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Climate Change Theology

Human activity is now a major determinant of the weather. This is the overwhelming consensus finding of climate science. The massive emissions from our use of carbon-producing fossil fuels since the industrial revolution are warming the planet, and generating more extreme weather conditions worldwide.

But wait a moment; isn’t the weather God’s department? In traditional Jewish theology, climactic conditions are part of the divine prerogative. Most famously, in the second paragraph of the shema, God promises to “close up the Heavens so that there will be no rain, and the land will not yield her fruit,” (Deuteronomy 11:17) in response to human misdeeds.

What are the theological implications of the scientific fact that we humans now have significant sway over the earth’s weather conditions? And can these implications make sense for those for find it difficult to speak of direct Divine involvement in human affairs?

These fascinating questions have hardly been explored at all, and we can only scratch the surface of them here.

Let’s start by pointing out that in the Bible and Talmud, the ethical and spiritual dimensions of human behaviour are presumed to impact on the climate. In the shema, quoted above, withholding of rain is a consequence of sin.

In Masechet Ta’anit the Talmud devotes most of a tractate to exploring the interaction of human and Divine influence in producing the weather that is needed to sustain human life.

The Mishnah begins by describing the prayers for rain that are said daily throughout the winter (1:1), goes on to prescribe a series of public fast days of increasing severity in the eventuality that the rains fail, (1:4-6) and outlines in detail the rituals of communal fasting, prayer and penitence to be followed in the event of full-blown climate catastrophe (Chapter 2).

It is clear to the Talmud that, through Divine mediation, the weather is profoundly sensitive to human action. Not only can our fasting and prayer help end drought, but our actions may cause drought. Withholding support to the poor and the Levites, slander, gossip and neglect of Torah study are among the sins that the rabbis identify as causing the Heavens to shut up. (Ta’anit 7b)

In a fascinating unpublished article, Eilon Schwartz of the Heschel Centre for Environmental Learning and Leadership calls Climate Change, “the first post-modern disaster. . .At its core sits the reintegration of nature and human beings, and the blurring of the modernist divide between the “is” and the “ought.””

In climate change, the physical consequences of ethically problematic human behavior (burning too much fossil fuel without heed for its effects on the natural world, the poor and future generations) have become part of “nature.” Is climate change a “natural” or “man-made” disaster? It’s both. Are its causes primarily scientific or spiritual? The two categories have become intertwined.

Schwartz calls it “the Return of Biblical Cosmology” – with a difference. As in the Bible, climactic disasters are a consequence of human misdeeds. (Schwartz does not shrink from using the word “sin.”)

But unlike the way we always understood the Bible, nature today doesn’t seem to be a mere tool in the hands of the Divine, exacting punishment for human acts that are independent of it. The natural climactic systems are responding to trillions of human actions (driving, flying, overheating, overeating, wasting, etc.) that we are coming to understand as deeply harmful. These actions are creating their own retribution.

Yet the Talmud offers us hope that just as we humans may be responsible for disrupting the weather, so too we can be part of repairing it. For those of us with a traditional theology it holds out hope that those same practices of prayer and penitence can help avert climate catastrophe. For others who don’t think in those terms, penitence of a more naturalistic kind; massive shifts in human behavior and in our relationship with the planet that sustains us, can still prevent disaster.