Cliff’s Air Conditioner, Climate Change, and the Jewish People

by Brian on January 19, 2010

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

My friend Cliff called this week to say he was getting rid of an old air conditioning unit and would I want to take it off his hands…at no charge? Cliff knew that I had spent much of the summer sweltering in my top floor home office.

I have an air conditioner already but, at only ¾ horsepower, it’s woefully underpowered and on a hot day, I can’t get the room temperature to less than 28 degrees Celsius (that’s over 80 Fahrenheit) – not a particularly conducive environment in which to work.

My predisposition for a bargain however was tempered by a counter thought: was this kosher? I don’t mean whether the assembly of the air conditioner was supervised by Chabad. Rather, would adding another air conditioner into the world mesh with Jewish law?

Now, of course, there’s nothing in the Torah or Talmud that forbids keeping comfortably cool, but what’s the point of scrupulously keeping the minutia of halacha if doesn’t promote concern for the planet and ultimately the welfare and continued survival of the people who live in it (including the ones keeping all that Jewish law)? After all, on Yom Kippur you first have to make peace with your fellow men and women before anything supernatural can kick in.

It turns out that Jews have been thinking about the environment for awhile. In the late 1970s. Rav Zalman Schachter-Shalomi coined the term “eco-kosher.” His point was that it’s not enough to make sure the meat you’re eating is slaughtered according to Jewish law; the animal has to be treated humanely, the environment must not be harmed, and the workers who toil in the kashrut factories cannot be exploited either.

This has been a hot topic in recent years with the revelations of scandalous conditions at Agriprocessors, the leading kosher meat producer in the U.S., involving a variety of issues including health, safety, the environment and animal welfare.

It’s only logical to extend the concept of eco-kosher to the environment as a whole. Rav Zalman noted that while a Styrofoam cup might be useful to someone keeping kosher, it would not be a good choice for someone concerned with the environment. A more hi-tech example would be whether it’s politically correct to buy printed books and newspapers that deplete the rain forests when electronic versions are growing in popularity (run out and get a Kindle).

In this light, whether to accept Cliff’s air conditioner was no longer just a personal choice; it had become a metaphor for how to conduct one’s life ethically and socially as a traditional Jew. One must ask: is the air conditioner “green” enough (in Cliff’s case, since it was a very old unit, probably not)? Are there other alternatives? Would a strong fan be sufficient?

This need is even more pronounced in Israel where we can, as a sovereign nation, make a real difference, if not on a planetary level then at least in our little corner of the Middle East.

There are a number of Jewish groups already active in this area. These include the New York-based Hazon organization and its Jewish Climate Change campaign. Another – called The Green Prophet is an “environment news site reporting on the Middle East, Israel and the Arab world.” It recently co-sponsored a 2-day workshop in Madaba Jordan called “Blogging for the Environment” with the aim to “bring 15 prominent journalists and bloggers in Arabic, Hebrew and English to meet and brainstorm new ways to report on and instigate environmental change in areas of activism, design, urban health, religion, and clean technologies.”

Michael Kagan’s “Jewish Climate Initiative” strives to ground a Jewish approach to the environment in classic texts, bringing Hilkhot Shekhenim as a source addressing the key issue of pollution as it influences climate change.

That text, writes Initiative staff member Rabbi Julian Sinclair, 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.” And while “the rabbis did not imagine our situation in which coal-fired power stations in Michigan may contribute to drought in Mali,” today we clearly are causing damage to “neighbors” whom we will never meet.

Kagan told me in an email that one way to make the issue of climate change more accessible is to “forget greenhouse gas emissions” and rather look at “the terrible state of the oceans…of food production, health…air (and) water purity.” There is no doubt,” he adds, “that these are all human made devastations upon the well-being of the planet. Let’s clear up this mess, then global warming will fall in place.”

Philadelphia-based Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that even the message of the recent holiday of Hanukah, where a single day’s supply of oil lasted for eight days, can serve as a trigger to focus our attention “on energy conservation and breaking our dependence on fossil fuel,” After all, if the Macabees could milk the most out of a limited amount of fuel, modern society should be able to invent vastly more powerful technology.

In light of these various approaches to the intent of Jewish law, I am perplexed by the phenomena of climate change deniers, particularly the Jewish ones. Jonathan Rosenblum, writing in a recent issue of the Jerusalem Post, pulls out all the stops in trying to discredit the global warming community as secular “high priests” who lay claim “to certainty based on human intelligence,” relying on unproven hypotheses regarding “imminent catastrophe.”

Rosenblum cites the recently released hacked emails to and from researchers at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit as proof that there is no scientific consensus and that the agenda is being driven by “tremendous financial incentives for the alarmists to keep ratcheting up their hysterics.”

There’s no question that those emails paint a not-so-straightforward picture. But Rosenblum uses the controversy to bolster his underlying thrust that when humankind claims to know more than God, nothing positive can come from it.

An opposing religious perspective comes from my colleague Tzemach Yoreh, author of the Religious Atheist website, who writes that prayer may serve a model for engaging Jewish tradition in the service of the greater good.

“The common denominator uniting much of our prayer,” he says, “is that much of what we speak of is beyond our power as individuals, and that it can only be accomplished through a concerted communal effort. By praying, we validate those communal aspirations and give ourselves strength to continue.”

I’m not saying that we all need to start praying. But the value of prayer and its role over the past two millennium in the history of the Jewish people may give us an authentically Jewish starting point from which to galvanize our efforts.

The time to act is now. In a recent interview on the NPR program On the Media. George Monbiot, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, pointed to opinion polls that show only 57% of U.S. citizens believe that climate change is man-made. The numbers in the U.K. are even lower at 41%. And they’re dropping fast.

Monibot compares this response to looming environmental disaster to what happens when a doctor tells someone that they have cancer. The patient initially sinks into denial. If that’s the case with the climate change challengers, what will happen when the prognosis turns terminal?

I’m certainly no expert, but from what I’ve read, the overall science remains pretty conclusive. And so, when it comes to that air conditioner, I’m saying no. It’s a small step for sure, but it hopefully won’t be the last as my own social consciousness grows. And a billion small steps can add up quickly.

The Jewish people has a critical opportunity…no, a responsibility to lead the charge against the deniers and to do its part to help save the world. In this way, we may be able re-frame for modern times our historical role as a light unto the nations. The planet is counting on us.

A shorter version of this article appeared on the Israelity blog.

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