Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Where There's a Will: A Tu Bishvat Wish

You might be aware of a problem in halakhah / Jewish law related to marriage - that a woman cannot initiate divorce.  The difficulty arises when a man is unable or refuses to grant a divorce to his wife, and as such there are a couple hundred women in North America (according to a recent survey by the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse) that are called “agunot” - literally, chained women.  They are unable to divorce and therefore forbidden from marrying others, and are likely stuck without financial support as well.

The problem has been addressed successfully by the Conservative movement with a couple of different solutions; perhaps the best known is the “Lieberman Clause” that appears in ketubot used by our rabbis.  Modern Orthodoxy too has effective ways of resolving the agunah problem; for much of the Jewish world, 20th-century outcry by those affected led to rabbinic solutions.  As Blu Greenberg famously put it, “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.”

If only that were the case with climate change.  I recently saw two sets of relevant statistics.  The first was that 2011 was the 11th-warmest year on record, with an average worldwide temperature of 57.9 degrees Fahrenheit.  Now that does not sound so terrible, it’s true, except that this temperature is almost a full degree over the average of the 20th century, and marks the 35th year in a row that worldwide temperatures have been above average.

The second statistic was poll data that showed that while in 2001, 75% of Americans believed that human production of greenhouse gases contributes to global warming, only 44% do so today.  

Regarding the second statistic, one might say, “So what?”  If fewer people believed that the Earth is an oblate spheroid, would it become flat?  But the difficulty is that it is ultimately public outcry that will move the hands of politicians to find solutions; in this national election year, it seems that nobody in America is talking about the climate.  If we do not care, nothing will change; the solution required is too great to be led by individual efforts, and there is probably only a narrow window of a few years before irreparable damage is done to our environment.

The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) tells us that Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat (which coincides this year with February 8), is the New Year for the trees.  In recent times, Tu Bishvat has become a day to remember our planet and our obligations to it.  If I had a Tu Bishvat wish, it would be that we remember not just the trees, but the soil in which they are planted, the rain and sun that nourish them, and the air that we all share.  Public interest may be on the wane, but as the mercury continues to rise and global weather disasters unfold at even greater rates, now is the time to act.  Let’s find that environmental will.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, January 26, 2012.)

1 comment:

  1. (Posted on behalf of Alex S.)

    Increasing temperatures for the past 35 years are definitely a trend. Human activity is definitely a good reason for it, and activity is on the upswing with additional countries wanting to be "developed." But is this an acceleration or a change? This has happened before, and we have only been keeping accurate records for about 200 years, less in other parts of the world. We don't know if the climate change is going to be accelerated by a million years or 5 million or an unknown amount of time. Of course, it would be good for people to get a clue and do something to try and help the environment. Will they? Unlikely, unless they are forced to or it personally affects them. People in developed countries want more convenience so they most will not voluntarily make their lives more difficult. Self-interest rules, so without making it palatable to them, they will not make a change. The car companies did not agree to produce higher-mileage cars until they were on the brink of death, now we finally have a choice of satisfactory small cars.

    Additionally, the long-time developed countries can try to help with climate change and try to work with carbon footprints and all, but other countries who don't care will counteract our efforts.