Is Everything a Jewish Issue?

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The NY Jewish Week includes an article called “Mending G-d’s Garment.” The subtitle? “Synagogues attempt to save the earth, one compact fluorescent Ner Tamid at a time.” As you might expect, it’s about synagogues focusing upon environmental awareness as a “Jewish” issue, featuring such items as the “Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life’s ‘Light Among the Nations’ campaign, where synagogues and their congregants were encouraged to change from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs.”

The dangers of confusing and conflating modern values with Jewish ones are relatively obvious in many cases — the Conservative movement’s slow tumble into the endorsement of that which the Torah calls an abomination being merely the latest example. Other cases, such as the one above, are hardly so clear.

For the record, most of the bulbs in our house are now compact fluorescents. Besides the energy savings, they last a lot longer, meaning my children get to experience the humorous answer to “how does one vertically-challenged rabbi change a light bulb” with considerably less frequency than before. I am, in addition, happy to participate in recycling programs and other efforts to conserve energy and preserve our natural resources — but not as a new mitzvah. It is obvious to most traditionally-observant Jews that the use of compact fluorescent bulbs is less important than, say, lighting Shabbos candles.

Sometimes issues do rise to the level of mitzvos — e.g., not smoking. The dangers to health posed by cigarette smoking are sufficiently obvious to make not smoking part of shemiras haguf, guarding physical well-being. A young yeshiva bochur‘s decision to start smoking means he has other priorities than sitting in front of his gemara, and that he is taking a very casual attitude towards his own health — neither of these being particularly positive signs.

[I have previously commented that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l, in his wisdom, helped reduce smoking from a popular to decidedly unpopular habit in the span of a generation — a precipitous decline found neither in the charedi community in Israel, nor, to my knowledge, anywhere else. He wrote that those already smoking are protected by their addiction, because “G-d is the guardian of fools.” But for those not smoking, it is forbidden to start. So even the children of smokers were denied the excuse that it’s a family habit, and smoking rapidly became something one does not in the middle of the Beis Medrash, but behind the dorm.]

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that while everything we do must be motivated by Jewish values and a Jewish view of the world and its purpose, the issues that climb to the level of what we call actual Mitzvah observance are few and far between — and yet they exist. It is only the eyes of the generation, our leaders, who can distinguish one from the other, and I, for one, cannot easily identify what standards determine the exceptional cases. One could argue that it is the presence of immediate and obvious danger — e.g. the close correlation between smoking and fatal cancers, rather than the less obvious risks of global warming and non-disposable plastics — but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient explanation.

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19 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    “the government should not be in the business of telling people what temperature to set their thermostats or what car to drive.”

    restaurants in NYC are not allowed to serve margarine because of trans fat

  2. Rivka W. says:

    I agree that the government should not be in the business of telling people what temperature to set their thermostats or what car to drive. Not because it’s not the government’s business — it certainly can be argued that encouraging people to reduce waste and pollution IS the government’s business — but because I don’t believe that sort of draconian measure is effective. Financial incentives encouraging people to choose to lower electric use or more environmentally-friendly vehicles are much better, IMO.

    Then again, given the scientific evidence (quite a bit, and easily accessible for anyone interested in finding it) I believe that global warming is anything but nonsense.

  3. Charles B. Hall says:

    In response to Toby Katz:

    Global warming is not nonsense. The consensus of scientists is overwhelming. Just this week a major scientific meeting confirmed this. The few scientists who disagree are becoming fewer and fewer. The fact that some anti-capitalist nuts have embraced the cause does not change the facts. Here is an example of some of the data:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Instrumental_Temperature_Record.png

    I recall many examples from the 1970s and 1980s of environmentalists complaining of environmental degredation in the former Soviet bloc, particularly regarding Lake Baikal and the industrial areas of Eastern Europe. Here is some history regarding Lake Baikal:

    http://www.irkutsk.org/baikal/ecology.htm

    And Judaism does not see unfettered free enterprise as a virtue. Note for example the Torah prohibition of a free market for land in Eretz Yisrael, or the example of Rav Huna manipulating the produce market in Taanit 20b. Neither true socialism nor lassez-faire capitalism are really consistent with the Torah perspective. We should also remember that torah study is viewed as unproductive from an economic perspective; chas v’shalom that we reward torah scholars in accordance with that valuation!

