Should Averting a Climate Catastrophe Be a Jewish Priority on Tisha b’Av?

PHOTO: On Tisha b’Av, Jewish eyes turn toward the Western Wall. This year Jews should also focus on the threat of climate change. Reducing climate change is an especially important issue for Israel as a rising Mediterranean Sea could inundate the coastal plain where much of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located, and an increasingly hot and dry Middle East makes terrorism and war in the region more likely, according to military experts.

By Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

Tisha b’Av, which we commemorate this year on Aug. 10 -11, reminds us that over 2,500 years ago Jews failed to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, with the result that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the first of many negative things that occurred on that day, including the destruction of the second Temple.

Today, we do not have a Jeremiah or any other prophet warning us, but we do have an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists issuing increasingly dire  warnings that it is not just a holy temple, but the entire world that is in danger of destruction. Will we, like the ancient Jews, also fail to heed the warnings with far worse consequences?

The greatest threat to humanity today is climate change. The world is on a path that could lead to an uninhabitable world by the end of this century unless major changes soon occur. And it might happen much sooner because of self-reinforcing positive feedback loops (vicious cycles) that could result in an irreversible tipping point when climate change spins out of control.

An outrageous exaggeration, like those in the past that predicted an end to the world? Not according to science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists, and virtually all peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals, that argue that climate change is largely caused by human activities and poses great threats to humanity. All the leaders of the 195 nations at the December 2015 Paris Climate Change conference, including Israel and the U.S., agreed that immediate steps must be taken to avert a climate catastrophe and most of the nations pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

An October 2018 report by the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization made up of leading climate scientists from many nations  argued that “there is no documented historic precedent” for the scale of changes needed by 2030 to avoid a climate catastrophe  Despite the urgency of reductions in greenhouse gas.  emissions, they increased by 1.6% in 2017 and by 2.7% in 2018.

Another major concern is that the Pentagon and other military groups believe that climate change will increase the potential for instability, terrorism and war by reducing access to food and clean water and by causing tens of millions of desperate refuges to flee from droughts, wildfire, floods, storms, and other effects of climate change.

The world is already seeing the many negative effects of climate change. Contrary to the views of many climate-change deniers, the world’s temperature has significantly increased in recent years. Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade and all of the 18 years in the 21st century are among the 19 warmest years since temperature records started being kept in 1880, the only other year in the top 19 years being 1998. 2016 was the warmest year globally, breaking the record held previously by 2015 and before that by 2014, the first time that there have been three consecutive years of record world temperatures.

Just as a person with a high fever suffers from many of its effects, there have been many negative effects due to the increased global temperature. Polar icecaps and glaciers worldwide have been melting rapidly, faster than scientific projections. This has caused an increase in ocean levels worldwide with the potential for major flooding. Glaciers are “reservoirs in the sky,” providing important water for irrigating crops every spring, so their retreat will be a major threat to future food supplies for an increasing world population.

There has also been an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms and floods. California has been subjected to so many severe climate events recently that its former governor, Jerry Brown, stated that “humanity is on a collision course with nature.”

Another alarming factor is that, while climate experts believe that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 is a threshold value for climate stability, the world has now reached 415 ppm, the highest value in human history.

Reducing climate change is an especially important issue for Israel as a rising Mediterranean Sea could inundate the coastal plain where much of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located, and an increasingly hot and dry Middle East makes terrorism and war in the region more likely, according to military experts.

Given the above, averting a potential climate catastrophe should be a central focus of civilization today, in order to leave a livable world for future generations. Every aspect of life should be considered. The world has to shift to renewable forms of energy, improve our transportation systems, produce more efficient cars and other means of transportation, produce far less meat and other animal-based foods, and do everything else possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

It is essential that Jews apply our splendid environmental teachings, playing our role as a ‘light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These teachings include:

  • Jews are to be co-workers with God in protecting the environment, based on Genesis 2:15, which indicates that Adam was put into the Garden of Eden to “work the land and to guard/preserve it.”
  • Jews are to avoid wasting or unnecessarily destroying anything of value , based on the Jewish sages expansion of the prohibition of destroying fruit trees in wartime to build battering rams to overcome an enemy fortification. (Deuteronomy 20:19 20)
  • Jews are to imitate God, Whose compassion is over all His works.  (Psalms 145:9)

Because the threats are so great, it is essential that Jews and everyone else make this issue a major priority, and make every effort to make dietary and other lifestyle changes, in order to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. Unfortunately, “denial is not just a river in Egypt,” and most people today are, in effect, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, as we head toward a giant iceberg.

