Letter 16

DAY 16

Rachel Mikva

Schaalman Professor in Jewish Studies, Senior Fellow
InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary
February 4, 2021

Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,

The climate crisis is perhaps the gravest threat that we have faced as a nation, or as a species. And to be honest, the voice of religion has been uneven on this topic. There are courageous calls to confession and action, like in Pope Francis’ second encyclical Laudato Si (subtitled “on care for our common home”), but also complacent reassurances that God will not let us destroy the earth.

We can point to texts that understood the interconnectedness of all creation centuries ago, like this tenth-century rabbinic teaching: “The whole world of humans, animals, fish, and birds all depend on one another. All drink the earth’s water, breathe the earth’s air, and find food in what was created on the earth. All share the same destiny—what happens to one, happens to all” (Tanna d’bei Eliahu). Yet we have also seen scriptural teachings like “Fill the earth and master it” (Genesis 1:28), used to justify exploitation.

“Hope is not idle optimism that all will turn out for the best, but active faith that the world can be different than it is…”

There is a particular strength that people of faith can bring in this struggle, however. Our diverse spiritualities cultivate deep roots for hope. The primary messaging strategy for climate action is to show the urgency of the matter: Let’s make it better…or else. But social scientists have demonstrated that if you tell people something must be done or else we are all going to die, most people opt for Door #2: I guess we’ll just die then. Overwhelming fear leads people to disengage. The prophet Isaiah knew this. He called the Israelites to change their ways in order to avert catastrophe, but instead they yielded to the temptations of fatalism: “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13). When people think: “I can’t do anything about it” or “It’s too late,” they succumb to the culture of consumption just as readily as those who pretend that it’s not happening.

Hope is not idle optimism that all will turn out for the best, but active faith that the world can be different than it is and that we can play a part in shaping it. Aggressively pursuing renewable energy resources, developing carbon capture technologies, expanding desalination and water conservation, changing human diets and lifestyles, seeking economic equity, safeguarding the glorious beauty of our world, teaching simplicity and solidarity, modeling compassion—these are acts of faith. Together, they testify to a collective wisdom that can help humanity change course.

Peace and blessing,

Rachel  S. Mikva

Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva
Herman E. Schaalman Professor in Jewish Studies
Senior Faculty Fellow, InterReligious Institute
Chicago Theological Seminary

the author

Rachel Mikva serves as the Schaalman Professor in Jewish Studies and Senior Fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary.  The seminary works at the cutting edge of theological education, training religious leaders who can build bridges across cultural and religious difference for the critical work of social transformation. With a passion for justice and academic expertise in the history of scriptural interpretation, Rabbi Mikva’s courses and publications address a range of Jewish and comparative studies, with special interest in the intersections of sacred texts, culture, and ethics. Her most recent book is Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.