Danger! Climate Crisis Ahead: An Executive Summary

July 25, 2022

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff

When I first began thinking about having a climate conference, my student, now Rabbi Hody Nemes, a climate activist himself, noted to me that he was interested in finding answers to the following questions: Does the halakha (Jewish law) have anything to say about what kind of car he should buy? Does he need to buy a hybrid, or electric car, assuming he can afford it? Does the halakha demand that he fly less? Those were his questions. I added a few more: does the halakha demand that we stop eating meat (industrial agriculture and especially meat production is a major source of greenhouse gases)? Does it prohibit investing in fossil fuels? Does it demand that we sell stocks that we currently hold in fossil fuel companies? These are the questions I have worked on for the past 2 years. I won’t deny that, though I was willing to pasken that there is no halakhic concern for these behaviors, I was actively looking for the halakha to treat the climate crisis with some stringency.

I began by considering my limitations. Damages from greenhouse gas emissions are challenging for halakha for three reasons:

  1. They are byproducts of activities that are often positive, important, and sometimes absolutely necessary. That cancels out arguments from bal tashchit, the prohibition on indiscriminate destruction.
  2. Many of the greenhouse gases are not, in themselves, toxic to humans. It is their indirect effect that causes damage. They prevent heat from being released from the atmosphere which causes the planet to heat up causing desertification, extreme weather, and rising sea levels.
  3. The contribution of the individual to this damage is very small compared to the overall damage that 8 billion people have created. These last two considerations made me abandon any attempt to use normal cases of nezikin, tort law to address the issue. It seems to me that because the damage is so indirect and so small in any individual case, we cannot apply the Talmudic dictum: grama be-nezikin assur, even indirect damage is forbidden.

Therefore, I turned away from the intuitive approach of damages, and moved over into the realm of danger, sakana. The evidence shows that climate change is a significant danger to the entire world. Computer models predict that hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost annually in the next thirty years as a direct result of climate damage. Recent studies have found that a third of heat related deaths alone annually worldwide can be directly associated with climate change. And climate change is associated with other negative phenomena such that preventing the global temperature from rising three degrees by the end of the century, would save 150 million lives. This data indicates that climate change is a major sakana. Sakana is also a helpful category because the Torah is ultra sensitive to activities that endanger human life. Chamira sakanta me-issura, the Talmud tells us, danger is a stricter category than sin.

In the Mishna in Tractate Avodah Zarah and the resultant halakhic ruling in the Tur and the Shulkhan Arukh, our most significant halakhic codes, I encountered the following law. It is forbidden to build a courthouse together with, or on behalf of a non-Jewish court system. The reason is that the Mishna and its interpreters fear that in this building Jews will be framed for crimes they did not commit and be put to death as a result. Here is a case of extremely indirect damage where the contribution of a single individual is virtually negligible. Yet, it is absolutely forbidden to participate in this building process. I argue that this law can be extended to forbid carbon emissions today.

There are some problems. Some authorities say that building the courthouse is forbidden because of lifnei iver, do not put a stumbling block before the blind. That is, the torah forbids murder even to non-Jews. Building them a courthouse, where they will legitimate and possibly commit murder, assists them in breaking the Torah. I counter that the Shulkhan Arukh and the Rama along with the majority of early authorities believe that the problem is danger, not lifnei iver. Furthermore, I argue that the problem with assisting murder is not helping someone break the Torah, but rather, murder! The halakhic concern with the climate crisis would similarly be to prevent loss of life. So the gap between lifnei iver and sakana is just not that wide.

But releasing greenhouse gases is not the same activity as building a building! How can you take a prohibition that the Sages said about one thing and turn it into a prohibition on something else? I argue that creating a life-threatening hazard is a Torah based prohibition. The Sages identify cases that serve as prototypes for the kinds of dangers that are prohibited. There is still space, however, to identify new dangers. This is a crucial step in my process and it is based on the positions of the Chatam Sofer, and the Minchat Chinukh.

Another problem still exists. If we’re not allowed to release greenhouse gases at all, our lives will come to a complete standstill. Maybe we’re not allowed to continue having children! Maybe we have to eschew electricity, and running water, and planes, and cars. Saying that releasing carbon emissions is forbidden because of sakana is tantamount to saying that living modern life is forbidden because of sakana.

Therefore, I limit my ruling in a major way. It can’t be that our entire modern lives are forbidden. However, we don’t know where to draw the line. Therefore, before we buy a plane ticket, order the steak, or invest in fossil fuels, we have to consider whether this really is necessary. Tzorekh gadol, a major necessity. Is it for your livelihood? Family? Doing a mitzva? Is it worth the possibility that we’re illegally causing danger to ourselves and others? The Torah doesn’t demand that we stop everything, but we must think about whether the damage we cause is worth the benefit we get. I leave this consideration in the hands of the individual, but I do have my own opinion on a few matters:

I don’t think it’s necessary to fly for vacations. I don’t think it’s necessary to eat meat when it’s not Shabbat or Yom Tov. I don’t think it’s necessary to invest in fossil fuels, there are many other lucrative areas to invest in. I believe that if I need a car, I should buy an electric or hybrid car (the relative benefit of each depends on the source of electricity). These are only  opinions but they influence the way I understand the halakha.

We’re halfway done. Once we’ve classified the climate crisis as sakana, the Rambam and the Shulkhan Arukh state that there is a positive mitzvah to remove hazards from where we live. That is, we have an obligation to identify the physical hazards in our communities and neutralize them. Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perlow, a 19th and 20th century Talmudist argues that this is a communal obligation: a chovah on the tsibur. So if there is an uncovered pit in the public domain, the entire community has an obligation to cover or fence it off. This is ruled as practical halakha by the Dvar Avraham, and the Hazon Ish, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rav Perlow adds that when community action is lacking, it is a direct obligation on the individual to neutralize public hazards. So until the community acts effectively, the chiyuv devolves onto all of us.

Based on this, I argue that each of us has a chiyuv, an individual obligation to work to solve the climate crisis. Whether we support organizations urging the government to subsidize green energy or research into clean coal or other technological solutions more favored by the right, we have a halakhic obligation to be a part of the solution with our money, with our votes, and with our bodies.

This is actually more important than the prohibitions. The physical reduction of carbon emissions by the Jewish community would make a difference to the climate crisis, yes. But our political and cultural sway is much more powerful than our physical bodies. If we all fulfilled our obligation to solve the climate crisis and joined a mass movement to demand a solution from government and private industry and agriculture, that could really change things across the world.

Summing up, I argue that unnecessary carbon emissions are forbidden. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to think seriously about whether an activity that will cause carbon emissions is truly a tzorekh gadol, a great need. More importantly, we have a chiyuv, as a community and as individuals, to work to solve the climate crisis. Those are my conclusions.

Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff is a Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Rabbi Resnikoff trained at YCT, graduated in 2014, and joined the faculty immediately thereafter. For the last two and a half years, he has spearheaded YCT’s groundbreaking effort to raise the priority of the climate crisis in the Orthodox and larger Jewish community.

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