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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Sukkot has a special connection to rain. The Talmud (Rosh Hoshanah 16a) says that on Sukkot, we are judged for the rainfall we will receive in the coming year. On Shemini Atzeret, the final day of the holiday, we begin to say Mashiv Ha’Ruach u’morid Hagashem, in the Amidah prayer, invoking God as the One who brings rainfall, at the start of the wet season in the Land of Israel.

It can seem strange to be saying these words outside Israel, in climates where we are not so aware of the shift into a rainy season. In many regions it rains year round. Why do we connect ourselves to the climate rhythms of the Land of Israel thousands of miles away?

There are many places in the world today that do not have the luxury of being able to debate whether climate change is a mere theory or a proven fact. For Inuit Eskimos, subsistence farmers in Mali, or peasants in the Himalayas, climate change is not a scientific hypothesis but their everyday lived experience. They see their habitats disappearing, experience longer and more severe droughts and see with their own eyes how much the glaciers have receded.

To these groups we should now add inhabitants of the Land of Israel. In Israel people have always been acutely aware of rainfall. It is a necessity of life. Over each of the past five years rainfall in Israel has been significantly below average. In the past two years it was 30-35% below average, resulting in a severe and worsening water crisis. It is becoming clear that this is not a blip but a trend. It is a trend in line with climate change scientific predictions for the Middle East.

Sukkot is a holiday of trust in the seasons. We live outside in booths, in celebration of the fall harvest and in touch with the beauty of the natural world. The sukkah is a temporary dwelling, exposed to the elements. It is fragile—at any moment the natural world could turn on us and knock our it down. But this is also a source of joy. The very fragility of the Sukkah causes us to turn to God in gratitude for the embracing protection of the regular, natural order of things.

It is on Sukkot, as we leave our homes and put our trust the weather, that we are likely to see the effects of climate change around us. Are there plants growing in your neighborhood that you have never seen before? Did you get more rain than you expected, or none at all?  When you compliment the unseasonably warm weather, does it click in the back of your mind that perhaps it should have started to turn to fall now?

For most of our lives we are not sufficiently tuned in to our surroundings to notice these subtle changes.  Our solid suburban homes shield us from much awareness of the nuances of nature.  But on Sukkot, we may be able to notice the signs that are pointing to a changing planet and arouse ourselves to play our role in addressing the problem. ((with thanks to Rachel Kahn Troster for her formulation of this thought.)

In America the most of the urban and suburban Jewish community are not yet feeling the effects of climate change. Our brothers and sisters in Israel probably are. When we say Mashiv Haruach, we align our existence with their’s. We acknowledge the critical importance of rain for life there. We sensitize ourselves to the life-threatening consequences of upsetting the planet’s delicate climate balance. And we may be aroused to joy, love and action to help protect this fragile miracle.

Hag Sameakh!

Sign the Pledge: The Jewish Climate Campaign

Sign the Pledge: The Jewish Climate Campaign

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

The Power of One

On Yom Kippur we examine our actions.  The scrupulous review of our deeds that the day calls for teaches us that everything we do, however small it may seem matters a great deal, often far more than we can even imagine.

Maimonides writes in The Laws of Teshuvah:

Therefore a person should see himself throughout the year as if his life is half good and half bad and likewise see the whole world equally poised in the same way.  One bad deed can tip himself and the whole world towards destruction. One good deed can tip himself and the whole world towards salvation….therefore all Jews have the custom of doing as much Tzdakah and as many Mitzvot as possible between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4.

Global climate change is caused by billions of everyday actions of hundred of millions of people. It is so tempting to say, “what difference will it make if I change my lightbulbs/drive a Prius/….I’m only an infinitesimal part of the problem.  My actions won’t make a difference.”

Billions of people telling themselves this are tipping the world towards destruction.  The power of Teshuvah is the power of one; the knowledge that each of our lives and our deeds matter and can have incalculable significance.

