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Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Julian Sinclair’

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Here in Israel we celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, last week; fireworks, barbecues, mutual congratulations on how much we’ve achieved in 61 years (absorbing millions of immigrants, sustaining a vibrant democracy, building a dynamic economy, etc.), and a certain amount of soul-searching about how much we still haven’t: (peace, intra-Jewish harmony, a national soccer team that qualifies for the World Cup finals etc etc.).

In honor of Yom Haatzmaut, I read a brilliant 500 page book; (rather sad, I know, but that’s the kind of kid I’ve always been…). Professor Alon Tal‘s “Pollution in a Promised Land: an Environmental History of Israel” is the definitive work on the subject. In retrospect it was also the perfect read for the day.

Tal’s book does much more than its subtitle claims. As you would expect it tells the story of how Israel’s rapid economic development has come at a high environmental price; it traces the roots of Israel’s current water crisis to bad planning and short sightedness in the early years of the State; one chapter relates the staggering success, or disastrous stupidity (depending on your perspective) of the JNF’s forestry policies. (The JNF planted over 200 million trees in Israel making it the only country in the world with a net positive tree balance over the last century; the only problem was that the fir trees that were mostly planted while perfect for Northern Europe, were inappropriate to the local environment and have caused great damage to local ecosystems.)

Tal recounts the haphazardness of Israel’s urban growth, the lack of coherent transport policies and the adoption of car-based suburban development models which, today, people see are wrong for the United States, and all the more wrong for Israel, a country the size of New Jersey. And he tells the inspiring story of the Israeli Environmental movement

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

(in which he has played a key role), which has worked with growing success over the past two decades to set the country on more sustainable paths.

But even more than chronicling Israel’s environmental journey, PIAPL is a history of Zionism – the dream of the Jewish people’s return to its ancient homeland – told from an unusual but critically important standpoint. For Tal brings out how the early Zionist pioneers were in love with the romance of the Land of Israel, but largely clueless as to its physical reality. Intoxicated by biblical accounts of the landscape, the actual mountains, rivers, flora, fauna and diarrhoea -inducing diet were initially strange and alien to the early pioneers. Among many literary testimonies, Tal quotes Amos Oz’s description of his grandfather:

My grandfather lived in the land of Israel forty-five years and never was in the Galilee or went south to the Negev. … But the land of Israel he loved with all his soul, and he wrote love poems in her honor (in Russian).”

In this framing, the history of Zionism has been a tragic-comic epic of the Jewish people re-learning how to live in the topographical and ecological reality of the homeland that it barely knew for nearly two millennia. The drive for economic growth successfully added six million to the population rolls over the course of a century and catapulted living standards into the ranks of the world’s richest nations. But it was accomplished with scant regard to the carrying capacity of the country. Today, environmental awareness in Israel is flowering. There are still immense and urgent problems yet there are also signs of hope that the country is learning to live with the actual rivers, deserts, verdant planes, crowded cities and diminishing open spaces that constitute its physical heritage.

It all strikes me as a little bit like inheriting your grandparents’ house. All your life you’ve heard about this wonderful home, the beautiful gardens, the rolling views, the high ceilings. You’ve heard stories about it. You’ve dreamed of living there, but you’ve never actually set foot in the place. And then, one day, you find yourself living there. It’s just like everything you were always told and at the same time you have no idea how anything actually works. The toilets flood, the garden becomes overgrown and you accidentally ruin half of the appliances. Yet gradually after a few decades of living there, you begin to figure things out.

Tal is optimistic that we’ll figure it out in time. As he concludes his book:

The same Zionist zeal that allowed an ancient nation to defy all odds for an entire century can be harnessed to confront the newest national challenge. More than any of their ancestors, the present generation stands at an ecological crossroads—offered the choice of life and good, or death and evil. This “last chance” to preserve a healthy Promised Land for posterity is a weighty privilege indeed. Surely as it writes the next chapters in its environmental history, Israel will once again choose life.

What’s your experience of Israel and the environment? What are the key issues? How do you think we should be solving them? Click Here to leave your thoughts.

And Click Here to order a copy of Pollution in a Promised Land from Amazon.com.

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Jewish Climate Initiative/Hazon‘s recent Vayehi Or event was recently featured in the Jerusalem Post, in an article by Ehud Zion Waldoks, entitled “The Jewish People’s New Challenge: Climate Change.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Can Judaism provide a solution to global climate change? Jews have tackled many challenges over the past millennia, but none quite as titanic as this.

This week, 55 select experts in a variety of fields kicked off their first session in Jerusalem, with the aim of drawing up what has been called a “Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability.”

The initiative is being spearheaded by the New York-based Jewish environmental organization, Hazon (“vision”), and the Israel-based Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI).

