According to data released on June 7, 2012, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States just experienced the warmest spring, the warmest year-to-date, and the warmest twelve-month period since temperature records have been kept.
The NOAA previously reported that over 15,000 temperature records were broken in the United States during March 2012. On March 15 alone, 593 record daily high temperatures were set or tied, along with 445 record warm low temperatures. In Chicago, temperatures soared past 80 degrees Fahrenheit four days in a row—the earliest that has ever occurred, breaking a record set in mid-April, 1896.
These records are not a one-time fluke. Temperatures have been increasing every decade since the 1970s, producing increasingly severe storms, floods, wildfires, areas of drought, and other signs of climate change. Late June and early July of 2012 was an especially intense period in the United States, with many cities across the country experiencing day after day of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit heat, record rainfall in Minnesota and Florida, epic fires in Colorado, crop-shriveling drought in the High Plains, and a “land hurricane” that left millions without power across the East at a time of intense heat.
Yet, an alarming percentage of Jews, especially among the Orthodox, still believe that climate change is nothing more than “liberal politics.”
Climate Change Denial in Orthodox Communities
In my own modern Orthodox synagogue, I have repeatedly been told that global warming is a hoax created by Al Gore. In 2002, Jewish Press columnist Steven Plaut began calling environmental activists “tikkun olam pagans.”—a phrase that has since become widely accepted in right-wing political circles. Plaut openly ridiculed Jews who apply the term tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) to ecology and social action. When I challenged him in a letter to the editor, several readers defended his reactionary stance. And this in spite of the fact that the vast majority of scientists, as indicated in over a thousand peer-reviewed articles in respected scientific journals and by dire warnings from science academies worldwide, now agree that climate change is a very real phenomenon, and have been warning for years that it could soon spin out of control.
The joint science academies’ statement in 2005, “Global Response to Climate Change,” was signed by leaders of the science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It urged the world’s governments to “acknowledge that the threat of climate change is real and increasing” and to “take prompt action to reduce the causes of climate change, adapt to its impacts and ensure that the issue is included in all relevant national and international strategies.” The annual “State of the Climate” report of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued in July 2010 used an in-depth analysis of 10 climate indicators that all pointed to a significant warming during the past three decades and concluded that “global warming is undeniable,” and that it is rapidly accelerating.
Why, then, is there still so much denial of this phenomenon among political conservatives? According to James Hoggan, author of Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade To Deny Global Warming, there has been a well-organized effort on the part of the oil, coal, and other industries to purposely mislead the public.
Apparently more willing to believe spin-doctors than the consensus of scientific experts, the Orthodox Jewish community has been shifting more to the right politically. Nor was climate the only area in which these Jews were becoming more right-wing and, in my opinion, more socially irresponsible. It was this shift to the right—often betraying the very foundations of the traditional Judaism that I love—which prompted me, along with my co-author Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, to write my latest book, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet. It is meant to be, among other things, a wake-up call to increase awareness that Jews must be actively involved in applying Jewish teachings to help avert an impending climate catastrophe, severe food, water, and energy shortages, and other environmental threats. (Because current treats are so great, denial of them is so widespread, and time to take actions that can help avert tragedies is so short, I have made the reading of the eBook version freely available at whostolemyreligion.com).
Jews are not doing enough to respond to current critical issues, but Judaism is a radical religion, in the best sense of that word, because of its very strong teachings on justice, peace, sharing, compassion, activism, and environmental sustainability, and the radical teachings of the biblical prophets. The application of Judaism’s powerful, radical teachings can help respond to the current climate crisis, other environmental threats, and other societal problems. But, unfortunately even the term “liberal” has become a negative word to many Jews.
While I am especially critical of Orthodox Jews for climate denial and supporting conservative politicians, I also highly praise the many acts of charity, kindness, and Jewish learning at my modern Orthodox synagogue. The book has two appendix sections that discuss Jewish groups that are working for a better world, one of which involves Orthodox groups. There are many Orthodox individuals and organizations that are doing important work toward creating a better world, as there are among other Jewish groups, but far more needs to be done in the face of so many current problems.
However, it has been a source of great frustration to me that so many members of my congregation, as well as other Orthodox Jews, are in denial about climate change and other environmental threats, in spite of the strong consensus of scientists that climate change is happening, that it is a major threat to humanity, and that human activities are a major contributor to the problem.
What makes the denial even more frustrating is that these Jews are ignoring the negative climate effects on Israel, the land that they profess to love more than anywhere else on earth. Prior to the heavier-than-average 2011-2012 winter rains, Israel had a very severe seven-year drought, with Lake Kinneret, its main source of water, so low at times that water could not be pumped out of it. Many more winters with heavy rain are needed to get Israel back to a secure supply of water.
Prospects for the future are negative, with the Israeli Union for Environmental Protection projecting that climate change in Israel will result in an average temperature increase of two to 11 degrees Fahrenheit, a decrease in average rainfall of 20-30 percent, an increase of desert areas, and a possible inundation of the coastal plain (where most Israelis live) by a rising Mediterranean Sea. Yet climate change is seldom, if ever, discussed in connection with Israel in the Orthodox Jewish community.
