Rev. Peter Sawtell is Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries, an independent, ecumenical agency that helps churches answer the call to care for all of God's creation. www.eco-justice.org
©Blue Ridge Press 2013
Earth Day: Save the Wild Before It’s Gone
by Rev. Peter Sawtell
The world is about to become a poorer place. Without decisive action half the Earth’s marine and land species will likely disappear forever in less than a human lifetime.
We are at fault. Land clearing, overfishing, pollution and climate change are pushing tigers, elephants, rhinos, whales, polar bears, gorillas, great white sharks and other iconic species, not to mention tens-of-thousands of lesser known plants and animals, to oblivion.
Such dramatic extinctions have occurred just five times in Earth's history. This time, scientists say, it’s happening faster than ever—even quicker than the end of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
I'm a Christian minister who specializes in environmental ethics, and the rapid extinction of life is deeply troubling to me. So as Earth Day 2013 approaches, I asked three religious colleagues from different denominations to help me ponder the crisis.
“Losing a species to extinction is like tearing a page out of sacred scripture,” Calvin DeWitt told me. God is revealed to us in nature, explains this zoology professor and Evangelical leader, so each species lost denies us a unique opportunity to know and praise God.
“I love the first Genesis creation story, and I love the way that on each day of Creation, there’s more and more life,” says Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest who directs the environmental organization GreenFaith. “What we’re currently doing is the opposite of that Genesis story—we’re the anti-Creators.”
United Church of Christ pastor Talitha Arnold reminded me that Jesus said that not even a sparrow could fall without God noticing. “Are we so arrogant as to think that God doesn't care about all the species on the verge of extinction due to our greed and misuse of the Earth?”
The tragedy is far more complex than the loss of individual species. God's creation is an ecological web of relationships, where each species contributes to the vitality of the whole. The loss of a single bird or beetle may seem unimportant, but each disappearance rips at the web.
The sudden loss of so much life makes most of us heartsick to witness. But we aren’t just witnesses. Our globalized society—your and my and everyone’s appetite for energy and resources—is quickening the cascade of extinction.
“I love and admire human ingenuity as much as the next person, but this is pretty sobering for me,” says Fletcher, who believes we are “anti-creators" due to the misguided ways in which we are using our power and creativity.
“Human beings are the only kind that has the capacity to destroy the earth,” says Calvin. But, he adds: “We are also the only kind that can decide not to exercise our capacity for destruction.”
“We have a sacred duty to love and care for creation as the Lord loves and cares for it,” Talitha concludes. “The Bible celebrates the diversity of creation and the endless imagination of God. We human beings need that same imagination and passion for this world in all its diversity.”
My friends and I agree that people of faith of all traditions are called on to pray, study and respond to this crisis. All humans must act to slow the rush of extinction.
What can we do?
• When shopping and eating out, insist on seafood raised and harvested sustainably, because bad fishing practices are devastating the oceans (www.seafoodwatch.org).
• Forest preservation is also key, so look for sustainably-certified lumber, and paper products with recycled and sustainable content (us.fsc.org).
• Grow native plants in your garden to preserve local flora, which also supports the bugs and birds that depend on them. And cut chemical pesticide use.
• Get involved with efforts to preserve threatened habitats in your own backyard—help protect local marsh, grassland, forest, or aquatic species.
• Support conservation organizations that work globally to protect endangered species (such as worldwildlife.org).
• Get your children—the future stewards of our world—engaged and involved.
The loss of half the world's species isn’t inevitable. My friends and I urge you, for practical, moral and spiritual reasons: act now to preserve life on Earth.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach. Because today is Tu B’Shevat, it’s appropriate to think about Judaism’s relationship with the environment and what our tradition expects of us in these critical and often confusing times. First, to hopefully relieve some of the confusion, my brief report card on the state of the environment.
In my opinion, the status of the environment is a mixed bag. First, the good news. Planet Earth is doing quite well. As it has done for 4.5 billion years or so, Earth continues to rotate on its axis on a daily basis and continues its annual revolution around the sun, which has the oddly Jewish name of Sol. It continues to wander through the cosmos along with the other 200 to 400 billion stars that comprise the Milky Way Galaxy. Most likely, Earth will continue to exist in more or less its present state for another 10 billion or so years, after which Sol will go supernova, thereby turning our spherical spaceship into an enormous charcoal briquette.
There’s also good news locally. Statistics indicate that New Jersey’s air is the cleanest it’s been in our lifetimes. I recall as a child growing up on Long Island that as soon as we crossed through Staten Island and into New Jersey, my father would roll up the windows and put on the air conditioning, even if it was 10 degrees outside. Now, we New Jerseyans can gloat a bit at the reports of contaminated air in Beijing, China. Our drinking water is clean, good-tasting, and for the most part, abundant.
New Jersey is becoming more beautiful as well. By the middle of the 19th century, the northeastern United States had been almost completely denuded of trees. They had been chopped down, mainly for firewood. The next time you’re flying over New Jersey, take a look outside your window. Chances are you’ll see a vast forest, sprinkled with towns and roads. The great forest of the northeastern United States has returned. And wildlife? There have now been bear sightings now in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, and seemingly a deer in every backyard.
But there’s plenty of bad news. We are currently in the midst of what some scientists have coined the Sixth Extinction, the Fifth Extinction having wiped out the dinosaurs and numerous other life forms 65 million years ago. Our planet is undergoing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. Thousands and perhaps millions of species of flora and fauna are going extinct due to many factors, including pollution, overfishing, and land clearing, most importantly through the loss of rain forests, which is a catastrophe in and of itself. Untold numbers of species have yet to be catalogued and may never be catalogued. No one knows the potential direct benefits these lost species may have provided to humans, but I know this: our planet is poorer because of their disappearance.
And then of course there’s climate change. In 1979, I was privileged to attend a lecture on global warming by the man who coined the phrase, Professor Wally Broecker of Columbia University. There is so much tangible evidence for climate change, it boggles my mind that there are people who deny its very existence. You need only note the disappearance of the continental glaciers (in 15 years, they may have to rename Glacier National Park), the thawing of tundra, the thinning and disappearance of the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, and consequently the appearance of the Northwest Passage for the first time since Europeans came to the New World, should be enough to convince people that something is going terribly wrong.
So what does Judaism have to say about the environment? I’d like to report to you that Judaism is the “Religion of the Environment,” but this would miss the mark.
To understand the relationship between our Judaism’s founders and the environment, we must first understand the context of their existence. Our forebears were a desert people, and like all desert people, they viewed the environment with both awe and terror. The Bible is filled with both sentiments. After all, one of the landmark events in Genesis is a flood, and if that ain’t climate change, I don’t know what is! And what was the first plague all about? That’s right, water pollution!
This may sound tongue-in-cheek, but the ancients probably saw the first plague far differently than we see it today. You’re probably like me. You read the first plague and think to yourself, “Blood in the Nile. Yuck!” But to a desert people whose very existence depended on a scarce resource, turning the river into blood may have seemed as terrifying and threatening as the slaying of the first born.
Our forebear’s relationship with trees was quite different as well. Today, we view trees mainly as ornaments, a forest as a place to take a walk with the family on a sunny Sunday. Maybe we had our picture taken while planting a tree in Israel. But to a desert people, a healthy tree meant survival, not just for you but for your progeny. Tu B’Shevat probably was a more serious holiday in ancient times.
Because of the threats posed by the environment, ancient cultures attempted to understand the environment by ascribing its attributes to various gods and attempted to control and thereby conquer the environment by praying and offering sacrifices to the gods. Ancient Jews felt the same need, as with the Song of the Sea after the walls of the Red Sea came crashing down on Pharoah’s army, as we read in today’s Parshah.
The instinct to control and conquer nature is in accordance with Chapter 1 of Genesis, in which G-d tells humans to “fill the earth and master it.” The Zionist pioneers certainly had this mindset. If you’re around my age, you probably read inspiring stories of the Chalutzim draining swamps, paving the way for the modern State of Israel. Well, guess what? Destruction of wetlands, at least in this country, will get you a substantial fine and possibly a prison sentence! The dream of making the desert bloom will soon haunt Israel. So much water is diverted from Lake Kinneret that the Jordan River is now barely a trickle which has resulted in a lowering of the water level of the Dead Sea, an ecological disaster in the making.
The Kabbalists perhaps developed the first Jewish school of thought to embrace the concept of the environment as the foundation for our spiritual lives. They developed the concept of the cosmic tree of the Sefirot, which was seen as a blueprint of the work. The Kabbalists created a Tu B’Shevat Seder in which they adopted the 4 cups of wine from Pesach and added to it a progression from white wine to red, symbolizing planting to full flowering, or masculine to feminine.
But what about more mainstream Judaism? In what ways is environmentalism consistent with Halacha?
I suggest we start with the basics. The Talmud recounts the famous story of the Gentile who approached Rabbi Hillel and challenged him to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. He famously said, “Do not do to others that which is hateful to you. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”
It’s a fact. The peoples of the world are more interdependent than ever, and the choices we make can affect our neighbors as well as people across the globe, untold millions of people we don’t know and may never meet. Climate change will affect the poor of Bangladesh, the nomadic Inuit in northern Canada, and even, as we recently and sadly learned, people in Far Rockaway, New York and Moonachie, New Jersey.