  4. One Christian's perspective says:

    We’re called to be good stewarts of all that G-d has provided AND to give Him thanks and praise. “The L-RD knows the thoughts of man; he knows that they are futile” (Psalm 94:11) and yet He says if anyone lacks wisdom He will provide that. Rabbi Menken, I have fluorescent bulbs as well because they do last longer but I also use “full-spectrum light” bulbs where I read, sew and paint because cool lights distort color. I think we have to ask G-d for wisdom but we also have to use the wisdom He has already provided; some call it common sense. I am truly concerned about the current hot topic called ‘global warming’. Where is G-d mentioned in all of this ? Where is the recognition that
    G-d controls the waters, wind, rain, the climate ? Maybe, He is saying “Be still, and know that I am G-d; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Ps 46:10). Is this cry from Europe the ‘new religion of this age’ ? It certainly contains all the characteristics of a religion ….but, a false one where G-d is not recognized or even given glory. Someone recently mentioned on radio that there was a period of global warming around the 13th century that lasted 300 years and places in Scotland grew fruits and vegetables where they never grew before because the air was warmer and the land was green. Maybe, G-d is using climate change so that the hungry of the world can be fed or maybe He just wants us to know that He still sits on Heaven’s throne and watches over all the earth and we are commended to have no other G-ds before us.

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    “liberalism, environmentalism, “tikun olam” —talk about hot air”

    – throw in mentschlechkeit

  6. Toby Katz says:

    pachim ketanim — no one should waste but the government shouldn’t tell you how big a car to drive or what temperature to set your thermostat at

    none of their business

    the real drive behind whacko environmentalims is anti-Americanisn and anti-capitalism —
    that’s what’s behind all the nonsense of “global warming” too

    we are talking about busybodies who hate free enterprise because it doesn’t reward big talking yakety yaks the way it rewards people who are actually productive

    when the USSR was the major polluter in the world did the libs ever say boo? of course not

    liberalism, environmentalism, “tikun olam” — talk about hot air

  7. rabbi shael siegel says:

    It’s rather obvious to me, and based upon the reading of our texts that as custodians of planet earth we have a sacred ressponsibility to revere Hashem’s creation. Whether or not there is immediate danger is beside the point. While I understand that the theme of environmental issues has been highlighted by the liberal movements, I do believe that it is our sacred responsibility to assume the leadership of htis meleches hakodesh. I’ve askes Agudas Yisroel to consider this challenge, unfortunately it isn’t on their radar. I’ve written about this and you can read my essay at:http://www.shaelsiegel.com/2006/11/halacha-global-warming-agudah-moetzes-gedolei-hatorah

  8. Calev says:

    Rabbi,

    With the greatest respect – isn’t self-preservation a mitzvah? Aren’t we exhorted to ‘Choose life!’? The scientific consensus is that the climate is changing. There are differences of opinion as to the extent of the change, its rapidity, its precise causes and how catastrophic it will be. But almost all agree that it’s happenning, that human behaviour is a significant factor and that if it doesn’t bring major problems for our generation then it will for our grandchildren, possibly our children. If we choose to bury our heads in the sand then we may find that there will be plenty of opportunities to do so as desertification extends northwards to what are currently Mediterranean climate zones. Alternatively we may do what we can, in our own small ways, to tread more lightly on this planet for which Hashem has granted us a leasehold. If all the world’s scientists turn out to be wrong then the worst that will have happened is that we will have saved money on our utility bills, have more opportunities to say “m’shaneh habriot” because fewer species will have been extinct, possibly learn to eat more healthily and maybe breath cleaner air. I do not advocate the spurious mitzvah manufacturing of non-Torah movements but I would feel more comfortable if the Torah community embraced this new challenge to better our behaviour rather than find reasons to put it on the back burner.

  9. Joel Rich says:

    But for those not smoking, it is forbidden to start.

    Forbidden or recommended not to?

    W/r/t conservation/utilization of resources given to us by HKB”H -isn’t that the lesson of the pachim ktanim that yaakov avinu went back for?

