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Rules and Regulations: Guiding Us in Judaism and in Environmental Advocacy

Rules and Regulations: Guiding Us in Judaism and in Environmental Advocacy

Polar bears in the arctic

Rules and regulations often get a bad reputation. They are seen as no fun, restrictive and sometimes even arbitrary. But, as any kindergarten teacher, Rabbi or environmental activist will tell you, a good rule can be a very positive thing.

In the text of the Torah, we can distill 613 mitzvot, or commandments. These 613 mitzvot offer guidance for how we should live our lives. They cover nearly every aspect of life, from social interactions to religious practices, to wartime conduct and agricultural guidance. Commandments in the Torah range from the fairly obvious – “Not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger” (Lev. 19:16), “To love the stranger” (Deut. 10:19), “To honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12), and “To give charity” (Deut. 15:11) – to the practically important. For example, the Torah mandates a year-long farming hiatus, or shmita, in order to not overwork the land (Ex. 23:11; Lev. 25:2). These commandments help us live a more morally rich and sustainable life and also codify what we know to be righteous and true. 

We can see environmental regulations in much of the same way. Morally, we have an obligation to protect the earth, for the sake of the next generation and for the millions of people who are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Our rabbinic commentary implores us, “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.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah). We also have a practical reason to support environmental protections. As humans, we must rely on the environment for our livelihood. Climate science demonstrates – and 97% of scientists agree – that the environment is in jeopardy, largely because of human activity. Environmental inaction will have detrimental effects to human life.

This is why environmental regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, the Stream Protection Rule, bans on offshore drilling in the Arctic, the Methane rule, the designation of new national monuments, and many others are not only important, they are necessary.

So, am I suggesting that we immediately pass 613 environmental regulations? No. Am I suggesting that there can be tremendous value in laws and regulations that protect our environment? Absolutely. But, our support for environmental regulations should not be decided blindly. It is important to remember the fact that environmental regulations often result in extra costs to businesses. Regulations must keep these costs as low as possible while most curbing the effects of climate change.

As we hold the importance of environmental regulations in one hand, we must also question the content of those regulations. It is the nature of our Reform Judaism that leads us to question environmental regulations. As Reform Jews, we can choose to reject a selection of the 613 commandments that we deem restrictive, impractical, or even arbitrary. However, the future of the planet and its inhabitants depend on environmental regulations. It is this moral and practical reality that lead us to stand up for climate action.

One particularly unique and fragile area that is often granted protections though rules and regulations is the arctic's Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). ANWR is home to many native communities, a vast array of wildlife and a special ecosystem. 

Lizzie Stein is a 2016-2017 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, she is a member of Temple Kol Ami and graduated from Occidental College. 

Lizzie Stein

Published: 2/23/2017