Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Greening of Agudah

Until recently, I was sort of luke warm when it came to global warming. I wasn’t buying into the theory that we were slowly destroying our planet. Somehow, I believed like so many others raised in the mid twentieth century, that if we could conquer the “last frontier” we could take care of our own planet. If we made mistakes, than we could correct them. Recently I read a paper published in Science that indicates that by the middle of the 21st century our fish population will have been depleted to the point that our food source from the waters will have collapsed. We are talking about a food source that is primary and essential for our survival. This isn’t an American problem or a European problem. It isn’t a Jewish problem or a Muslim issue. This is a serious concern that affects us all.

We’re all in this together, whether we are white, black, Jew, Christian or Muslim. The time has come when the religious establishment needs to take a leadership position in something beyond their "daled amos"(narrow purview)-precisely because this is their daled amos- it is the daled amos of the planet. Who else but the religious Jewish leadership should take the lead role in becoming more environmentally sensitive? After all, our sacred text teaches us that during the creation, man was given stewardship over the planet. It is our responsibility to take care of it in a manner befitting those entrusted with God's creations. According to the research published in this article, 29% of fish and seafood species have collapsed under our watch. Nothing to be proud of!

For too long the religious establishment has been and perhaps rightfully so preoccupied with pushing their narrow agenda exclusive of anyone else’s concerns or interest. They were on a mission and nothing was going to stand in their way nor were they intending to compromise. Their agenda important as it was, did not take into account the broader concerns which impact on all of us-regardless of religious affiliation. Their concerns revolved around issues of chinuch(education), kashrus(dietary laws) and family matters (inyonei ishus). Lately, and to their credit (and not to belittle their other achievements) they have concerned themselves with complicated and complex issues in areas of medical ethics, abortion, stem cell research, cloning, end of life issues, etc. They are to be lauded for this and I am extremely proud of the leadership in Agudah and the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah(council of sages). But they cannot stop here. While these are important, and halacha has and should have something to say- I believe that the religious establishment needs to throw its collective weight and prestige into the issue of our troubled environment.

The paradigm that we have known hitherto has shifted and we need to rethink the models we have designed to navigate this new reality. Until now our halachic systems have been primarily concerned with how the Jewish person navigates through the world he lives in. Throughout the ages ranging from the Talmudic period through the “achronim”(later day sages) halachic concerns have revolved around real human issues and concerns ranging from the birth to the grave and everything in between. But now the paradigm has changed. The issue is no more the Jew in his environment, but whether or not humanity will exist in the way we have been been accustomed. Halacha hitherto has developed in order to meet those ethcal and legal challenges we faced confronting modern science and technology. But now there is something new that is challenging our ability to adapt. The question is can and will halacha respond to this new reality?

Environmental issues have not been on their agenda hitherto, because these issues were not critical nor is there a significant body of halachic literature relating to these issues. Our history and halachic approach heretofore hasn’t had to deal with environmental issues that threaten our existence or our quality of life. I do believe however that the time has come when we need to adjust our halachic models to include the threatening affects of global warming and other factors negatively impacting our environment.

Since halacha is all encompassing and does guide us through life halacha ought to have a lot to say about our environment. An issue as important and pressing as the disappearance of our food sources and global warming ought to become a real and major halachic concern of the major orthodox organizations such as Agudas Yisrael and the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. Assuming that I am right and that there are serious halachic concerns which need to be addressed, I believe that if the major players within the religious establishment put their weight behind this issue a significant difference could be realized.

Imagine what the impact would be if Daas Torah (torah mentality) encouraged its adherents to become environmentally concerned with energy saving devices and the use of technology that would cut down on the use of domestic water waste. Imagine if there was a Kol Korei (public letter) by the Moetzes Gedolei Hatoreh that encouraged its followers to vote for candidates committed to saving and enhancing the environment as mandated by halacha. Imagine if Agudah were to put its political clout behind this effort citing our mandate that as stewards of the planet we have no choice but to come out and support those candidates committed to saving God’s planet. The ripple effect would be staggering and felt throughout the country.

There are those who will say don’t worry; the problems will be addressed by others (politicians, technologists and scientists), who have found in the past cures for diseases which threatened our existence. To these people I say, it is our ethical and religious responsibility to address these very issues. It is our mandate. There will be those who believe that we ought not tamper with God's unfolding plan. They are fatalists and to them I say that if God didn’t want our direct and active involvement in such a critical issue why were we entrusted with the welfare of the planet as its custodians?

It was a time long ago, when we accepted this mandate seriously. We were once the original green party-it’s time we acted responsibly, and out of love for God's incredible creation we need to reclaim our right and legacy.