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Rabbi Jacob Elisha Fine

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The Earth Is the Lord's: Our Responsibility for God's Creation

Posted: 05/22/2012 11:00 am

Here we go again. Another election cycle in which climate science is being debated by high ranking elected officials, party activists and interest groups with the power to sway what our candidates say they believe and how they act in office. It seems inconceivable that at a moment when there is virtual scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and is significantly affected by human behavior, that there are those who persist in denying the single greatest threat to life as we know it.

Of the eight major Republican Party Presidential candidates this past year, five (Perry, Paul, Bachmann, Cain, Santorum) expressed outright climate change denial. Jon Huntsman was the only candidate who unequivocally affirmed the scientific consensus on climate change. And after previously holding positions that climate change was real and pressing, both Newt Gingrich and candidate-elect Mitt Romney have retreated to expressing varying degrees of skepticism on the subject.

Of the various constituencies and interest groupsworking to eat away at environmental legislation and to fuel the denial of climate change, those doing it in the name of religion are the ones I find most disturbing. As someone whose faith as a religious Jew deeply informs my concern for, and sense of obligation to, the biosphere, I am profoundly troubled by those who point to Scripture as justification for an anti-environmental agenda.

Those people of faith who are strident in their denial of climate science, and who are antagonistic toward environmental thinking in general, tend to adhere to a theology of human dominion. This theology is predicated on a very selective reading of a few verses from Scripture, most notably Genesis 1:28, which reads:

"And God blessed [Adam and Eve] and God said to them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'"

A hyper-literal reading of this verse is used to justify unchecked exploitation of the natural world for the sake of human consumption.

Anti-environmental crusaders also point to God's covenant with Noah after the flood that "never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 9:11)," as proof that we need not worry about human-induced damage to the ecosphere.

If this theologically based, anti-environmental rhetoric stayed in the pews, we could just write it off as harmless. But increasingly this thinking has found its way to the public sphere, where it is being advanced by a loose coalition of business and political interests with the power to shape environmental legislation.

Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL), who is currently the chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, said during a 2009 congressional hearing:

"I want to start with Genesis 8, verse 21 and 22, 'Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood, and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, sea time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.' I believe that's the infallible word of God and that's the way it's going to be for His creation ... The earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over. Man will not destroy the earth."

Likewise, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who is the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and sits on the subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety, has explained that his belief that global warming is a hoax is biblically inspired. While promoting his book, "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future," Inhofe said that, "The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous."

Underneath all of these layers of debate about climate change, we find fundamental human questions -- and fundamental religious questions:

What is the role of the human being in the world? How are we to relate to the rest of Creation? Are we meant to be rulers, stewards, or brethren?

WATCH The Simple Way: The Greening of Philadelphia's Concrete Jungle:

These questions, which have been asked since the beginning of time, are more significant today than ever before. The unprecedented crisis that our biosphere faces means that the question of the human place in the world has become much more than an intellectual exercise for theologians to contemplate from a distance. The dominion theologians believe that the earth is justifiably ours to exploit unconditionally. I assert that this radically anthropocentric position could not be more at odds with the principal biblical worldview.

This coming Saturday night marks the eve of the festival of Shavuot (commemorating the revelation of the Torah). It provides a crucial window into the Torah's presumption that "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" (Psalm 24), and the notion that the material world, in all of its magnificent and mundane particularities, presents itself to us as sacred.

One of the Torah's names for this holiday is Yom HaBikkurim, the Day of the First Fruits. The name bikkurim (first fruits) refers to a ritual that commenced on Shavuot in which Israelite farmers were obligated to bring the first fruits and grains of the season to the Temple In Jerusalem as a sacrificial offering. Each farmer put his fruits in a basket and recited a prescribed statement that concluded with the words, "I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Lord, have given me" (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). Only after this ritual of thanksgiving and acknowledgement of God as the provider of the earth's bounty was the fullness of the harvest released for the farmer's personal enjoyment.

The ritual of bikkurim is one of many laws and practices shaping Israelite life that reflect the Bible's core presumption that the earth is fundamentally God's property. Through practices like bikkurim, peah (leaving the corners of the field for the poor) and shmittah (leaving the land to lie fallow once every seven years), the Israelite farmer was reminded to acknowledge the provisional quality of his "ownership," and was forced to temper his natural impulse to regard the (literal) fruit of his labors as entirely and exclusively his own.

The irony underlying the dominion theology advanced by conservative groups like the (misleadingly named) Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation is that they seem much more interested in cheap fossil fuels, weak environmental regulations and economic growth than anything else. We can drill, pollute, consume unconditionally and spoil God's earth because we are entitled. I have a hard time understanding how the effort to protect God's creation can be seen as "...one of the greatest threats to society and the church today."

A rabbinic commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes teaches that when God created Adam and Eve, He led them around the Garden of Eden and warned them "Look at My works! ... See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).

Those of us whose faith demands that we protect all of God's Creation should be vocal in defending our holy texts from those whose shortsighted anthropocentrism causes them to deny the earth's fragility and human culpability.

We would do well to emulate the practice of consecrating the first fruits by embracing behaviors that set limits on our sense of entitlement and that encourage responsibility for preserving all of God's sacred Creation.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

 
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