation, so we have to take responsibility for creation.”

Similarly, and citing the Koran, Kadi Iyad Zahalha, judge of the Muslim Sharia Courts in Israel, said, “Allah has made human beings above all other creations, but this is a responsibility to care for all of creation.”

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, quoted Deuteronomy 30:19, "Choose life in order that you and your children shall live."

"Climate change is a matter of life and death everything else becomes secondary. If we do not have the earth in which to live, then we are merely moving the chairs on the Titanic as we head towards the iceberg," he said.

The religious leaders also agreed that interfaith action is particularly valuable.

“The idea that anyone can go it alone is a ridiculous illusion," said Rosen. "It’s a heresy, because you are shutting yourself off from the broader perspectives of the divine in the world since no one tradition can capture the totality of the divine on its own.”

However, much of today’s climate crisis is caused by domestic politics and geopolitical conflicts. What, then, is the role of religious leadership?

According to Zahalha, religious leaders should not comment on political situations, even if they are the source of potential environmental disaster. “We should take out of the [interfaith] dialogue all of the issues that are a source of conflict between us. There are other people whose job it is to solve those problems – we should put our joint forces to [work to] solve environmental problems.”

Unclear about the moral stance

Cherlow, who signed the letter, disagreed, saying the humanitarian situation in Gaza is indeed a Jewish imperative, but that it “is not clear what the moral stance should be. On the one hand, of course, we must care for the people who are suffering there. On the other hand, we must also be concerned for ourselves, and worry if the aid that we give to Gaza will come back to hurt us. But that does not mean that we should stand aside. It means that we must actively search for a way to resolve this moral dilemma, and not use politics as an excuse.”

Rosen noted that "Sadly, religion has been responsible for some of the greatest travesties of history. And this comes primarily when religion is married to a power structure, because then it betrays its most noble values. As religious leaders and people of faith, we must make a statement about the climate and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, if only for our own moral consciences. But thinking that we will be able to influence our governments by taking public stands is a bit delusional.”

According to Neril, the limits on the role of religion in the global climate crisis due to politics are even worse in the United States, especially among the Orthodox Jewish community, where a letter such as the one his organization initiated would be impossible.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a leading figure in the liberal-oriented Open Orthodox movement as well as president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona, told Haaretz, “In the United States, the non-Orthodox movements and some in the still-marginal Open Orthodox movement have taken strong stands on social justice issues, including denouncing Trump for pulling out of the Paris Accord. But the mainstream Orthodox community seems to care only about lowering taxes – so that they can buy kosher food, send their children to day schools and visit Israel twice a year – and about maintaining Israel’s military strength. They are completely in sync with the Evangelical movement in America and, to them, Trump is the Messiah, bringing them what they want.”

For that reason, he said, “No Orthodox community rabbi would dare speak out against Trump or anything he does – he would be worried about losing his congregation, or his job.”

Yanklowitz continued, “Orthodox community rabbis should grow a spine and show true moral leadership. If not,” he added facetiously, “then we, the Jewish people, should just pack it up and say, ‘We had a good run for a few thousand years, but it’s over now.’”

In the meanwhile, even though “religious leaders are not going to change global climate change, we do have a role," concluded Rosen: "To be exemplars and demand more of ourselves and our followers. We are a wasteful, selfish, self-indulgent society, and we must create the public groundswell that, in the end, will even influence the multinational corporations and the governments.”