Opinion: The Earth needs a few more Noahs

This Shabbat we read the parashah Noah in the Torah — the story of the Great Flood, the ark that protected two living creatures of each species and the covenant God made with Noah to abide by God’s laws.

The story is especially relevant this year in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the other destructive storms that have followed. Many scientists now agree that the increasing frequency and intensity of these hurricanes have been at least partially caused by human activity, including burning fossil fuels and the related release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Our climate is changing on a scale bigger than even Noah could have imagined.

Responding to climate change and the warming of the planet already underway is going to require a multi-decade effort by governments, businesses, communities and individuals. A key challenge is to build public awareness about the likely consequences of climate change, especially the injustice to people living in poverty who surely will be harmed the most. In the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world), Jewish leaders must convey the moral urgency of taking action now. Since we are all part of the problem, we must all join in developing solutions for a more environmentally sustainable world.

One place to start is to protect the strong environmental laws already in place. For more than 30 years, the federal Endangered Species Act has served as a safety net for wildlife, fish and plants that are on the brink of extinction. During that time, of the 1,800 species protected by the law, only nine have been declared extinct — a remarkable record of the act’s positive impact.

Without the Endangered Species Act, wildlife such as the bald eagle, American alligator, California condor, Florida panther and many other animals that are part of America’s natural heritage could have disappeared from the planet years ago. The Endangered Species Act works because it safeguards the places where endangered animals and plants live.

But in a stunning expression of self-interest at the expense of the national interest, some members of Congress, with support from land developers, are trying to severely weaken, or even eliminate, the Endangered Species Act. In September, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill, misleadingly named “The Threatened and Endangered Species Reform Act of 2005,” that would hamstring the federal government in its efforts to protect the critical habitat areas that endangered animals and plants need to survive. The legislation would also exempt the pesticide industry from the Endangered Species Act’s most important provisions.

In addition to the many environmental reasons for defending the Act, Jewish and Christian leaders are stepping forward to make the religious case for preserving this vital conservation law. Forty prominent rabbis and 30 distinguished Jewish scientists, a group not seen working together every day, have signed a statement to Congress in which they affirm that:

“The Endangered Species Act is one of our generation’s richest fulfillments of our biblical destiny as b’tselem elohim, created in the image of God [Genesis 1:26], with the unique power and responsibility to shape, preserve and renew creation through the work of our hands, our hearts, and our minds.”

The rabbis and Jewish scientists call upon U.S.policymakers to “emulate the forethought, self-restraint, and prodigious effort modeled by the biblical Noah — ‘a righteous man … blameless in his age’ [Genesis 6:9].” The writers — describing “the Endangered Species Act as the legislative equivalent of Noah’s cedar grove” — urge Congress to strengthen the law as a resource for building our environmental future.

Jewish groups are also playing a leading role in the Noah Alliance, an interfaith partnership established to defend the Endangered Species Act. Materials can be found on the Noah Alliance Web site (www.noahalliance.org).

The engagement of religious communities at both national and congregational levels will be crucial to protecting the Endangered Species Act when it is considered by the Senate later this year or early in 2006. With the House having already passed an extreme measure to weaken the law, the battle in the Senate is shaping up as a key test of our nation’s moral resolve to protect endangered species, and by extension, to protect ourselves.

Jewish texts clearly state that all species deserve our wonder and protection. “Of all that the Holy One created in the world, not a single thing is useless,” teaches the Talmud (B. Shabbat 77b), while the Midrash elaborates, “Even those creatures that you may look upon as superfluous in the world … they too are part of the entirety of creation.” (Genesis Rabbah 10:7). Every species of plant or animal is thus understood by Jewish tradition to occupy an ecological niche in our interdependent, living world.

In the story of Noah, God considered destroying the Earth and did not. Now with the planet’s environmental well-being threatened, we mortals face the same choice.

Adam C. Stern is the Executive Director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and a member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.