OPINION: It’s time for all shuls to engage in an eco audit

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OPINION: It’s time for all shuls to engage in an eco audit

Rabbi Yonatan Neril of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development looks ahead to the weekend's COP26 summit, and what Jewish communities can do to help the planet

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

World leaders will soon convene in Glasgow for the 26th UN climate conference, with the goal to rein in rising carbon emissions and chart a sustainable path for humanity. It is more urgent than ever because after each previous conference, greenhouse gas emissions rose rather than fell, and human consumption expanded rather than shrunk.

Will this conference finally serve as a turning point for humanity? And what is  the role of Jewish communities and leaders in manifesting a vision for our Earth’s sustainable future?

The environmental movement has failed to cause effective change in the past 50 years. I believe this is because the ecological crisis requires the aid of a religious perspective.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that the ideal of the Torah “awaits the generation which will finally have become matured for its ideals to be made into a reality”.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril

I’m more hopeful now that the London Jewish community is taking an international lead in its response to the crisis. For example, Eco Synagogue is a project whose primary aim is to engage all synagogues in an environmental audit. Greening the physical structure and functionality of synagogues is a forward-looking step to align Jewish teachings with ecological behaviour. Another promising initiative emerging from London is the newly-launched Faith Plans for People and Planet, a joint initiative of Faith Invest and the WWF.

Rabbi Amorai asked: ‘Where is the Garden of Eden?’ He replied: ‘It is on Earth.’ God created the world out of love for life on Earth. My new book Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on the Torah, co-authored with former London Rabbi Leo Dee teaches how the Torah relates to living in balance with God’s creation, through a lifestyle that is not only aware of, but protects, the natural world.

Many leaders think religion is unrelated to ecology, so greening Jewish education is a major challenge. Much of contemporary Jewish study, teaching and preaching does not address the ecological crisis, but care for God’s creation, especially in the face of extreme climate problems, cannot be ignored.

Applying Jewish teachings to the stewardship of God’s world is an idea for now. It is essential for a future in which we achieve a balanced, worldwide ecosystem and thrive on a planet viable for all life.

The light of spirituality, in Judaism and across the world’s religions, can spark a more hopeful approach and have a broader effect. As a fundamental part of many people’s lives, religion can be a key motivator in protecting the Earth by reshaping values. Here are three reasons for this.

First, religion can persuade people to consume in moderation because they can find greater satisfaction in spirituality, community and family. Spiritual living can bring consciousness to our consumption. A person may survive with a basic soul awareness, but a sustainable planet will require that we learn to live with increased spiritual consciousness.

Second, religious teachings help instil foresight and long-term thinking. The rabbis of the Talmud taught: “Who is the wise person? The person who can see the effect of their actions.” We must put both our present survival and the future of our children and grandchildren first, above the current “prize” of expanding our standard of living.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, religion embodies hope. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “Hope at its ultimate is the belief… that God has given us the means to save us from ourselves.” May the Jewish community continue to show leadership towards a thriving and sustainable humanity and earth.

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