By Yannai Kranzler
When I first sat with Dr. Michael Kagan and Rabbi Julian Sinclair and listened to their plans to create a Jewish Climate Initiative, I immediately got excited about a scientist and a Rabbi joining forces to confront climate change. When I mentioned my excitement, Rabbi Sinclair smiled and said “Michael’s not just a scientist, you know.” And Dr. Kagan added, “Julian’s not really just a Rabbi, you know.” And so I did my research and learned that it wasn’t a scientist and a Rabbi confronting climate change, but a scientist/inventor/spiritual guide/mystic and a Rabbi/economist/writer/tour guide. And I realized that the Jewish Climate Initiative was going to be something special.
Dr. Michael Kagan: Co-Founder, Jewish Climate Initiative
In the following interview, Dr. Kagan explains the reasons for a Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), expands on the directions where he hopes the initiative will go, and discusses how his life’s work of understanding the connections between apparently separate facets of the world stands behind the creation of the Jewish Climate Initiative, and is the spirit which drives it forward.
YK: Spiritual Leader, biochemist, inventor- you’ve done quite a lot in your life. How has your experience brought you to this point, where you are creating a Jewish Climate Initiative?
MK: The subject of my doctorate thesis was “Patent Formation in Dissipative Systems.” I know that sounds esoteric but it basically addresses the question, “Where does structure come from in the universe?”
I focused on thermodynamics and the question of entropy: Entropy means that everything is constantly descending to the lowest common denominator. If everything is descending into chaos, then, why do we exist? How come I have a body with fingers and arms and head? Where does order come from?
As I explored this narrow, specific subject in chemistry, I was led to such wide areas of investigation- biology, physics, philosophy, the history of science, how it connected to religion and thought and consciousness. And what I learned and experienced was the interconnectiveness between all things.
I also learned that I have a particular mindset – I think in a very eclectic and associative manner that sees the connection between things that seem to be vastly separate. This is even the heart of my inventive work: putting together techonologies nobody thought to put together before.
Jewish Climate Initiative is the same thing. Our logo depicts three spheres- Ethics, Science/Technology and Activism/Policy or Nature, Man, and God or, more Kabbalistically, Form (din), Flow (hesed) and the synthesis that leads to Beauty (Tiferet). The interconnectiveness between the three – the nexus or overlapping of the three and the play between them is what excites me.
YK: What problem or need are you answering in creating the Jewish Climate Initiative?
MK: Our religion has deep wisdom that can be applied to the crises of today. Our ancient myths state that Torah is a blueprint for Creation. Therefore, we, as protectors of Torah and investigators of Torah need to investigate and unpack what the Torah says about the present crisis. I feel, as a conscious Jew, that it is incumbent upon me to ask the questions, and look for answers. We are part of the whole, with a responsibility to the whole, and this is for the whole.
YK: How do you see JCI as answering that need? What separates JCI from other environmental organizations?
MK: One thing is we’re not an envronmental organization. It was a friend of mine who taught me that what we face is not an environmental problem, but an ecological one.
Ecology means “The logic of the house”- Knowledge of the house. As in, I can ask you: “In your house- how are you recycling? Do you turn off electricy? What foods do you eat? How are your houses built?” That’s environmentalism.
But I ask- “How is the love in your house? How are the relationships in your house? How are you educating your children?” Ecology is a question of what type of home you have, not how do you run your house. Not that environmentalism is bad, but it asks different questions. JCI is an ecological organization looking at fundamental questions about our relationship with the home, home being the earth, from the Jewish perspective. What is our home? Are we apart from Nature? Are we a part of Nature? Are we stewards? Co-creators? And part of our initiative is to ask other religions what their perspective is, and to share with them our perspective.
There are plenty of organizations dealing with the How-to and that’s great. But I need to ask the basic questions and I believe that Torah has a lot to answer that is highly contemporary.
There is a book by Thom Hartman, called the Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, about how we’re using up the remaining ancient fuel created by the sun millions of years ago. My reading of Torah is that it too is ancient but is still living. It’s fresh, and hasn’t been fossilized. Torah is not fossil fuel – It’s an Or Ganuz- a hidden light, ready to be revealed now as living light. Much like the sun is ancient but the light we receive is new.
At Jewish Climate Initiative, we want to tap into ancient wisdom to help answer contemporary ethical problems. We want to explore the ethics that have brought on this mess, and to explore how we can get out of it.
YK: And how do you think can we get ourselves out of this mess?
