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By Yannai Kranzler

How would you respond to sitting on an airplane, digging into the seat pocket in front of you, to discover that your complementary in-flight magazine was dedicated to caring for the environment?

Would you be thankful? Hopeful? Would you laugh? Would you sigh and say, “Well, I’m the one paying them to emit Carbon Dioxide- it’s very courteous of them to make an effort?” Or would you say, “This is, like, over-the-top obnoxious- is it possible to get more cynical than an airliner claiming to be a part of “The Eco-Movement?”

I ask because I found myself in this situation a few weeks ago, on my Continental flight from Pittsburgh to New York. Continental, it seems, has gone green, titling the September issue of Continental Magazine “True Green,” dedicating it to “People, Places and Products Driving the Eco-Movement,” including in it many references to Continental’s environmental accomplishments. I didn’t quite know how to react to this.

Now I didn’t say that I don’t believe Larry Kellner, Chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines when he lists the company’s “Commitment to environmental responsibility” as a reason to fly Continental, but… well would you believe him?

Here’s the fun thing: Even if we don’t believe him, even if we think the whole thing completely outrageous, there’s something subtle, but important going on:

If I learned one thing in Community Based Social Marketing class, it’s that the most assured way for people to change their attitudes is for them to change their behavior, even just a little bit, and to publicly commit to sustaining those changes. Whether Continental is wholeheartedly pursuing green measures for the betterment of the world or playing lip service to the trendiness of being green, the fact that they’ve publicly committed themselves to the cause will likely impact their decisions in the future.

In Jewish tradition, we believe that Acharei Hapeulot, Nimshechot Halevavot, that “Our hearts follow our actions.” If I’m not feeling close to my community, my tradition tells me to go out and do something for the community. If I don’t care for the poor, I’m to give to the poor. We’re even commanded to help our enemies with the heavy loads they carry on their backs.

Our whole religious system, in fact, is based on action, or Halakhot. I’m not asked to fervently believe until I taste being immersed in action. As CBSM contends, I’m likely to feel connected to my community, compassionate on the poor, and to favor reconciliation with foes, when I pursue actions that connect me with them. Could there be a better way to make peace than to help my enemy carry his load?

Ultimately, it won’t make a difference if Mr. Kellner is an environmentalist stuck in the wrong business or a good businessman in a world of environmentalists. Save actually going green, which in Mr. Kellner’s business might mean finding another job, publicly committing to the environment is probably the greenest thing he could have done.

All we need to do is to hold him to his commitment.

In all fairness to Continental, it seems they have made real efforts to maximize their fleets’ fuel economy, and now run planes that are 35% more fuel efficient than the ones they used in 1997. For more on Continental’s environmental policy, see http://www.continental.com/web/en-US/content/company/globalcitizenship/environment.aspx


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By Yannai Kranzler

I was a bit late to Beit Knesset, synagogue, last Thursday morning, on the Ninth of Av.  By the time I arrived, it was already full of men and women praying quietly.  A Jerusalem community known for singing and loud, lively davening, on this day, everyone was solemn, contemplative.  Some sat glumly on the floor. Some stood. Some broke the silence by sniffling in tears.

On the ninth, or Tisha of the month of Av, we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of Divine Presence, tragedies that befell the Jewish People, hatred between brothers, and the fact that we haven’t yet figured out how to make things good in the world.

I realized almost immediately what was so weird about what I was seeing: Modern people aren’t supposed to be sad. We hide sadness, or try to make it go away. Even at funerals, we wear sunglasses and hide from others seeing our being sad.

In private, too, sadness is not really allowed. If a friend of mine is sad, my upbringing says, “Fix it.” Convince them to “live life with a smile,” and to “look on the bright side.”

But nobody was wearing sunglasses at shul on Tisha B’Av, and nobody was trying to fix anything. Observing the customs of Tisha B’Av, we did not even say hello to one another. Nobody showered, brushed their teeth, or wore deodorant. Like we were disobeying, one by one, the most basic rules of social etiquette. Keeping tradition, we sat the morning on the floor reading Kinot, poems of mourning.

