Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Reflections on the IPCC report
The first IPCC report that came out at Tu Bish'vat predicted that global disruption of our climate will continue for centuries, even if we add no more human-generated CO2 to the atmosphere. The second IPCC report has foretold levels of extinctions never before experienced by humankind.
We know more so now than ever that it is critical to focus our communities on the question of what to do and how to act. Yet we also face the fact that any changes we make on a personal level have so little physical impact on the problem.
This is the moment when we sense the enormity of consequences, along with our lack of power as individuals to change those consequences.
This is the moment when the realm of Spirit must come to the forefront.
The moment may be compared to when we face the death of someone we love. We cannot always "do" anything to fix the broken reality on the physical plane, but we still take spiritual and ritual action.
On the level of Kabbalah, ritual opens up channels of blessing that enable divine healing to touch and transform this reality. On the more obvious levels of the human psyche, spi/ritual action helps us stay in touch with this reality.
Staying in touch with what's going on means feeling the strongest love for the beauty and holiness of creation, even if that love leads to stronger mourning. Knowing how to mourn fully is what enables us to continue to love. It can enable us to cherish what we love even more.
The fundamental reality is that there are losses and extinctions that have not yet happened which we have already caused and which we can no longer prevent. So on the spirit level we need to ask the painful question - what mourning rituals do we do for a whole species? How do we mourn and love in a way that enables the next generation of humanity, and the next generation of the Jewish people, to learn from the mistakes of the last generation and create a truly sustainable society?
This is a time when every religious and cuiltural tradition needs to marshal its resources and wisdom about the earth, and to join this wisdom to the wisdom of all other traditions. Each religion needs to become a part of a greater "ecosystem" of human ethical and spiritual work, to help this civilization return to a path with a heart.
Nigel Savage of Hazon asks what the Jewish community can do when it is such a small percentage of humanity. Of course the same question applies to each human being, and not just to Jews. (This question is what has motivated me to outline the vision of "StoptheFlood!".) Nonetheless, the power of the Jewish way of doing community may be one of those fundamental wisdoms that we can contribute
There are so many other wisdoms and practices we do that matter to the earth, especially Shabbat, as Nigel suggests, even though we don't always pay attention to what they are teaching us.
One aspect of Jewish wisdom which Nigel does not mention may be as important as Shabbat: rabbinic Judaism figured out how to survive as a tribal, earth-centered tradition, in the face of every society and civilization where the Jews have wandered, including this post-industrial postmodern era. (Reclaiming what makes us earth-centered is the core of my theological work and scholarship.)
Nigel Savage's reflections on what he calls the "Age of Awareness" follow.
I want to plug Nigel's organization: Hazon has become the primary Jewish environmental group with a national (and international) vision that is speaking to the grassroots. Their model for a Jewish CSA (= commmunity-supported agriculture) is spreading to new cities (Berkeley included!), their bike rides to raise money for (and awareness of) environmental causes here and in Israel have made a real difference to the people doing this work, and their energy and creativity have revitalized Jewish environmentalism. Visit them.
If you've read this far, please take a moment to decide on one new thing you will do to change your impact on the earth's climate - because taking responsibility means living differently. How these changes we make on a small scale can lead to transformation may be a mystery, but there is no doubt that your action can be an expression of love and commitment to this planet, and to whatever transformations will take place.
As people say in Lakota ritual: Aho Mitakuye Oyasin!, For all our relations! - or (in Kabbalah), for the silent, growing, moving, speaking, all the beings of this earth,
Without further ado, here's what Nigel, founder and director of Hazon, wrote:
This morning's IPCC report I think marks the end of one of phase of our history, and the beginning of a new one: The Age of Awareness, perhaps; an era in which our desire not to face uncomfortable truths has finally been unpeeled.
It's against this backdrop that we need now to think about the future of the Jewish environmental movement. Events are accelerating dramatically. There are two different issues that need to be addressed. The first is a broad one: what is and should be the purpose of the Jewish environmental movement? The second is a more prosaic one: how should the existing Jewish environmental organizations work together more effectively in coming years?
For the Jewish community to make a difference on environmental issues, we need brutal honesty to begin with. Jews are now roughly 0.2% of the world's population; less than the margin of error on the Indian census. If all the Jews in the world recycle their newspapers it will make pretty much no difference whatsoever. Nor if we put a
I'm not saying that Jews shouldn't drive hybrids, or change our behavior more generally. I'm not saying that burning 25 million barrels fewer a year wouldn't be a tremendously important thing to do. I'm simply pointing out that even an accomplishment which seems impossibly beyond our current capacity for restraint and behavioral change is also impossibly small in relation to the impact we need to have to reverse the damage we are presently doing.
Put a different way: when AJWS leads a multi-faith campaign to Save Darfur they don't know whether they will succeed. But the possibility of Western intervention to stop the killing there is not hard to imagine. So the effort to accomplish it is fuelled partly by our people that we really can accomplish measurable positive change.
And on the issue of climate change and environmental destruction we face the prospect of living our entire lives against a backdrop of accelerating deterioration. To put it mildly, we are not psychologically well-prepared to cope with this scenario.
This is the backdrop against which I want to be clear about the purposes of the Jewish environmental movement at this moment in time.
We cannot by our individual actions effect change; we cannot even, as a people, in our own behavior, directly create the change we would like. But what we can do is play, as we have always played, a vital role in shifting the trajectory of a very long run conversation about the nature of human life on this planet. This we not only can do, we actually must do.
As my friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg pointed out at Hazon's New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride two years ago, we offer a unique capability to frame conversations in extremely long timescales. And I would add that we offer the world two cultural treasures - Shabbat and halacha - which are more radical in their capability to effect change than almost anything else that exists in the world today.
Shabbat is about the notion that, one day in seven, every seventh day, we cease consuming and destroying and simply rest. I don't care if you keep Shabbat on a Saturday, a Friday, a Sunday or frankly a Tuesday: but the narrow Jewish conversation about whether and in what ways we keep Shabbat needs now to play out on a larger stage. So too our experience with the relationship between halacha (Jewish practice) and education. Not everything is about the rights of the individual or the role of the state. Between the two sit the realm of self-restraint, and the role that education and community play in inculcating it. [I would add: the role of sacred debate and holy disagreement. - DS] We know a good deal on this topic, and we have not fully understood how important and significant it is.
The elements of Jewish education and Jewish advocacy that we develop around these issues need to be seen within this broader context. We do need to change our behavior, as individuals and as a community, and we do need to stand up in Washington DC, in an organized way, to argue for key governmental and inter-governmental measures that are vitally necessary. But in what we do we need to understand our actions and behaviors in a wider and longer context. And we need to start to think much more deeply about what it means to make a distinctively Jewish contribution to the future wellbeing of the world and its inhabitants.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006