Archive for October, 2008

By Yannai Kranzler

What an incredible time to live in: where the best thing a company can do for itself is convince us not only that a product is good, but that it is good for the world.

I just spent a week in New York with my family for the Jewish holidays. Upon arrival, I was greeted with eco-everything, everywhere. “This is what you can do about climate change!” shout radio commercials. “This is what I will do about climate change!” shout presidential candidates. “These apples were grown by local farmers in New York!” shout produce sections at the supermarket.

Even classic foes of the environmental movement are re-marketing themselves for an eco-conscious public. Hybrid SUV’s (and their hardly inspiring 14 miles per gallon) roam suburb streets. “Eco-Shaped” disposable bottles (30% less plastic!) are new homes for bottled spring and mineral water. I call under a year till we see the first solar-powered oil drill.

It’s these pseudo-eco-products that make me the most hopeful, because they signify how vital positive social impact is to today’s successful marketing plans. As in, even if a product really isn’t all that great by social standards, the company has to find some way to claim that it is. Imagine that doing good has become the parameter for being cool!

Hassidic rebbes tell us that even if we don’t feel close to God, if we want to feel close to God it’s still okay. And not only that, but if we want to want to feel close to God, then still, we’re okay. (They actually say that we can have nine degrees of wanting- wanting to want to want to want to want to want to want to want to want to be close to God and still be on a high level.)

The rules between person and person are a bit different than those between person and God, and we’ll have to get better to for things in the world to be better, but the message of the rebbes still applies:

The desires we have to improve are infinite fuel for our actions. Where those desires go, our intelligence, our ingenuity, our science and art, politics and business and learning and doing will most certainly follow.

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By Michael Kagan

Author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim)

Sitting in my succah this year I began to think about the significance of leaving my home for seven days and living (as much as possible) in a temporary tabernacle open to the heat, wind and rain (yes, it rained on succot in Jerusalem). If we are meant to be re-experiencing the years spent in the desert as nomads then why the emphasis on things agricultural which seems to be the antithesis of the nomadic life? If the purpose is to recreate the sense of in-gathering of the land’s bounty before the onset of winter then why the emphasis on the desert wanderings? A seeming contradiction.

Daniel Quinn in his celebrated novel Ishmael (and the sequels that followed it) divides human history into the history of two civilizations – the Leavers and the Takers. Who are the Leavers? Well they are the civilization that dominated the world before our present Taker civilization wiped them out. They are characterized by being hunter-gathers, nomads, Native peoples knew, more or less, how to take what they needed and leave alone what they didn’t. They weren’t especially peaceful but they weren’t exterminators. An example of Leaver behavior was told to me when I lived in Boulder, CO recently. During the summer months the various Native American tribes that lived in the area would vigorously compete with each other for game in the Rocky Mountains. Come winter and they would all come down from the high places and settle in Boulder peaceably trading, dancing, and keeping warm until the snows melted and then they would separate into their various tribes and start all over again.

Around 6000 to 10,000 years ago in the area known as the Fertile Crescent something new happened – humans discovered how to vastly increase agricultural yields from the land using iron ploughs and harnessing animal power. An increase in productivity allowed for a higher population growth that demanded more food that required more land that required taking neighboring lands that could support an even larger population and so on. Cities were built, laws were created, armies were formed, the Agricultural Revolution was born.

According to Quinn, only about 2% (and rapidly decreasing) of humanity are today identifiable as Leavers, with 98% (and growing) dominated by Takers.

So what has this to do with Judaism? Well isn’t it a coincidence that Jewish mythology dates the start of world history around 6000 years ago (5769 to be exact) and that the Garden of Eden and the creation of the first humans were purported to have been situated somewhere in the same area of Mesopotamia. Quinn understands the Biblical story Cain’s murder of his brother Abel as an archetypal story of the victory of the agricultural revolution over the old order of the hunter-gathers/nomadic peoples. Within this view point, Leaver history is confined to the first three chapters ending with the expulsion from the Garden and the death of Abel. From this point onwards it is all downhill with the establishment of the first cities, the corruption of natural values, the pollution of the earth, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel. And then the turning point in the narrative occurs with the story of Abraham.

So are we Leavers or Takers?

I think that a clue to answering this question comes through an oversight of Quinn’s rendition of the Cain/Abel struggle: he forgets that there is a third son – Seth – who represents an alternative way, a third way. It is from this lineage that Abraham descends. According to the Midrashim, Abram is born a Taker, the son of a petty bourgeois shopkeeper living in Nineveh – the heart of the agricultural revolution, who undergoes an enlightening transformation (what Quinn calls – remembering) and leaves it all behind; he crosses the line (lit. becomes a Hebrew) and returns to the old ways – the life of a nomad.

