Local rabbis speak up about the drought


The Catholic pope is not the only one seeing moral messages in the issue of climate change and in valuing the Earth’s natural resources. Many rabbis are teaching restraint, particularly in California, where the drought, currently in its fourth year, is causing civic leaders to require residents and farmers to severely cut back on water use.  

“We need to restrain ourselves with dealing with adama [soil],” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and a member of the Jewish Renewal movement, known for his work on Jewish environmental ethics. “In the story of the Garden of Eden, God says to the human race, ‘There’s an abundance here, eat it joyfully, just a little self restraint. Don’t eat from that tree.’ They don’t restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes.”

It’s a concept also applied to the commandment of resting on Shabbat or practicing shmita, he explained, the halachic principle of letting the earth lie fallow every seven years.

For many rabbis from different congregations across Los Angeles, the California drought can be studied through a Jewish lens, and the Torah, as well as Jewish law and ethics, can offer the community guidance in how to respond.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation described climate change — which he connected to the drought — as “an enormously religious issue,” as human action is at least partly accountable.

“We are failing perhaps the most basic human commandment we were given,” Kanefsky said, referring to that of taking care of the world. Climate change “is going to create serious hardship, whether for people who are living in areas that can no longer grow food, or living on islands overrun by seawater, or people who are subject to ferocious storms. We have the obligation to think about all of humanity as being part of our realm of responsibility, given that we are largely responsible for climate change.”

Allocation of water resources is a contentious issue in California, and the Gemara emphasizes the need for compromise by referring to situations in which people using a public area must yield to one another. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox professor of Jewish law at Loyola Law School, referred to a midrash that teaches that when two camels are walking toward one another on the same road and there isn’t room for both, the camel that is not laden must retreat.

“We have different interest groups making claims on water, [and] not enough is available to go around,” Adlerstein said. “One of the things I imagine we’ll be able to do is try to come up with accommodations that produce the least amount of detrimental impact on the fewest people.”

Furthermore, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University and the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Gemara presents a framework for how to prioritize in times of scarcity. He referenced a discussion of how a person’s own livelihood comes before anyone else’s, and how when one gives charity, the “poor of the city” preside over the poor who came to the city from elsewhere (Yoreh Deah 251:3).

“The tradition already had a sense that in times of scarcity, whether it be water or food or housing, there has to be a pecking order,” he said. “The general rule is that you have to take care of yourself first.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am added that halachah urges people to prioritize the resources that are essential for one’s well-being. 

“Judaism would say you have to prioritize those usages of a limited resource that are required for sustaining life or health and not those for sustaining enjoyment or aesthetic pleasure,” he said. “Almonds and walnuts, which I love, I don’t need them to live. I happen to know they take an enormous amount of water to produce, per nut.”

Although droughts in the Torah appear as a form of divine punishment and God promises rain as a reward for keeping the commandments, it is difficult for some rabbis to think of the drought as a result of sin.

“We don’t fully understand God’s system of reward and punishment,” Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation said. “Our focus needs to be on human initiative.”

Adlerstein explained that there is a type of divine providence associated with the droughts in the Torah because they occur in Israel — a land that, unlike California, has a covenant with God.

“There is the assumption in the Talmud that rain is something that God keeps tabs on and is related more to the spiritual conduct of the Jewish community,” he said. “When rain does not fall on Israel for an extended period of time, the reaction of the community is to turn to prayer and self-reflection. But I don’t think you’re going to find Jews in America saying, ‘Wow, this drought in California — it’s probably because of our sins.’ ”

However, most of the rabbis interviewed insisted that fasting and prayer in a time of drought can motivate people to take action.

“I don’t think that our fasting in and of itself is going to bring water — that’s magic, and that is a real ‘no-no’ in the Jewish tradition,” Dorff said. “If you’re going to fast, and there’s ample [halachic] precedent for that in the case of drought, then the purpose of the fast ought to be to express your fears about an ongoing drought, for water in the future and to motivate you to ensure a reliable source of water in the future.”

According to Adlerstein, conserving water solely to reap economic rewards is permissible. He explained that halachah offers incentives to help people fulfill the obligation to give tzedakah, and the Gemara describes how “the authorities could even seize their property before their very eyes, and take from them what they should have given” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 248:1).

“I don’t see anything wrong with inducing people to act in ways that are healthy, even for the wrong reasons,” he said. “Even when it comes to things that are mitzvot, the Torah does allow for cajoling people to do the right thing by offering inducements.”

Droughts in the Torah often resulted in the displacement of people, illustrating the importance of individual responsibility to take care of the vulnerable.

“During the days of Elijah, the time of Achav, [and] in any situation of drought and in any crisis, that’s a time for every person to do what they can to improve the situation and help those in need,” Topp said. “Judaism emphasizes charity and kindness.”

For all the rabbis, caring about the drought reflects the high value that Judaism places on a human life, for which water is crucial.

“It is a Jewish value to take care of the planet and pay attention to the natural resources, particularly water,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, which hosted a June 24 panel on water conservation. “There are so many references to water as life saving, from the story of Moses who is drawn from the water, from the story of Miriam, who is the source of wells that nurtured us as we wandered in the desert,” Geller said.

“The Jewish lens is to know that this is important and that behaviors need to change. To be responsible, to act personally, and to act collectively.”