AUGUST 20, 2001
Faith-based Energy Policies
-- Martin E. Marty
Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark will get good press in the coming weeks for his new book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Like many born-again-to-a-cause sorts, he is motivated by revenge on his own intellectual past as a self-described left-wing Greenpeacer." So he reacts, marshals data, and offers some cogent corrective argument.
The press, often taking him seriously, tends to advance his "forget about it" mood and agenda. According to Lomborg we can rest easy on four issues: natural resources, population growth, extinction of species, and water and air pollution. Natural resources aren't running out. The effects of population growth have been exaggerated. Extinction is no big deal, statistically. Drink the water. Breathe deeply. Fill 'er up.
While Lomborg has moved from one extreme to the other, and now gives aid and comfort to polluting forces, not everyone buys his approach to problems. Enter the rabbis.
"500 Rabbis Challenge President's Energy Policies" was the headline of Julia Goldman's article in the August third edition of Forward. In coalition with the always-suspect National Council of Churches, the rabbis sent a letter to lawmakers stating that Americans "have a moral obligation to choose the safest, cleanest, and most sustainable sources of energy to protect and preserve God's creation." They have their collective eye on the congressional debate, now begun, on energy policy that will set national terms for some years.
According to Goldman, five hundred rabbis represent only about one-fifth of all members of the rabbinate in America. They clearly are an interest group. They are neither simply objective, nor necessarily representative of all their colleagues. But, remarkably, they come from all the denominations of Judaism and include the heads of the big four: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, on their list. (Picture getting the Unitarian-Universalists, the Pentecostals, and the Southern Baptists on the same page.) They come from thirty-six states. They may not be representative of the Jewish community as a whole, but then no one is.
Some are surprised that in these days of extreme urgency in respect to affairs in Israel, the rabbis focus on what does not seem to be a chiefly Jewish issue. Mark Jacobs of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life responds, "There's a general recognition now in the rabbinic community that the Jewish community has an important voice in the environmental policy discussion."
Jews on the political right dismiss the whole effort as "eco-spiritualism," and defend the relaxation of standards on environmental issues. Goldman quotes Boston Herald columnist Donald Feder, "The Bible begins with God creating the world and giving man dominion over it -- not to despoil it, but to utilize it for His handiwork." Both sides do a service by bringing these issues to new "moral and spiritual" prominence.
What is refreshing is the effort at grounding environmental responsibility not in "eco-spiritualism" but in Genesis 2:15, in the long tradition of Jewish involvement in matters of social justice, and in concern for "a preeminent expression of faithfulness to our Creator God." As Rabbi David Brusin of Milwaukee knows and says, most of the voices Congress hears lead it to be "responsive to the needs of big business, money and profits." Whether or not he is wholly right in his plea that this rabbinic-NCC coalition might speak as "a voice for the people and the next generation," we hope that all sides will move beyond the short-range vision of those who want religious voices to be silenced.