Climate, Shmita and Consumption

click image for manifesto
click image for manifesto

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Sid Schwarz

There are times when even atheists have trouble denying that there is a “hand of God” at work in history. How else to explain the coincidence of the largest ever gathering of humanity to assemble around the world to highlight the urgency of global action on climate change the week before Rosh Hashana 5775, a shmita (Sabbatical) year.

Organizers will tell you that the motivation for setting the September 21, 2014 date for the Peoples Climate March in New York City was the convening in that city of the U.N. General Assembly. Indeed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon offered his support for the march, keenly aware of the abysmal failure of the U.N. Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and hoping for better results at the next such conference scheduled for Paris in 2015. If we can take one message away from over 300,000 marchers in New York and an estimated 600,000 people mobilizing on the same day in 162 countries it should be that world leaders have to get past the “blame your neighbor” mentality that has prevented meaningful policy action by the international community on the issue of global warming.

One would hope that Jews who gathered for the yamim noraim (the High Holidays) might have heard their rabbis connecting these non-violent citizen-led demonstrations to Jewish themes. The most obvious connection was that 5775 is a year of shmita. Thanks to the leadership of organizations like Hazon in the United States and Teva Ivri in Israel, more than any time in my memory, this year shmita was elevated from an obscure Biblical practice to a Judaic principle that could hardly have more relevance to the world in which we currently live.

In the diaspora, where few Jews derive their livelihoods from agriculture, there has been a wider framing of how Jews might observe the Sabbatical year. In a brilliant and creatively conceived manifesto called “Envisioning Sabbatical Culture,” author Yigal Deutscher sets out specific action items focused on three areas: community food systems, community economic systems and community design systems, the latter essentially ideas of how we can rebuild the ethos of “the commons” in western societies that are so much driven by individualism.

Because Israel provides a laboratory for how we might actually implement the Jewish concept of shmita throughout an entire society even more exciting possibilities are emerging. Under the banner of the Israel Shmita Initiative the Ministry of Welfare is considering how debt forgiveness can be extended to the poorest sectors of Israeli society so that they can have an opportunity to become full partners in Israel’s robust economy. The Ministry of Education is implementing curricula about shmita in the school system. And the Ministry of Environment is calling for a moratorium on open sea fishing so fish stocks can regenerate for the future. Fisherman affected by this moratorium can receive compensation from the government, an example of a State’s ability to incentivize certain kinds of behavior.

Of course it is one thing for organizations to mount messaging campaigns, put out manifestos and issue action plans. It is another thing to get people to change behavior. While we can take pride in the number of Jewish organizations that have taken leadership roles in different facets of the environmental movement we need to confront the one “dirty” little secret of our community. There is no single bigger threat to ongoing environmental degradation than consumption and the affluence of the Jewish community makes us among the world’s most avid consumers. In the same way that the United States is poorly positioned to lecture China and India on their rising levels of industrialization, Jews cannot lead by example on the planet’s existential challenge unless we start addressing our community’s excessive rate of consumption.

America represents only 5% of the world’s population but it consumes more than 20% of the world’s food, water and energy. Because consumption is directly correlated to wealth, we know that Jews make up the highest category of consumers in America. Jews will take pride in Israel’s booming economy but that economy also has given rise to the fourth highest rate of income inequality in the industrialized world. The proportion of income earned by Israel’s most wealthy is 14 times greater than Israel’s poorest citizens. The average proportion in the rest of the industrialized world is 9 to 1.

It is time for us to assign a moral value to the consequences of our over-consumption of everything, both as individuals and as a people. The best morality play for this lesson comes in the book of Numbers chapter 11. The Israelites are, at this point in the Biblical narrative, wandering in the desert and romanticizing their recollections of Egypt as a place where food, particularly meat, was abundant. In the desert God was providing a vegetarian option – manna – on a daily basis, and a double portion on Friday so that no collection had to be done on Shabbat. But the manna had become stale (pun intended) and the people called for a return to Egypt just so they could eat meat. Consumption had become more important than freedom.

Moses looks to God for some relief from the people’s ongoing complaints and God complies by sending a flock of quail that conveniently drop out of the sky in the vicinity of the Israelite encampment. The quail is both a response to an outcry and a test. And the Israelites fail the test. They consume so much quail so quickly that a plague overtakes the tribe and thousands die, many with the meat of quail still in their mouths. Our ancestors ate themselves to death. The Torah calls the place of this incident, Kibrot Taavah, the graves of consumption. It may foreshadow our own future. The graves of consumption, indeed!

It is exciting to think that one way the Jewish people might be linked across national and geographic boundaries might be with an old/new ethic built around the ideas embedded in the concept of shmita. But part of this effort needs to include learning that the key to following a more sacred and ethical life is the discipline that comes from accepting limits to indulging our voracious appetites for whatever we want, whenever we want it. As we see more and more evidence of the world’s ecosystem spinning out of control in a way that might be irreversible we must realize that most of this is a result of human activity. Both human beings and the planet pay a steep price for a life without limits. We are digging our own graves of consumption.

We live in a world of great wealth and great poverty. The gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow. Jews have a long and proud tradition of carrying forward the ethic of the Biblical prophets calling us to ally with “the stranger, the orphan and the widow”, essentially the most vulnerable among us. But if we are to “walk the talk” in the realm of living more gently on the planet so as to preserve the beauty and abundance of God’s creation we must be prepared to adopt lifestyles that are more modest, more humble and more sustainable.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Clal and the international director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a program focused on Judaism and human rights with hubs in New York, London and Israel. He is the author of “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World” and “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community.”