Sir John Houghton, one of the world’s leading climate scientists put it very beautifully when I asked him why individuals should feel that their puny actions can  make a difference to the climate:

First Sir John quoted Edmund Burke, the British Enlightenment thinker who declared: “No man ever made a greater error than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Then after a moment’s reflection he added,

“But I think there’s a deeper answer than Burke’s. You know, I live overlooking the estuary of the river Dovey. Once a year, the sky above my house becomes a staging post for migrating starling. They create the most spectacular formations, tens of thousands of them, banking ,wheeling, whirling, swirling around a vortex , and separating and regathering while replicating the same order; I don’t think anyone really understands how they do it; certainly not the starlings themselves, yet out of the actions of all of those many individual birds come coherent and beautiful patterns of organization. We’re like that too, though mostly we don’t realize it; we view our acts and choice as individuals as if we lived in a vacuum, we don’t understand how we are participating in much larger social organisms.”

Yom Kippur is the time to make a commitment to small but real changes. When each of us decides that we are going to make changes and walk more gently on the planet –  we start to tip the world in the direction of salvation.

Jonah and Loving a Tree

At Minchah on Yom Kippur we read the book of Jonah. It marks a shift in the day from a mood of solemnity towards mercy and also from Jewish particularism towards universalism.

God tells Jonah that He will bring destruction on the city of Nineveh and commands Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh to change its ways. Jonah refuses to accept the task and flees from God.  God catches up with him, Jonah prophesies to Nineveh and the city repents and is saved. At the end of the book Jonah is still resentful. God sends him a Kikayon tree and Jonah gratefully enjoys its shade. The tree dies and Jonah is very aggrieved.  To which God says:

You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow; and should not I care about Nineveh, that great city…” Jonah 4: 10-11.

Many of us switch off and close down when we hear prophecies of impending climate change destruction. They may be scientifically well-grounded, but apocalypticism can be paralyzing. Like Jonah, we turn away and try not to listen.  It is often a tree that we love, a landscape, a beautiful butterfly which is endangered that awaken in us an inkling of how much God loves creation and arouse us too to have compassion for the world.  The inspiration we need to make the changes we must, need not come not from fear but can well up from love and gratitude.

gmar hatimah tovah.
Sign the pledge: www.JewishClimateCampaign.org

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

A couple of years after former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach founded  ActNow, a sustainable business consultancy, he signed up Walmart as a client. This brought Werbach considerable notoriety in eco-activist circles. Walmart’s record of

Adam Werbach, Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S

Adam Werbach, Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S

environmental responsibility had previously been spotty, to put it mildly. Werbach retorted to his critics that Walmart, with almost two million employees and 127 million customer visits per week, had the potential to do far more to save the world than the Sierra Club ever had.

I had the opportunity to visit Werbach’s company (now named Saatchi S) in San Francisco, and attend a staff meeting. The participants sat on the floor and passed around a plate of organic banana bread. Yet despite the trappings of informality, the conversation had a focus, drive and ingenuity about it that I had rarely experienced in the non-profit world.  The Saatchi staff certainly looked like the young, idealistic types whom I knew from environmental NGOs. But dropping a profit incentive into the motivational mix seemed to release a different level of creative zing.

Subsequent encounters with other leaders of cutting edge green companies strengthened this sense of the potency in marrying idealism with the scale and dynamism of the business world. Jonathan Rose, CEO of a large US sustainable urban development consultancy, Arnold Goldman founder of Brightsource Energy and Yosef Abramowitz of the Arava Power Company all combine strong ethical vision with a rigorous ambition to build successful businesses that will help solve large, real-world challenges.

Two valuable recent books have helped expand and sharpen my understanding of the potential for green business to do good while doing well – and also its limitations.

First the ‘Harvard Business Review on Green Business Strategy’ brings together the best articles on the subject from HBR’s archives over the past decade. They cover areas from “What Every Executive Needs to Know About Global Warming” through analyses of developments in green building and international sustainable business strategy to “How to Maintain Competitive Advantage on a Warming Planet.”

The essays concisely survey the main areas of impact and opportunity with which climate change confronts business, including dealing with regulatory policies frameworks (e.g. cap and trade), developing climate friendly products and technologies, reputational factors, impacts on the company’s supply chain and liability to litigation or to direct physical damage.