Judaism teaches us that we have a responsibility to all people, regardless of whether we know them or not. If the carbon dioxide that we create causes changes in weather patterns that endanger the lives of others, then by the concept of Pikuah Nefesh, the call to preserve life, we must change our ways, to avoid doing unto others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us.
And what of the creatures? Again, let’s start at the beginning. On the sixth day of creation, G-d grants humans dominion over “the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, the cattle, the whole earth.” But it’s clear that this is not an unrestricted license. This passage establishes our sacred duty to care for G-d’s creatures. While animals may be killed for food, the shochet must take elaborate steps to minimize the pain the animal experiences. We’re permitted to kill animals for food and clothing, or if they pose a danger to human beings, as in the case of pests such as rodents and some insects, but for no other reason.
Our responsibility to look after G-d’s creatures also makes it imperative that we care for the environment. As with people, our actions affect animals as well. Loss of habitat and disruption of the food chain is killing off animals who may never have even seen a human being. Many die of starvation, which involves suffering, another prohibition. From an halachic point of view, the suffering and the death of animals caused by environmental changes brought on by human activities may be as against Jewish values as the killing of animals for ivory and for sport.
So now we’ve come full circle. While planet Earth has a bright future ahead of it, it is a less certain future for our species and the rest of G-d’s creatures. The terror felt towards nature by our Biblical forebears is returning to us, their descendants. Our tradition calls to us under the concept of Shomrei Adamah, as G-d’s stewards of the Earth, to protect and care for his creation. This duty begins with that very basic rule of Rabbi Hillel that we are duty-bound to follow. The rest is commentary. Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.
GreenFaith Fellow Victoria Pearson - a Quaker educator - wrote a post about her experience at the recent GreenFaith Fellowship Program retreat. The post appears on http://westtownfaculty.wordpress.com/ and on her personal blog - http://www.seekerfinding.blogspot.com.
I was pleased to be sponsored by Westtown in my application to the GreenFaith Fellowship Program, and upon hearing of my acceptance, was at once excited and had trepidations about being part of a program with ordained clergy. As a Friend who attended an Episcopal seminary, I had the good luck of having fellow Quaker students in my cohort, and the willingness to engage with larger questions of church and justice in a broader Christian landscape. Learning and leading with fellow travelers who were seeking ordination, I gained an appreciation and respect for those called to lead in congregations, and confirmation in my belief in the priesthood of all, the lack of laity that is at the heart of Friends’ faith.
I should not have been worried about engaging with clergy again. Having just completed the first of three retreats that are part of this program, I can safely say that those called to save our planet through the lens of diverse faiths know that what is at stake is reaching out across faith differences, and committing with whole heart to this shared challenge that our faiths call to us.
This program spans 18 months, includes three face-to-face retreats, and monthly webinars. We write eco-autobiographies, theological research from our faith traditions, and plan and implement leadership projects. This program will offer me space to engage theologically with the ecological and justice commitments that motivate me in my work.
GreenFaith’s mission is “to inspire, educate and mobilize people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership. Our work is based on beliefs shared by the world’s great religions – we believe that protecting the earth is a religious value, and that environmental stewardship is a moral responsibility.” (greenfaith.org/about/) This first retreat, focused on stewardship, offered many insights into the diversity of faiths represented, and our common cause of catalyzing our communities for bold faithful environmental work. Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Atheist, Catholic, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Baptist, New Church Movement, Lutheran Fellows were represented from around the USA and Canada—and one Fellow from Finland! It was truly an inspiring and challenging event.
At the retreat, we met in year cohorts. I am a member of the 2013 cohort, and the 2012 cohort was having their last retreat with us. Although I was the only Friend in attendance, we had ample opportunity to engage Friends values, as we convened at Pendle Hill, and one of our site visits was to the Friends Center to hear about the process and results of the greening of that building. We also toured a green jobs training center in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, and participated in green site audits at a local Presbyterian Church, and synagogue.
It was exciting to hear about the leadership projects that the 2012 fellows are doing. From liturgical music with earth care themes, to lunchtime discussions in faith communities, to online interfaith organizing, to programming on the regional and national level, these fellows modeled the strategic and systematic thinking needed to bring the good word of our environmental moment to communities still unsure of what to do, or how to do it from grounding in faith.
Our next retreat, in May, is at a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York, and the theme is Spirit. We will be surrounded by beauty, and have the chance to hike and reflect on the deep well of our faiths. I cannot wait to see what work becomes clear for me as I embrace my call to be good enough for the greening of our planet and faiths. I look forward to further reflection and growth with this dynamic program, and the openings that will occur in me as I continue my faithful pursuit of integration of my sense of ministry with the work of the land.
Sara Sweeney, LEED-certified architect and GreenFaith Fellow, discusses the link between architecture and spirituality in an interview with Mindful Walker, a website devoted to a contemplative engagement with architecture.
To Sara Sweeney, bricks, concrete, and glass are expressions of our soul. Each building, in the architect’s view, is a statement of us, our relationship to each other, and our connection, or disconnection, with the Earth.
A registered architect, Sweeney has had a 19-year career reflecting her passion and commitment to sustainable design, green building practices, and care for the Earth. She is the founder of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based EcoVision LLC, a research and consulting firm grounded in sustainable design practices, environmental stewardship, and building science. She is a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP), which indicates an advanced knowledge of green building standards and practices. Sweeney also is on the advisory board of Build2Sustain, which seeks to bring sustainable design to every organization.
Mindfulwalker.com interviewed Sweeney about what the architect sees as the interconnection of architecture and spirituality, her view that architecture is a calling and carries much responsibility, and how she is teaching the next generation of architects about sustainability and care for our planet.
Mindful Walker: You have written that “there is a spiritual link between the realm of built and natural environment,” basically between what we build and nature. What do you see as the link?
Sweeney: This link is just something that’s intrinsic. We as humans inhabit Earth and we build structures because that’s our shelter, that’s our places of work, that’s our commerce. We need these structures to support our lives. We both live on Earth and we build these structures that inhabit Earth, and so in a way I feel that there’s this triangle of human, structure, and Earth.
There’s a link between all of that because what we build is an expression of us. It’s an expression of us socially, it’s an expression of us culturally, and it’s an expression of who we are, how we feel, and how we view ourselves. That’s what I’m talking about overall. It’s the link between humanity and the built and natural environment.
It’s spiritual because I truly believe that, regardless of your religious leanings if you have that – religion is really just the way you choose to express spirituality. There are so many ways we can all express our spiritual selves. We are spiritual beings – the Earth is a very spiritual thing itself.
I’ve done some looking into Celtic Christianity and paganism. Celtic Christianity is this melding of pagan traditions and Christian traditions. Pagan traditions were very much focused on Earth, that connection that we all fall into these rhythms of the Earth, and they define us – the sun, the moon, the growing seasons, the seasons in general. All of these things are linked together.
There is a lot in the Bible that links Earth and humans and structure. There are passages about building, about the growing season, and about the connection between these things. The spiritual link is because buildings are where we live, where we work – and you can see those as also spiritual expressions of ourselves. Then they sit on earth and are grounded in earth. They have foundations that are a part of Earth, and so they are very spiritually linked as well.
Every time we start to build a building, whether it’s going into virgin ground or ground that’s been built on before, to me building is a very profound thing because if you’re going out there with a shovel or a backhoe, you are now digging into the Earth and putting that building into the Earth.
There’s a very deep connection between humans, Earth, and buildings, but I don’t think we connect that. I think we separate it: It’s like there’s humans and Earth, and then there are buildings. Buildings are just places we live in, or work at, but they don’t really mean anything. There’s something very strong that we’re missing. Overall, we’re missing that link.
Mindful Walker: In your schooling and training to become an architect, what had the biggest impact on you – became a turning point, if you will – in seeing architecture on a more spiritual level?
Sweeney: It was my senior year at Miami University in Ohio, from 1990 to 1991. Miami University of Ohio was part of a consortium with Virginia Tech, and it was a consortium of six schools. We could all send a few students from the class to study at Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center for a semester. The semester that I spent there I ended up designing a Buddhist monastery for my project. We actually were able to choose our project. We could do whatever we wanted so I decided to do a Buddhist monastery.
I chose this site out in Rock Creek Park, a huge site that was a couple of acres of land. It was in a ravine. I started to look at Japanese architecture. I studied Buddhism. I wasn’t going to church at that point but I was still always very on to the ritual. There was something about the ritual, like how that connected you spiritually to God. I tried meditation and things like that. The project became this Buddhist monastery with a meditation path, and the monks lived in these cells that were off the meditation path.
The meditation path was very structured, where the monks’ cells were, where the eating area was, the refectory, places like that. Then this path was a loop that went around on the site, and it looped around the ravine. And it changed: The walkway was all out of concrete but that sort of dissolved into the earth, and then you were walking on bare earth. Then as you came back, it started to reconfigure till you were back on a concrete walkway, more the formal part of the monastery.
That really impacted me. Near the end of the semester it was clear that I was really thriving there much more than I was when I was at Miami. I ended up staying for the entire year. The professor I was working with most on this project at the time, a Virginia Tech professor named Greg Hunt, was the one who really pushed me to start thinking about things in a different way.
Mindful Walker: How did it become spiritual per se?