But he is not to be a simple herder/nomad for the Divine message comes to him that he will be the father of a great people, a people that will live in this promised land, that will be exiled into slavery, that will return en masse with wealth and strength, that will travel through history sometimes blessed and sometimes cursed, sometimes close to God and sometimes far from God, but always somehow beloved.

Thus begins the Third Way.

We have been positioned in human history to be Leavers living amongst Takers, pretending to be Takers, working the land as agrarians, fully engaged in the technological world but not quite with all our hearts, souls and might. How so?

Many aspects of Halacha – the Jewish way of living – stress leaving things alone: Leave the four corners of your field alone; leave any fallen harvest alone; leave the four corners of your beard alone; leave the entire land alone every seventh year; leave one tenth of your income for others; leave your wife alone when she is menstruating; leave your home and live in succah, and most prominent amongst them all and what is considered the core of Judaism – Shabbat in which we leave things alone: our jobs, our financial concerns, our dominance over nature, our love of creating, our acts of destruction, our engagement with technology, with reaping, with sowing, with buying, with selling. On Shabbat we just are.

Sitting in my Succah I am acting out Leaver practices. For who else in this technologically sophisticated world (unless you especially like camping) would leave their secure, weather proof houses and live in a ramshackle construction for seven days? What farmer would leave ALL his fields fallow for an entire year? Which cell phone addict would turn it off for 24 hours every week?

We are messengers traveling through time moving among the Takers with Leaver memories wrapped in our practices and stories – no wonder we have been such outcasts. We carry with us a vital message – not about how to go back to the way it was – for the entrance to the Garden is blocked forever by an angel with a spinning, flaming sword – but how to go forwards from Leavers, to Takers to … to the Third Way, the next level of the game, a new way of understanding, being and living on this planet.

p.s. What the message is that we have been carrying so diligently for so long will be investigated in a future posting.

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As featured on Hazon’s The Jew and the Carrot.

By Nina Budabin McQuown.

Rabbi Julian Sinclair is an author, educator, and economist. He is also the co-founder and Director of Education for Jewish Climate Initiative, a Jerusalem based NGO that is articulating and mobilizing a Jewish response to climate change.  Before starting JCI, Julian worked as an economist advising the UK Government and for a British political think tank.  Meanwhile, he authored the book Lets Schmooze: Jewish Words Today and is working on completing a Phd in the mystical thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  Phew!

Sinclair lives in Jerusalem and has been featured on NPR and interviewed for the New York Times by our own Leah Koenig.  Hazon is delighted to invite Rabbi Sinclair as a presenter at this year’s Hazon Food Conference, December 25-28, 2008.

Get a sneak peek at what Julian has to say below the jump.  And find out more/ register for Hazon’s Food Conference, here!

How did the Jewish Climate Initiative begin?

RJS: It began from a conversation between Michael Kagan, a friend of mine, and a friend of his, David Miron Wapner. Michael and David both come from a business/ clean technology background. Michael is a scientist and inventor who is currently involved in an algae-for-biofuels start-up. He is also a Jewish spiritual teacher. David works on US-Israel science and technology partnerships and sits on the JNF board. They suddenly realized three things: that climate change was huge, that the response out there was nowhere near adequate, and that the Jewish people had something potentially unique to contribute. Then Michael started talking to me, I got inspired by the idea.

For a long time I’ve thought that Judaism had immensely relevant wisdom to offer on environmental and economic question: Shabbat, Shemita, the detailed talmudic system of environmental law and much more. When I was working as an economist in the UK government and studying at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard fifteen years ago, I was very, very excited about these connections. As I got more into Jewish life and learning, eventually becoming a rabbi and educator, this passion took a back seat. It just wasn’t where most of the Jewish world was at. But I always felt I would come back to it. Then when the opportunity came along to co-found JCI, I realized that this was my chance to put the pieces back together. A few months later I quit my job and started working full time for JCI.

You pose this question as the basis of one of your talks: “Jews are 0.002% of the earth’s population. Even if we all trade in our SUV’s tomorrow it will barely make a dent on the problem. What then do have to contribute to the world’s most pressing moral challenge?” How does the Jewish Climate Initiative address this issue?

RJS: I think that originally it was Nigel Savage‘s question. We address it by identifying three areas in which the Jewish people have contributed way out of proportion to our numbers. 1. Torah. Jewish teaching has quite simply been the basis of ethics and spirituality for the entire Western world. 2. Activism: Jews have been at the forefront of the big movements for social change (feminism, environmentalism, Civil Rights) in a way that is totally disproportionate to our numbers. 3. Science and Technology. 20th century science was advanced to an incredible degree by discoveries from Jewish scientists. Today that remarkable creativity is continued by the hi-tech sector in Israel, a country of six million people that is the biggest tech hub outside Silicon Valley. Each of these three interconnected areas in which the Jewish people have excelled is crucial for overcoming climate change.

