Future Ethics: The Moral Imperative of Sustainability from a Jewish Covenantal Perspective

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

By Rabbi Lawrence Troster

The impending disaster of climate change is primarily an ethical crisis. The human exploitation of the earth’s resources has been made possible by the unprecedented power and scope of modern human technology but this same technology has also caused extensive environmental damage. One third of the world’s population is living longer and better than any time in human history but another third is still living without adequate drinking water or sewage disposal. And while many believe that the solution to human poverty is more economic growth, the earth’s biosphere cannot sustain the kind of development that has been practiced to this point in human history.

It is possible to graphically illuminate this problem. The website www.myfootprint.org uses twenty-one questions about one’s lifestyle to calculate a person’s ecological footprint and compare it to the national average of one’s country and to a global “sustainable footprint,” which is the biological carrying capacity of the Earth (approximately 43 acres per person). Most people in developed countries have an ecological footprint far above the sustainable average and it is not unusual for the website to disclose at the end of the questionnaire that, “if everyone on the Earth lived the way you do, it would require 5 more planets worth of resources.”

It is understood that what is required is sustainable development which is defined as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But sustainability can be understood as not only the economic or technological means to solve world poverty and the environmental crisis, but also as a moral system which can strike at the heart of the inequities now expressed by our present economic system. Approximately twenty percent of the world’s population consumes eighty percent of the resources while producing eighty percent of greenhouse gases. And it is usually communities of color who suffer disproportionately from environmental harm while receiving the fewest benefits of the exploitation of natural resources. These populations also lack the political or social power to be part of environmental decision-making even when it adversely affects them. These inequities are called environmental injustice or even environmental racism.

Sustainability as a moral system has two axes: spatial and temporal. The spatial dimension is the ethical connection to all people (and even all life) in the present generation whose needs must be met. These needs can only be met if there is an equitable distribution of resources which itself cannot be achieved without the equal participation in decision-making. The temporal dimension is the ethical connection to future generations whose needs will be jeopardized by the over-consumption of the present generation. For example, the carbon dioxide that is emitted today from fossil fuel energy production will remain in the earth’s atmosphere for between one hundred and a thousand years, impacting the climate of many future generations. These two ethical dimensions create an interconnectedness, which counters the disconnection between people and the Earth which is a consequence of modern technology. For example, because many of our consumer goods are produced in distant countries and often bought through online stores, we may no longer know who made these products, where they were produced, how the people who made them were treated, or what the environmental impact of the products’ manufacture was. Sustainability as a moral system asks us to think about all these issues when we consume energy or buy goods and services. It asks us to have empathy for all life in the present and future and to think of ourselves as part of a moral community beyond ourselves.

The Jewish theological analogy to moral sustainability is the brit or covenant. In the Hebrew Bible, covenant is the central expression of the human relationships with each other and with God. Although it is often expressed in a legal form, covenant also has an emotional component: each party to the agreement “loves” the other as part of the loyalty necessary to the fulfillment of the covenant requirements. There are several kinds of covenant. The inter-human forms are found in treaties between sovereigns and vassals; marriages, business transactions and political collectives.

The human/divine covenants are first found between God and all of humanity in the early chapters of the book of Genesis such as after the Flood where God agrees never to again destroy the Earth but also demands that humans practice certain basic ethical standards (Genesis 8:20-9:17). However, the most important divine/human covenant in the Hebrew Bible is the one made between God and the people of Israel, first found in the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12) and then, more expansively, in the Sinai covenant (Exodus 19-23). Throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the question of the people of Israel fulfilling or violating this covenant is a central theme. The character of both of these kinds of covenant implies a collective destiny either of the whole of humanity or of the people of Israel; a destiny that transcends generations (Deuteronomy 29:13-14) and privileges the common good over the individual right of action.

The Jewish concept of covenant has created the whole dynamic of Jewish peoplehood and the feeling of a common destiny of Jews with one another in the present generation and between generations. Our connection to our ancestors is expressed in our sacred texts, rituals and liturgy. We recite at the Passover Seder, “In each and every generation people must regard themselves as though they personally left Egypt…” Our central values come from this collective story of our redemption from slavery. We proclaim that “all Israel is responsible for one another.” And we are constantly concerned with the continuation of the Jewish people in future generations.

While the covenant has been primarily used to express the particular values of the Jewish tradition, it is possible to utilize this concept to express a universal ethic of sustainability because in its original form the covenant was created as an agreement between God and all humanity at the time of Noah. But even the particular covenant of Sinai between God and the Jewish people contains within it the moral expressions of justice, protection of Creation, collective good, empathy and moral concern for future generations.

An apt expression of this collective responsibility given the dangers of climate change is found in a rabbinic midrash:

Israel is a scattered sheep (Jeremiah 1:17). Why are the Israelites compared to a sheep? Just as if you strike a sheep on its head, or on one of its limbs, all its limbs feel it, so, if one Israelite sins, all Israelites feel it. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: It is to be compared to people who were in a boat, and one of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath him. His companions say, “Why are you doing this?” He replied: What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under myself? They replied: But you will flood the boat for us all! (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, 4:6)

The environmental crisis is a universal crisis that threatens all human life and civilization. Without a solution to this crisis, there will be no Jewish people. It is therefore imperative for the survival of the Jewish people that the moral imperative of sustainability, expressed in both particular and universal forms be the basis for significant action to protect the Creation that God gave into our care to preserve for future generations.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence of GreenFaith, the interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey and is the coordinator of Shomrei Breitshit: Rabbis and Cantors For the Earth.