Several of the authors confront the issue of greenwashing versus real change, coming down unanimously in favor of the business benefits of moving towards genuine, long term sustainability.

The book includes Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken’s seminal 1999 essay “A Roadmap for Natural Capitalism,” and is worth buying for that article alone.

The authors lay out four guiding principles for transforming our modes of economic production that are both visionary and practical: dramatically improve the productivity of natural resources; shift to biologically inspired modes of production; move to a solutions based business model (as opposed to an product ownership based model, e.g. provide floor-covering services rather than sell carpets) and reinvest in natural capital.

They persuasively show the huge energy and resource saving potential in innovative design across large areas of today’s economy (”Only 1% of the energy consumed by today’s cars in actually used to move the driver: only 15-20% of the power generated by burning gasoline reaches the wheels and 95% of the resulting propulsion moves the car, not the driver.” Good morning Detroit.) The article is a powerful argument on grounds of ethics, aesthetics, efficiency and profitability for embedding industrial production into the naturally sustainable systems of the physical world.

The book “International Business and Global Climate Change” has a narrower focus.

Pinkse and Kolk, both professors at Amsterdam Business School give an impressively detailed account of the dilemmas and opportunities that climate change poses for large companies.

They focus on two areas: compliance with national and international regulatory frameworks and developing innovative technologies and capabilities. On the way Pinkse and Kolk cover the economics of carbon mitigation, a comprehensive history of carbon emission regulation and an unsparing analysis of the strengths and failures of the frameworks currently in place.

They show, for example, how the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme over-allocated emissions permits which utilities then sold for huge profits, and how the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism’s credits ended up going overwhelmingly to projects reducing emissions from an obscure, but highly potent greenhouse gas called HFC-23 that could be mitigated using a cheap, readily available end-of-pipe technology. The scheme therefore did almost nothing to stimulate clean technology innovation as its creators had envisioned it would.

Pinske and Kokse’s book, though scholarly and comprehensive is written in the impeccable but lifeless English prose at which Northern European academics seem to excel.

If you are either a policy maker designing a Greenhouse Gas regulatory framework, or a senior business executive figuring out how to comply with (or exploit) such a system, the book is a must-read. If you are anyone else, you’ll probably find the style and density off-putting.

The Harvard Business Review work, though less detailed, is a much racier read, employing HBS’s trademark case-study approach to illustrate the messy real-world complexity of transitioning toward sustainable business methods.

A common message that emerges from both works is that business needs a coherent, credible, predictable and global framework for carbon emissions mitigation if it is going to go green on a large scale.

The current chaotic patchwork of voluntary and mandatory, short and medium term, local and international schemes inhibits many companies from making major long-range investments in clean technologies.

Business cannot create this framework; it is a task for governments and intergovernmental bodies, chivied along by civil society – NGO’s, the media, religious groups and businesses themselves. December’s climate summit in Copenhagen is expected to take a crucial step down this road.

As Arnold Goldman of Brightsource has written, green business is not a new invention. He points out that according to the

Arnold Goldman, Founder of Brightsource Energy

Arnold Goldman, Founder of Brightsource Energy

Talmud, the first question each of us will each be asked on judgment day (before any enquiries about our “religious” life) is “did you do business b’emunah” – faithfully or honestly (Shabbat, 31a.) Business b’emunah surely requires not raping the planet, not profiting from fleeting and destructive wants, but creating products that add real value to people’s life and to the life of the biosphere.

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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 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, as published on www.GreenProphet.com

Twenty years, ago, Sally Bingham went to her local bishop and announced that she wanted to be ordained so that she could become the world’s first priest for the environment.

She was received with some skepticism. Undeterred, she embarked on almost a decade of study and became an Episcopalian minister in 1998. She went on to found Interfaith Power and Light (what a great name for an organization). Today IPL has some 2000 affiliated congregations in 26 states of the US.

In her recent book “Love God, Heal the Earth”, Bingham has brought together 21 leading voices speaking out about the about the religious duty to protect the environment. All are doers in the field, not just thinkers. Some are inspirational leaders. There a couple each of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews, and 15 Christians of all stripes and persuasions.