Sweeney: It became spiritual because I started to think differently about materials. How is it when you’re walking on a material? How does it feel under your feet? How does the experience feel of being on this path, and how it disintegrates into nothing and then reconfigures itself into something? But being “nothing,” it really isn’t “nothing” because you are on earth and you are of earth. And with the structures: How did you filter light in so that you are connected with light, and how did you use the shadows and the light to create experience for the person?
As I learned more about (architect) Louis Kahn, he talked about things like silence and light and materials – his whole thing about “I ask the brick what you want to be. Do you want to be an arch? Well, you know, I could span this opening with a concrete lintel. What do you think about that?” “Well, I like an arch.” It’s the honesty of the materials and things like that. That was definitely the turning point.
Mindful Walker: In your writings you’ve said that being an architect is a calling. How do you see being an architect as a calling?
Sweeney: I say that but I don’t know if I ever understood what a calling meant. I was listening to Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith on the way to church about two months ago, and there was a man on the air who was talking about a calling and what a calling is. It was something to the effect of: A calling is something that basically you could not see yourself doing anything else, and at the same time the world could not be without what you are doing. That is what a calling is.
That is exactly what it is. I could not see doing anything else. I think I am still in this eternal struggle to find out what is the true meaning of this calling that I say being an architect is because being an architect can also be very mundane. You get into the cost issues. “This is over budget. This is too much money. I don’t want to do this.” And you end up going through the motions of just getting the building built.
But it’s this deeper thing of the architect has a huge responsibility with respect to the creation of the built environment. We’re the ones who are manifesting what we as a society and a culture – what we’re feeling and thinking about architecture – into that final built form.
I don’t feel that as a whole we’re doing a very good job in terms of architecture. There is a lot of architecture that is absolute crap. There’s a lot of architecture where I don’t feel that [architects are] living up to their responsibility. I know that’s probably a very arrogant thing to say but that’s how I feel.
At the same time, it might be the same boat that I’m in, so I don’t want to pass judgment on any architect because I have to look at the body of my work, and it’s not like I am out there doing all these amazing things either. So we might all be in this struggle.
Mindful Walker: It’s very much seeking a balance, isn’t it? It’s that balance of ideal and reality. But if you look at the life of your work, hopefully you begin to see a theme emerging of having done that. Slowly, it’s true, but it’s lifelong.
Sweeney: That is part of what a calling is. It’s not like, “Here’s your calling!” And you’re like, “Got it.” And you’re 22 and you just go. You might be 80 and finally you’ve honed it.
Mindful Walker: You center your life’s work on sustainable building design and practices, and environmental stewardship, which is taking care of the Earth. Could you tell me about a particular day’s work and how it relates to your spiritual commitment to the Earth and to the built and natural environments?
Sweeney: There’s really no typical day, especially being a small-business owner. I’ll give you the idea of a typical day, and I have those every once in a while, where you’re meeting with a client or a potential client, and you give them the sustainable potential of their building. Yesterday, I was having lunch with somebody with respect to a project, working with this architecture firm. I brought in what are they doing about the storm management and what are they doing about light? It’s a lot of these other attributes. It’s not necessarily talking about the spiritual links directly. It’s very indirect.
It’s striving for that balance between understanding that there’s this budget but also wanting to push people to think about things in a different way. Later in the day I was meeting with somebody about another project. It was actually a LEED consulting job, and we were focusing on the LEED checklist. (Note: The LEED program defines benchmarks to rate the level of environmental sustainability in the design and construction of a building. It encompasses five areas of environmental and human health: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, materials and resources selection, sustainable site development, and water savings.) We were going through the checklist and looking at the credits. Where are you with this credit? What else could you possibly be doing?
LEED isn’t the end-all, be-all of sustainability. It’s a good guide for helping in the transition from building conventionally, which is much more focused on first costs and not really building, to building with more attention in mind, more commitment.
Also, I love to learn. I probably spend at least an hour a day just researching something. Something pops into my head that I want to learn more about. There’s something building science-related, or something spiritual-related. I teach part-time, too, as an adjunct. I am always refining my lectures. I want to make them a little better and update them with new information.
Mindful Walker: How does your teaching and learning relate to your spiritual commitment?
Sweeney: The teaching helps me to formulate these thoughts and ideas. It’s allowing me to actually present it to a new generation of architects, that hopefully I can have them think mindfully about things. I’m very clear about when I am saying certain things. [For example], sand, water, and aggregate go into concrete. I mean that’s a fact. But when I talk about some of the other things I’m very mindful that this is my opinion but I want you all to think about this, to keep yourself open, do your own research, and form your own opinion.
I teach one class at Philadelphia University, a two-part required course, called Tech I and Tech 2. It’s a building systems and materials class. We bring in sustainability in the second semester, in terms of materials and sustainable sites, and being more mindful.
I like to be very careful about how I teach all of that. I do want them to form their own opinions. I don’t like to go in there and say “You guys have to do this because the climate is changing and we’re all doomed.” I can’t stand that. I’d rather go in there and say, “Some people think the climate is changing and it’s humans, and some people think it’s not. I would encourage you to do your research and don’t just listen to one person or one voice. Don’t just listen to Al Gore. Do your homework. Do the research on both sides of the coin and come up with your own opinion.”
But you should also figure out what does sustainability mean to you? What does it mean in terms of building?
Mindful Walker: To my way of thinking and others – and this is an opinion – humans construct many buildings with the short term in mind, not for the long term. You’ve written about longevity. Is this kind of building, with the thought of the short term in mind, part of the disconnection between buildings and the Earth? How does longevity matter with regard to the environment?
Sweeney: Definitely – because we’re so focused on costs and pro formas that “this is what the building is going to cost. I know what the building is going to cost so I can’t vary from this because this is what my bottom-line profit margin is going to be, and that’s it.” We’re definitely building with the more short term in mind and not the long term. I don’t think we’re building [that way]. Energy efficiency, durability of materials, and mindfulness of the site we’re building on – that’s sustainable building.
You go in and you say here’s this site. How can we be mindful? You don’t have to do really crazy things. You just need to be mindful of how you site the building, where you site the building, and of how you handle the stormwater. Trees – trees are really good. People like trees. It’s just simple things, like the materials that you choose.
It seems funny that we’re so focused on cutting cost and building to a certain amount per square foot that we’re building with crappy materials. Then the people who are constructing the buildings aren’t getting paid enough. The craftsmanship is gone. It gives you a sense of it not being a very good building.
The maintenance isn’t done on the building, and it just starts to deteriorate. Problems start to develop. Water leaks or air leaks start. All kinds of things happen that cause the building to be less efficient. Again, because we’re building with less efficiency in mind, the mindset is “why do I have to take the drywall to the other side of the deck? I’ll just take the drywall to above the drop ceiling and I’m done.” Well, now you’ve just decreased the efficiency of your building incredibly because you don’t have an effective air barrier throughout the building. The mechanical system now has to work harder to heat and cool that building.
It’s a threefold thing of mindfulness about the site, the materials, and the efficiency of the building. But you know we’re not thinking about that – we’re thinking about the bottom-line dollar.
Again, we’re not thinking of these buildings as being expressions of ourselves in terms of humans. They’re disconnected from us. It’s “I’m a spiritual being, but that’s just a building.” Think about your house. The house is the best place to think about the connection of a person to a building. Most people have very, very strong connections to their homes. That’s where you start to see that spiritual link.
Mindful Walker: Do you have a favorite example or two of great architecture that is both beautiful and reflects this kind of care of the Earth’s natural environment?
Sweeney: I can’t pull one or two things out. It’s more that it’s this overarching idea about buildings. Some people might disagree with me, but I think that (Louis) Kahn was one of the architects who was getting to the core of that spiritual connection. The Salk Institute in San Diego is beautiful.
I haven’t really been to Kahn’s buildings in India [and Bangladesh but I would cite] his buildings there, especially because of the way he used materials. He really expressed the brick and how the brick was used as a material. They are these incredibly durable buildings, and I think they are very adaptable buildings. You talk to people who have been there, they really love the buildings. There’s a feeling there, something about the place that’s just wonderful.
Carlo Scarpa is another architect. I can’t think of any specific building, but just the way that he thought about the experience people were going to have and the experience that the architecture was going to give you and vice versa.
Another one – I’m giving more architects that are hitting the experience – is Tadao Ando. He built a lot in concrete. There’s honesty in the materials. He used concrete and he just used concrete. It was “this is concrete, and I’m going to make it beautiful. And I can do what I want with it.”
There’s another, E. Fay Jones, who worked a lot in wood. One of his projects is this chapel, Thorncrown Chapel, built in the woods in Arkansas. It’s just absolutely magnificent. I’ve never seen it except in pictures, but it’s all of wood frame. He really understood the materials. There’s something to that – understanding of materials and this honesty of materials, and using them mindfully to create these beautiful spaces that impact us as humans.
Mindful Walker: You are a GreenFaith Fellow. Could you talk about what GreenFaith does and about your involvement as a GreenFaith Fellow?
Sweeney: GreenFaith works very hard to bring awareness of environmental concerns in relation to spiritual concerns from a Biblical perspective. Their whole thing is in being mindful. We were told in Genesis to be stewards of the Earth and we have responsibility over the Earth. God gave us dominion over the Earth, and people took dominion as being power. But dominion is really a word that carries a great responsibility with it.
