Category Archives: Texts

Love at the Crossroads

These are (approximately) the words I shared as a member of the opening interfaith opening panel for the Love at the Crossroads conference produced by FACT (the Faith Action Climate Team) on October 28, 2017.

Love at the Crossroads

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak here today about Love at the Crossroads. I look forward to a day of learning with you about the connections between social justice, climate change, and love.

For a number of years, I have been studying the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts, looking within them for lessons about how human beings should relate to the Earth, and I have been writing and speaking and teaching about my reflections.

I do this in part because, as I’ve grown older I have seen that reason has not been very good at inducing so-called rational human beings to think differently, or make changes that are uncomfortable. I’ve seen that we live by the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about what is real and important, and about what is expected of us. We can be motivated to change our behavior, but not, I believe, primarily by means of data. It is discomfort that does it. Spiritual discomfort changes us.

This discomfort can come from our own life experiences, or, from stories that work on us and change us from the inside. The Hebrew Bible is a rich source of stories; stories which play across not only our individual minds, but which are reflected across much of Western culture, and connect us to generations past and future. These stories, these “myths,” if you will, shape how we view ourselves, our roles and responsibilities in the world; and what values we are willing to sacrifice for. So, by taking hold of the coloration and meaning of these stories, and sharing them, we can change ourselves and the future – at least that is my hope.

 

The world the Hebrew Bible envisions for us is one in which we love one another. This is the central teaching of our faith.  Love your neighbor as yourself, and also, love “the stranger who lives within your gates.”  (Both commandments are found in Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus.) But lest we think that love is just an abstract feeling, we are guided with very specific instructions about how to do this; about what our relationships are supposed to look like, with one another, with God, and with the land.

Here are some highlights:

  • Our system of justice should not favor the rich or the poor
  • We must take up the case of the vulnerable, the widow and the orphan, who have no one to advocate for them
  • We don’t take advantage of people’s ignorance – we don’t “place a stumbling block before the blind”
  • We don’t stand idly by our neighbor’s blood, we take responsibility for the welfare of others
  • The list could go on and on

Regarding the land:

  • It is through the medium of the land that God attends to all of our needs
  • We don’t own it. It belongs in perpetuity to God and must be used first to serve God: A portion of its produce must always be set aside for the needy.
  • Every seven years, the land must enjoy a complete rest, during which all of its produce is ownerless and may be used at subsistence levels by everyone, from the richest to the most vulnerable, including animals both wild and domestic.
  • Debts must be periodically forgiven.
  • The distribution of land, which is the ultimate source of all wealth, must be rebalanced in each generation so that it is not amassed by a few and used to exploit the many

In the words of Dr. Cornell West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And I would say as a corollary: “Exploitation is what happens when love is forgotten.”

 

We are told that if we follow these laws (and more) then we will be rewarded with rains that fall in their season, and the land will be productive and feed us; but if we do not, that God will “break our fierce pride! The heavens will be like iron, the earth like bronze; your land will not give forth its yield, its trees will not give forth fruit; our cities will become a wasteland.”

Will this come about as a result of “miracles” or “natural consequences?”

It would be interesting to write a long essay on this subject that probes all the possible connections between social justice and environmental sustainability, but let me raise just one.

 

What if we took seriously the lesson that the land is God’s, and that we are meant to benefit from the natural abundance that springs from it. The gifts that spring up from the land we are to experience as a gift, part of a relationship, that links us with God and with generations past and future. We may make use of them, but only with reverence. The buzzword is “sustainability,” but it’s even more precious than that if we treat it as a gift.

Well, attached to this “land,” along with its potential for agricultural, there is wind, there is sunlight. These can be converted to energy. The dignity to using them in this way comes from the fact that they connect the individual not to the marketplace, but to God and the land.

 

My interpretation of the text leads me to believe that there is something powerful about people being connected as directly as possible to this source of natural abundance. Because it is there that we “feel” the love of our Creator for us, and “see” it as part of what connects us to our children and parents, and feel motivated by our own love for all of this, to care for it and tend it lovingly for the future. In this sacred and loving connection lies our hope that we can save the planet and one another. So let’s do everything we can do deepen and enrich our sense of our dependence on, and our ability to enter into sacred relationship with the land.

 

When I read stories about how vigorously fossil fuel interests and private utility companies are trying to delay or prevent the deployment of liberating renewable energy technologies, I am reminded of the story of Pharaoh. If you recall this story, Pharaoh took ownership of the produce of Egypt during seven years of plenty, and then when seven years of famine came, he sold the life-saving grain back to his people. At first this was very helpful. But as the famine wore on, this market for grain became exploitative. People were forced to pay for it by selling first their draft animals, then their land, and finally they sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh.

It seems to me that there is a similarity here with the fossil fuel giants taking control of the millions of years of “plenty,” during which carbon was stored in the ground and became oil and gas, then selling them back to us. At first it was very helpful (and saved a lot of whales), but we have turned the corner and understand now that the environmental costs are too high.

 

We can and must throw off this Carbon Pharaoh, even though, just like with the first Pharaoh, despite warnings of disaster, he seems to be only hardening his heart against us. In the Bible, deliverance began with prayer, and was accomplished with a lot of help from God. Today our prophets are climate scientists, and the increasingly unmistakable drumroll of catastrophes, from widespread and devastating wild fires, droughts, and famines, to inundation of coastal cities along with more and more powerful hurricanes and storms, are feeling like modern day “plagues.”

 

In the Jewish tradition, we look at time as something like an ascending spiral, that advances, hopefully, even as it revisits the same stories year in and year out. Our texts give us keys and clues to living honorably on the land. Can we take these images and ideals and use them to build a new model of relationship between human beings and the sustaining and loving landscape we have been given, before it is too late?

 

When we do this, then the struggle will be over, and we will truly be able to say that our soul has returned from a very profound exile and found rest. Because isn’t this what we long for: the repose of the soul, in peace, in justice and with love, upon the good land that we have been given, in a world in which each person is able to rest in the shade of their own fig tree and vine, knowing that each other person rests securely under their own?

 

Shabbat Shalom

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.

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.

Sabbath of the Land

“The Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land is to cease, a Sabbath-ceasing to the Lord.

“For six years you are to sow your field, for six years you are to prune your vineyard, then you are to gather in its produce, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord: your field you are not to sow, your vineyard you are not to prune, the aftergrowth of your harvest you are not to harvest, the grapes of your consecrated-vines you are not to amass; a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing shall there be for the land!

“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 25:1-7)

Shmita and Exile

“Exile comes to the world on account of idol-worship, sexual promiscuity, murder and the failure to leave the land fallow on the sabbatical year.” – Pirkei Avot

What do idol-worship, sexual promiscuity, murder, and failure to leave the land fallow in the sabbatical year have in common?

Why is exile a punishment/consequence?

What is “exile”?

Whose Sabbath is it?

“The Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land is to cease, a Sabbath-ceasing to the Lord.

“For six years you are to sow your field, for six years you are to prune your vineyard, then you are to gather in its produce, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord: your field you are not to sow, your vineyard you are not to prune, the aftergrowth of your harvest you are not to harvest, the grapes of your consecrated-vines you are not to amass; a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing shall there be for the land!”  – Leviticus 25:1-5

Whose Sabbath is it? (Hint: what is a “Sabbath”?)

Whom is it “to”? Whom is it “for”? (Note: in Hebrew these are both indicated by the same preposition in this text.)

Who (or what) is to do the resting?

How would you describe the role of the people in fulfilling this period of rest?