Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Yom Kippur, Maimonides and greenhouse gas regulation

Tonight and tomorrow are the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In a recent debate about Israeli climate change policy my colleague at TAU, Pinchas Alpert, invoked a seasonal analogy based on a passage from Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish jurist and philosopher.

An article by Nadav Feldman in The Marker Magazine (in Hebrew) quotes an Israeli religious neoliberal blogger (yes, that American combination has recently reached Israel, thanks to American funding) as arguing that Israel should not take any regulatory action against greenhouse gas emissions. His lead argument is that Israel's contribution to global emissions is but a small proportion of global emissions, so any action taken by Israel will impose local costs without bringing about any benefit.

In response, Alpert, a climate scientist, points to a passage from Maimonides's Laws of Repentance, which many Jews study this time of year. Maimonides writes (3:4, transl. Eliyahu Touger):
A person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself.
[On the other hand,] if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. This is implied by [Proverbs 10:25] "A righteous man is the foundation of the world," i.e., he who acted righteously, tipped the balance of the entire world to merit and saved it.
So, too, for environmental issues such as climate change, argues Alpert, every person's contribution to the problem or its solution is decisive, and we each need to see ourselves as responsible for our current predicament.

May we all be sealed in the book of life.

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