GreenFaith does classes, programs, and curriculum for schools and for religious organizations. It’s all interfaith. They have this GreenFaith fellowship program through which they wanted to start to train people to be leaders in religious environmental leadership, to be able to go out and take this spiritual undercurrent into the world more, because they can’t do it all.
The crux of my fellowship was to continue to explore this spiritual link in architecture and try to bring the spiritual awareness into architecture. That can be really tough when you’re talking with people who say, “This is how much money we have. This is the construction budget. That’s it.” And you’re trying to get them to be aware of our building, that this is a comment on who we are.
Mindful Walker: What can the nonprofessional person who is mindful of the spiritual connection between our natural and our built environments do to support better stewardship of the environment?
Sweeney: In general you learn to be aware – first start with yourself and start to be aware. Start in your own home. What is it about your own home that you like about it or that you dislike about it? You can always learn things in what you dislike, too. What kind of connection do you feel with that land, that area, and that place? What is it about it? Try to become more mindful of it yourself first.
It goes back to everything about our lives. Our lives are very fast-paced, so having these big-box shopping centers makes everything very easy. But if there’s something about experiences with shopping in small towns that we like, are we missing something? Are we trying to be so fast-paced that we are going to start tripping over ourselves almost?
I’m not saying to radically change your habits but just to be mindful of things, and are there some things that you would like to do differently? If you are a spiritual person begin to understand the tenets in the Koran or in the Bible or in the Torah. If you are Buddhist, in these practices, in these religions, how do they talk about the environment? Are you called to be stewards in any way? Are you called to be caretakers? What can you do differently?
It’s becoming more mindful of that. Don’t just go out there and say, “I’m going to buy all compact fluorescent light bulbs, and I’m going to put in low-flow shower heads.” That’s great, but you’re just putting a Band-aid on everything. You have to be mindful first and understand what God is calling you to do. What are you being called to be? That goes back to you as a human.
In his latest Huffington Post article, GreenFaith Fellow Doug Demeo describes the work of Janine Beynus (Biomimicry author), Colin Beaven (No Impact Man) and Dr. David Orr (The Oberlin Project) - leaders who are offering new ways of protecting the planet.
A reflection written by Gary Matthews about his experience on an environmental health and justice tour in Newark, NJ.
Recently, Ariel Kaminer in her New York Times column "The Ethicist" announced a contest calling on readers to state -- in 600 words or less -- why it is ethical to eat meat. Thousands of entries were submitted, and the works of six finalists were posted online last week. Together with my wife, Ariella Reback, I wrote an essay that was one of the thousands of entries. Sadly, we didn't make the cut to the final round. Nevertheless, I thought I would post our submission here.
We read the Ethicist's challenge to defend meat consumption as an ethical act as we began preparing in earnest for our observance of Passover. During dinner with our children (ages 10, 8 and 3), we asked them, all enthusiastic carnivores, why they thought it was OK to eat meat. Their varying responses inspired us to frame this discussion in terms of the Passover Haggadah's description of the Four Children. Each child comes to the table with a different perspective, and the parents as teachers and role models must educate them about Passover's message of human dignity according to their ability and demeanor. So here's an imagined dialogue between parents and children on the ethics of eating meat:
We know of four children who interact with the world in different ways:
One who is wise; one who is contrary; one who is simple; and one who does not know how to ask a question.
What does the wise child say? "What are ethical reasons to eat meat?" To this child, teach that human beings have co-evolved with animals and that animal protein derived from sustainable agriculture can nourish us physically and make us mindful and appreciative of the natural world around us.
What does the contrary child say? "Meat tastes good. Why shouldn't I eat it?" To this child, explain that meat tastes best when it is produced with love -- for the animal, for the people who process it and for the environment in which it is produced.
What does the simple child say? "Is it OK to eat meat?" To this child, teach that eating meat should be a special occasion, like the original observance of Passover when each family raised and harvested their own lamb. Meat is not inherently bad, but eating too much without sense or regard for where it came from causes us physical and spiritual damage.
As for the child who does not know how to ask, you should prompt the child by taking a family trip to a working farm that uses sustainable practices. See how food is produced when animals are not force-fed grain, when they are not over-medicated with hormones and antibiotics and when they fertilize the soil on the farm on which they are raised to create a healthy, natural inter-dependent cycle. Educate this child and siblings that their hot dogs don't magically appear vacuum sealed in plastic in the supermarket. They come from animals that share this planet with us. Use meat consumption in your family as a teaching opportunity to foster knowledge and appreciation for our world and all its inhabitants.
As a footnote to this Passover parable, we took a trip to our local kosher butcher to buy a turkey for our seder. We have always had turkey, and our best ones were, of course, the pasture-raised turkeys that Ariella's former company produced. We couldn't imagine seder without turkey. Unfortunately, the only turkey our butcher carried was from a large industrial kosher meat producer that has been in the news a lot in recent years for its poor record of treatment of animals and its human employees. We wanted to know if the butcher carried meat from other more reputable producers. They said yes, but only chicken. We had chicken for seder.
The authors are married and live in Boynton Beach, Fla. Rabbi Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Temple Torah of Boynton Beach and is a Fellow in Greenfaith, an inter-religious environmental advocacy organization. Ms. Reback is an attorney and "slow food" entrepreneur. Previously, she owned Green Pastures Poultry, a company based in Cleveland, Ohio, that marketed locally produced, pasture-raised chicken, turkey and duck to kosher and non-kosher clientele.
This blog posting originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Read the original post.
GreenFaith's Executive Director Fletcher Harper delivered the following testimony in support of the proposed new fuel efficiency standards at a Philadelphia hearing of the Environmental Protection Agency on Jan. 19.
Good afternoon. I am the Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, a national interfaith environmental coalition. GreenFaith works with over 5,000 faith-based groups nationwide to educate, equip and mobilize them to offer leadership to protect the environment. I am here today to offer GreenFaith’s unequivocal support for the fuel efficiency standards that are the subject of this hearing.
The world’s great religions – Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and others – affirm three core values or beliefs that are consistent with the intent and impact of the proposed standards.
First, these traditions teach that the Earth reveals the existence of its Creator. Therefore, those actions which protect or preserve a healthy environment are morally and religiously significant because they show respect to the Creator and make it possible for others to appreciate the Creator’s majesty, beauty and love. Conversely, actions that degrade or destroy Creation are wrong because they show disrespect to the Creator while depriving many of the chance to enjoy the beauty of God’s Earth. By analogy, very few people would claim that defacing the work of a master painter would be a way of showing respect to that artist. This religious perspective is in certain ways echoed in society’s recognition that there are aesthetic and emotional values inherent in the environment, and that regulations and policies must take these non-financial values into account. By reducing air pollution substantially, the proposed standards are deeply consistent with this first religious value.
Second, religions teach that society owes a particular duty of care to its most vulnerable members. Again, the proposed standards supports this value. Others have testified about the harm to human heath caused by tailpipe emissions. GreenFaith is particularly aware of the disproportionate impacts of air pollution on Environmental Justice communities, where rates of asthma and respiratory illness are far higher than in wealthier, whiter communities. The proposed standards would substantially decrease the particulate matter that contributes to these negative health impacts – an outcome clearly consistent with religious values. In addition, the proposed standards would contribute to lessening our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions as part of the effort to fight climate change. Reducing the pace and level of climate change will again decrease negative health impacts on vulnerable communities domestically and globally – by reducing heat-related illness and death, slowing the spread of infectious diseases, decreasing damage due to severe weather events, and more. Clearly, these are morally favorable outcomes.
Third – religions teach that human beings are called to protect, care for and steward an Earth which, in the end, does not belong fully to us. Whether religions see ownership as residing in whole or in part with the Divine, with future generations, or with the wider community of life – the point is clear. We are not free to use the Earth’s resources solely for our own narrowly defined well-being – because ultimately the Earth does not belong to us. Rather than interpreting this as a rejection of the notion of private property, we prefer to recognize that all human societies develop some form of ownership of the Earth’s resources – whether familial, clan-based, governmental, or private. The issue is not whether or not we will develop these systems of human ownership – we always have and always will. The issue is whether the ownership systems we develop are consistent with our obligation to steward the Earth’s resources consistent with the Earth’s inalienable purpose of supporting life with which it was endowed by its Creator. Once again, the proposed standards – by reducing pollution, fighting climate change, and protecting human and ecological health - represent an important step in making this ethic of stewardship real.
In closing, let me repeat that the proposed standards are deeply consistent with teachings from the world’s faith communities. Thank you for the opportunity to testify in their support.
A blog post written by Sr. Jacquie Keefe, a participant in the GreenFaith Fellowship Program. The post was originally published by the Franciscan Action Network.
Reading updates about the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, felt discouraging to me, with the United States seemingly out-of-touch with the reality of global warming. But I experienced a nagging sense of familiarity as US legislators at home and negotiators abroad ignored scientific truths, communicated through hyperbole, and used obstructionist delay tactics.
Then I heard my almost 13-year-old daughter Maya yell from her bedroom, "I told you 17 times to turn out the light!!!!!"
It hit me: many of the voices in the US Congress and the UN negotiations sound like adolescents when discussing climate change. And I feel like a mother facing a whirling dervish intent on derailing a healthful supper that could sustain the entire family.
