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Archive for the ‘Halakha’ Category

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Here’s a short quiz. Read the following quote and then answer the simple question below.

This country, with God’s help, can be self-sufficient in energy. The problem lies in the failure to utilize God’s gifts to their fullest…  There is one energy source which can be made available in a very short time. Solar energy is non-polluting, cheap, and inexhaustible…it can power individual homes as well as giant factories. The United States has been blessed with plentiful sunshine, especially in the south… God has blessed this country richly, and it is our duty to use those riches to their fullest.”

Who said this, and when? Was it:

a)Al Gore in 2006.
b)Barack Obama in 2008.
c)Nigel Savage in 2009.
d)Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, in 1981?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The answer is d). Rabbi Schneerson spoke at length about the imperative for the United States to move over to solar energy at a gathering of Chabad Hassidim in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on April 11th 1981.

Incredible, no? Seven years before Professor Jim Hansen first alerted the world to the threat of global climate change in his testimony to the US Senate, a Hassidic Rebbe (albeit one with a degree in engineering) was informing his followers that America needed to go solar.

There are, of course, those who will tell you that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a prophet and a genius, and that that’s why he was able to anticipate global leaders and experts on this issue by a quarter of a century.

Maybe. The Rebbe was certainly a great Jewish leader. I don’t want to pronounce on the nature of his powers. My point, however, is that he didn’t need to be a prophet or a genius to figure out in 1981 that there was something very wrong with the way that the United States was acquiring and using energy.

America was in the middle of a recession triggered by the second big oil price spike and was just recovering from the Iran hostage debacle when the newly born Islamic Republic had held the United States, literally, over a barrel. (Or more accurately, over tens of millions of barrels.) At that moment, there was something very clearly crazy about leaving our economies dependent on a fuel whose price was incredibly volatile and which was located mostly under the land of authoritarian regimes that despised us. There had to be a better way.

So why did Rabbi Schneerson get it twenty eight years ago, when so many other smart people didn’t? The date of his utterance, April 11th, 1981 provides us with a clue. The Lubavitcher Rebbe gave his speech on solar power three days after the last Birkhat Hahama celebration.

Once every twenty eight years, this rarest of Jewish holidays gives us the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the blessings of the sun.  As the key Talmud source on Birkhat Hahama describes it:

“One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…should say. ‘Blessed are You who makes the works of creation.’ And when does it happen that the sun is at the beginning of its cycle? Abbaye says, ‘every twenty eight years, the cycle begins again and the Nissan equinox falls in the hour of Saturn, on the evening of the third day, the night before the fourth day (of the week.)’” Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, 59b.

Birkhat Hahama is a once in a generation chance to give thanks for the source of the energy that feeds all of life, that makes plants grow and which, in fossilized form, drives our cars, heats our homes and powers our industries. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out, it is also an occasion on which to ask, “Has our generation used these gifts wisely?”

Speaking days after the last Birkhat Hahama, Rabbi Schneerson was doing just that. He was challenging his listeners to use that day, an obscure but precious resource from our tradition, to think about whether their generation was using the sun’s blessings wisely.

The next Birkhat Hahama will be in five weeks time, at sunrise on April 8th, 2009. What have we done with the sun’s gifts in these last twenty eight years?

We have used them to wreck the biosphere.  Combustion of billion year old fossilized sunlight in the form of oil, coal and gas emits greenhouse gases. Our unabated addiction to burning fossil fuels in our cars, homes and factories is causing famine and drought in Sub-Saharan Africa, flooding Bangladeshi peasants out of their homes and rates of species extinction that haven’t been seen on Earth for tens of thousands of years.  If we don’t change course soon, unprecedented weather extremes threaten to wreak havoc on our children’s lives.

If the economic and geopolitical foolishness of continuing to depend on fossil fuels was dawning on a few people twenty eight years ago it is as clear as daylight today.

Unlike the sun, which is good for at least another billion years, oil, gas and coal are finite. We need, really soon, to develop renewable energy sources that will be in place and ready to power the world the day after oil. Otherwise, the catastrophic consequences of that moment on the global economy will make the current recession look puny.

America has fought three Middle Eastern wars since 1991, at the cost of thousands of lives.  Iran has used decades of petrodollar income to reach the threshold of building a nuclear bomb. The idiocy of forking over trillions of dollars in oil revenues to oppressive terror-funding regimes has at last become too egregious for anyone to avoid.

Last Birkhat hahama, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the only people to seriously confront the question “Are we using the blessings of the sun wisely?” This time around, we all must.

We need to ask ourselves, our communities and our leaders: Are we using energy as efficiently as we could be? Are we making every effort to switch to clean, renewable fuel sources derived directly from the sun’s energy? Are we doing everything we could be to persuade our governments and industries to invest in solar and wind power?