MK: I’m an evolutionist. I think the world is evolving, and that consciousness is evolving. Even this present crisis is the evolution of human consciousness. Evolutionary development is not guaranteed. Our continuation is not guaranteed. We can end, but we don’t have to. Perhaps if I was a more believing Jew I would say that we’ll survive no matter what or that Mashiach will come. But I don’t read Torah like that.
I look at history in the following way: The present crisis is an opportunity to make a significant leap in the evolution of human consciousness, from a “Taker” culture, to a next level- a sharing culture, or a giving culture- a different way of relating to the world. Not about, “Take as much as you can and if you don’t have the luck or fortune to take, you’re just a Misken (Unfortunate).
I look at the principles of Shabbat, the heart of Judaism according to many sages. What do we learn from Shabbat? Number one, that it’s not our earth. Number two, We need to learn how to leave things alone- not entirely alone, but to know how to have boundaries: What is available for us? What is not? What is Mutar (permissable)? What is Assur (prohibited)? This principle of Leaving exists all the way through the Jewish narrative, the biblical story and is ensconced in Halakha.
YK: So is the purpose that we go back to leaving?
MK: No. There was a civilization before to ours, which we can call The Leavers: Nomads, hunter gatherers, who lived here 10,000 years ago and before. I don’t know if they were happy here but they were here. There was no building cities, urbanization, emassing huge wealth.
From what we know of Leaver society, they had more of a symbiotic or harmonius relationship with nature, we’ll call it Ancient Wisdom, of which very little remains today. This in our story is symbolized by the Garden of Eden. We left; we were thrown out; we can never go back; we can only go forwards; but we are spiraling around with a new Eden somewhere around the bend. The transition from leaver to taker is epitomized by the story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain, the agriculturalist, kills his leaver/hunter-gatherer brother, Abel. And the curse arises from the Earth.
But I think we as Jews carry the knowledge of the Leaver way of life through today’s Taker way of life in order to help initiate or seed what I call The Third Way.
In my doctorate studies I learned that when you push a dynamic system through a crisis, it either explodes, or transforms itself into a new level of structures, with their own laws and constructs. It’s amazing to actually see this happen in a physical system. You put it into crisis and it evolves into a new living structure. You cannot predict this structure beforehand. You just hope it won’t explode, and you just hope for a new, steady state, a new order.
I think that’s were we’re at. Ecologically, economically- there is a crisis happening, and there is either the possibility of exploding/imploding- or moving to a new level of consciousness or structure.
YK: Practically speaking then, what projects can JCI engange in, so as to facilitate this new or “Third Way,” and prevent “Exploding?”
MK: Last Thursday I went to the Green Economy Conference in Tel Aviv. At a session devoted to investing in cleantech, I asked the panel of investors capitalizing on the success of the cleantech industry, if their investing in green technologies was normal, just another opportunity to make money, or if they were influenced by a moral imperative considering dangers that we are facing. The younger investors all answered that practically speaking, their investments were about money, and were the profits elsewhere, they’d look elsewhere. Only one more elderly investor answered with an emphatic “No!” He said that investing in cleantech must be charged with a greater vision than the immediate bottom line; that we owed it to our children and grandchildren to push these technologies forward, with a sense of humility and courage, with the profit motive taking a back seat.
And it’s true. Life just no longer is business as usual. We can’t go on developing science, developing technology, making money and investments and relying on that structure that worked so well, ignoring the implications of that structure on life on earth, human and not human. Money can no longer be separated from ethics.
It became so evident at this conference that for the most part, we are still in the old mindset, and are not seeing the bigger picture.
Therefore, at JCI we want to bring together groups that don’t usually talk to each other: scientists, technologists, economists, investors – and sages. We want to bring them together through writing, conferences, our website and our blog and other projects, to engage in an open and ongoing discussion on where we are, how did we get here – and where are we going.
Michael Kagan, Ph.D. has been an innovator and entrepreneur for 18 years. He has Co-founded 6 high-tech companies, holds a doctorate in chemistry from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is an inventor with twelve registered patents. Michael has developed and widely taught holistic Judaism, integrating a mind/body/soul approach to spirituality. For more by Dr. Kagan, click here, or visit http://www.holistichaggadah.com/ to learn about Dr. Kagan’s original commentary on the Passover Haggadah.
For more on the Jewish Climate Initiative, please visit us at www.jewishclimateinitiative.org, or contact us.
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