The section of the Jewish Climate Initiative’s website that is devoted to ethics is large. Why is ethics such a focus of the Jewish Climate Initiative?

RJS: The practical answer is that this is the area in which JCI elected to begin working. The principled response is that climate change is an ethical issue. The lifestyles of those in the rich world are already contributing to famine, drought and devastating weather conditions in countries that have done least to cause the problem. If that’s not an ethical issue, what is?

Certainly, the solution will require governments, laws and lots of money. But 70% of the American economy is accounted for by consumer spending. The seemingly huge problem of climate change is actually made up of billions of little decisions about the way we move around, heat and air condition our homes, and eat. Each one of those is an ethical question on which Judaism has much to teach.

You spoke on NPR about the controversial Shemita year ruling in 2007. How did life change for Jews in Israel (in terms of agriculture) during this past year?

RJS: It wasn’t a transformative spiritual experience for most people. At the beginning there was a round of politicking about produce certification, then Shemita receded from general consciousness. For the religious, it was one more thing to look for on food labels. Next time around, may Shemita in Israel reach its potential as a year of economic, agricultural and spiritual renewal. For that to happen, we will need to start thinking and planning now.

What other issues face Israelis in particular as consumers of food?

RJS: One good thing is that in a small country that grows a lot of its own food, most Israelis are locavores. We don’t eat stuff that has been trucked thousands of miles across the country like most people do in the US.

How does climate change affect the sustainable agriculture movement?

RJS: According to Michael Pollan and many others, the food you eat is the largest single contributor to the average American’s carbon footprint. When you factor in the fossil fuels in chemical fertilizer, the excess methane emitted by belching, farting cows that are force-fed corn and antibiotics when they were designed to eat grass, and the gas used in transportation, it amounts to a whopping 20-25% of individuals’ greenhouse gas emissions. It’s incredible that such a basic human activity as eating can be done in a way that is so destructive. Once this fact sinks in widely, and we start to see government policy that put a price on carbon emissions, sustainable agriculture should receive a huge boost.

In your life, where does your role as an activist against climate change intersect with your role as a consumer of food?

RJS: I have started shopping at the Shuk in Machane Yehuda more. The fruit and vegetables in the market just pulsate with color, freshness and health, and the packaging and transport needed to get it there and then for me to take it home is minimal—we’ve begun bringing cloth shopping bags from home. It’s not a huge step, but at least it’s something.

Mahane Yehuda Market

Mahane Yehuda Market

What lessons can the sustainable foods movement learn from the climate change movement?

RJS: I actually think that more lessons can be learned in the opposite direction. One thing that the climate change movement does very well is apocalyptic rhetoric. Apocalyptic rhetoric is great for getting headlines, but poor at motivating action. People just become closed down and paralyzed. Maybe the sustainable foods movement needs its “Inconvenient Truth” to bring home the scale and seriousness of the issues. But more importantly, the climate change movement needs to learn positive ways of influencing people. It’s an easy-sell to show people that local, organic food is healthier, yummier and will enhance their lives. In analogous ways, climate change activists need to make the case that simpler lifestyles with less running around, less commuting and less hassle will bring better and more fulfilled lives.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What does Teshuvah, the power to change our lives for the better that we attempt to actualize at this, the highest moment in the Jewish year, have to do with reducing one’s carbon footprint? Isn’t connecting the two just a way of hitching a ride for one’s pet cause on the Jewish calendar?  

I raised this question in a blog two weeks ago introducing Jewish Climate Initiative’s Carbon Offsetting Guide, and want to continue pursuing it here. 

The place where the world is most stuck in combating climate change is at the point of connection between big and small, global and local, individual and government. The most common reason for individual inaction is “it’s pointless for me to change my lifestyle/lightbulbs; I’m just an infinitesimally small part of this. It will take government, laws, and loads of money to deal with this.” 

True it will, but the “big problem” is made up of billions of everyday decisions about how we choose to eat, shop, to heat our homes, and move around. Consumer spending represents 70% of the American economy. Somehow we have, as a civilization, contrived to so mismanage these primal areas of human life that the viable continuation of our civilization is in question.  

The stuckness comes from both directions. Governments are our agents, not our alibis. They won’t make far-reaching policy changes that will require us to alter our lifestyles until they see that we are ready to change and are not going to throw them out of power for requiring us to do so. 

