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Archive for July, 2009

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Recently I was asked an interesting question by an Israel environmental leader.

“I was a bit surprised and somewhat dismayed,” he began, “to find out that the date chosen for the Copenhagen Planning Seminar was also Tisha B’Av.”

A bit of background for the uninitiated:

1.    The Copenhagen Summit in December is a gathering of world leaders that aims to bash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol that will limit CO2 emissions going forward. It is widely seen as a critical moment in the global effort to address climate change.

2.    The particular Seminar spoken about here is a gathering of Israeli environmental NGO’s that will propose an Israeli position

Gilad Erdan, Israels Minister of Environmental Protection

Gilad Erdan, Israel's Minister of Environmental Protection

for the Copenhagen Summit. Israel has not so far taken an official line on global warming. That is probably about to change. The new environment minister, Gilad Erdan, is one of the very few in recent years not to see the appointment as a consolation prize for not receiving a “real” ministerial job.” Erdan gets it. He understands that the environment really matters. The Tisha B’Av seminar includes a meeting with him.

3.    Tisha B’Av is the saddest date of the Jewish year. It is a fast day marked by deep mourning for the destruction of both Temples, the massacres and dispersions that followed and the ensuing 1800 years of exile from our country.
My environmental leader friend (who is himself Jewishly observant) was troubled by the choice of date for this meeting. While he knew that the decision was made in good faith, with good will, and certainly without any intention to inconvenience observant Jews, he wondered whether it might not be “singularly inappropriate to have the meeting on that day?” Or possibly, he continued, there was a “meaningful connection that could be made between Tisha B’Av and climate change?”

“It’s an interesting one”, I wrote back to him.

“On the one hand, holding the event on Tisha B’av certainly makes it hard for anyone who is halakhically observant to come, at least in the morning. It’s prohibited to do work until noon on Tisha B’Av and even to greet anyone as a sign of our utter desolation on that day (which would pose problems for how to behave in a meeting). There’s a strong custom of spending the whole morning in synagogue. That’s before you even start thinking about the effects of not eating and drinking all day in the middle of summer in Tel Aviv. So, on grounds of inclusiveness it’s not exactly an ideal choice of date.”

“On the other hand”, I mused, “maybe there was something singularly appropriate about the choice of date…” Talking with people about this since, I realize that it might in fact be true in more ways than I thought.

Firstly, some have drawn an analogy between the burning of the Temple and the ecological threats of today. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes,

“This memory of the burning of the Temple comes when scorching winds blow across the Middle East, when forest fires blaze, when grassy savannahs shrivel in the drought brought on — in our generation —  by global heating.  It is as if the burning of the Temple is a miniature version of the scorching of our planet.”

Waskow calls for people to fast on Tisha B’Av this year, or at least to fast from consuming gasoline and beef, (two of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions)– a call we strongly endorse.

Secondly, as Dr. Michael Kagan of Jewish Climate Initiative pointed out, Tisha B’Av is the day on which it was decreed that the Jews would wander in the desert for 40 years of exile as a punishment for the sin of the spies, who shunned the goodness of the Land of Israel. In the terrible words of the Talmud:

“Rabbi Yochanan said that day (when the decree was made) was the eve of Tisha B’Av. The Holy One said, “you have wept for no reason. I will fix on this day weeping throughout the generations.” (Talmud 29a).

According to Rabbi Yochanan, the people’s acceptance of the spies’ slanders and their groundless weeping about the problems they anticipated in the Land of Israel was a kind of original sin. Because that generation refused the challenge of entering the land and implicitly preferred exile, Tisha B’Av was marked out forever as a day of weeping for exile from our land.

Only now are we starting to repair the effects of our longest exile. We in Israel are painstakingly learning how to live here once again. We have made many mistakes, in water use, forestry and city planning, but through the remarkable efforts of Israel’s environmental movement we are relearning how to bear responsibility for our natural environment.  How uncannily appropriate that a meeting at which the reborn State of Israel’s Minister of the Environment will be asked to rise and take some responsibility for the earth’s greatest environmental challenge should be inadvertently scheduled for Tisha B’Av.

And there is another level to this too. To appreciate it, let’s first note that Tisha B’av is one of several fast days in the Jewish calendar. In their purpose, these days fall on a spectrum between Teshuva repentance, and mourning. These purposes are not the same. Teshuva is about examining our lives individually and communally asking ourselves what needs to change and resolving to be better from now on.

Mourning is about experiencing and grieving for a loss. These purposes may overlap but they are not the same. Yom Kippur is a fast of Teshuvah but not a day of mourning. On the other hand if someone close to us dies, our main response is one of mourning, not of Teshuva.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik points out, Tisha B’Av itself is a fast of mourning and not of repentance. We don’t try to fix anything on Tisha Bav, but to experience the magnitude of the catastrophe that befell us. We sit on the floor and read tragic elergies for Jewish suffering. We weep, cry out and come face to face with the horrors of the destruction and everything that followed from it; the blood running knee deep in the streets of Jerusalem, the massacres of the exiles, the expulsions, the inquisitions, the pogroms and the gas chambers. We remember that we are a people that has seen the worst; we have been in the deepest pits of hell and on Tisha B’av we revisit those places.