The tone of the essays is personal, often confessional. Each tells of a personal journey towards placing creation at the center of his or her faith and activism.

Some tell of mystical experiences in nature, others of a progression from a passion for feminism or civil rights to environmentalism.

Among the most interesting are the accounts of Richard Cizik and Joel Hunter, leaders of the Evangelical Climate Initiative for whom accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the urgency of doing something about it was a struggle, and ultimately, a conversion.

Their stories vividly document the suspicion of science, of government and the mainstream media in the evangelical movement.

They show just how counter-cultural acceptance of climate change was within their churches. (This is what makes the Evangelical response to global warming politically very significant. It removes climate change from the leftish pigeon hole in which it was in danger of becoming stuck and elevates it to the status of an ethical issue that transcends party lines.)

One of the common themes of all the essays is that, as Bingham puts it,

The contributors all in different ways trace the transformation that begins with spiritual stirrings of love and reverence for God’s world and eventuates in action.

Rev. Sally Bingham, Author of Love God, Heal the Earth

Sally Bingham, Author of Love God, Heal Earth

As Pastor Clare Butterfield writes:

What we are trying to do is not to change light bulbs. We are trying to change people – with the assumption that they will then be the kind of people who will change their own light bulbs.

This heart-light bulb nexus touches on the unique and necessary contribution that religions can make in the struggle to avert climate change. Environmentalists are realizing that knowing what we must do may not be enough. We also need to find the moral passion to do it and the strength to overcome inner obstacles.

In the words of Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment, quoted in the book by Richard Cizik:

“Thirty years ago, I thought that with enough good science, we would be able to solve the environmental crisis. I was wrong. I used to think the greatest problems threatening the planet were species extinction, pollution and climate change. I was wrong there too. I now believe that the greatest problems are pride, apathy and greed.”

“Love God, Heal the World” is an impressive and sometimes moving collection of testimonies from leaders of the environmental religious movement. It sheds light on the actions and the souls of people who are not only bringing new life and hope to environmentalism, but are also rethinking their religious faith and traditions in the light of the challenges environmentalism levels.

To be sure, the authors present their views in engagingly broad strokes that raise a lot of questions. As many of the writers acknowledge, the world’s religions have arrived late to this issue.

As the book shows, they are catching up fast.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

On Shavuot morning next Friday, in synagogues around the world, we will read the Ten Commandments. It’s remarkable, when you think about it, what a success they’ve been. Over the past 3000 years the Jewish people has done an extraordinary marketing job on conveying these basic ethical and spiritual laws. Across the Western world today they are acknowledged as axioms of civilized life.

Well, mostly. My friend (Hazon Rabbinical Scholar) Steve Greenberg likes to qualify that success as follows.

We Jews have done a pretty good job in delivering nine and a half out of the Ten Commandments to the world. The half that we have delivered is the side of Shabbat that is about employment; the universal right to have one day off work each week.  The half that we haven’t is the part of Shabbat that is about refraining from shopping, driving, flying – the part that deals with our relationship to the created world. We need to deliver that half of the Shabbat commandment to the world now.”

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve makes an important and timely point. Shabbat is a precious spiritual and ecological resource. It contains wisdom that is profoundly needed today by everyone about how to place limits on the untrammeled pursuit of wealth that is one of the drivers of ecological destruction.

However, reading through the big 10 this year, I realized that at best we can only claim to have delivered eight and a half. The last commandment, “lo tahmod” usually translated as “Thou shalt not covet” (your neighbor’s house, wife and property etc.) has been a hard sell. I would suggest “do not acquisitively desire” as a contemporary rendering.

Now, you’d have to agree that this one has not flown at all in the contemporary West. It’s not just that the commandment is ignored. Our economic system is built on the systemic violation of lo tahmod. A crucial driver of growth has been the mass engineering of desire for things that we don’t have. As the marketing guru Victor Lebow wrote over 50 years ago:

Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an every increasing rate.”