Will we continue to encourage regimes that happen to be sitting on top of stocks of fossil fuels to concentrate vast wealth in a few hands, while abusing their populations and neglecting to develop their human potential?  Will we continue to fight bloody wars over the right to control the land beneath which the dwindling supplies of fossilized sun are stored? Will we continue to actively cause global climate change?

Or will we choose a path towards energy that will be widely distributed, non-polluting and eventually, almost free. Will we invest in the development of the sophisticated technologies and learning organizations that can harness an inexhaustible plenitude of sunlight and the related, sun-driven, natural processes of wind and waves?

If we can give honest answers to these questions this April 8th and act on them, then, God willing, next Birkhat Hahama in 2037 we’ll be able to look back and say that we used the blessings of the sun to help bring peace, prosperity and healing to the Earth.

For more on Birkhat Hahama, visit www.blessthesun.org.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Tu B’shevat has become the de facto ” Hag Ha’ Environment,” the day on which Jews celebrate nature and showcase whatever in our traditions can be shown to celebrate the Earth and teach us how to learn in wise interconnectedness with our planet.

The connection has always seemed to me a little arbitrary. Forty years ago Jews wanted to find hooks for environmental concerns in the tradition. Enter Tu B’Shevat, an obscure, neglected semi-holiday that marked the date on which we count the ages of trees for the purposes of agricultural laws in Israel. (more…)

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In continuation of our discussion on local food, the following is a Dvar Torah Rabbi Sinclair wrote for Canfei Nesharim‘s Eitz Chaim Hee Torah Commentary Series.

Do we know who grows our food? Does it matter? This question was first raised for me five years ago when I was the Campus Rabbi at England’s Cambridge University. Invited to High Table dinner with the professors at one of the colleges, I was surprised to discover that most of the conversation among some of Britain’s leading minds revolved around the food.

“This venison’s inedible,” complained an irascible professor of physics. “Absolutely,” agreed an elderly Nobel Laureate. “We had a cook here in the seventies who would never serve an animal he didn’t know
personally.” (more…)

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

It may seem odd to be writing about shmitta six and a half years before the next Sabbatical year. Not at all. We need to start thinking and planning now if the Shmitta of 2014-15 is to be a time of ecological, economic and spiritual renewal for the Jewish people, rather than an unseemly political squabble.

I’m heading off next week to Hazon’s food conference in Assilomar. Hazon has even set up a website as a focus of public discussion for the next shmitta. Prompted by the stockmarket crash, imminent global recession, as well as having to prepare a couple of talks about shmitta for the trip to California, here are some thoughts that hopefully take that discussion a little further:

The causes of the economic crash are at the same time incredibly complicated and extremely simple. The simple version is that the US mortage and housing market broke free of some fundamental principles about buying houses. Once upon a time, to buy a house, you had to work hard, save a lot of money, and maybe supplement your savings with a mortgage that you arranged with a banker who knew you personally, and with whom you took responsibility for the repayment of your loan.

No longer. Over the last ten years, banks have advanced huge mortgages to people they never met, with little regard to their ability to repay. The mortgage assets were then parceled up and sold to other banks and investment houses increasingly removed from the original house buyers. All this was done out of a perfect faith in the endless upward trend of the housing markets. When house prices ceased to defy gravity, thousands of home owners defaulted on mortgage payments, mortgage-based assets became almost worthless, and large distinguished banks who held a lot of those assets collapsed, nearly bringing down the world financial system with them.

It’s an old story. Charles Mackay wrote a classic history of financial crises called “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” first published in London in 1841. “Money … has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

Financial bubbles, like the one in the housing market  happen when people’s hopes, expectations and greed-driven delusions about the value of their assets lose all contact with the underlying economic reality. The more sophisticated our economic system, the more we can engineer assets that have less and less to do with real things and the more extreme the bubble.  Markets periodically and harshly correct these fits of wishful thinking, at the cost of great economic suffering. Often those who suffer most have done least to cause the problem.

Some of the less well known teachings of Shmitta are exactly about managing and moderating this tendency for economic activity to cut its roots in the earth from which it grows. Once every seven years we are meant to return to an intimate connection with the source of all wealth. A few examples:

1.   You can’t trade on food grown in the Shmitta year. You can eat it, give it away or leave it for the poor, but you may not turn it into a commodity. (Rambam Laws of Shmitta, 6:1 This is based on a derasha of Vayikra 25:6:  “It shall be a Sabbatical year to eat.” “To eat and not a trade on it.” (Talumd, Sukkah 40a.)

2.   Food from the Shmitta year should be treated as food, Not as a compress for a wound, or air freshener, or biofuels, or anything else that food products can be used for. This is based on the same verse from Vayikra 25: 6 “to eat.” Once in seven years we get back to an awareness of food as food, not as a commodity or raw material for some other manufacturing process.