And we’ve also come out of the deepest pits of hell, with a fierce commitment to love and to cherish life. On Tisha B’Av, the Midrash says, the Messiah will be born.

This Tisha B’Av, it is to be hoped, the State of Israel will be take a significant step towards loving and cherishing all of life on earth.

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By Yannai Kranzler

How do you effectively photograph the earth getting a few degrees warmer? Or sea levels rising? Or animals migrating from native habitats?

Marketing Climate Change has always been a challenge. And even more complicated has been marketing solutions: the intricacies of sustainable economics are just not that thrilling for most people, not to mention photogenic.

But that doesn’t stop The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart from trying to explain the recent Markey-Waxman Cap and Trade bill in the following video. A valiant, if not incredibly successful attempt…

(If you can’t see the video player, click here).

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Greener Postures
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day

Providing the needed help (and granting Stewart membership in the “Nerds of America Society,”) was Steven Chu,  America’s new Secretary of Energy:

(If you can’t see the video player, click here)

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Steven Chu
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day


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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

The Copenhagen Summit in December is a gathering of world leaders that aims to bash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol that will limit CO2 emissions going forward. It is widely seen as a critical moment in the global effort to address the threat of climate change.

There is a remarkable groundswell of concern and activism in the world that is building in advance of this event. People everywhere are raising their voices, demanding that, this time, our leaders do right by the earth and by our children. In the Jewish community too, there is an awakening of passion and activism around this issue. The Shabbat of Parshat Noach, October 23rd-4th has been declared Global Climate Healing Shabbat and Hazon and Jewish Climate Initiative will shortly be going public with a Seven Year Plan for the Jewish people to address climate change and sustainability.

How can the current period in the Jewish calendar help us to understand what’s going on and what’s at stake?

We are in the middle of the three weeks that are bounded by the fasts of the 17th Tammuz until Tisha B’Av. Let’s first note they are two out of several fast days in the Jewish calendar. In their purpose, these days fall on a spectrum between Teshuva, repentance, and mourning. These purposes are not the same. Teshuva is about examining our lives individually and communally asking ourselves what needs to change and resolving to be better from now on.

Mourning is about experiencing and grieving for a loss. These purposes may overlap but they are not the same. Yom Kippur is a fast of Teshuvah but not a day of mourning. On the other hand if someone close to us dies, our main response is one of mourning, not of Teshuva.

The Mishnah (Taanit 26a-b) teaches that on the 17th Tammuz the process of destruction began. Specifically, the offering of the daily sacrifice was suspended in the first temple, the wall of the city was breached in the time of the second temple, Apustamus the wicked burned the Torah during the time of the second temple, and an idol was placed in the sanctuary.

Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim points out that these events were warning signs. They were portents of much worse things to come that could still have been averted. So too with the environment Evonne teaches. We are seeing massive levels of species extinction, melting of the polar ice caps and increasingly lethal floods and droughts worldwide. These are warning signs of potentially far worse consequences to come that we ignore at our peril. So these three weeks are a very apt time to examine our lives and make changes that reflect the warning signs that confront us.

And then there’s another level of connection too. The framework of Jewish fast days was developed in response to climate disasters, in particular the absence of rain in the Land of Israel. In Masechet Ta’anit the Talmud devotes most of a tractate to exploring the interaction of human and Divine influence in producing the weather that is needed to sustain human life.

The Mishnah begins by describing the prayers for rain that are said daily throughout the winter (1:1), goes on to prescribe a series of public fast days of increasing severity in the eventuality that the rains fail, (1:4-6) and outlines in detail the rituals of communal fasting, prayer and penitence to be followed in the event of full-blown climate catastrophe (Chapter 2).

It is clear to the Talmud that, through Divine mediation, the weather is profoundly sensitive to human action. Not only can our fasting and prayer help end drought, but our actions may cause drought. Withholding support to the poor and the Levites, slander, gossip and neglect of Torah study are among the sins that the rabbis identify as causing the Heavens to shut up. (Ta’anit 7b).

In a fascinating unpublished article, Eilon Schwartz of the Heschel Centre for Environmental Learning and Leadership calls Climate Change, “the first post-modern disaster. . . At its core sits the reintegration of nature and human beings, and the blurring of the modernist divide between the “is” and the “ought.”

In climate change, the physical consequences of ethically problematic human behavior (burning too much fossil fuel without

The Heschel Centers Dr. Eilon Schwartz

The Heschel Center's Dr. Eilon Schwartz

heed for its effects on the natural world, the poor and future generations) have become part of “nature.” Is climate change a “natural” or “man-made” disaster? It’s both. Are its causes primarily scientific or spiritual? The two categories have become intertwined.

Schwartz calls it “the Return of Biblical Cosmology” – with a difference. As in the Bible, climactic disasters are a consequence of human misdeeds. (Schwartz does not shrink from using the word “sin.”).

