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Dangerously Presumptuous Drashos
This is not a post about climate change. I am saying that from the outset, because for some people, saying that you think that there is such a thing as man causing climate change is like saying that you eat babies, or support Obama.
Instead, this is a post about the problems of being presumptuous in interpreting the Torah.
Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran (who, intriguingly, has often written in support of Obama) argues that there is no such thing as harmful climate change caused by man. Whatever the merits of that position, what bothers me is the Torah argument that he offers in support of it:
Enviro-zealots are convinced that the current climate change signals the end of the world (or, at least, the destruction of the world as we know it), and that humanity is at fault for the impending doom (and has the power to head it off).
Some of us, though, feel that a passuk we recite daily – “Tremble before Him, all the earth; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter” (Divrei Hayomim 1 16:30) – reassures us that Hashem has built self-correcting mechanisms into nature, and that our zeal should be reserved for Torah-study and mitzvos.
The problem is not only that there does not appear to be any firm grounds for understanding this verse, "the world is fixed so that it cannot falter," as negating the possibility of harmful climate change. Even worse is that there is a long history of this very verse being used to make claims about the natural world that turned out to be mistaken. Numerous prominent Acharonim, including such luminaries as Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz, used this verse to argue that the world is stationary and that Copernicus was therefore wrong (for extensive discussion, see Jeremy Brown's excellent work, New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought.)
But it gets even more ironic. You don't need to search for an ambiguous verse that can be interpreted as telling us whether it is possible for man to harm the world. There is an explicit Midrash, based on a Scriptural exegesis, that says clearly and unambiguously that there is indeed such a danger:
“Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!” (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:1)
Is mankind causing the climate to change, with dangerous repercussions? That's not a question that Judaism can answer; it's a question for meteorologists. But is it theoretically possible, within the framework of Jewish theology, for man to harm the world in such a way as to have harmful repercussions? Absolutely. And it's not clear why so many people are religiously convinced otherwise.