Appeals to rational logic and the common good are useless in these domestic situations, often prompted by my daughter's need for power or her fear of change. (Don't get me wrong: I absolutely cherish my middle schooler 99% of the time, but we've all learned the impact of the 1%.)
Within the short span of 24 hours, as I awaited an outcome from the talks in Durban, I witnessed three parallel behaviors:
Communicating through hyperbole
The day before a science project was due, my almost 13-year-old exclaimed to her 6-year-old sister Annie Sky: "You ALWAYS mess with my stuff. Now my model of a cell is RUINED!!!" (The 3-D model was not ruined but had been touched. Let's face it: a ball of Rice Krispies treats that looks like a cell is hard to resist.)
Showcasing a similar addiction to exaggeration, a YouTube video circulated that same afternoon with comments to the UN delegates by Senator James Inhofe, from Oklahoma, the most senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He claimed to be "standing up against global warming alarmism" and shared the "good news" of the "complete collapse of the global warming movement."
Using obstructionist delay tactics
In my home, these tactics typically occur at bedtime with the goal of avoiding a deadline: "Brush my teeth? It's only 7 o'clock. I'll wait until 8 o'clock. Besides I'm not brushing my teeth until Annie Sky brushes her teeth."
Likewise, the US became the obstructionist bully of the UN conference, pushing for a 2020 deadline and refusing to concede to a global treaty to decrease greenhouse gas emissions until China and India did as well. "What is really frustrating to see is this conference is again hijacked by the Ping-Pong game between the US and China," said Jo Leiner, leader of the European Parliament delegation to the talks.
My seventh-grader volunteers at a day care twice a week, plays the piano, and shares my ability to overhear conversations in public. "How can you listen so well to children, music, and strangers, but ignore me?" I asked this week. "Oh it's easy," she replied, happy to explain. "If I don't want to hear what you are saying, your voice gets kind of fuzzy in my head."
With climate change, many of our leaders possess that same ability to ignore the scientific consensus that human activity is the cause of global warming. Last week, the New York Times reported that global emissions of carbon dioxide rose by almost 6% in 2010, the largest absolute increase in any year since the Industrial Revolution. Yet in his statement, Senator Inhofe bragged to the UN climate change delegates: "You are being ignored."
The hundreds of protesters who stormed into the halls of the climate talks realize that we ignore these truths at the peril of the world as know it. "I am speaking on behalf of the United States because our negotiators are not," said Abigail Borah, a Middlebury College student who took the floor, disrupting US envoy Todd Stern's comments.
The living hell that persists as a stereotype of adolescence does not have to be our reality for confronting climate change. Delegates worked for days on a European Union proposal for a new global commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yet the three biggest polluters -- the US, India, and China -- stalled progress until the talks went into overtime.
Finally on Sunday, the conference reached an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol, develop a Green Climate Fund, and mandate that all countries sign a deal by 2015 to cut emissions no later than 2020. Unfortunately, many critics say the agreement lacks the substance to curtail the impacts of climate change.
"It's a strange world when the US is aligning with China and India to block action on global warming," said Jake Schmidt with the National Resources Defense Council. Unless we can harness mature, rational thought to confront climate change, our world will become even more unpredictable with every year, with impacts on food security, water supplies, sea-level rise, and catastrophic weather events.
In contrast, raising a teenager in today's world will seem like a walk in the park.
This blog posting appeared originally in the Huffington Post. Mallory McDuff is a GreenFaith Fellow.
For the past year, I have had the privilege of developing my thinking in religious environmentalism as a member of GreenFaith's Fellowship program. The program brings together leaders from multiple faith traditions to develop religious and moral voices in safeguarding the environment. Three pillars of study are Spirit (the sanctity of the earth and the natural world found in all religious traditions), Sustainability (harnessing the teachings of respective religious traditions to safeguard our planet) and Environmental Justice (adapting religious teachings of social justice to ensure clean, safe environments for all people wherever they live, work, study or pray). During the course of the program, I wrote a personal eco-theology that I am now sharing.
In reflecting on my commitment to safeguarding our environment as a mitzvah (sacred commandment) in Jewish tradition, three foundational verses in the Torah come to mind:
1. Genesis 1:26-27: Humanity is created in the image of God. While I understand the desire by some environmental theologians to reject an anthropocentric approach to environmentalism, I embrace it. I cannot imagine a world without human beings. I believe our purpose on earth is to act as partners with God in the betterment of the world.
2. Leviticus 25:23: "[God said], 'For the Land is Mine. You are but strangers and sojourners with Me.'" While humanity is unique among all creation, in the final analysis, we are mortal, finite beings. We come from dust and return to dust. We must resist the temptation of hubris that we own the planet and can do anything with impunity.
3. Deuteronomy 16:20: "Justice, justice you shall pursue." Bringing justice and righteousness into the world and fighting against injustice resulting from human inequity should be at the fore of our actions. Environmental justice speaks to me because it calls for us to create a just and equitable environment wherever we are.
Jewish religious teachings that have influenced my eco-spirituality
1. Abraham Joshua Heschel's notion of radical amazement is a compelling concept for me because it calls to mind the divine spark found in all of creation. It also calls for a sense of awe in the universe that is sorely lacking in an age of massive oil spills, nuclear reactor meltdowns and human trafficking of tomato pickers. If more people would have a sense of this radical amazement of nature, there would be greater appreciation of the limits of nature and risks posed by pushing nature beyond its limits.
2. Martin Buber differentiation between "I-Thou" relationships and "I-It" relationships is central to my eco-spirituality. In a consumerist age, we are inundated with goods and services, but meaningful relationships have suffered. I believe that cultivating a greater sense of human dignity for people in our midst is vital to comprehensive ecological stewardship.
3. A high point of the High Holiday liturgy is the liturgical poem "Un'taneh Tokef" that spells out the decrees to which every person will be subjected in the coming year: Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. The poem then adds: "But repentance, prayer and righteousness can help the harshness of the decree pass." There are bad things that happen in the world over which we have no control: illness, death, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. We can't prevent these things, but it is in our power to take away the sting. We can't prevent earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, but we can rally to help those who suffer, and we can alter our consumption habits so that energy sources (e.g., nuclear reactors) do not pose threats to entire cities.
Challenges to my eco-spiritual development
The false god of consumption plagues America and the American Jewish community in which I serve as a rabbi. Our society's culture of consumption challenges the Torah's values of humility and justice and promotes an ethos of hubris and self-interest. I rejoice that America has allowed my people to escape tyranny and persecution in Europe and elsewhere and to prosper here. I cannot take for granted that my great-grandparents came to America to escape pogroms and vile treatment in Russia. Their values of hard work, sacrifice and delayed gratification continued with the generation of my grandparents, the "Greatest Generation" who fought WWII and built our country into a major power. My generation to a great extent has lost these values and our nation and the world suffers as a result. Eco-consciousness reintroduces these values in what for me is a compelling way, but many in the broader community feel threatened and their sense of entitlement under assault. I see the current economic recession as an opportunity re-engage with time-honored values and to begin to reverse the damage that conspicuous consumption has wrought on society.
Another challenge relates to public policy. As an adult, particularly after the seminal moment of 9/11, I was drawn into environmentalism through my desire to achieve energy independence. Our society is dependent on petroleum from totalitarian countries that sit on most of the world's oil reserves. Because of principles I hold dear regarding democratic freedom, I knew America needed to wean itself off its dependence on foreign oil. Until the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I wasn't totally convinced that exploration of new domestic oil fields was a bad thing. I'm now totally convinced. I've felt challenged again recently regarding oil exploration in Israel. The State of Israel, whose existence and security is vital to modern Jewry, has a lot to gain through energy independence and is a light unto the nations for its efforts to do so through sustainable means. Indeed, Better Place's leadership in developing infrastructure to support electric cars throughout the country is most inspiring. At the same time, efforts are hastily afoot to introduce fracking in Israel based on the discovery of rich oil and gas deposits in rock. This process has already poisoned water systems in the United States. I fear that Israel's adoption of this system will lead to environmental disaster in an area where water is already in deep shortage. Whether in America, Israel or around the world, I believe it is essential to keep the dual values of environmental stewardship and energy independence in sync with each other rather than in conflict with each other. We will be most successful fulfilling the precepts of the Torah described above when we reduce and hopefully someday eliminate our dependence on fossil fuel.
Ritual practices that strengthen my connection with Creation
As an observant Jew, I pray daily, and the discipline of prescribed daily prayer reinforces the concepts outlined above: We're created in the image of God, yet the earth is ultimately God's; our task is to help God maintain justice and repair the earth. Other specific Jewish rituals ground me with appreciation for creation. Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, provides me with a framework of mindfulness in how I eat. The various blessings said before and after eating various foods remind me of the ultimate Source of the food. Shabbat is a weekly set of rituals geared toward slowing down and appreciating creation rather than creating. My increased involvement over the years in environmental activism has seemed to make so much sense because it flows seamlessly out of rituals that I was already observing and, in turn, breathed new life into the rituals.
Power tempered by humility
In conclusion, a piece of Hasidic wisdom instructs people to hold in each hand a slip of paper: on one is written, "For my sake was the world created." On the other is written, "I am but dust and ashes." The teaching flows out of the principles in the Torah I outlined above. We are created in the image of God, but we are not God. Humanity's unparalleled wisdom and power needs to be tempered by humility. Together, we are channeled towards a life of purpose in restoring justice and repairing the world.