When my fellow congregants assert that climate change arguments are a liberal scam led by Al Gore, I suggest that they check out the website of the conservative group Republicans for Environmental Protection. The group endorses only Republican candidates and actively seeks to do so. However, in the 2010 midterm U.S. elections, they were only able to endorse about 4 percent of Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates, because of the very weak environmental records of almost all the Republican politicians. By extension, this means that Jews who voted for the majority of Republican candidates in 2010 were, in effect, voting to ignore serious climate crises in Israel—as well a the rest of the planet.
An Increasing Number of Jewish Republicans
Climate change is not the only reason I feel my religion has been stolen by right-wing politics. I am also increasingly frustrated that so many of my fellow religious Jews are supporting the Republican Party in spite of its great economic failure during the Bush administration, one that converted a three-year surplus left them by the Clinton administration (that was on track to completely eliminate the total U.S. debt) into a major deficit, created very few net jobs (none in the private sector), and left the country on the brink of a depression. In the final three months of the Bush administration, an average of 750,000 jobs were lost. Republicans who now blame President Obama for the nation’s economic problems ignore that those problems are rooted in the very policies they supported during the Bush years.
During the primary election in my congressional district for the Republican nomination for Congress in 2010, a Republican candidate spoke at my synagogue after a Shabbat afternoon service. During the question period following the talk, I asked the candidate what policies he supported that differed from those of the Bush administration that had proved so disastrous and left the country in great economic peril. One member of the congregation applauded my question. When the candidate said to the applauder, “Oh, you liked that question,” another congregation member called out, “They are the only two liberals in the synagogue.” This was, of course, an exaggeration, but not by much, based on my many experiences and conversations with synagogue members.
Jews who support the current Republican platform are ignoring the fact that the Republican Party has become increasingly conservative in recent years. There are very few moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, or Clifford Case anymore. Instead, the party is now pandering to the extremist Tea Party, whose social values are far from Jewish values.
Israeli Hawks Pull U.S. Jews to the Right
I find it strange that the very same religious Jews who decry the dangers of assimilation have, perhaps unwittingly, assimilated a philosophy that is so alien to Jewish thought. Judaism teaches that we have a moral responsibility to care for “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” that is, the most vulnerable segments of society. If you prosper, Judaism says, you are obligated to share your wealth with the less fortunate. Traditional Judaism teaches that not only is it a mitzvah—a commandment—to give to the poor; it is a privilege. “More that the rich man helps the poor man, the poor man helps the rich man” is as old Jewish adage—one that I find impossible to reconcile with Tea Party proposals. Jews who think that the Republican Party is “on our side” should consider that, while there is only one Jewish Republican member of Congress, there are about forty Democratic Jewish members of Congress, perhaps because, unlike many Republicans, the Democratic Party cares about the underprivileged.
One of the reasons many religious Jews support conservative politicians is that these politicians are generally supportive of the most hawkish policies of the Israeli government. I contend, based on the arguments of the Orthodox Israeli peace group Oz v’Shalom (Strength and Peace), that, while it will be difficult to obtain, a comprehensive, sustainable, just resolution of the Israeli conflict (a two-state solution) is essential if Israel is to be able to avoid renewed conflict, effectively address its economic, social, and environmental challenges, and remain both a Jewish and a democratic state. Groups like New Israel Fund, J Street, Rabbis for Human Rights, and other similar organizations are working for a more tolerant, democratic, just Israel, and have done a great deal to effect positive social changes there. Yet it is these very same groups that the right-wingers have recently attempted to silence in America, in favor of supporting the more intolerant, hawkish Israeli politicians who, in my opinion, are leading Israel to the brink of disaster.
A Vision for Progressive Judaism
In addition to discussing climate change and Israeli politics, Who Stole My Religion? also includes the following arguments:
- Jews should be environmental, vegetarian (preferably vegan), and animal rights activists;
- The Holocaust should be a spur to activism in working to see that nothing even remotely like it ever happens again to any people;
- Jews should join efforts to oppose Islamophobia;
- The United States should help initiate a “Global Marshall Plan,” as promoted by the Network of Spiritual Progressives, that would use a percent of gross national products and military expenditures of the wealthy nations, in an effort to significantly reduce poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease, pollution, and other societal ills. Israel should join in such an effort, especially in the Middle East, hopefully after a resolution of current conflicts.
- While, it will never be completely eradicated, there are ways that anti-Semitism can be reduced, including having Israel actively involved in a Marshall-type plan discussed above and resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
- In many ways, capitalism’s values are inconsistent with Jewish teachings, so Jews should work to help build a more cooperative economic system, based on Jewish values, including justice, compassion, sharing, love of neighbors, consideration of the stranger, and environmental sustainability;
- Based on the challenging statement of my role model Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive,” Jews should use the many powerful messages in the siddur and the Jewish scriptures to inspire activism.
- In general, Jews should re-think many current issues in the light of positive Jewish values.
I do not expect people to agree with every stance I take, but I do invite them to join in a respectful dialogue. This can help revitalize Judaism and shift our imperiled, violence-filled world to a more just, peaceful, compassionate, and environmentally sustainable path.
Additional information about Who Stole My Religion?—including a link to download a free PDF copy of the e-book—can be found at whostolemyreligion.com.