Click Here for the full story.

In addition, JCI’s Rabbi Sinclair and Hazon’s Nigel Savage wrote a piece for the Jewish Chronicle: “Let’s Think Big. Shabbat can Save the Plant.Click Here to read their article.

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This past Sunday, 53 of Israel’s top scientists, business people, environmentalists, policy makers, Rabbis and educators met in Jerusalem, to develop a “Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability.” The plan, commissioned by the United Nations-affiliated Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), will be presented at Windsor Castle this coming November, along with like-plans from 11 other world faiths. The meeting was held this week, to honor the Birkat Hahama, the once-in-twenty-eight years Blessing of the Sun, which we said this (Wednesday) morning.

Jewish Climate Initiative‘s Rabbi Julian Sinclair and Hazon‘s Nigel Savage put together the first draft of “the plan,” and Sunday’s meeting presented the first opportunity for feedback, and the furthering of ideas. Among the participants were Green Movement-Meimad’s Alon Tal, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Naomi Tsur, founder of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, Dr. Eilon Schwartz and Professor Pinhas Alpert, head of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies.

It was a fantastic day- incredible to be in a room full of so many talented people, all who’ve accomplished so much in their respective fields. We’ll be posting some great videos of the day’s events in the near future. JCI and Hazon hope to “Kick-Off” the Seven Year Plan, at an international conference this coming Tu B’Shevat, with the help of Sunday’s guests- We’ll keep you posted on our progress!

Until then, Jewish Climate Initiative and Climate of Change wish you a Pesach full of happiness, peace, family and freedom- Chag Sameach… and a happy Birkat Hahama!

For us, Birkat Hahama has been a process of thinking about how we have used, and how we will use, the blessings of Creation. We hope your Birkat Hahama is/was meaningful, as well.

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A Review, by Rabbi Julian Sinclair

I am really not the right person to be reviewing “Nature’s Due.” It is based on some quite complicated biology, a subject that I haven’t studied formally since I was 14. James Murray-White from Green Prophet sent me the book in September, and I’ve only just finished it now, after several tactful reminders from James. As you can infer from that, it’s been a bit of a struggle.

However, I’m really glad that James stayed on my case about his, because “Nature’s Due” is a fascinating and important book. It’s one of those books that can furnish you with a couple of serviceable building blocks for a worldview.

Goodwin’s guiding question is: what would it take for our culture to interact with the world in a mode of engaged, evolutionary participation rather than in a mode of dominance and control?

He lists the familiar litany of environmental failures engendered by the dominance and control model (GM crops, degraded food supply, ugly, dysfunctional cites etc.) and asserts that the root cause of this cultural attitude is dualism: our predilection for seeing nature as inert stuff to be acted on and transformed for our benefit through the agency of human will and subjectivity.

Sometime shortly after the Renaissance, claims Goodwin, we disenchanted the world. Consciousness, intelligence and freedom were arrogated to the human realm, while the physical world was conceived as a mere machine.

So far, this is all fairly standard green cultural criticism. Cartesian Dualism has always placed in the top three of any list of the usual suspects in Western thought for creating the spiritual conditions that have allowed us to wreck our physical environment. Goodwin’s originality is to propose a reframing of our worldviews based on cutting edge research in biology that has emerged over the past 5-10 years.

Brian Goodwin

Brian Goodwin

The first prop of his argument is a body of work that has attempted to bring the study of qualities, including human affective and emotional responses within the domain of scientific study. For example, it turns out that there are high degrees of agreement when you ask people to ascribe emotional states to a pig. Intersubjective consensus can provide a basis for studying qualitative phenomena that cannot be measured. One small blow against the subject-object division.

Much more interesting, and central to his argument, is the work that Goodwin surveys in contemporary genetics. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, most biologists thought of DNA as a sort of computer program. It was the code that instructed organisms how to grow. This belief drove the development of the epic genome mapping program that was finished in 2001.

However, as the genome project neared completion, biologists realized that it was not so much fulfilling their expectations as transforming them. It turned out that genes do not condition the structure of living things in any deterministic way. We now know that a gene can be “read” (my quotation marks) by a cell in hundreds of different ways, each one resulting in a different protein. “For example, in the hair cells of t

he inner ear of a chick there is a gene that can be translated into 576 different proteins each one altering the tuning of cells to sound frequencies.” So if genetic structure does not allow us to predict morphology as we had hoped it would, what then have we learned from the whole genome project?