When I hear of a couple getting married or a baby being born, I wonder how their lives will be affected by our rapidly warming world, with its rising oceans and increasingly severe storms. This is especially relevant to me as I write this as I have happily had three grandchildren married in the past three years and one recently had a baby boy, making me and my wife grandparents for the first time.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island; author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and over 250 articles at; president emeritus, Jewish Vegetarians of North America (; president, Society Of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV); and associate producer of A SACRED DUTY (


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'Should Averting a Climate Catastrophe Be a Jewish Priority on Tisha b’Av?' have 3 comments

  1. August 7, 2019 @ 11:24 am Richard Schwartz

    MANY thanks for publishing my article. I hope it makes a very positive difference. If anyone would like to help in efforts to avert a climate catastrophe, please email me at


  2. August 7, 2019 @ 2:06 pm Deborah Moon

    We received the following letter to the editor from Lewis Regenstein in response to this article:

    Thank you for Richard Schwartz’ excellent article on how the teachings of Judaism can guide us towards solutions for our environmental problems.

    Indeed, The massive, ongoing and increasing devastation of the natural environment has become a critical and imminent threat to our survival. The ecological systems on which the lives of humans and, indeed, all of God’s Creation, depend, are endangered.

    We must put into practice our responsibility to protect the natural environment and treat animals compassionately that is mandated and stressed throughout the Bible and Jewish laws and literature.

    Genesis 1:28 commands us to “replenish the earth,” and in Genesis 9:2, the Almighty says of our stewardship responsibilities (“dominion”):
    ” every beast of the earth, and … every fowl of the air, and … all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered.”

    The 16th century Code of Jewish Law (Schulchan Aruch) states that “it is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless or belongs to a non-Jew.”

    The Talmud even ordains that a person must provide for his animals before eating anything, and states that one should not have an animal unless one can properly feed and care for it (Yerushalmi Keturot 4:8, 29a; Yevanot 15). Another Hebrew teaching is that “a Jew should not sell his beast to a cruel person” (Sefer Hassidim 13c, #142,p. 64). R.”

    The Biblical prohibition against working animals on the Sabbath (Exodus 20), is a very important concept in Judaism, appearing in the holiest of the laws, The Ten Commandments. Psalm 36 states, “…man and beast thou savest, O Lord. How precious is thy steadfast love…” And Proverbs 12:10 suggests there are two types of people: “A righteous person has regard for the life of his beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

    Indeed, the Jews invented the concept of kindness to animals some 4,000 years ago. There is an entire code of laws (tza’ar ba’alei hayim, the requirement “to prevent the suffering of living creatures”) mandating that animals be treated with compassion. Jews are not allowed to “pass by” an animal in distress or animals being mistreated, even on the Sabbath.

    Given these and many other clear laws and teachings forbidding causing unnecessary suffering of animals and destruction of nature, the Jewish People, commanded to be “a light unto the nations,” should do all we can to take the lead in protecting our fellow creatures and the planet that sustains all of us.

    Lewis Regenstein, author of the essay “Commandments of Compassion: Jewish Teachings on Protecting the Planet and Its Creatures” and the book “Replenish the Earth,” and other writings on Judaism and animals.


  3. August 14, 2019 @ 1:22 pm Harriet Cooke

    Beautiful teachings from our sages!
    I would like to also lift up a contemporary sage who has outlined the work that is required to drawdown the CO2 in our atmosphere. Paul Hawkin and his book, Drawdown, The most comprehensive plan to reverse Global Warming. This book is part of the Drawdown project that called for proposals from global scientists who have proven research on the kinds of work that will Drawdown the CO2 in our environment, when scaled up globally. It is profoundly hopeful despite the realization that we are far beyond decreasing emissions as the path to healing this crisis. This is an excellent book to study during our days of T’shuvah. And to ask ourselves, what can I do to help support such work and such global transformation.


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