And then, we reached afternoon. Something magical happens when Tisha B’Av reaches the afternoon. We get up off the floor. Stretch. Put on Tefillin. We go home. Eventually, we begin to cook for the end of the fast.

And literally from that point on, the Jewish People enters a nonstop whirlwind adventure of repentance and celebration and the Highest, most intimate and joyous Holidays of the year.

It begins with Tu B’Av, kind of a national matchmaking day- there’s room for relationship when people are not ashamed of having sadness, and are open to holding others’ sadness, too. Two weeks later begins a month of hard work to improve ourselves in Elul, then comes crowning God King on Rosh Hashanah, saying an integrity-filled sorry on Yom Kippur, and leaving the stability of concrete, to live in comfy little houses of straw on Sukkot, in order to celebrate our vulnerability, and to appreciate That which sustains us.

I think about our collective trek towards confronting, and hopefully reversing the effects of climate change, and I wonder what it would be like were we to make space for mourning the destruction we’ve caused the world.

Could we enter our own whirlwind adventure of fixing and celebration? Could we have a Tu B’Av, where our honesty allows us to recognize the potential for Peoples to complement, and not compete with one another? An Elul, where we wake up at the crack of dawn every morning to search our every action and vow to change those that aren’t okay? A Rosh Hashanah, where we acknowledge our awe of the forces in the world that are more powerful than we are, a Yom Kippur where we look to those forces and to one other and sincerely apologize for thinking we were so above it all? Could we culminate with a Sukkot, where we dance and sing to modest living spaces and interdependence with Nature, where it is so obvious that there’s plenty of room for everybody when nobody feels the need to control everything?

I wonder, because in all of the discourse surrounding climate change, we are not allowed to be negative. What began with doom-laden predictions, has now evolved, in order to avoid being paralyzing, into a discussion on the opportunities embedded in responding to climate change. Along the way, we skipped feeling sad for those suffering because of climate change, and for the fact that we were the ones who caused it. If the president is now going to talk about climate change, he best focus on green jobs; how climate change is the economic opportunity of our lifetimes. I find myself routinely looking at scathing environmentalist documents and shaking my head saying, “Don’t you know? Being critical never works with the environment. It offends people, and people don’t like to be offended.”

Now, I pray for green jobs, and believe us entitled to a healthy economy. And I think it’s obnoxious to offend people. But like the Rabbis say, if we don’t mourn destruction, we won’t really live rebuilding. If we don’t acknowledge our mistakes, understand them, accept our own culpability in the greed which broke our economy’s back and our ecosystem’s balance, if we don’t look plainly at the faces across the world that suffer because of our unwillingness to make changes in our daily lives, will we chase green jobs with the same passion as if we did? Will we rush to work at those green jobs with the same energy, dedication and pride? Will we be willing to say that if our economy is abusive of other Peoples or generations, then we don’t want that economy? On the most basic level, will we be as willing to share?

Tisha B’Av challenges us to be real. If there’s more than just a bright side, we can’t just look for the bright side. If we do, we won’t know it when it hits us.

I hope we can accept the challenge to be sad over our actions. I hope we have the strength to admit we were wrong. I hope that we mourn the weakness of denying vulnerability, and then dance to the integrity in embracing it. I hope that we drink to interdependence. That we are entirely overcome and enchanted with the weight, the pain, and the perfect, seamless joy of life when we lift our glass, take a deep breath, and quietly say, “L’Chaim.”

Based on the teachings of Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, from Tisha B’Av in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. Read more from Rav Aaron at www.ravaaron.wordpress.com.

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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 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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Hi Everyone,

In the following video, Dr. Eilon Schwartz, founder of Israel’s Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership challenges us to own up to our own implications in causing climate change, as well as our reservations in fighting it, and makes important suggestions as to what we can do, at Jewish Climate Initiative/Hazon’s Vayehi Or: Values and Vision in Energy and Climate Change Workshop in Jerusalem.

Enjoy!

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2033606&dest=-1]

(If you can’t view the video from this page, click here.)

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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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