To read the original posting and to read Rabbi Bernstein's other blog postings, click here.
[Episcopal News Service] The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would pass through six states, carrying diluted bitumen from the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Because the pipeline would enter the United States from another country, TransCanada can build the pipeline only if the President of the United States issues a permit. The State Department will give a recommendation for or against issuing the permit sometime this fall.
Many Nebraskans are concerned about the proposed pipeline route, which passes through our Sandhills region and over the Ogallala aquifer. The Sandhills is a unique and fragile ecosystem, subject to erosion in the form of blowouts when the top layer of grasses is removed. The Ogallala aquifer provides drinking water for a large area of our state and water for agriculture. There is fear that a leak in the pipeline could pollute the water in the aquifer, resulting in serious economic consequences for farmers, ranchers, and towns in Nebraska.
With State Department hearings about the pipeline recently finished in the states along the pipeline route and in Washington, DC, we have been hearing arguments for and against construction of the pipeline. The State Department's question is whether granting permission for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest; that has brought to the forefront of the debate in Nebraska questions about economic gain or loss and questions about a foreign company being able to pass a pipeline through private ranchland.
Both the Rev. Don Huber, rector of St. Matthew's in Alliance, Nebraska, and I had been thinking about this issue. Talking about it late this summer, we realized that while our reasons for opposing the pipeline included the concerns we heard others express, there were other questions we were asking as Christians that compelled us to speak to the issue. Being mindful of both Christ's commandment to love our neighbors and the Scriptural call to be tillers and caretakers of the earth, stewards of creation, we asked: Does the proposed pipeline harm or hurt humanity as a whole? Is building it consistent with the wise and reverent use of creation? If we as a people and a nation agree to the building of this pipeline, will we be acting as good stewards of creation?
We answered the questions in an op-ed piece we sent to several newspapers in Nebraska. Before sending it, we circulated it among other Episcopal clergy in the Diocese of Nebraska we thought might have an interest in the issue. We ended up with the names of 21 priests and deacons who supported our statement.
The local concerns, especially concerns about the Ogallala aquifer and about appropriating land to build the pipeline from people who depend on the land and water for their livelihoods, partly answered our questions, leading us to conclude that the project was "at its best risky business and at its worst morally reprehensible."
Beyond these local concerns, we considered the impact of the mining of the Athabasca Tar Sands on the First Nations people who have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. Contamination of the land and water along with reduced river flow has negatively affected their hunting, fishing, and health. The Tar Sands region is in the Canadian boreal forest, an ecosystem whose continuing ability to function as the largest carbon storage area on earth is essential to mitigation of global warming that causes climate change. The boreal forest is also an essential habitat for migrating birds. Furthermore, the impact of mining and processing the tar sands and burning the refined oil is predicted to significantly raise greenhouse gas emissions that result in increased global warming. A project that harms indigenous people, endangers migratory birds, and accelerates global warming seems to us not to serve God and God's purposes for humankind and the rest of creation.
I've been asked why Episcopal clergy chose to speak out on this issue. When the livelihoods and even the very lives of people near and far are risked for economic gain, and when all living things are threatened by increased greenhouse gas emissions, remaining silent seems inconsistent with love for our neighbors and love for God, the Creator. Moreover, as climate change accelerates and changes our world in ways we are only beginning to comprehend, we hope future generations won't have reason to ask why people in the church now failed to speak and act.
No other month has as much sacred choreography as the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishrei: the month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, ancient Israel's fall harvest festival.
Rosh Hashanah, perhaps the most universalist of the Jewish holidays, celebrates the creation of Adam and Eve, and inaugurates a period of deep introspection, reflection and personal accountability (heshbon ha-nefesh), leading to Yom Kippur, a day of at-one-ment with one's God and one's fellow human beings. Five days later we celebrate z'man simhateynu, the season of our joy. It is a celebration marked by liturgy and choreography taking us back to the agricultural origins of the Jewish people. Our Sages suggest that the 70 bulls offered in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem on Sukkot represented each of the then-known nations of the world. Prayers were offered for rain to fall as a blessing in its proper season.
For an agrarian society, highly dependent on rainfall, Sukkot marked the end of the annual harvest: the barley of Passover, the wheat of the Feast of Weeks, the vintage in anticipation of the fall festivals. Only for the festival of Sukkot does the Torah mandate joy three times: "You shall celebrate in your festival ... and you shall have nothing but joy" (Deuteronomy 16:14, 15) and "you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days" (Leviticus 23:40). There is not even one command to rejoice on Passover, and there is only one command to rejoice on Shavuot seven weeks later. A fifth-century rabbinic compilation, the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, suggests that on Passover, the beginning of the harvest cycle, we do not know whether crops will be plentiful or not. On Shavuot, while field crops have been brought in, we do not know whether our fruit harvest will be successful. Since we are more anxious about our lives than our possessions, there is no command to rejoice on Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Day of Judgment. Having received pardon on Yom Kippur, the Day on Atonement, field crops have been gathered, as have fruits of the tree. The harvest year has come to an end: we rejoice either in its plentitude and abundance or in the awareness that the next agricultural cycle may be more productive. In either event, we rejoice. As we became more urban, the Jewish community lost sight of the vital connection between the New Year, the Day of Atonement, personal accountability and the prayer for rain that concludes the sacred days of Tishrei, on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of solemn assembly.
Long before the Star of David came to be associated with Jews, the arba'at haminim -- the four species of the lulav (festive bouquet of willow, myrtle and palm) and the etrog (citron) -- were among the quintessential Jewish symbols in the rabbinic period. They still are to be found on the mosaic floors of late antiquity synagogues and in the Jewish catacombs of ancient Rome. Most of the oldest liturgical choreography continues to be practiced during Sukkot, with the ritual waving of the lulav and etrog, and festive processions around the synagogue, culminating in a seven cycle procession on the last day of Sukkot, Hoshannah Rabbah. As worshippers sway with the festive branches, singing the words of Hallel, psalms of praise, it is not difficult to imagine one's self intimately and intricately tied to the natural world.
Each item in the bouquet requires differing degrees of water: the palm requires very little; the willow a great deal, myrtle suffices with rainwater, the etrog depends on human irrigation. On Sukkot, at the turn of the season from dry to rainy, we emphasize the importance of water and its impact on how things will grow. A prayer for rain is inserted into the liturgy, imploring that rain will fall at its proper time. On Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly, the concluding festival of Sukkot, Jewish tradition inserts a prayer for rain as we add the phrase "Who causes the wind to blow and rain to fall" to daily prayer. Congregation and reader ask for rain as blessing, not curse; for life, not death; for abundance, not famine. Witness the devastation of the Midwest this past summer, the devastating rains, winds and floods of Irene and Lee, cycles of drought, wildfires burning out of control across parched, once-verdant farmland -- evidence of climate change above and beyond El Niño and La Niña. While much can or may be ascribed to natural quasiperiodic fluctuations, pattern and recurring patterns, it seems increasingly clear there is more than passive human intervention and involvement in the warming of our planet.
Sukkot reminds us of our connection to God from whose universal design the rains come, and the need to acknowledge personal responsibility in assuring that the rains come in season. Among the interpretations given to the arba'at haminim is that the myrtle represents the human eye, the willow the mouth, the etrog the heart, and the palm the spine. With but a slight variation, Sukkot and its festive bouquet serve as an annual reminder of the need for head, heart, soul and spine, using that which animates us to animate others in active stewardship of this planet we call home.
GreenFaith Fellow Rabbi Barry Kenter's original blog posting can be found on The Huffington Post.
A prayer for the animals, done by Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo from Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Writer, farmer and modern-day prophet Wendell Berry will visit the college where I teach and live this fall, and I'm trying to remain cool and level-headed. For me, that's a challenge because I marvel at his poetic prose that challenges us to hold our spiritual values at the center of our sense of place.
During his short stay, I fear becoming part of an agrarian paparazzi, planning my jogging routes around his campus tour or visit to an Appalachian Studies class. While I plant my fall garden, I visualize him strolling past my on-campus duplex when I'm harvesting kale with my two daughters.
Yes, this hero worship is amusing on some level, if you consider that I'm a 45-year-old mother, writer and academic. But I believe that we need to feel reverence for those voices calling us to put our religious values to work in local communities to sustain God's earth. And I believe that because I am a mother, teacher and a person of faith.
I want my daughters and my students to connect with people who are discussing, writing about and ultimately creating a healthful, sustainable world. I remember when the first fast-food restaurant -- Hardee's -- came to my hometown of Fairhope, Ala., in 1979. Yet my children have never seen a major highway exit in this country without signs signaling the location of every Taco Bell and Burger King within a half-mile radius.
We need alternative road signs and luminaries if we are going to reconnect human communities with places. Berry's writings -- all 30 books of poetry, novels and prose -- provide some direction: "What I stand for is what I stand on," he writes. He implores us to "practice resurrection."
To that end, his life with his wife Tanya on Lanes Landing Farm in Port Royal, Ky., reflects actions that back up his words. Famously, the 77-year-old Berry does not use a computer (my feminist students are surprised to learn that his wife apparently types his manuscripts).
