The Third Day and Our Oceans

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press.  

We are not told that we hold sway over the sea.

We are told that we hold sway over the animals. When God creates humankind, God grants dominion over the “fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

We are told that we may do what we like with the plants.  “These are yours to eat,” God says on the sixth day (Genesis 1:29).

Later, this relationship between human beings and vegetation is modified with the additional command l’ovdah ulshomrah, translated literally as “to work it and keep it,” and commonly known today as “to till and tend” (Genesis 2:15). Humankind is intended to take care of and partake in all animals and all plants.

Day three of the Creation story has two components. Before God established plants, God first collected the chaotic waters of the earth and designated these as “seas,” an area differentiated from “dry ground” (Genesis 1:9–10). The creation of each is concluded with a repetition of the central trope of Creation, “God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:10).

These two acts of creation on one day create two parallel tracks for God’s contract with humankind as a partner in Creation. We are told that we hold sway over the animals. We are told that we may do what we like with the plants.

We are not told that we hold sway over the sea.

And yet, humankind has ruled over the seas. We have disrupted the boundary lines distinguishing sea from land. Whole populations will be displaced. Cities and states will be pulled underwater as the sea becomes entangled with dry ground. Further, rising sea levels are causing drinking water contamination and disruptions in agriculture, coastal plant life, and wildlife populations. In impacting the seas, we have also adversely affected life on dry land for humans, animals, and plants.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sea levels have risen approximately seven inches globally since 1900. Our industrial output of greenhouse gases has initiated global climate change and sea-level rise; we have failed to stay within the means of our God-given responsibilities. Climate change caused by human activity presents problems of an immense global scale with potentially infinite disruptive power. Rising global atmospheric temperatures in turn cause sea-level rise, disrupt ecosystems, limit crop viability, and lead to drought and extreme weather events. Many of our current international security and poverty crises can be traced back to these adverse climate change impacts.

These challenges have hopeful and plausible remedies. We can mitigate sea-level rise by investing in and advocating for the production and dissemination of clean energy technologies. Unlike clean energy’s fossil fuel counterparts, the mechanisms for extraction (solar panels and windmills) are not disruptive. While we cannot turn back the clock on climate change, it is within our power to ensure that the current impacts of sea-level rise are not dramatically worsened as we continue to use nonrenewable sources. We need only shift from greenhouse-gas-producing technologies to renewable energy in order to minimize our negative impact on the oceans.

On day three of Genesis, we read, “Let the waters beneath the sky be collected in one place, so that the dry ground may be seen!”—and so it was. And God called the dry ground Earth, and called the collected waters Seas. And…God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:9–10).  As Jews, we can look at this passage, in both its description of separation and, later, our absence of active human obligation, to make the case for a Jewish response to climate change through renewable energy. By living up to our responsibilities on land, we can restore our seas. We can give back to them their autonomy as a space distinct from the dry ground. We must not hold sway over the seas.

We are at a crossroads in human history where we have gained rule over nature and have the responsibility and capacity to surrender that power. We have scientific evidence that we have created a problem. We have the global willpower to make the change. We are not told that we hold sway over the sea. We are told that God saw how it was. Now, we just need our energy industry and our policy-makers to catch up.

Liya Rechtman is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Ms. Rechtman is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar and Amherst College Graduate Fellow at Harvard Divinity School as a candidate for a Masters of Theological Studies with a concentration in religion, ethics, and politics. She previously served a consultant for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, Manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and co-chair of the Washington Inter-religious Staff Council’s Energy and Environment Working Group.

Social Justice

Digging Into the Second Justice: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

A Note to Rabbis About The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 

“Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 20:16) is the baseline of Jewish social justice work. It is our oft-repeated mantra that undergirds our fight for everything from trans-inclusion to gun violence prevention. And yet, how often do we dig into the second justice? When do we really consider what it means that our text tells us not “justice you shall pursue” but “justice, justice”? I believe that this second justice represents a second level of obligation, a level that speaks directly and inherently to our need as Jews to champion climate change.

In the pursuit of justice, we find ourselves “championing the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9) on a micro-level. Justice-justice requires a more systemic approach, beyond giving to charity or advocating for policies to protect folks experiencing homelessness in our cities. The “poor and the needy” immediately require clothes and shelter, but their lives are also fundamentally shaped by global food and water scarcities due to rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns.

In Leviticus 19:34, we read that we should “welcome in the stranger.” Justice alone would have us allow entry of immigrants and refugees into our borders, while justice-justice requires us to look at the wars and famines that are causing people to flee their homes. In short, our Jewish obligation to pursue justice is more than case-by-case direct service work, but is a call to combat system structures of inequality, like the industrial greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate disruption.

Next month, I will be joining a delegation of young faith leaders to attend The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, France. I am the manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and will be there representing the Jewish community. Our delegation, comprised of myself along with Muslim, Mennonite, and Zoroastrian lay leaders along with a Baptist preacher, mirrors the spirit of the UNFCCC.

The UNFCCC is perhaps the only governmental mechanism that has a real shot at addressing and combating a problem as large and inter-national as climate change. The conference lasts for two weeks and includes representatives from both developed and developing countries. The hope is that by the end of negotiations, there will emerge an international agreement on emissions reductions.

In the same way that the UN represents international collaboration, we aim to act as an interfaith group, learning from each other and bringing climate mitigation practices and our moral imperative to care for our planet and fellow human beings back to our respective faith communities. While there, we’ll join pop-up prayer vigils, the People’s Pilgrimage, and climate protests. We’ll also be speaking to Parisians and decision-makers who will gather at the conference to make some of the most important policy calls of our time in order to bring them the voice of faithful ethics that informs our climate change advocacy.

One of the most important things that the faith community and in particular our Jewish rabbinic leadership, can do ahead of this paradigm-shifting conference, is to show their support for a strong international agreement. Rabbis have the unique ability to pass on this connection between the issues happening in the world around us and our sacred text to your congregations. Reform Jewish leaders have a critical role to play in giving voice to our moral obligation to act on climate change, and to protect the poor and the needy, not only in the immediate ways in which we are well-versed, but also with our eye to a second “justice.”

You can sign the Paris pledge, asking our leaders to act on climate at the UNFCCC here.

For more resources and materials on Jewish environmentalism, you can also check out the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life website here.

Guest Blogger Liya Rechtman is the Manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL),  and a Policy Associate of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. She is also co-chair of the Washington Inter-religious Staff Council’s Energy and Environment Working Group. CCAR is a member of COEJL.