Category Archives: Actions

Beliefs and Practices of Judaism that Help Me Respond to Climate Change

These are the notes for my remarks at the Faith & Climate Action Conference held on October 8 in Seattle WA:

I am here to talk to you about the beliefs and practices of my faith that help me prepare to respond to climate change. And also, to learn from each of you, make new friends here, and bring your wisdom back into my community.

First, my tradition categorically accepts, and explicitly teaches, that our actions can set in motion a chain of events that will ultimately disrupt the climate to the point of the land becoming inhospitable to human life, and that if we let this process run its course we will “perish quickly from the good land that the Lord has given us.” We recite these words as part of the Sh’ma, our foundational affirmation of faith, morning and evening; we bind them to our bodies when we pray, and we write them on our doorposts and our gates – that’s what’s written inside the mezuzot that Jews affix to their doorposts. And yet still we can forget them, or not fully engage with their meaning.

To avoid this fate, we are told to adhere to the laws we have been given in Torah: to build a society upon justice with compassion, supporting the vulnerable as a community, welcoming the stranger, and deeply cognizant that the Earth does not belong to us, but that we are sojourners upon it, that it belongs to God. Indeed we are invited in Psalm 145 to imagine it as the very hand of God, extended, and supporting the needs of all life, including future generations.

These are the beliefs that provide the color and form of my response to climate change.

There are many practices that my faith tradition offers, that I am actively studying. Let me name a few of the highlights:

First we have Shabbat, the day of rest. To fully observe Shabbat according to Jewish custom, there is no driving; no money exchanged; no electricity used. Imagine: the whole community living within walking distance of friends and places of worship; imagine a world that uses 1/7 or about 15% less electricity, that spends a day free of the habit of consumer culture. Imagine what our communities would look like if they were designed for a Shabbat culture.

Next we have Kashrut, a detailed system of dietary laws that fundamentally restrict what creatures we may consume and require their ethical treatment. Products are labeled with a Heksher if they adhere to our community’s ethical norms. The Heksher may be the first system of food product labeling for this purpose in history. Imagine a system of product labeling that fully encompasses our social justice and environmental concerns, and people rigidly adhering to a system of food consumption that met the highest standards for worker and animal and environmental sustainability.

Next, there is Shmita – a seven year cycle which gives a year of complete rest to the land itself. No agriculture is permitted; people may eat only what grows without human intervention, grown locally, and only while it is in season (I guarantee you all of those requirements are there in Torah law!). During Shmita, all the fields opened to everyone, animals wild and domestic, and all people from rich to poor. Hording of food beyond one’s true need is not permitted! Imagine an agricultural system designed around a Shmita-aware permaculture, interwoven throughout our communities, with food accessible to all.

Finally, since I know I am running out of time, I want to say just a few words about self-reflection and Tikkun Olam. Today is Shabbat Shuvah. Jews around the world are in the liturgical period known as the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which we reflect on and seek to repair relationships in our lives, with one another and with God. In our tradition, true repentance comes from realizing and understanding what we have done wrong, expressing a sincere regret and asking forgiveness, and working to heal the damage we have caused, and to never return to the actions that caused the harm.

We can use this period to look at our relationship with God – with God’s outstretched and generous hand – as in need of repair, and form a strategy for restoring what has been damaged and changing the habits and behaviors that ruptured this relationship in the first place.

My tradition teaches that human beings are, in fact, partners in the work of repairing Creation.  We call this work Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World. We are taught that each person has their own part of Creation to repair, and we are taught by Rabbi Tarfon, a sage who lived during the time of the destruction of the second temple, who put it this way: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16).

 

Together, our faith traditions are like trees in a forest that draw from roots that are very deep. It is so meaningful that we have assembled here together to strengthen our resolve, and to join our wisdom sources together. May we go from strength to strength as we work together to heal and repair the world.

Debt, Seattle, and the Hebrew Free Loan Association

At the end of seven years, you are to make a Release [shmita].

