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The Jewish Command to Pursue Justice is the Jewish Obligation to Act on Climate Change

By Liya Rechtman

Seeking Justice-Justice

My Jewish values tell me that I must pursue justice, of course, but also tell me so much more. In Deuteronomy 16:18 we read “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” As a Jew, I am not only commanded to fight for justice, but for “justice, justice.” Jews are given a double commandment – an un-stuttering repetition in our text that tells us that justice alone is not enough.

In the pursuit of justice, we find ourselves “championing the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9) on a micro, relational level. I mean charity when I speak of the micro-level. But justice-justice requires a more systemic, macro-level approach, above and beyond giving to charity or advocating for policies to protect individuals experiencing homelessness in our cities. The “poor and the needy” immediately require clothes and shelter, but their lives are also fundamentally shaped by global food and water scarcities due to rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns.

 Justice-justice acknowledges the structural and global problems that make these individuals’ lives more difficult every day. The second “justice” in our text forces us to address poverty at its root causes, including those that render our planet ever less inhabitable or hospitable to those most vulnerable. In Leviticus 19:34, we read that we should “welcome in the stranger.” Justice alone would have us allow entry of immigrants and refugees into our borders, while justice-justice requires us to look at the wars and famines that are causing people to flee their homes. In short, our Jewish obligation to pursue justice is more than case-by-case direct service work. It is a call to combat systematic structures of inequality — like the industrial greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate disruption.

Combating Climate Change Cannot be Done Alone

Pope Francis’s “eco-encyclical” at first meant very little to me as a religious Jew. While the Pope is a powerful religious figure regardless of one’s religion, he holds no sway over my personal beliefs. Of course, I agreed with the Pope’s central claim. Yes, climate change is an imminent threat. Yes, we have a moral obligation to protect our earth.

Pope Francis, however, showed me that climate change has to be more than a responsibility held by any one group. Climate change is an inherently universal issue – the most universal issue that could exist since it is integrally a problem of our collective human treatment of our earth. Climate change affects every other issue, making it an issue of – as I term it – second tier justice (the second “justice” of justice-justice). In his encyclical Laudito Si, the Pope wrote simply: “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.”

In the same way that climate change mitigation must transcend national boundary lines, so too must we unite across religious boundary lines to work towards emissions reductions in our local and national communities. The Pope, as the leader of the Roman Catholic community, recognized this critical point in his writing. When he emphasizes, throughout his encyclical, that we must act imminently, that all life is connected, and that our greed is destroying our natural resources and our humanity, he speaks not only to the Catholic world. He speaks to a global humanity, undivided by theological or situational differences, and necessarily joined in common cause for defending our planet.

The UN Climate Change Framework May Be the Key

 The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is perhaps the only governmental mechanism that has a real chance at addressing and combating a problem as large and international as climate change. The conference lasts for two weeks and includes representatives from both developed and developing countries. The hope is that by the end of negotiations, there will emerge an international agreement on emissions reductions.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Eugène Delacroix - Photo: Wikipedia

Next month, I will be joining the Religions for Peace USA Paris Cohort, a delegation of young faith leaders attending the UNFCCC in Paris, France. Our delegation is comprised of Muslim, Mennonite, and Zoroastrian lay leaders, a Baptist preacher, and myself (representing the Jewish community). This diversity mirrors the spirit of the UNFCCC. In the same way that the United Nations represents international collaboration, we aim to act as an international interfaith group, learning from each other and bringing climate mitigation practices communities.

While there, we will join pop-up prayer vigils, the People’s Pilgrimage, and climate protests. We will also be speaking to Parisians and decision-makers who will gather at the conference to make some of the most important policy calls of our time in order to bring them the rationale of faithful ethics that informs our climate change advocacy.

The week we arrive in Paris, Jews will be reading Parshat Vayishlach, one of the last weekly Torah portions in the book of Genesis. In Vayislach, the Jewish patriarch Jacob, wrestles a being (often interpreted as an angel) and becomes re-named Israel. This piece of Jewish sacred text is commonly interpreted as an allegory for the wrestling we must do, both internally and as a community, in order to transform into something better and more prepared to face the future. As we look towards the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and our opportunity, as people of all faiths, I hope that our international leadership will be able to wrestle with their angels towards an agreement that allows for a livable planet and a humane future.

Liya Rechtman is a Religions for Peace USA delegate to the UNFCCC and the manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, an initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.