February 28, 2020

A Religious Life Is a Sustainable One

If he were alive today, would the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson be a vegetarian?

A few months ago, I read a thoughtful article in The Jerusalem Post that told the story of Rabbi Schneerson’s environmental activism. In a televised address in 1981 — with the United States weighing offshore drilling in light of the Soviet Union’s emergence as a leading oil producer, and amid early warnings of global warming — the Rebbe spoke in favor of solar energy investment.

“We have an open and clear path to utilize the sun,” he said. “This is a resource that this nation in particular, in its southern regions, has in very great abundance. This can all be achieved if it is based on the foundation of God’s help, and on faith in God.”

If only the nation had heeded the Rebbe’s advice sooner. It took until May 2018 for California to pass a law requiring new single-family homes to be fitted with solar panels, making it the first state to do so. By now the country (and the planet) needs much more than solar panels to stave off further environmental calamity. Higher global temperatures have already produced longer droughts and heavier storms, resulted in floods and crop failures, melted glaciers and put communities underwater. We are already in the midst of a mass extinction; we just haven’t begun to feel it yet.

Make no mistake: The climate crisis is a religious issue that strikes at the core of our Jewish values. From our origin story as people entrusted with the stewardship of God’s garden to our religious imperative to fix the world, responsibility to the planet has always been central to Jewish identity. But the feeling of urgency is hard to internalize when we feel so safe. When it comes to the climate, most Jewish Californians would be hard-pressed to complain — our neighborhoods don’t seem vulnerable to flooding or wildfires. (Though that’s not the case for our brothers and sisters in Houston, many of whom lost homes and some of whom drowned in recent hurricanes.)

Make no mistake: The climate crisis is a religious issue that strikes at the core of our Jewish values. From our origin story as people entrusted with the stewardship of God’s garden to our religious imperative to fix the world, responsibility to the planet has always been central to Jewish identity.

After all, what can one person do? One truth is that a single person can’t change much acting alone. The other truth is that without people acting alone, nothing can happen in aggregate. And the final truth — considered “extremely likely” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — is that individual choices created this mess to begin with. 

The three major sources of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are electricity and heat, farming and forestry, and transportation, and within that second category, beef production makes up the vast majority. That should put hamburgers, hot dogs and even fleishig cholent in the crosshairs for Jews if we’re going to make a sincere commitment to change. For many, this would be more than giving up a luxury — it would be tantamount to sticking the fork in some age-old Jewish traditions. But the question isn’t really about how painful it would be to cut our beef consumption or give it up entirely. It’s about whether we would be willing to endure such a change — even as a tiny minority group — if it only benefited people we never met. 

That seems to me the greatest reckoning for our faith in the era of climate change: As Jews, are we willing to make major lifestyle changes even if their effect barely registers for us? Much of Jewish halachah and tradition already answers this question. Indeed, this imperative is the essential challenge of moral action, a call that we must answer constantly as we create and re-create the society we live in, stopping at stop signs even when no one is around. It is the organizing principle of a faith-based life.

As Jews, are we willing to make major lifestyle changes even if their effect barely registers for us? Much of Jewish halachah and tradition already answers this question.

I don’t doubt that the Lubavitcher Rebbe would have given up meat — maybe sticking to poultry, whose carbon footprint is much smaller — if he thought it might make the world better for one other person. But he’s no longer with us, and contemporary Judaism doesn’t have a moral lighthouse to lead the way. Instead, we have hard evidence — another winter without rain, sweater weather in Antarctica, waterlogged Chumashim and moldy Sheetrock on the front lawn, the house on fire — informing our choices. 

It’s not just meat, of course. Jews, especially observant ones, tend to live in geographic clusters, with our needs of daily life — shuls, groceries, schools — all within walking distance. We should be at the forefront of nonmotorized transportation. That means not only driving less and joining carpools, but advocating for safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Take the train or the bus to the beach next time you go. 

It will feel different, maybe even uncomfortable, to order schnitzel instead of a burger, or to leave your car at home. But it’s just as likely that your first, small change — whatever it ends up being — helps you see the environment, and your place in it, in a more religious way.


Louis Keene is a writer based in Los Angeles. He tweets at @thislouis.