Now this is the matter of the Release: he shall release, every possessor of a loan of his hand, what he has lent to his neighbor. He is not to oppress his neighbor or his brother, for the Release of the Lord has been proclaimed!” … – Deuteronomy (15:1-2)

Debt release is as intrinsic to the concept of Shmita as is the fallowing of the land.  And like the fallowing of the land, it is extremely difficult to imagine doing in practice. Indeed, the difficulties were foreseen by the Author of the Torah, as it were, as the verses that follow the commandment to release debt acknowledge that the tendency might be to reduce lending to one who is in need if the lender fears he may not be repaid.  The text goes on to exhort those in a position to lend to “open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted-one, and to the needy-one in your land!”

In our community we held a discussion a few weeks ago about Shmita and debt, student debt in particular. The young woman who led the discussion was a law school graduate burdened by a significant amount of student debt. She spoke movingly about the effect the debt was having on her life, on her ability to own property, and on other major life choices and options. And yet, in the end it was impossible for her to conclude that student debt should be “erased” if doing so would reduce lending for education or lead to irresponsible behavior on the part of borrowers.

As I reflected on this conundrum, I came across a (perhaps) little known (at least little known to me) institution of Jewish life, the Hebrew Free Loan Association. This institution allows Jews to borrow money at zero interest for a variety of purposes, including getting an education, starting a business, and consolidating debt.

Hebrew Free Loan Associations operate in many cities in the United States including Seattle. According to an article by Michael Feldberg in My Jewish Learning, Seattle was actually the birthplace of the Hebrew Free Loan Association in America! According to Feldberg:

In 1909, a group of Seattle Jewish women formed a whist and sewing club with dues of 25 cents per month. When they had accumulated $64, they offered to purchase a gift for their local synagogue. Because the rabbi knew that the women raised the money by playing cards, he refused the gift. Undaunted, the women started the Hebrew Ladies’ Free Loan Society of Seattle. Their thoughtfulness helped some of Seattle’s first Jewish entrepreneurs get started in business.

Other HFLAs followed, and they were generally used to assist new Jewish immigrants at a time when they had a hard time gaining access to commercial credit. To be eligible for a loan from the Seattle Hebrew Free Loan Association a borrower must:

  • Be a member of the Jewish community residing in the State of Washington or a local Jewish student attending any accredited college or university.
  • Have two co-signers.
  • Have a source of income so that he or she will be able to repay the loan.

While the HFLA is dedicated to Jewish self-help, (according to Maimonides, “A loan is better than charity, for it enables one to help oneself”) there is nothing barring the wider community from forming “free loan” associations along similar lines.

Potential donors may wish to consider gifts to free loan associations as part of their overall charitable giving portfolio. Donations are tax deductible, and membership dues cover the administrative costs of the program. (The Seattle Hebrew Free Loan Association will hold its annual brunch on February 8. This might be a good way to learn about the program, meet people, and make a contribution.)

And debtors may wish to consider converting some of their commercial “debt with interest” to the type of debt without interest offered by the HFLA.

All of this is perfectly legal, and while it does not directly speak to the subject of total debt forgiveness envisioned in Shmita, it does perhaps point a way to some significant amount of debt relief through the elimination of interest payments, relief that is available today, operating within all of our our existing institutions and laws.

Shmita and the ‘Buy Nothing’ community

For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and let it be, that the needy of your people may eat, and what they (allow to) remain, the wildlife of the field may eat. Do thus with your vineyard, with your olive-grove.

– Exodus 23: 10-11

Anyone who locks his vineyard of fences off his agricultural field in the Sabbatical year has nullified a positive commandment.

– Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel 4.24

In the seventh year, there is a sense in which a sharing economy replaces the traditional economy. For those looking to become part of a share-based community close to home, the “Buy Nothing” communities on Facebook are a good place to start.

