In the last week of Black History Month, we read Parshat Mishpatim from the Book of Exodus. Mishpatim is the oldest stratum of Torah (famously parallel to the Code of Hammurabi). The portion expounds on the earliest Jewish laws, including how and when to set both Israelite and non-Israelite slaves free. In some ways, this is one of those sticky portions that uncomfortably remind us that our tradition was part of the historic system of slavery. However, read an alternate way, the section of Mishpatim grappling with slavery insists on treating disempowered slaves as humans, also created in the Divine Image. Mishpatim is a mandate to act with respect and dignity to all.
What does this mean in 2016? In the age of rising rates of asthma and cancer among black Americans, as well as unequal impacts of extreme weather disasters on communities of color, the fight for racial justice is multi-faceted. Climate change is a racial justice issue, and, as Jews, we have a role to play in advocating for climate justice.
Climate change is a universal problem. There are clear statistics that indicate this. For example, global sea levels rose 6.7 inches in the last year alone. Further, 2015 is now the hottest year on record, followed by 2014 as the second hottest year, indicating a rise in global temperatures. And, finally, we are seeing a dramatic increase in extreme weather events like super-storms, floods, and droughts.
Communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change. Super-storm Sandy, California’s wildfires, and Hawaii’s tropical cyclones impacted communities of color more strongly than they impacted their white counterparts. The economic and health impacts of decreasing air and water quality and uncertain, extreme weather events have lead to illness and disability, physical displacement, cultural erosion, food and housing insecurity, and criminalization, according to the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative.
“Those of us who are ‘empowered’ in this society have an obligation to hear the just cries that ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And, further, the logic of Mishpatim compels us to stand in solidarity on behalf of oppressed and marginalized people everywhere – including the children of color in Flint, Michigan whose children are inheriting a life-long legacy of lead poisoning,” said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobbs, Chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Many Jews have an important legacy of acting as supporters of racial justice. The American Jewish community has played a valuable and well-documented role in standing up for our African American neighbors. Rabbis marched with black church leaders in the 1960s and continue today through the NAACP’s Justice Summer for equal rights and protection under law. In the pursuit of justice, many in the American Jewish community stand for homeless youth protections, gun violence prevention, and the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. So too must we advocate for equal access to clean water, clean air, and a safe, habitable planet.
Our obligation in solidarity with the black community was not completed when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King. We must continue to advocate on the frontlines of equality and work together for the biggest threat to all of humanity, and in particular to communities of color. This Black History Month, the Jewish community should speak from its historic position to our black church brethren and in a spirit of inclusion of Jews of color in acting on climate.