As I wrote then,  

We intuitively understand the solid-bodies physics of how an SUV, if driven without care, can flatten pedestrians. Knowing this, we are generally careful to make sure not to do so. The atmospheric physics of how careless driving of a different kind can contribute to flattening somebody’s mud hut in the Maldives is beyond most of our scientific ken and so outside our frames of conceptual and moral reference. After all, very few people would knowingly and deliberately drive their SUV into a mud hut. And if we did so by accident, most of us would certainly say sorry, and offer to pay.  

      In Judaism, individual responsibility is the fundamental unit of social change. Teshuvah starts with me and you, (as my friend Jess Gold in England points out.)  “Great is Teshuvah, because through a single person repenting, the whole world may be forgiven,” says the Talmud (Yoma 86b). This is the redemptive flip side of interconnectedness; the deep, sincere transformation of one person can change the world.” 

I really think that’s true. But how can you put it across in a way that moves people to act? Let me introduce an idea that, I believe, will help.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great nineteenth century founder of the mussar movement coined a famous saying: “My neighbor’s physical needs are my spiritual needs.” When I feed, clothe or shelter my neighbor, I am also fulfilling my deepest spiritual imperatives. 

Let’s be clear: Rabbi Salanter was not saying that, actually, it’s all about my spiritual needs. He didn’t believe that my neighbor is merely an incidental bit-part player in the great drama of me. Rather, he was pointing out that the world is so set up as to inextricably connect reaching out to sustain his material life with my spiritual growth. 

Today I believe it is no less accurate to say: “the planet’s ecological needs are my spiritual needs.” When I engage with “ecological” issues, I fulfill some of the most basic and profound spiritual needs that Judaism identifies. This is true in manifold ways. I want to point out just one that has to do with Teshuvah the perennial power to fix and uplift  our lives  – surely one of the deepest spiritual needs that we have.  

An absolute prerequisite for Teshuvah is taking responsibility for harm we have caused. Maimonides says it unequivocally in chapter 1 of the Laws of Teshuvah: there’s no forgiveness for sins against others until you ask forgiveness from those you have hurt and make good damage you have done. 

There is no real Teshuvah for damage we do to people or their property until we identify and acknowledge the harm, and then do whatever we can to repair it. 

Back in the days when that meant redressing the damage of my ox goring my neighbor’s sheep; it was easy enough. I would say sorry to my neighbor, buy him another sheep and tie up my ox tighter in the future. 

But today the harm we can do every day is far more complicated and – scary. The vehicle I drive may be implicated in storms in Bangladesh or droughts in Mali; the food I put in my supermarket cart might have been produced with pesticides that poison water supplies and wreck eco-systems, before being trucked thousands of miles across the country to reach me. The manufacturing decisions made in the name of my everyday choices may, with or without my knowledge, cause havoc to the environment and to the lives of people far away. 

Striving to fix these things is not “environmentalism” or even “environmental teshuvah.” It is simply teshuvah. It is about redressing hurt and damage that we have caused in our daily lives just as if we had failed to repay a loan or smashed someone’s vase, or broken their leg in a car crash that was our fault. Whether or not we did these things knowingly and deliberately, once we do know about them; teshuvahmeans taking responsibility for putting them right. 

Today, the planet’s ecological needs coincide with each of our basic spiritual need for teshuvah; becoming aware of and repairing damage that we have done, and resolving to act more reverently and lovingly towards our surroundings from now on. And so we will each become part of the planetary fixing. As the Talmud says: 

Great is Teshuvah because it brings healing to the world… 

     Great is Teshuvah because it brings closer redemption…

      Great is Teshuvah because through an individual who does Teshuvah, the whole world may be forgiven.” 

   Talmud Yoma, 86a-b. 

     Click Here to download JCI’s Carbon Offsetting Guide

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Today more and more synagogues, JCC’s, families and individuals are going green. Carbon offsetting is a way of counteracting some of our carbon footprint; it can also be incredibly confusing. How does it work? Is it ethical? Is it Jewish? How can I know if an offsetting program is really helping save the world or whether it’s a scam?

At Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), we created the following guide to answer all these questions and more, and also to provide information about the main offsetting projects based in Israel. It can also be a small, seasonal step toward teshuvah, positive transformation in the way that we use energy. We hope our offsetting guide will be a useful resource for you and your community and would love to hear your feedback. And feel free to forward it onwards to family and friends!

Click Here to Download JCI’s Carbon Offsetting Guide

(If you’re having trouble opening the page, right-click on the above link and choose “Open in a new window.” If you’re still unable to open the page, either download the latest version of Adobe Reader or contact us and we’ll send you a copy.)

With best wishes for a Shanah tovah u’metukah, a good, sweet year,

The JCI Team

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