I was first alerted to the existence of the community during (what else?) a discussion of Shmita that took place last summer. Since joining my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing community, I have seen so much. The mother who has a bag of outgrown clothes for a 2 year old boy that she would like to “gift;” the person who has bought a new appliance or cookware and wants to “gift” the things she has replaced, etc.  Thus one person’s super-abundance fills another person’s need.

In addition to these simple acts of generosity, I have also seen acts of pure compassion that have brought tears to my eyes. Occasionally someone will post a request for someone they know who is in a more dire form of need. The NE Seattle group is gathering boxes to move a family out of a domestics violence situation, filling the holiday wish lists of children whose grown-ups are in the hospital, and putting together equipment for a cooking class for developmentally disabled adults.

The Queen Anne/Magnolia group has organized members to cook a dinner for Tent City, an encampment of about 100 homeless men and women, which is temporarily hosted by a small university in our neighborhood.

According to one friend who is also a member, “Buy Nothing has brought back meaning to the term ‘neighborhood community.'”

In the Seattle area, there are (at least) six Buy Nothing communities – in Northeast Seattle, UW/ Ravenna/Laurelhurst, Queen Anne/Magnolia, Southeast Seattle, and Shoreline. These are closed groups. To join you must submit your name, and then answer a few questions about who you are, where you live, and why you want to be a part of the community.

Perhaps, in addition to just the “mere” equitable and needs-based distribution of food that the seventh year seems explicitly designed to cultivate, the less tangible benefit would be exactly this simple awareness of the needs that exist in our communities, of the places where one person’s suffering can so easily and lovingly be relieved by someone else, if only they knew and could be brought in contact with one another.

Such a simple thing – these Buy Nothing groups. Yet they truly blur the line between “online community” and real community.

 

Chanukkah, Shmita and Shammai

As we head into winter, the light changes and creates changes inside of us. Dusk descends upon the Earth earlier and dawn arrives later.
An evening walk takes us through luminous pockets of blue, white, red and green. For some, winter light brings a melancholy and longing for bright summer sunlight. For others, the candles and iridescent colored bulbs bring excitement and nostalgia.

It is with this consciousness of light and its effects on the human condition that the Jewish people observe Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

During Hanukkah, we commemorate the triumph of the Maccabees over the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE.  When they rededicated the desecrated Temple, the Maccabees found only one cruse of oil left to light the ceremonial lamp.  That cruse of oil was only expected to last for one night; however, it lasted for eight days.

What meanings can we glean from the miracle of the oil? Perhaps it is that no matter how abused or degraded an individual or a group may be, there is the capacity in it for more fire and light than one could ever imagine. Or maybe it is that triumph over oppression illuminates what is good.  We have what we need even if it doesn’t seem as though we have enough.  We can enter darkness in our world and in our souls knowing that we will endure, and that the world has what it needs to illuminate truth, beauty and goodness.

Congregation Har Shalom is getting ready to construct its outdoor hanukkiah, which we light each night in front of the synagogue.  What will be different about this year’s Hanukkah Festivities at Har Shalom?

Generally the custom on Hanukkah is to light one candle for the first night, and one additional light each night until the eighth night when the hanukkiah is aglow with all eight branches burning brightly. A lesser known form of the ritual is to light eight lights on the first night and one fewer each night until one candle remains lit.  This year, since it is a shmita or sabbatical year in which we allow fields to lie fallow as instructed by the Torah, our community has decided that we will light our public hanukkiah according to the lesser known tradition. This mirrors the shift away from production and cultivation of land which in our times can be construed as increasing consumption of energy and natural resources.  The lights of the universe and beyond will be felt most profoundly on the culminating 8th night instead of eight lights that are humanly constructed and lit.

The sabbatical year occurs every seven years and provides the opportunity for a shift in perspective towards humility in which we
can explore the non-dominant approach.   Our usual way of doing things is interrupted and we take some time to retreat into stillness.  From there, new approaches to address old problems arise, a welcome opportunity in this challenging year.  We hope you will join us in staring into the night sky and that you will be blessed with discernment, and the lights of awareness and new hope.