3.  In the Shmitta year we return to a relationship with food that is seasonal.  If you gather and store fruit from the shmitta year in your house, once that fruit has disappeared from the fields and trees, you can no longer eat what is stored in your house out of season. (Laws of Shmitta, 7:1)

4.  In the Shmitta we return to a relationship with food that is local. The seasonal requirement that we just saw is based on regional divisions of the Land of Israel. If the pomegranate season is over in your area, then you can’t eat them, even if they are still growing somewhere else in the country. (Laws of Shmitta, 7:9)

And so on. These laws are all about returning to an immediate relationship with the food we eat, as food and connected to a particular time and place. Food is the most basic economic index. The Shmitta is about ceasing to distort, quantify or objectify our connection to the source of sustenance.

How do we use this value of returning to an immediate connection with economic fundamantals as a corrective to boom-bust economics? Let the discussion continue! We have six and a half years to get it right for the shmitta year, but we the world needs a way to actualize these values even sooner.

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We were happy to have a piece in the recent special issue of Shma Magazine on Judaism and environment. Enjoy the article below- and check out the edition’s other pieces by a number of leading voices in the field.

(Reprinted with permission from http://shma.com/june_08/halakhak_climate.htm)

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Is halakhah a useful tool for addressing climate change?

If it is, then what might climate-change halakhah look like?

Halakah defines and articulates crucial Jewish priorities in a way that influences even Jews who are not halakhically observant; it is the medium through which Jews have traditionally expressed and lived their central norms and values.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is actualized in halakhot about visiting the sick and comforting mourners. Tzedakah, establishing righteousness and justice in our community, is precisely codified by Maimonides and the Shulkhan Arukh. If a majority of American Jews affirms today that a commitment to “social justice” as the cornerstone of their Jewish identity, then that is arguably because of the indelible imprint that hilkhot tzedakah has made on Jewish life over the centuries.

When we turn to the popular commentaries on reducing carbon footprints, we notice they look an awful lot like Jewish law. Open any tabloid newspaper and you will find lists of 10, 20 or 50 detailed ways in which you can modify your daily behavior to help save the planet; walk to the shops rather than drive, take a cloth bag for your groceries, don’t buy produce grown more than 50 miles from your home.

The language of halakhah is unusually well-attuned to the challenge of shifting individual behavior that climate change poses. The minute specificity of these recommendations is only matched in my experience by halakhic sources. Climate change policy shares with halakhic Judaism a recognition that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Raising awareness is all very well, but redemption requires precisely defined action.

Where, then, should we look to find halakhic models that can be applied to the problem? One obvious place to start is ba’al taschit, the prohibition on wanton destruction of property and resources. One could construct a plausible halakhic case for enjoining the turning off of lights, switching to CFL bulbs, and driving a smaller car based on the principle that it is wantonly destructive to use more resources than are necessary to achieve given human purpose. I hope halakhists will begin to do so. However, ba’al taschit is already well-known as a cornerstone of Jewish environmental ethics.

Let me suggest another model:

Hilkhot Shekhenim explores the diverse ways in which neighbors damage one another through their domestic and economic activities and the redress that is available in each case. This body of law balances the legitimate rights of people to do what they want with and on their own property against the rights of their neighbors not to be seriously damaged or inconvenienced by those activities.

It is a principle of Jewish pollution law that there are certain kinds of damage for which a presumptive right to commit them (hazakah) can never be established. Among the damages in this category is pollution caused by smoke. There is some argument among the commentators about whether the smoke needs to be of large quantity and/or of constant duration. Greenhouse gases that cause climate change would appear to meet both criteria.

Of course, these laws were developed to address conflicts between neighbors separated by a garden fence. The rabbis did not imagine our situation in which coal-fired power stations in Michigan may contribute to drought in Mali. Can these sources be extrapolated to damage caused on a global scale and through complex mechanisms of causation by greenhouse gas emissions?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, probably the greatest 20th-century halakhist, takes a major step toward translating the laws of damages between neighbors into an industrial context.

About smoking in a large public place he writes: “And even though one person smoking in a large room such as a beit midrash would not by himself cause damage, nevertheless, since each smoker knows that many other people are smoking, he knows that his smoke is causing damage” (Igerot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat, 2:18).

R. Feinstein here disallows the argument of each individual smoker’s relative insignificance in the big picture. Since each smoker knows that he is a small part of a larger phenomenon that cumulatively is inflicting serious harm on others, he must take responsibility for his role in contributing to that damage.

Although we must assume a quantitative leap in transferring this principle to climate change, it does not require a qualitative one. Once we know beyond reasonable doubt that our actions are part of a mass phenomenon that is causing immense harm, it becomes our moral responsibility to change our actions so that we stop being part of the problem.

How are you and/or your community confronting climate change? Halakha thrives on the discussions surrounding it- let’s do the same with climate change.
Here’s our list at Jewish Climate Initiative. Send us your comments and suggestions!

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