Interfaith Engineering Ethics – Climate Change and responsibility in V’haya Im Shamoa

During Yom Kippur morning services yesterday I felt a completely new interpretation and meaning for my own sense of ethics as an engineer embedded within the Sh’ma. As engineers we are all guided by a sense of ethics – whether we realize it or not. These ethics are learned, taught, and honed in our lives before we become engineers and continue to develop throughout our careers. They can come from engineering education, but they also can come from our faith traditions or from interfaith dialogue. I believe there is a lot of room to reflect on the numerous ways we internalize ethics and how they relate to the engineering profession. In particular, I think it is worthwhile to add spiritual ethics as items of consideration and discussion. In this post I wish to talk about what I see as our ethical commitments to the climate as told in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma. 

Before I get into the Sh’ma and the second paragraph V’haya Im Shamoa, I’ll address the elephant dancing in the room – “is this a God thing, and what if I don’t believe in God? Whose God is it anyways?” In interfaith discussions in a particularly secular field, I think we can use frameworks to help communicate our different tradition’s ethics to one another. Here I’d love to draw from Rabbi Kaplan.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan (1881-1983) provides to us all a definition of God that can transcend many interfaith boundaries. In Judaism, there is no single “God Idea” – Rabbi Kaplan did not see God as an omnipotent supernatural entity who could communicate directly with humans nor interfere in human affairs. In “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion” he discusses at length how God can be re-interpreted as a power that regenerates human kindness, compassion, self-actualization, cooperation, and liberation. That when we ‘tap into God’ so to speak, acts of goodness and lovingkindness result. When we collectively tap in, that is how we can be our best selves and create a more just, peaceful, and equitable world.

With me so far?

We are getting closer to the thoughts I had during the Sh’ma I recited on Yom Kippur 5780. I promise, we are close!

For those who are not familiar, the Sh’ma is a central Jewish prayer which is recited every service, observance, and for many, several times a day. It adorns the doorposts of many Jewish homes. The Sh’ma holds one of the most essential places in Jewish davening – prayer, reflection, inherited tradition. The Sh’ma is also to be the last words one says before death. To say it is important is an understatement.

The Sh’ma affirms one’s recognition of being in relation and service to God. Using Kaplan’s interpretation, I want the interfaith reader mentally replace the word “God” with “The Great Big Human Capacity for Goodness.” So, the repetition and centrality of the Sh’ma for those like myself constantly affirms my commitment to being in service of “Goodness” in ethical, practical, and spiritual terms.

The Sh’ma consists of several different segments – the first paragraph instructs us to love (the great big human capacity for goodness) with all our hearts, souls, and with all our might and to further take to heart these instructions within the Sh’ma.

The second paragraph – V’haya Im Shamoa – is where I had a critical connection to my life’s work, past and present and future, in engineering in our morally deep world. In particular, I believe it relates to my own ethical commitments in a world increasingly under climate crisis. All engineers – whether knowingly or unknowingly – are part of an engineering industrial complex that spans academia to industry to government. Our collective and individual actions and conversations further (re)produce and resist catastrophic climate change.

So, what does the second paragraph consist of? I’ll just put it right here, my emphasis added:

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְותַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם׃ וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ׃ וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃ וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל־יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם׃ וְלִמַּדְתֶּ֥ם אֹתָ֛ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְדַבֵּ֣ר בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃ וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּז֥וֹת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ לְמַ֨עַן יִרְבּ֤וּ יְמֵיכֶם֙ וִימֵ֣י בְנֵיכֶ֔ם עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם כִּימֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving (Him) with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oilI will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and (He) will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.

So, pretty gnarly right? I emphasized the parts I think all engineers – regardless of faith tradition or no faith tradition – can learn from, especially with a Kaplanian interpretation of God. I think the following points stand out to me as an engineer striving to find new and imaginative ways to think about ethics –

  1. When we follow closely a life and ethics which embraces (the eternal capacity for human ethical goodness), our LITERAL environment, planet, and habitat will nurture and sustain us.
  2. When we stray from a path of (human compassion and ethical actions), the world (climate) will change from what is nurturing and sustaining and into an increasingly hostile unlivable land.
  3. Case in point? Keep a commitment to (the great big wellspring of good works) with you, around you, close to your heart, and do not stray from (doing good ethical work). Doing so will ensure a livable climate for generations, and not doing so may risk the entire survival of humankind.

One does not need to believe in a personal, collective, supernatural, or humanistic God to see that there are ethical suggestions in the Sh’ma. In our growing climate crisis with actual human lives being impacted, what is ethical? Perhaps a commitment to God in an interfaith dialogue as engineers would suggest committing ourselves to “kindness, compassion, self-actualization, cooperation, and liberation” – what actions regarding oil, energy, and climate do we take to make that happen? It is clear from the Sh’ma that whatever the actions are, they preserve our climate and planet. It is now up to us to figure out what these individual/collective actions are that create this thriving natural environment. Should we tap into “The Great Big Good” and dedicate ourselves to anchoring our ethics upon it, perhaps?

In the tradition of interfaith dialogue, what do you think? How does your spirituality, humanism, secularism, any -ism, relate to this? Comparing and contrasting, connecting or disconnecting? It is through these ethical dialogues rooted in our deepest spiritual moral selves that we might be able to carve out a more meaningful education of ethics in engineering.

I found this connection deeply impactful and insightful on Yom Kippur morning, 14 hours into a fast, reflecting on my own actions and commitments in the world. This upcoming Jewish year I am inspired to awake every morning with a committment that all of my actions – mundane or otherwise – be in service of cooperation, liberation, and a livable climate for all on Earth now and in the future.

Shanah Tovah, and may you all be having a meaningful week.



Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp holds a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explored the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education. She is currently a labor organizer in Washington state.

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