This guest post was written by Jennifer Geraci and Rabbi Shoshana Leis. Rabbi Leis is co- rabbi of Har Shalom Center for Jewish Living in Fort Collins, CO.

Shmita and Perennial Agriculture

“Now the Sabbath-yield of the land (is) for you, for eating for you, for your servant and for your handmaid, for your hired-hand and for your resident-settler who sojourn with you; and for your domestic-animal and the wild-beast that (are) in your land shall be all its produce, to eat.”

Leviticus 25: 6-7

If the land yields food in a Shmita year that has grown without the sowing of seeds or the tilling of soil, then according to Scriptural Law, that food is considered Sabbath-yield and is permitted.*  Clearly an agricultural system that emphasizes food obtained from plants which either re-grow from their roots each year, or which are permanent fixtures of the landscape such as trees, shubs and vines, will produce more useable food during a Shmita year than one that is primarily based on crops which require the soil to be tilled and re-seeded every year.

Intriguingly, whatever our motivation may be for aspiring to a Shmita-friendly agricultural system, with doing so would come layer upon layer of tangible, ecological benefits.

According to Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to ‘Zuiki’ Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles, perennials can be low maintenance: they do not need to be re-sown each year, and with their larger root systems, can draw nutrients and water from deep in the soil. They are soil builders: they “improve the soil’s organic matter, structure and porosity, and water-holding capacity through the slow and steady decomposition of their roots and leaves.” They provide ecosystem benefits: their root systems hold water, and they provide habitat to beneficial garden plants and animals. And they sequester carbon dioxide in their deep root systems.

Jerry Glover is another advocate for perennial crops, particularly, in his case, wheat. Glover is part of a movement of plant breeders and agricultural scientists working to develop new breeds of perennial grain crops that could replace some or all of the annual species currently in use around the world. The focus on grain crops is important because about 70% of all of the world’s cropland is in grain production, according to National Geographic.

Such research is moving forward in the part of the Pacific Northwest known as the Palouse, which is one of the world’s most productive wheat-growing regions. The hope there is that by reducing tillage, wind and soil erosion can be avoided. In Perennial Wheat: the development of a sustainable cropping system  for the U.S., Pacific Northwest, published in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, the authors look at some new wheat varieties that are being tested for productivity, with the hope that they could be used in certain soil conditions in combination with traditional varieties of wheat to reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, and provide other benefits such as water retention and carbon sequestration.

One of the practices I am incorporating into my personal Shmita awareness is learning about perennial food producing plants that I can one day incorporate into my landscape (starting in 5776, since another of my practices is to lay off planting new things in my garden in 5775!) This year, I plan to learn more about plants that I might want to  grow and explore the possibility of growing them in our shul’s garden. Maybe at some point I will have the opportunity to teach about those plants, encouraging others to try some perennial vegetables in their own gardens – so that they will be ready with harvests to enjoy by 5782, the next Shmita year.

I will also look for ways to support the development of perennial grain harvests. Every day we read about the rigor with which the Earth is worked to produce annual commodity crops, such as wheat, corn, canola, and soy. The soil is tilled, leading to erosion and destruction of native microbe communities, then it is sprayed with chemicals to prevent weeds and pests. The cycle seems to be a vicious one, as more chemicals are needed as the pests adapt, and more fertilizer is needed as the natural productivity of the soil is not allowed to regrow. Chemicals then flow off the land, where they  pollute water bodies and kill fish. Farms are no longer wholesome places to raise children, and clearly they are not welcoming places for wildlife.

In contrast, Shmita offers a vision of agriculture in which people and wildlife are welcome and nourished; a vision of an Earth which belongs to God and is entrusted to us as a perpetually renewable gift. May there come a day when we learn to treat it as such!