    KT

  10. Toby Katz says:

    We should be using way more nuclear power and building nuclear power plants all over the country. That is by far the most efficient, least expensive and most environtally friendly way to wean America off of Arab oil. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the trendy C and R Jews to put that on their psuedo-mitzva list, though.

    Hasn’t anyone noticed that their mitzva-a-day always follows the latest NY Times headlines? What a farce.

    Yeah yeah I use flourescent bulbs too — they are cheaper in the long run and give slightly more light. Three cheers for capitalism!

  11. DMZ says:

    I think the primary concern is that the _relative importance_ of, say, environmentalism, is being played up way too high in comparison to more “normal” halachic concerns like Shabbos, kashrus, and so forth. I will further posit that some folks are using these concerns more as a “see, we Jews are environmentally-aware, too!” banner rather than as an actual mitzvah. That is to say, they are being pushed as mitzvot to get people to join in, rather than any actual halachic importance.

    (I use CFLs more and more, too. But I really don’t think having a CFL is anywhere near the importance keeping Shabbos.)

  12. Barzilai says:

    I always thought of environmental issues as coming under the the rubric of baal tashchis, which prohibits wasting valuable resources. There are opinions that go so far as to forbid feeding animals foods that could be eaten by humans, as we recently learned in the daf yomi. Certainly, then, profligate and wasteful consumption of important resources would be frowned upon.

  13. Fern R says:

    If we are commanded to protect our well-being and thus smoking is prohibited, then why doesn’t protecting the environment fall under the commandment of ‘bal tashchis?’ It seems that there are a number of commandments that have to do with protecting, preserving and revering G-d’s non-human creations.

    Also, the comparison to Shabbos candles is a non-sequitur. One needn’t choose between lighting Shabbos candles and being environmentally friendly, since as far as I can tell, burning a wick dipped in parafin doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment. Either we have a Torah obligation to protect the planet or we don’t. I don’t understand how a hierarchy of mitzvot comes into play since we are not being forced to choose between, for example, saving a human life and driving on Shabbat.

  14. Moe says:

    Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox get together for a convention. At the convention they decide that they can all agree on one thing: Smoking is prohibited. All the Rabbis take their turn to speak from the podium about the harmful effects, etc, etc.

    A reporter covering the convention notices that after the convention there’s a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Rabbi standing outside the building.. smoking! The reporter approaches them and asks for an explanation for the contradiction.

    Reform Rabbi: Judaism is a personal doctrine and I decided my personal Judaism is to smoke

    Conservative Rabbi: Smoking is only prohibited in the home, but outside the home it’s permitted

    Orthodox Rabbi: I sold my lungs to a non-Jew

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Any behavior by Jews that actually improves the world can be considered as a subcategory of one or more existing mitzvot. The key is “actually improves”.

  16. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Would heterodox synagogues pushing an environmental agenda cause more Jews to be environmentalists, or more environmentalists who are marginally Jewish (Jewish according to Halacha, but don’t do much about it) to be more involved with their synagogues? If they come for the enviromentalism opportunities, would they stay for the religious content?

  17. zalman says:

    Gevalt! Do you really think that if someone came to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l and asked if environmental awareness could be observed as a mitzvah bein adam l’chaveiro that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would have dismissed him with “it’s less important than lighting Shabbos candles”?

  18. Michoel says:

    While what Rabbi Menken is saying is obvious and correct, it should be pointed out that less use of oil means less money to Arab nations, which means less money to terrorists. This was stated explicitly in a list of eitzos distributed by Agudath Israel of America, as to how we can help the situation in Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Mordechai Biser, an Agudah attourney, was the author.

  19. Jewish Observer says:

    “while everything we do must be motivated by Jewish values and a Jewish view of the world and its purpose, the issues that climb to the level of what we call actual Mitzvah observance are few and far between”

    – on the other hand, one could argue that living morally and according to one’s conscience is within the geder of mitzvah (not unlike that which the gemara derives the chiyuv for brocha rishona from severa sichlis, which gives it a status of d’oraisa). this is a matter of philosphical orientation which you can’t prove one way or another.