Archive for April, 2008

For this entire month of Nisan there is a special blessing for fruit trees that are showing blossom (Birkat Ha’Ilanot). In The Holistic Haggadah I ask the question: why this blessing in this month? Surely it would be more appropriate in Shvat (two months ago) when we celebrate the Festival of Trees and the almond trees are carpeting the hillsides; or in Adar (last month) when the spring actually begins (at least in Israel) and the fruit trees are in full blossom? Why in Nisan? The answer is suggested that the month of Nisan focuses on the intergenerational chain of life more than at any time of the year: “And when the parents tell the child… and when the child asks the parent you shall tell them…” So it is for the trees as they prepare to give birth to their next generation. But deeper than just the parallels is the fact that we are dependent upon the trees for fruit and for photo-absorption of carbon dioxide and further, that if we abuse the “fruit of nature” we do so at our peril. As it tells in the Talmud: R. Hanina said: Shibhath, my son, did not pass away except for having cut down a fig tree before its time. (Baba Kama 91b).

Michael Kagan

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I would like to point out (I mention it in The Holistic Haggadah, but did not realize the significance of it at the time) that the act of fermentation that produces Chameitz (leavening) releases carbon dioxide. It is this release of gas that causes the swelling and web-like structure of bread. So that Chameitz is not only swollen and out of proportion to its true self, it is also formed by a gas that is proving deadly to the whole planet. What does that say about our ego attachment to progress through the burning of oil?
Michael Kagan

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The question is: if the Four Children mentioned in the Passover Haggadah are placed hierarchically then which one is at the top? Of course one can answer and say that they are all archetypal inner voices and therefore the question is invalid. But I think that most of us were brought up to view them and judge them on a bad-better-good scale. If we look at the four children as phases in the psychological development of the individual (i.e. Piaget) then when we were small we were not able to ask, and then we could only ask the simple questions, and then we went through the rebellious teens/ 20’s phase of our lives until we became smarter, wiser and more grounded, qualified members of society (BSc, PhDs etc). But is that the end of it? The answer of the parent/mentor to this child is clear – times have changed, a shift is required, you need to grow further. But for many the road is blocked on any one of these stages, particularly the last one.
At the turn of the last century scientists thought that they had almost all the pieces in place to fully understand the workings of the deterministic universe. Within a very short period of time the entire edifice of Newtonian physics crumbled as the realization dawned that we actually know very little and in fact that there are limits to what we can know for sure. This was the paradigm shift to quantum physics. So it is for the individual as they shift from being the wise aleck, the smart ass to the realization that in fact they don’t know much at all and that the system was lacking. This cracking of the edifice is the start of the spiritual journey and the accompanying years of rebellion against the conventional until finally one comes to understand that silence is the highest wisdom (Pirkai Avot). In our times this realization of ignorance is hitting home stronger and stronger as we face climate change due to global warming. The assumptions that we have made up until now of the necessity of persistent economic growth, of endless resources, of nature somehow getting rid of our waste, of a stable tomorrow for our children and grandchildren, have suddenly been brought into doubt. And we thought we were so smart…
Michael Kagan

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The Green Haggadah

There are many aspects of the Haggadah that relate to ecological and environment concerns. By next year – God willing – we will have completed the Green Haggadah that will contain a fully developed Jewish ecological theology.
But for now it is important to understand the flow of the Haggadah story: we were idol worshippers, we found God; we descended into Mitzraim (Egypt) and forgot God; we then underwent enforced enslavement, despair and loss of hope; finally we cried out; God heard and the redemption of the Children of Israel began – the plagues, the midnight last supper, the transition to freedom, the Exodus from Mitzraim, and the crossing of the Sea. As a response to all this, we praise God through the Hallel; we celebrate our freedom through ritual foods, eating and singing; and we demonstrate our determination to continue the adventure through the gathering of the generations around the table and praying that next year we will all be together as one people in a perfected Jerusalem (world).
So what is the ecological angle on Pesach? In the Hasidic mode of interpretation, Mitzraim is a metaphor for whatever we are attached to, enslaved by, trapped in, whatever makes our lives less holy, whenever we feel squeezed by circumstances into a narrow place (literal meaning of Mitzraim). Today we recognized that we are slaves to fossil fuel and that this is squeezing us into financial discomfort; we are slaves to consumerism and that have made our wants become confused with our needs; that we have been trying to play Pharaoh by enslaving nature but now nature is freeing itself and we are in mortal danger (the enslaver is a slave to his enslavement) as the planet warms up and the climate begins to shift. Are the ten plagues waiting for us around the corner?
In this context leavened bread represents our inflated sense of anthropocentrism in which we are the rulers of the planet and everything created is for our benefit and enjoyment. Along comes matzah and says: get real; remember your place; remember your responsibilities; remember who you really are and what you should really be doing. We burn the excess pride; reduce the arrogance in the flames that turn the organics into carbon dioxide. Thus we hope to return to being members of the living planet, the consciousness of Earth.
Wishing you a wonder-filled Pesach
Michael Kagan author of the Holistic Haggadah

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Wonder of Water

Our post on water a couple of weeks ago was expanded into an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post
arguing that technology alone won’t solve Israel’s looking water crisis; we will also have to change the way we use and think about the stuff too.

You saw it here first!

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Researchers at the University of Chicago apparently think so.

See this fascinating report in the New York Times about Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s pioneering work applying behavioral psychology to climate change.

One of the things that interests us at Jewish Climate Initiative is the huge gap between knowing and doing in the climate change business. We all know what we’d have to do to drastically reduce our carbon footprints: fly much less, use public transport more, switch to CFL lightbulbs, buy a hybrid car, etc. etc.

But very few of us are doing it.

“This comes as no surprise to behavioral psychologists who have been studying the human penchant for making dumb choices,” writes the NYT.

The good news however is that we do have a strong inclination to do the right thing for the common good if we are given the right nudges and cues.

California utility companies experimented with including statistics about average electricity consumption on people’s electrical bills. This information led customers whose consumption was above average to use less in the next quarter. The problem was that people consuming less than average raised their electricity use. (After all, who wants to be a freier?)

Next time around, they added the following simple refinement to the electricity bills: a smiley face for people whose use was below the mean, and a frowning face for those above the average.

Amazingly, this caused people below the average to keep their consumption low, or reduce it still further.

The studies show that a communal norm together with positive reinforcement towards reaching that norm can have powerful impacts on behaviour, (although do I feel a bit queasy about the authors’ plan for introducing flashing lapel pins that indicate your carbon use.)

This should give pause to anyone who thinks that appealing to people’s pockets is the only way to reduce carbon footprints.

For anyone who believes, as we do, that religions have a potentially powerful role to play in combating climate change, these findings are encouraging, but not hugely surprising.

The Talmud already arrived at the same conclusions. I’ve just been studying the eighth chapter of Bava Kamma, which deals with a number of crucial environmental issues, including Ba’al Taschit, the prohibition against wanton destruction of property and resources, based on Deuteronomy 20: 19-21.

The chapter ends with a long discussion about the power of social norms to influence behaviour for good or ill, (Bava Kamma 92a-93a.) But it also stresses the pivotal power of determined and inspired individuals to reorient social norms by their example.

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