February 27, 2020

Theologians Tackle Climate Change Crisis

This Thanksgiving, a “bomb cyclone” menaced northern California. In the Los Angeles area, the Getty fire temporarily closed the American Jewish University (AJU) main Familian campus; the Easy fire burned just five miles from AJU’s Brandeis-Bardin campus.

Amid these fires, evacuations and power blackouts, religious leaders met to encourage current and emerging clergy to address climate change from the pulpit. Religious institutions are among those suffering the impacts of an expanding climate crisis. In 2018, wildfires destroyed multiple churches in Paradise, Calif., and caused the temporary closure of the Pepperdine University campus. Also in 2018, fires destroyed three Jewish summer camps, including one in Malibu. It has been one of the driest period in California’s history.

The Los Angeles Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education took place Nov. 3-5 at AJU’s Brandeis-Bardin campus near Simi Valley. Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers included the deans of Hebrew Union College and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of AJU; faculty from Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest Christian seminary in the United States; priests from the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese and the Orthodox Christian Church; and the founding president of Bayan Claremont Islamic graduate school. The 75 participants included priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, theological school professors, students and environmental scientists.

Climate scientist A. Park Williams noted how a hotter California means plants are drying out more, becoming more likely to burn. The symposium, which took place just five miles from the Easy fire, was the result of an unfortunate opportunity for gathered faith leaders to address integrating religion and ecology in their institutions.

As Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU, said, “If Judaism claims to be one of the world’s preeminent wisdom traditions, then surely it has something to say to remind us of our status as creatures, as stewards of creation, responsible for the sustenance of life on this Earth. This conference brought together an extraordinary gathering of scholars, clergy and committed leaders who are intent on applying the bounty of religious insight and faith to a commitment to fight for sustainability, so that we can once again experience life in this garden as the paradise it was meant to be!”

The symposium empowered religious seminary faculty and students to address the connection between religion and ecology. It was co-organized by the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, the Green Seminary Initiative, the Martin Gang Institute for Intergroup Relations, and AJC LA.

This year, the world has experienced ecological impacts on an unprecedented scale. Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas and caused damage as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada. Houston experienced record flooding for the third time in as many years. Eastern Australia experienced record fires. A recent New York Times opinion article by Eugene Linden revealed how climate scientists have drastically underestimated the pace and intensity of climate change, with severe impacts arriving this year that were not anticipated until 2100.

This deepening ecological challenge requires a response from all aspects of society, including religion. Los Angeles is the second-largest center for rabbinical training outside of Israel. It is time to engage future rabbis.

A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion found “most Americans who attend religious services at least once or twice a month hear little from their clergy leaders about the issue of climate change. Just over one-third of Americans say their clergy leaders speak about climate change often (11%) or sometimes (25%). More than 6 in 10 Americans say their clergy leaders rarely (29%) or never (33%) reference climate change.”

The survey also reported a correlation between clergy speaking about climate change and congregants who believe climate change is occurring and caused by humans, and noted that “Americans who say their clergy leaders speak at least occasionally about climate change also score higher on the Climate Change Concern Index.”

Some L.A.-area rabbis, such as Sharon Brous and David Kasher of IKAR, have made speaking and teaching on climate change a congregational priority. But this is by no means across the board, and rare in Orthodox synagogues.

With most clergy remaining silent on the ecological crisis, the majority of Americans do not view climate change as a moral or religious issue, according to a poll by Yale and George Mason universities. In addition, 83% of Americans continue to misunderstand how the 97% consensus of climate scientists agrees that global warming is occurring and caused by humans.

Why don’t American clergy, including many rabbis, speak out about ecological sustainability? It’s partly because not enough congregants request their clergy speak about it, and partly to do with training. Most theological schools in North America, Israel and elsewhere do not offer courses or significant instruction on religion and ecology.

According to the Report on Ecologically Informed Theological Education in North America, which I co-authored, only 24% of seminaries offered instruction. Most programs that train clergy do not even offer a one-hour talk by an ecological scientist. The prevailing view among many of those involved in rabbinic and theological education is that religion deals with Bible, liturgy and pastoral counseling, while ecology is the domain of ecologists. Such a view perpetuates an alienation of religion from science and ecological behavior, and prevents religion from making itself relevant to younger members who care more about sustainability than they do about Torah.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation spoke at the symposium, noting, “Everyone has a role to play in the effort to confront the profound and existential challenges posed by climate change. Religious people have a distinct role, that of translating our supreme religious value of preventing and alleviating human suffering, into decisions and deeds that will blunt climate change’s most devastating impacts. And it is the responsibility of rabbis to articulate and deliver this message in language and categories that resonate intuitively in their congregants’ Jewish souls.”

According to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Los Angeles Dean Joshua Holo, who spoke at the symposium, “Jews widely, almost universally, appreciate the urgency of climate change. Our future leaders need to master Judaism’s unique idiom of covenant and Torah, to orient us in our responsibility for action.”

We are facing an evolutionary crisis, a spiritual crisis. It is a cry of warning, a call for awakening. What are we doing to Creation? Our warming planet is a warning to us. The role of spiritual leadership is to guide the course of humanity.

Britain’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches “Judaism is the rejection of tragedy in the land of hope.” We are inheritors of a spiritual tradition that offers profound teachings on sustainability. We can access 3,000 years of spiritual consciousness and help our children and grandchildren inherit a livable planet. The choice is ours. If not now, when?


Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development.