One way to create desire for a consumer product is to persuade someone that what he desires is an absolute necessity of life. This isn’t always a very convincing strategy when we’re talking about chewing gum, laser hair removal, a private yacht and other non-essentials. Another route is to persuade the person to want it because someone else has it.  And that is inciting the consumer to flout lo tahmod.

(At least according to many commentators. There’s a fascinating argument in the sources about whether some acquisitive action must eventuate from the desire in order for it to count as a violation lo tahmod. According to Maimonides, it must. (Laws of Theft 1:9.) In his view the command is transgressed, only if the desire culminates in theft, murder, extortion or an aggressive campaign of persuasion leading to the sale of the object. But others including Ibn Ezra and Malbim, disagree. In their view the desire itself is enough to count as a violation.)

The lo Tahmod economy worked brilliantly. Until it didn’t. Today we can see that at least two of our biggest and most intractable problems have to a large extent, been driven by it.

Global climate change, which threatens to wreak havoc on the world’s weather within our life times is worsened by fanning the insatiable need for more stuff. Consider that in 2006, Americans spent over $3 billion on deodorants and $1 billion on chewing gum. The emission of greenhouse gases caused by manufacturing, transporting, marketing, managing and storing so many barely distinguishable items is immense.

More obviously still, the financial crisis was stoked by the same spiritual passions. The universal American dream of owning your very own sprawling suburban mansion with a 100% upfront mortgage undid the buyers, the banks, and very nearly the whole economy. Blame the Fed, the regulators, the investment bank managers, the mortgage lenders, or the poor suckers who lost their shirts and homes. In a sense it doesn’t matter. All colluded in seducing, cajoling and enabling people to borrow money they didn’t have to buy houses they couldn’t afford but felt they absolutely had to have.

Our leaders have been reluctant to speak about the stratum of our economic and ecological crises that is grounded in values. It’s been left to rock singers and occasional rabbis to articulate people’s inchoate sense that something deep is awry with our economy – something that even throwing three trillion dollars at the banks won’t fix. As Bono

Bono

Bono

from U2 wrote in the New York Times, “Is it me, Lord, people are starting to ask, across the US and Europe… Yes, it’s us.” The bank rescue plan, the stimulus, green jobs – they are all necessary and important, but without addressing the lo tahmod roots of the crisis, we’re just stumbling towards the next one.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch almost said it, 150 years ago at the dawn of the industrial age. In his commentary on the Ten

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Commandments he wrote that lo tahmod is God’s seal on the Decalogue. A human law giver could perfectly well command “do not kill” and “do not steal.” But only God, who knows our most intimate thoughts and desires would say “do not covet.”  As Hirsh puts it:

Men can only forbid crimes, and where necessary, bring committed crimes before their tribunals. But…the real breeding place and birthplace of crimes keeps beyond their cognition.

Consumerism isn’t an easy issue for American Jews. By dint of being relatively affluent, the conspicuous consumption that tends towards envious acquisitiveness is common in our communities. But it’s an issue that has to be addressed.

In previous eras, Jewish leaders imposed limits on public ostentation. This rule was enacted in Italy during the 15th Century: “In order that we may carry ourselves in modesty and humbleness before the Lord our God …no one may possess cloaks of any other color than black, sleeves may not have silk linings … so too cloaks of sable or ermine or expensively dyed material are forbidden.” In 1728, the community of Furth prohibited serving coffee or tea as they were very expensive.” (See Meir Tamari, “Sins of the Marketplace,” 1996.)

The reason usually given for these “Sumptuary Laws” was to avoid inviting the hostility of goyim. You could make that argument today too. (Did you see the astonishing survey reported in the Boston Review which found that 24.6% of Americans blame Jews for the financial crisis “a moderate amount” or “a great deal?)

But I think that’s the wrong argument to make. The right argument today for Jewish leaders to enact voluntary norms limitingIMG_1297 excessive, conspicuous consumption is that we should be striving to be part of the solution. We are starting to recognize the corrosive effects of consumerism on our families, our economy and our planet. The mitzvah of lo tahmod helps us to identify and act on the roots of the problem. Now is the time to deliver on the last of the ten commandments.

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