Goodwin argues that a different metaphor for the genome is emerging from the work of biologists like Evelyn Fox Keller and Anton Markos. Rather than understanding DNA as a computer program, we should instead conceive it as a kind of a “text” containing a range of developmental possibilities that is “interpreted” by cells through interaction with their environments. Cells “read” their genes so as to realize the possibilities of growth that will tend towards the creation of complex, efficient, coherent and aesthetic biological forms (beauty being a characteristic of efficiency, complexity and coherence.) He ascribes the term “meaning” to the object of organisms’ search for such elegant solutions to the problems of survival.

Thus Goodwin claims that other living things may be said to possess language and culture of a kind that is analogous to ours.  Their cultural resources are an inherited stock of genetic information that enables them to “choose” effective ways to live and grow through interaction with their environments.

If this is true, Goodwin concludes, then not only are we wrong to believe that language, culture and the search for meaning are uniquely human attributes; we should alsorecognize what a lousy job we are doing of utilizing those gifts in comparison to other creatures. “Compared with our biological cousins, we have become extraordinarily clumsy in the creation of our artifacts. We do not use resources and energy efficiently as organisms do, and we often fail badly in the aesthetic quality of our artifacts.” As Goodwin puts it, “the human is the only creature who doesn’t know what he is supposed to be doing.”

So Goodwin’s prescription for change is that we should be humbly willing to learn from the rest of creation, which does seem to know what it’s supposed to be doing.  Through bio-mimicry, natural design, architecture and city planning based on natural forms, we may return our culture and its artifacts to harmonious balance with the natural world.

My main criticism of this thoughtful and well-written book is that, if biology is not my area, then it seems probable that philosophy is not Goodwin’s. He himself alludes to the problem of early educational specialization based on the dualistic division of knowledge into “arts” and “sciences.” It appears that we have both suffered from it!

I have placed “text”, “interpret” and “culture” in quotation marks where they are applied to the activity of genes and organisms, but Goodwin doesn’t. The analogy, though plausible and thought-provoking, is nowhere near proven. It would take a far deeper discussion than Goodwin offers of what human “texts”, “interpretations” and “cultures are to justify removing the inverted commas.

Indeed the places where he does offer a philosophical basis for this view of science are the weakest in the book.  Chapter 6 proposes that the little-known scientific work of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe prefigured a way of doing biology that can

John Wolfgang von Goethe

John Wolfgang Von Goethe

integrate quantitative and qualitative facets in a holistic and spiritually inspired vision.

Again, Goodwin offers enough to make this idea intriguing but not nearly enough to render it convincing. Bizarrely, almost half of the chapter is devoted to Goethe’s biography, and in particular, to his extravangant romantic life, (with extensive quotations describing one lover’s “large black eyes of the greatest beauty”, and her “easy Zephyr-like movements.”) Discussion of the philosophical basis of Goethe’s thinking is thin. This is a pity. The German Idealist tradition of philosophy to which Goethe contributed, with its non-dualistic merging of nature and spirit and its evolutionary conception of consciousness seems to be a potentially fruitful source for grounding an ecological vision of science.

One of the many problems with Goodwin’s swift elision of the differences between human culture and potential biological analogues is that it ignores the healing possibilities inherent in the immensely greater complexity of human culture. Suppose we accept Goodwin’s analogy and conclusions: the very fact that human culture can become so massively dysfunctional in its modes of adaptation to the physical world, in a way that other organisms appear not to be able to match, is itself tribute to the sophistication of human thought.

The immensity and ingenuity of the cultural and scientific information that we have amassed in printed and digital forms has created the technological instruments with which we are degrading the biosphere. The human capacity for reflection on, development of, and conscious selection from our cultural resources is surely unique, even if one agrees with Goodwin that other organisms undergo analogous processes. And it is just these capacities for extremely rapid cultural evolution that give us hope that we can change course in time.

Survival is unlikely to lie in simply admitting what pathetic evolutionary failures our creations are in comparison with, say the elegant, functional beauty of the honey bee’s. It will also come from our ability to reach deep within our cultural memories, including our religious and spiritual traditions, and to rapidly actualize the wisdom that lies there for how we may live beautifully in an interconnected world.

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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

Two things were clear from attending the International Renewable Energy Conference that took place in Eilat this week.

The first is that Israel is now a world leader in clean energy.

The second is that there is a small but growing group of players in the field who see this not just as a huge business opportunity, (though it certainly is that), but also as an ethical, or spiritual mission.

Israeli leadership in the field was manifested by a list of “firsts”, “biggest evers,” and breakthrough technologies that were heralded immediately before and during the conference. Brightsource-Luz2 announced that it had signed a contract with Southern California Edison to build the largest ever solar thermal generating field, which will produce 1.3 gigawatts in California. (more…)

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Jewish Climate Initiative/Climate of Change‘s Rabbi Julian Sinclair’s speaking tour in the States continues for one more weekend: (more…)

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