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Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Arthur Waskow’

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

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

On my recent trip to the US I encountered a lot of inspiring people, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims working at the frontier of religion and climate change. They are creating new ecological vision rooted in ancient traditions, and mobilizing their communities as forces for change.

Two of the most impressive Jewish activist leaders whom I met were Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Avi Weiss. They have been engaged with ecological issues for sixty years and for a few months respectively. In different ways, the very length and briefness of their involvement is inspiring.

Rabbi Waskow

Rabbi Waskow

Rabbi Waskow, a Jewish Renewal teacher, is a volcano of sixties activist passion. He was imprisoned for anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, and claims the honor of being the first to be arrested demonstrating for Soviet Jewry. He describes Martin Luther King’s assassination a few days before Pesach in 1968 as a key moment in his return to Judaism. Over the door way of his home in suburban Philadelphia is a sign that reads “you are now entering a nuclear-free zone.”

Rabbi Waskow founded the Shalom center, which speaks out on climate change, in 1982. It was primarily a Jewish voice of protest against the nuclear-arms race. Back then, Waskow said, he saw potential atomic warfare as an ecological issue. “Nuclear winter threatened to make life impossible over large swathes of the earth’s surface.”

His involvement with the issue goes back four decades earlier. “My Bar Mitzva fell almost a year to the day after the first bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. Even then I knew it changed everything. I gave a speech about how this awesome human power to destroy needed to be a new reverence for the world and for all its people, if we were not to end up annihilating ourselves.” In different ways, Rabbi Waskow has been teaching the same message ever since. Over recent years, climate change has become the focus of that warning.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Open Orthodox Rabbi from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, is one of the Jewish world’s most courageous and indefatigable Jewish activist leaders. Over the past forty years he has stood at the forefront of countless campaigns: for Soviet Jewry, against the siting of a convent at Auschwitz, against Former Mayor of New York David Dinkins for his indifference to the murder of a Chabad student and many more. In 2002 he was instrumental in putting together a mass rally for Israeli victims of Terror when the organized American Jewish community was largely silent on the issue. He has incurred plenty of establishment anger over his career, but Rabbi Weiss’s principle is to speak out when it is right to do so, not when it’s popular.

Rabbi Weiss

Rabbi Weiss

I asked Rabbi Weiss whether global climate change was an issue for Jewish concern and activism.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “This is an issue of great moral importance. I have been slow in getting on to the issue myself, but my students (at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) have taught me a lot, and now I see its great significance. It’s an obligation on us from the Torah to nurture and protect the beautiful world that Hashem made.”

When I asked Rabbi Weiss why this wasn’t a more prominent concern for him earlier, he answered:

“I grew up in a different time. It was after the Holocaust. It seemed as if only Jews had suffered. The most important thing was to safeguard Jewish lives and rights, because the world hadn’t done so during the Shoah. But over the years, although Jews are still the main focus of my activism I have seen that we need to extend concern to other peoples and now to the planet itself.”

Rabbi Weiss demonstrated this commitment by agreeing to serve on the advisory Board of Jewish Climate Initiative!

Two powerful, but very different moral voices in the Jewish world: One shows the importance of ecological issues by his commitment to them over decades; the other by arriving at a conviction about their vital significance after a long journey.

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