He tackles contentious political issues, such as joining the Feb. 12 sit-in with 14 other activists at the Kentucky governor's office to ask for an end to mountaintop removal. In one YouTube video, Berry wears a blue button-down shirt and tie, while a younger protester in a T-shirt and jeans tweets about the event. Just this month, he joined the voices of Bill McKibben and James Hansen, calling for civil disobedience in protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to Texas.
We can lose our connection to places in one generation, he maintains. I think about this prediction as I watch my students explore ways to regain the local economies described in his writing. On most days, I have more faith than fear, more optimism than skepticism. primarily because of the work of both faith communities and my own students who are letting their spiritual connection to places guide their life's work, whether they consider themselves religious or not.
Here in my current home of Asheville, N.C., First Congregational United Church Of Christ installed 42 solar panels as a public witness to renewable energy. Oakley United Methodist Church started a community garden. Yet, Berry writes that even if we had an unlimited supply of sustainable energy, we would continue to degrade the earth -- until we adapt to local economies that recognize the impossibility of infinite growth as an economic principle.
As a mother whose days are marked by breakfast, work, dinnertime, bath time and bedtime, I have thought about what this means to me on a practical level. I can't come close to replicating Berry's life with a family farm and countless books to my name. But I am making an effort to live in community with others in one place, recognizing that this is my privilege and hence my responsibility.
When my former students grow food, teach children or start businesses like "The Organic Mechanic," I want them to realize that our heroes are real people in place and time. In class, I pass around a hand-written letter, a kind and diplomatic note from Berry declining my invitation to write a preface to my last book. This rejection note thrilled me because it represented an encounter with a real person on a similar journey, rather than some imaginary friend I talk to while gardening.
Watching for modern-day prophets and signposts will help us create the faithful communities we want to inhabit. This is the real work of our daily lives, not only in our imaginations. "There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places," Berry writes.
Now, I think it's time to plant that kale.
Read GreenFaith Fellow Mallory McDuff's original post on the Huffington Post.
The Jewish liturgy on Rosh Hashanah declares, hayom harat olam, "today is the birthday of the world." The phrase evokes the majesty of creation. It reminds us simultaneously that we mortals are mere specks of dust in the broader universe. At the same time, we have great significance. The overall message of the penitential period from Rosh Hahhanah through Yom Kippur is that we can change ourselves through teshuvah (lit., "return") and thereby change the world. Thus, these days of awe are meant to inspire us to engage in the ongoing creation of the world, not cower from it. The tone of the Holy Days may be solemn, but the purpose is optimistic.
Awe of creation and the Creator permeates one of the central biblical texts in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: Akeidat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Throughout the ages, there has been no shortage of interpretation of this harrowing tale. In the Jewish-environmental context of this blog, one rabbinic midrash has special poignancy, what might be called an "eco-conscious" reading.
As Abraham and Isaac, along with the two unnamed lads who accompany them, near the end of their journey, the text reads: "On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar" (Genesis 22:4).
Midrash Tanchuma (Vayera 23) offers the following comment:
As they approached the place and saw it from afar, Abraham asked Isaac, "Do you see what I see?" And Isaac answered, "I see a beautiful, majestic mountain, and the cloud of glory hovers over it."
He then asked his two young servants, "Do you see anything?"
They answered, "We see nothing but a wasteland." Abraham said to them, "Remain behind here with the donkeys."
The two lads are supporting cast members who typically get lost in the psycho-drama of the narrative. Yet, the rabbis in their careful reading of the text take note that they were left behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain. The rabbis ask why that is, and their answer is that they were not filled with a sense of awe. They did not sense the presence of the divine in creation. Abraham saw the makom, the Place (which, in rabbinic Hebrew, becomes another name for God); the lads saw a wasteland. Therefore, Abraham excluded them from further participation in this momentous occasion.
Of course, we can ask numerous questions about the lads and presume our own course of action if we were in their shoes. We might gather from the text that of course Abraham excluded them. Why would he want them snooping around, given what unfolds? If we were there, would we surreptitiously follow our masters up the mountain? Would we call the police when we saw Abraham raise his knife? Would we run and tell Sarah? (Oh, yes, she does die suddenly in the next chapter, doesn't she?) This particular midrash overlooks all of these questions and directs our attention to the broader atmosphere.
Abraham and Isaac are not without their faults. Abraham follows God's instructions in an unquestioning way that is incongruent with the Abraham who argues with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac, for his part, is passive. He may well be an adult already but is willing to go along with his father's plan. His willful passivity (assuming that to be the case) demonstrates his own lapse in concern of the sanctity of life in the name of serving his God. In reading the text one is left with little doubt that the main characters were deeply scarred by this episode. God never speaks to Abraham again. Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Sarah dies.
All of this is true, and still the rabbis writing the midrash above were bothered by those two anonymous youths at the bottom of the mountain whom we never hear from again. Abraham and Isaac, for all their faults, are looking for the spark of the divine in their lives. They are imperfect in their comprehension of it, and they are hurt in the process; however, they still care. The rabbis interpret the two lads as indifferent to the divine presence, and indifference is taboo in the Torah and in the annals of Jewish interpretation.
Deuteronomy commands: lo tuchal l'hita'lem, "you may not be indifferent" (22:3). In this specific context, it's ignoring someone in anguish over losing an object, but the prohibition of indifference can be interpreted more broadly.
As stated eloquently by Elie Wiesel: "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.
As the rabbis interpret, at a momentous time in the Bible, two youths were pessimistic and indifferent and were excluded from further participation. At the dawn of the Jewish New Year, a message we can take from the Binding of Isaac is to infuse ourselves with renewed optimism that we can make the world a better place. It's in our power to work in partnership with the divine to make a difference in mankind's stewardship of the earth and in our treatment of one another.
Read Rabbi Bernstein on The Huffington Post.
I sometimes think of myself as an accidental environmentalist. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I can draw a direct, if not perfectly straight, line to my efforts today to live an ecologically sustainable lifestyle.
Ten years ago, I lived in the New York area where I was serving in my first rabbinic pulpit. It's become cliché, but I remember exactly where I was on 9/11 when news of the first plane crashed. I heard it on the car radio on the way to work. Like so many others, I thought it must have been a small private plane that lost its way. When I got to the office, I asked my colleagues if they heard the news. They informed me that the second tower was just struck. Then we knew. America was under attack.
9/11 was a pivotal moment for me in my development as an environmentalist. As an asthmatic, I had always been concerned about air pollution and wanted more to be done to clean up our atmosphere. I remember buying a car in 1998. Gas mileage was a factor in my purchase, but at less than $1.00/gallon, it wasn't the most decisive factor. 9/11 changed my perspective. All of the hijackers and their superiors were from lands controlled by despotic regimes that were and remain among the world's largest suppliers of oil. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was clear that the kingdom was using its vast oil wealth to bankroll a fundamentalist religious educational system that was sowing seeds of hatred, particularly for the West. It made perfect sense to me from a national security perspective that America's response to 9/11 had to include weaning our nation off our dependence of petroleum.
I believe that President Bush committed a historic error by failing to call upon Americans to sacrifice in service to our country. Such a call should have included a call not only to drive less but also a 21st century "Manhattan Project" to retool our nation to produce and use clean energy. That call never came. I remember speaking about this from the pulpit in the aftermath of 9/11. I called on congregants to drive less and to make gas mileage an important factor in their car purchases. In retrospect, these sermons had little if no effect. Months and years passed, and I still saw my synagogue parking lot full of "light trucks," i.e., SUV's and minivans. Occasionally, I would see a Prius, usually owned by an empty-nester couple who had no children to shuttle around. The reality of suburban family life, however, practically necessitates a large vehicle. It got to the point where by the time our third child was born, my wife and I caved in and traded in one of our two sedans for a minivan. In retrospect, my use of the pulpit to promote national security was not touching the soul in a profound religious way and was not promoting an action, noble and important as it is, that was practical for most people within the society in which we live.
As the last decade unfolded I found myself increasingly drawn to reduction of fossil fuel in the name of environmental stewardship. While I would have expected people's visceral anger from 9/11 to spur action, I found that the more positive call to safeguarding our planet to be a religious message to which people can better relate.
My perspective started to change when my children's multiple food allergies spurred my curiosity as to why so many children today have severe food allergies. I have no recollection of such an epidemic when I was a kid. I eventually found Michael Pollan's 2006 classic, "The Omnivore's Dilemma." While he doesn't specifically address food allergies, his reporting on the large scale industrialization of American agriculture brings a new dimension of clairvoyance to our nation's dependence on petroleum. When we factor in the petroleum used in producing fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, transportation of goods, and food processing, it's not too much a stretch to say that we are essentially eating petroleum (no wonder we have food allergies!). In fact, he reports that it takes ten calories of petroleum energy to produce one calorie of beef energy. This formula is unsustainable on multiple levels. This book opened my eyes to the carbon footprint that industrial agriculture has produced.
Pollan's insight on a large level is a "downer" when factoring in the pervasiveness of Big Agriculture in our society. At the same time, his writing was transformative for me in helping me become more aware of where my food comes from. This renewed mindfulness of the earth has enriched my spiritual connection with the earth. As I have broadened my preaching and teaching in the last few years on Judaism and the environment, I have rediscovered the eternal truth that people are more open to change for positive reasons than negative. Finger-wagging admonishments to drive cars that get at least 35 miles per gallon fell on deaf ears. Much more effective have been calls to join and volunteer in a synagogue's Community Supported Agriculture co-op where there is positive community energy generated around fresh, local, organic food. In the process, the community's carbon footprint is greatly reduced.