*Rabbinic law does not allow the use of plants which may regrow from seeds dropped the previous year, or which otherwise look exactly like plants which are prohibited, in the belief that people may cheat. See Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel 4.1-3 (source: Shmita Sourcebook)

 

Reflections on Al Chet / Missing the Mark – for a Shmita Year

sunThe section of High Holiday liturgy known as al chet has always been fascinating to me because it is a collective rather than an individual confession of sins. I ask forgiveness for these sins each year even though I know that I am guilty of some but not all of them. But I repeat them all every year. Why? Is there a sense in which each of us, on some level, is responsible and accountable for the sins of our community? Of the world?

Is the recitation designed to absolve us of our sins? Or to focus our awareness on them as sins? Should it be a prompt toward changing our own personal behavior? Can it also be an opportunity to inquire how we can participate in strengthening the community as a whole?

Below you will find some of the additional sins I will contemplate as I spend a portion of my time this year focused on my relationship with the Earth, the sacred medium through which we receive the blessings of health, well being, and ultimately, peace.

For the sin which we have committed before You out of hopelessness, believing that we are powerless;

For the sin which we have committed before You because we are distracted and overwhelmed by choices;

And for the sin which we have committed before You on account of having become resigned to what seems inevitable.

For the sin which we have committed before You by failing to raise our voice;

For the sin which we have committed before You by failing to lift our pen;

And the sin which we have committed before You by allowing despair to sap our will.

For the sin we have committed against You by taking more than we need;

And for the sin we have committed against You by creating systems that make waste easy and invisible.

For the sin we have committed against You by failing to let the land rest.

And the sin we have committed against You by introducing poisons into the food chain of all life.

For the sin we have committed against You by ignoring what happens to our waste once it leaves our hands;

And for the sin we have committed against You by blocking from our minds the consequences of our actions.

For the sin we have committed against You by destroying the birthing places, in the sea, in the sky, and on the land, which are the source of new life;

For the sin we have committed against You by benefiting mutely from systems that violate our conscience;

And for the sin we have committed against You by of elevating efficiency as a value above compassion and justice.

For the sin we have committed against You by failing to go out into nature each day to reflect on Your magnificence and Your compassion for everything which holds the breath of life;

For the sin we have committed against You by failing to learn the names and life stories of the plants and animals who are also our neighbors;

And for the sin we have committed against You by failing to teach our children about the majesty of Your Creation and the joy to be found in loving and caring for it, as beings created in Your image.

For the sin we have committed against You of valuing the present above the future.

For the sin we have committed against You of destroying Your magnificent creatures, not to fulfill our own need for life, but to make trinkets and objects for our pleasure;

And for the sin which we have committed against You by failing to weave our lives more seamlessly into Your great cycle of birth, life, death, decay and absorption into new life.

For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.

The Puget Sound: Deepening Our Connection to Local Abundance

There is simply no way to get around the fact that shmita is deeply concerned with food, as a source of life, of health, of well being, and ultimately, of peace. The shmita year compels us to express and embody our latent awareness that the true source of food is not with us. Food comes as a gift from the Creator by way of the land. And significantly, through shmita laws, the Creator infuses the distribution of food with a concern for justice and compassion for each and every being.

Shmita imagines a food system so well integrated with natural processes that it can be left to run on its own one year out of seven and still ensure enough for all, including wild nature. Furthermore the sources of these foods will be so woven into the physical environment where we live that we will be able to harvest them ourselves as needed, without the need for commercial harvesters. Surely this is a powerful vision of a return to life in a garden!

A shmita food system is local – so that we can personally access and pick from the farms where our food is grown. It is chemical free – if the food is to be shared with wild creatures, it cannot be laced with poisons. And everyone has direct access to sufficient amount to eat to contentment, “sova”. There is no waste and no stockpiling. According to Dr. Jeremy Benstein, director of the Sova Project, “the fact that our globalized agricultural system is highly unsuited to local decentralized community based solutions says a lot more about the ills of the system than about shmita and its relevance.”