But unlike the way we always understood the Bible, nature today doesn’t seem to be a mere tool in the hands of the Divine, exacting punishment for human acts that are independent of it. The natural climactic systems are responding to trillions of human actions (driving, flying, overheating, overeating, wasting, etc.) that we are coming to understand as deeply harmful. These actions are creating their own retribution.

Yet the Talmud offers us hope that just as we humans may be responsible for disrupting the weather, so too we can be part of repairing it. For those of us with a traditional theology it holds out hope that those same practices of prayer and penitence can help. For others who don’t think in those terms, penitence of a more naturalistic kind; massive shifts in human behavior and in our relationship with the planet that sustains us, can still prevent the direst consequences.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

How are we doing?

Not as well as you might think, according to the Happy Planet Index (HPI) which released it’s third annual ranking of nearly all the world’s countries last week.

The HPI is an alternative to GDP as a measure of national well-being. A country’s HPI score is calculated by multiplying together its life expectancy and reported subjective happiness survey scores and dividing the result by the country’s ecological footprint per person. The aim is to measure how much life and of what quality a country achieves proportionally to the ecological resources that it consumes.

The results are surprising. Costa Rica tops the table. The US comes in at number 114 out of 143 country’s measured. It’s outstanding wealth does not make Americans outstanding happy and requires an exorbitant amount of the earth’s resources to sustain. Israel is ranked around 70th, just above Britain.

The report’s lead author, Saamah Abdallah of the New Economics Foundation explains the rationale behind it.

“The HPI suggests that the path we have been following is, without exception, unable to deliver all three goals: high life satisfaction, high life expectancy and ‘one-planet living’. Instead we need a new development model that delivers good lives that don’t cost the Earth for all.”

The HPI is one of a number of indices that highlight the limitations of GDP as a measurement of welfare and aim to propose an alternative. Higher GDP is only correlated with increased happiness up to around $10,000 per person. After that point, there’s little connection between income and happiness. Furthermore, consumption of alcohol, drugs and medical care count as GDP gains. So do wars, strip mining, deforestation and commuting to work, although these things do not enhance overall well-being.

These indices are being developed by ecologcial economists, who argue that economics must be embedded with an understanding of the ecological context in which economies function. The Heschel Center together with the Van Leer Institute have such set up a research group in Ecological Economics (which I’m glad to be a part of) to bring this important body of thinking into the Israeli conversation. Hopefully one of the products will be a more accurate measure than GDP of how we’re really doing as a society. Stay tuned!

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By Yannai Kranzler

Today I booked a flight from home in Israel, to visit my family in New York. I’ll probably be one of tens of thousands of Jews flying to and from Israel this summer and holiday season.

As a nation, we really fly a lot. Proportionally, I’d bet there are more Jewish environmental organizations and eco-oriented people than in most ethnic groups. But our constant Israel flights, from family visits, to vacations, to Birthright trips, leave over an astronomically high carbon footprint, and render us at least as much of the problem as the solution to climate change. And that’s a hard thing to recognize, given that so many of us care deeply about and try very hard to be sensitive to our environment.

Enter Solar Impulse. Solar Impulse is a Swiss initiative to fly a solar-powered airplane around the world- with no fuel, no pollution, no contribution to global warming. Solar Impulse’s HB-SIA gathers sunlight by day, and coasts on what’s been stored by night. There have been solar flights before, but Solar Impulse is by far the most efficient and ambitious yet.

Could it be, then, that Solar Impulse promises us a way to sustainably maintain our Diaspora-Israel connections?

Well, not right now, at least. The HB-SIA flies at an average speed of 70 kilometers per hour- It would take 130 hours to get from Israel to New York (My wife and I are flying this year with an infant, for the first time. Twelve hours of conventional flight sound like a nightmare as it is). In addition, the plane can only carry one passenger- the pilot. And it will only be ready to fly the world in 2012.

For now then, we’ll have to suffice with more mediocre solutions: Offsetting is one option-  At JCI we’re big fans of the Good Energy Initiative. Cutting down on non-Israel related flights is another. As is slashing everyday carbon emissions, from driving less to conserving more, from making conscientious food choices to reusing and recycling household goodies.

Perhaps the most Jewish approach is to recognize our imperfection, and then supplement what we can do with a prayer. Rav Kook, in his “Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” concluded that while eating meat is permitted according to Jewish Law, it is only legitimate if we feel the weight of taking an animal’s life, and pray for the day when we will no longer feel the need to do so. He even says that Smicha, when we place our hands on an animal as we pass it off for slaughter in a temple offering, exists for this very purpose.

So, to the Solar Impulse team in Zurich, my prayers are with you. That you complete your mission of flying around the world safely and smoothly, and that you then go home, visit a bit with family, and get right to work at making a solar plane that fits two people. And then three. And that y’all speed the darned thing up a bit! We’ll be rooting for you from the ground.

Click here to download JCI’s free Guide to Offsetting Carbon Emissions, full of the why’s, how’s and with whom’s of offsetting, as well as a special addition on how you and/or your community can develop your own offsetting project.

For more on Solar Impulse, visit www.solarimpulse.com.


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