Practical action

The rabbinical question behind the climate question

In Short

Should Jewish institutions be investing their funds in fossil fuel companies?

One of the key concepts I’ve learned in rabbinical school is “the question behind the question.” When someone makes a seemingly innocuous inquiry about Jewish law or tradition, it’s often actually a gateway to a different, harder topic. True, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I’ve had a question about chicken Parmesan lead to a deep conversation about fundamental matters of identity, community and belief.

So when people ask me, “What classes are you taking this semester,” then yes, they are being friendly and curious, but the question behind their question is, “Are you training to be the type of rabbi that I need, and embody the values I support?”

Much has been written about the shrinking number of rabbis in non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, like my Conservative movement. Whether the problem is seen as supply-side, a “seminary pipeline problem” or demand-side as a “rabbinic hiring crisis,” the underlying issue arises when the values of individuals and institutions do not align. 

One of my and my future-clergy peers’ crucial concerns is the pressing need to take serious action in the face of an oncoming climate catastrophe. And we are not alone: Eighty percent of American Jews are concerned about climate change. But we are deeply worried that our most important communal organizations are blind to this concern.

I worked this year as a fellow with Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. One of its campaigns, called “All Our Might,” calls on Jewish institutions to move their funds away from fossil fuel companies, and to pressure their banks and asset managers to stop financing those polluting firms with our deposit dollars and investments. If they don’t, those Jewish institutions should consider changing banks. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, my classmates and I are in ongoing conversations with the administration regarding its own endowment investments. It is important to us – and to stakeholders at dozens of other institutions across the country also embarking on this process – that Jewish organizations embody Jewish values, including preserving and nurturing the planet that God has entrusted us to steward.

This is a fundamentally different argument than, say, recycling plastic kiddush cups or putting solar panels on the shul roof. Recognizing the scale of the problem, this is an attempt to change the way our entire society works, and it involves a paradigm shift in how Jewish institutions are run. Withdrawing funds from fossil fuel companies and their corporate enablers requires Jewish institutions to believe that they also have a moral duty, in addition to a fiduciary one. 

The science behind climate change, its effects on us today with extreme weather events, and our need to act now to minimize further carbon emissions and in turn damage, are all undisputed. But so too is our moral obligation as Jews to act. In the midrash collection Kohelet Rabbah, God gives Adam a tour of Eden and commands him (and thus us): “Make certain that you do not ruin and destroy My world, for if you destroy it, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

According to a recent report published by Dayenu, major Jewish communal institutions have more than $3 billion currently invested in fossil fuels – that’s both a lot of money, and yet relatively little to affect some of the world’s biggest companies. But the fossil fuel divestment movement is quickly growing, with recent joiners including Harvard and Brandeis universities, municipal funds in the country’s biggest cities, and a panoply of religious institutions. No major Jewish institution has joined the World Council of Churches and the Islamic Society of North America in putting the planet over profits. That’s not a good look for several reasons.

Though Judaism, in some form, will survive climate change, ignoring the huge mortal cost of inaction is a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. And on a parochial level, quite apart from such indifference to suffering, climate change will make the lived experience of Judaism demonstrably worse. Synagogues in flood zones will not survive. Dangerous heat waves will mean fewer people will safely be able to walk long distances to synagogue, and summer camp activities will increasingly be confined indoors. Kosher meat, already expensive, will grow more so as global warming affects livestock production and health. And, as always, the Jewish poor, those unable to buy mitigation measures or move, will bear the brunt of it. As a new generation of young Jews looks for both spiritual and political answers to the damage their ancestors caused, will the aging, shrinking, liberal movements of Judaism that I love answer them by saying, “Well, we made our HVAC systems more fuel-efficient?”

The pipeline for new rabbis runs, at least in part, through the group of Jews who protested the Keystone Pipeline; synagogue membership will grow when members can proudly say, “My synagogue didn’t finish the job of stopping new oil wells, but they certainly didn’t abstain from it.” 

To be sure, change is never easy, and setting out on a new course is not without risk. But at the very least, American Jewish institutions owe it to their stakeholders to be clear about the values they espouse with their investment policies. If their answer is, as one Dayenu activist was told, “Our only goals are stability and maximizing returns to ensure we last 100 more years,” then that is a statement about which reasonable people can disagree, and community members can vote with their feet. But if Jewish institutions want to speak in our name, they need to be clear with us about their priorities: whether they are choosing potential short-term financial gain, or guaranteed financial, social and spiritual loss for future generations.

So yes, the question I’m asking is, “Will you push the Jewish organization you care most about to examine its financial ties to the fossil fuel industry?” But the question behind the question is, “If we Jews claim to hold a set of values, but don’t do all we can to bring them into the world, then what exactly are we doing here?”

Aiden Pink is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was the 2022-2023 rabbinical school climate organizing fellow for Dayenu.