To my great surprise and delight, there is a body in the Seattle area that is expressing great sensitivity to the way that a strong local agricultural system is a foundational element of community and individual health and well being. graphicThe Regional Food Policy Council is looking holistically at the interaction between local government, education, health, equity, environment, agriculture and economic development. It is made up of a broad range of local stakeholders including farmers, policymakers, academics, native tribes, people concerned with availability of food within vulnerable populations, restauranteurs, and food processors. They meet downtown monthly and the public is welcome to attend. Register at their site to receive agendas and meeting materials.

Sabbath of the Land – Foraging in the Wild

“Now the Sabbath-yield of the land (is) for you, for eating, for you, for your servant and for your handmaid, for your hired-hand and for your resident-settler who sojourn with you; and for your domestic-animal and the wild-beast that (are) in your land shall be all its produce, to eat. ” – Leviticus 25: 6-7

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The shmita year invites us to explore and rediscover our relationship of interdependence with the plants and animals that inhabit the margins of our lands and our hearts.

As we shift from eating commercial harvests purchased at market to what we gather for ourselves, we may find ourselves looking beyond the planted fields and cultivated gardens into the wilderness, the marginal lands, and the forests that border our communities.

When we are asked to join with those whom we may, in other years, consider “other,” those who work “for” us, animals, and wildlife, to share the Sabbath-yield of the land, with all of us as equals, we are invited to get to know one another. What tender herbs does the “resident sojourner” use? What insights, what recipes, what medicines? What are the names of his children? By learning and teaching one another, and by sharing our knowledge and culture with one another, how will the web of relationships within our community grow and change?

How will our perception of wildlife change (and let’s include all wildlife, mammals, but also birds, fish, and insects)? As we see with our own eyes their ways of life, their needs, their relationships with the land and one another, how will we respond? If we are asked to share with them, this surely implies that we will not begrudge them their portion with netting, or try to eradicate them with poisons. Maybe we will even look to our own marginal spaces, the edges of our property, public spaces near us, and feel moved to choose plants and shrubs for those spaces that will meet the needs of these new friends of ours for shelter and food.

During this shmita year, we should learn about and surround ourselves with the richness and abundance that we may otherwise fail to notice or appreciate, but which is all around us. Here are a few suggestions as to how to do this.

Please share your thoughts on other ways of responding to the text above.

A Share-based Economy – Join a Time Bank

First of all, what is a timebank and what does it have to do with shmita?

The shmita year is a year of enforced interdependence among members of the community. During the shmita year, we learn to depend more upon one another and less upon the money-based economy. Dependence on the money economy is actually completely suspended when it comes to the procurement of life’s most basic necessity: food.

During the shmita year, food that is not directly gathered from the field or wilderness by an individual for his or her own immediate consumption is stored in a food bank-like public storage area, to be drawn upon by each when it is needed. Waste of food, or even its diversion to non-food uses, is prohibited.

During this period of extreme interdependence, the wealthy are not protected by their wealth, but stand as vulnerable and dependent as any other member of society when it comes to food. The role of “giver” and “receiver” are erased. The only “giver” is God, as it were. Everyone alike stands aware of his or her dependence upon God’s providence alone, each equal in her dependence on that which is outside of her control. From that awareness arise empathy and trust, in God as the ultimate provider, and in one another.

The timebank builds on the same concept, by creating a “marketplace” in which people can trade their skills, an hour at a time.

By connecting people who have something to give with people who have a something they need but cannot do for themselves, it too levels the economic playing field. Moreover, the underlying premise, that everyone has something to give and also a lack that can be filled only by reaching out and allowing oneself to become dependent on another, is beautiful and both practical and deeply spiritual.

I first read about the idea of the timebank in this article published by RealChange, the Seattle area’s homeless newspaper. I learned that the Seattle/Puget Sound area already has many functioning timebanks. They are found in the Central District, on the Eastside, north of Seattle, on Mercer Island, in West Seattle, and on Vashon Island. To learn more about how to join, TimeBanks of Puget Sound has a website.

I hope to learn more about timebanking over the coming year. I would love to hear from anyone who has participated in a timebank and can share news of what it’s like from the inside.

Participating in a timebank could be one action we might take during the shmita year.