Opinion | Shmita can be a model for tackling climate change and inequality

An oil derrick
An oil derrick near farm fields in Oklahoma. (Sarah Nichols/Flickr Commons via JTA)

By Sen. Meghan Kallman and Rabbi Lex Rofeberg

We are in an era of multiple interlocking crises. From record-breaking heat waves to wildfires to water shortages, from rising authoritarianism to a pandemic rampaging across the world, it is clear that human beings will need to make urgent, major changes to how we live.

Bold policy proposals already exist to address these problems. Additionally, we — one of us a politician, the other a rabbi, and both progressives — want to suggest another possibility, gleaned from Jewish tradition: the ancient idea of shmita, the sabbatical year, which can guide our work in this urgent moment when everything we do matters.

Both of us are millennials, and therefore have come of age under the worst inequality since the Gilded Age — exacerbated and symbolized by a student and health care debt crisis. The disastrous effects of the climate crisis, extinctions, displacement and environmental degradation are threatening to turn life into a nightmare for most on the planet. These problems can be traced to a global obsession with unending growth.

Both of us are also, in particular, Jewish millennials. We have felt called to participate in Jewish communities of learning, prayer and communal gathering. Despite our involvement in those spaces however, neither one of us learned of shmita’s existence until adulthood. It is time for our Jewish spaces to reprioritize this sacred ritual, and apply its wisdom to our own times.

Shmita is observed every seven years. The shmita year began on Rosh Hashanah. “Sabbatical” tends to refer to respite from work, typically in a university context. But the shmita year is slightly different. It is a collective sabbatical, a radical recalibration of society as a whole, in order to align it with principles of justice and equity for human beings and for the lands we inhabit. Shmita offers a framework for how we might enshrine seemingly individual choices as social values.

The shmita year has two major components. The first is that it serves as a rest for land: Just as humans get to observe a sabbath once every seven days, the land that we inhabit gets a sabbath, too. In biblical times, it meant that the land should lay fallow for a year, and  the gleanings left for the needy and even animals. Through shmita, our relationship to land can shift from one of control and domination to one of appreciation and interdependence. Clearly, such lessons are applicable to this moment as well.

Shmita’s other major component is that debts are forgiven. This is done to address financial inequities that grow over time, and to enable everyone to have the opportunity to thrive. Debt forgiveness every seven years disrupts wealth-hoarding, and provides relief to those struggling to meet their basic needs.

These ideas can be, and should be, used in practice. We could forgive debts, and change the systems that cause such terrible indebtedness. Two-thirds of contemporary U.S. bankruptcies are over medical issues and medical debt; we must make health care free and universal to solve this problem over the long term. Collectively, U.S. college students owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt; President Joe Biden could and should forgive up to $50,000 per borrower in federal student debt through executive action.

The idea of shmita can also guide us in acting to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Shmita proposes that for a year, humans must avoid treating land simply as a means to our ends; we must not think in terms of limitless expansion, but rather in terms of sustainability and rest. Leaving the land fallow rejects the notion that our planet, and its resources, exist only to serve us.

The choices we make now will determine the survival of millions within the next few decades. We must seek out every strategy as we take on the challenges that threaten the inhabitants of our planet. That includes strategies anchored in ancient wisdom, like the shmita year. We need to act collectively, for everyone’s health. Because a society that takes care of itself and its most vulnerable is one that is, quite simply, the only moral option.

Sen. Meghan Kallman represents District 15 in the Rhode Island State Senate. Rabbi Lex Rofeberg is the senior Jewish educator for Judaism Unbound. This originally ran on JTA.org.

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