On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, I still am looking for inspired leadership by elected officials to fundamentally change the way in which energy is produced. At the same time, I can't wait for them to inspire our community towards meaningful action. At first I thought 9/11 would spur our leaders to lead us toward energy independence. Maybe instead it will lead us toward a renewed sense of interdependence among people and between people and land. A renewed commitment to reclaiming our planet from the damage caused by humanity will restore our collective soul as a nation and bring honor to the victims of 9/11 that they did not die in vain.
This blog posting appeared originally on the Huffington Post.
An article on the High Holidays by Rabbinic Scholar in Residence Rabbi Lawrence Troster
Bill Clinton wrote about jobs creation in Newsweek earlier this summer. It's a hot topic these days. Facing stubborn high unemployment numbers and the sluggish economy overall, I am as interested as the next person in jumpstarting our economy. Having been unemployed for some time this past year, I understand the distress and frustration that many people feel. Families and communities depend on gainful employment. At the same time, I believe that strength and resiliency in our economy is more important than jobs per se.
This is a deeply moral issue, which is why we must be concerned about getting it right, now and tomorrow, accounting for the complexity of factors and benefits that mark a healthy economy. In other words, there can be no quick fixes, no magic bullets and no wearisome blame games. A conversation about what constitutes an enduring economy abounding in decent paying jobs is something that we all have a vested interest in.
In this blog, I touch on four specific factors I see as critical in building long-term foundations for a healthy economy. Each demonstrates multiple benefits and systemic strength. Each reflects spiritual values, such as thoughtfulness, renewal and vitality. The last one has the added bonus of jobs stimulus on a large scale and in the short-term. There are many factors for growing an economy that is trustworthy and lasting, such as national investment in our decaying infrastructure and even extending reductions in our national payroll tax, which benefits everyone. But here are four: fair trade, bio-conscious manufacturing, whole foods and clean energy.
To begin, fair trade is not "free trade" and should never be confused. Equal Exchange Coffee was the pioneer of fair trade java in the United States in the mid-1980s. Fair trade removes from the profit chain wealth-draining intermediaries such as speculators and brokers, empowers poor coffee-producing communities in the Global South and benefits small gourmet coffee companies in the United States, as well as larger companies like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Since the 1980s, fair trade has diversified beautifully, everything from sugar and bananas to flowers and spices. But fair trade remains a small fraction of global commodities sales.
From a policy perspective, strengthening fair trade does at least two things well. First, it improves the local economies in the developing world, thereby reducing pressures for poor populations to support an illicit drug trade or to seek citizenship in the United States. This helps solve both our immigration and drug problems. Secondly, it creates jobs in fair trade companies and stores around the United States. Equal Exchange sales and operations have grown and investment returns have remained steady since the 1980s. Among other successful fair trade organizations is Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit arts and crafts chain.
Next is bio-conscious or "cradle to cradle" manufacturing. Imagine clothing and textile factories, automobile and appliance factories, reproducing amazing goods and services while purifying the outflow of water in a "closed-loop" system, not fouling our waters. Such industries are learning to imitate the genius of living systems, wetlands for example. None of this is futuristic economics or science fiction. In Spring 2010, Newsweek reported the industrial advances in such green designs. Biologist Janine Benyus writes about this manufacturing and business revolution in her book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." Global industrial leader Ray Anderson, who died this month after a long battle with cancer, successfully applied these principles at his commercial carpeting giant, Interface Inc. In our depressed economy, we need to return to American manufacturing, but now armed with 21st century eco-technology and knowledge. As with fair trade, green manufacturing addresses multiple national problems, such as jobs, water and air, with grace and depth.
Thirdly, as we have learned that the poor diet often leads to obesity, and later diabetes and heart disease, with national cost implications, the time is right to re-think the priorities and incentives of our food system. To boost local jobs, cut spending on Health Care, and improve our environment and bodies, healthy "whole foods," like fruits, vegetables and unprocessed grains, urge greater availability and competitive relative pricing to manufactured foods, especially in low income communities. How? Organic foods, local foods, farmers markets and "farms-to-schools" will grow or expand as free enterprise success stories
But this will not happen unless we end our addiction to annual subsidies for Big Agriculture, which are in the high billions. Yet, scarcely a peep from anti-government activists is voiced when it comes to corporate food welfare. It makes me wonder what industries are bankrolling certain political agendas.
Finally, clean energy. You may be getting tired of hearing this, so I'll try to keep it short and on point. It is simply where the jobs are, both now and future. Why? Knowledge zones converge: Science and Environment; Geo-politics and War and Peace; Geo-physics and Supply and Demand (although, again, without the subsidies -- this time to Oil and Coal). Hundreds or thousands of books have been written about the systemic urgency to develop clean energy, but none may be as cogent as this summer's release, "Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence" by Christian Parenti. Serious investment in wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and tidal power will create much widespread employment while enhancing National Security.
With the convergence of economic and environmental crises, political and free market solutions must demonstrate systemic intelligence. This means that most major problems are not isolated from each other. They are connected and require policy decisions that express this understanding. This is not a liberal or conservative argument, nor is it Republican or Democratic. I am making this appeal as one who believes in Saint Paul's vision of the Body of Christ. We are many parts -- global trade, manufacturing, foods, energy and more -- but one body.
This blog post also appears in the Huffington Post.
Having recently moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to South Florida, I am adjusting to a very different climate. The timing of my move was such that I missed experiencing the infamous "Heat Dome" that plagued a large swath of the country this summer. Ironically, while temperatures in Florida were seasonably muggy and hot -- in the 90s -- temperatures in the Upper Midwest and Northeast soured over 100 for days.
For years, we have heard about climate change occurring as a result of human-produced pollution. Many scientists and commentators have moved away from the term "global warming," in favor of "climate change," to account for all kinds of increasingly odd weather patterns throughout the year, such as flooding, tornadoes, blizzards. I happen to like Thomas L. Friedman's term "Global Weirding."
Nevertheless, the intense heat of this summer raised concern. Even in Florida, which has been spared (as of this writing) the extreme conditions from up north, things seem different. Long-time Florida residents tell me that it used to rain every afternoon at a predictable time. This summer, rain has not been as predictable. Rain can come at any time or not at all on a given day. Again, it's weird.
The Torah paints a picture of a world with more predictability. As synagogues around the world recently started reading Deuteronomy as part of the annual liturgical cycle of scriptural reading, we can't avoid Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (the end of Parashat Ekev)n This passage is well known. Jews who pray regularly recognize it as the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening liturgy. This passage bears strong parallels to the first paragraph with its commands to bind these words as a sign on our hands and as frontlets on our foreheads and to inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and gates. But the passage is also known for its vintage-Deuteronomy reward-and-punishment theology. For the ancient Israelites and their agrarian economy, reward and punishment was best expressed in terms of weather: Follow God's ways and receive abundant rain in its season to yield plentiful harvests; stray from God's ways and risk drought and starvation.
According to this passage, abundant rain is clearly a blessing. In Israel, where the rainy season is of limited duration, the need for adequate rain in its season is rather acute. The ancients understood this as well as anyone. Residents of and travelers to Israel and the Middle East know how crucial rain is for the region, particularly in the winter.
What is difficult for many of us to grasp is the theology behind the second paragraph of the Sh'ma. It is prominent in the daily liturgy and is found in the mezuzah on the doorpost of every Jewish home. For the modern reader, though, Deuteronomy's strict doctrine of reward and punishment can be troubling: Obey God and prosper; disobey God and suffer.
Is that the way the world works? Time and again we witness the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. How can the prominence of the second paragraph of the Sh'ma in Jewish liturgy be reconciled with human experience? I am sure we all can think of examples when we have asked this question whether it be sparked by the serious illness of a loved one or any number of atrocities done by one group of people toward another. So, given the world we live in, why is Deuteronomy 11:13-21 so central to Jewish liturgy?
I might mention that the early American Reform Movement did omit that passage entirely from their prayer books. Decades later, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, dropped the paragraph from his prayer book published in 1945. He said that he cannot believe that "the process of meteorology is dependent on man's moral behavior." All along, Orthodoxy and the Conservative Movement, which Kaplan served for most of his career, has kept this paragraph in the liturgy, though it is often read silently while the first and third paragraphs are often sung aloud in a congregation.
Despite the efforts of reformers to omit the Deuteronomy 11 passage from the liturgy, a funny thing has happened in recent years. The second paragraph of the Sh'ma has made a comeback of sorts, as members of all of the religious movements have attempted to appropriate new meaning to the passage. It even was included in the 1989 edition of the new Reconstructionist prayer book. One explanation is evoked by modern ecological consciousness. It is no longer primitive to believe that human behavior affects the natural order. On the contrary, we are now aware that we have the power to destroy or to preserve our environment. We know that our behavior as a human race correlates with rainfall, whether it is severe flooding, severe draught or acid rain that destroys ecological systems that it's intended to nourish. As noted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the passage in Sh'ma has acquired a new relevance for evoking ecological consciousness.
As someone who says this paragraph every day yet struggles with it nonetheless, I derive great comfort from Rabbi Waskow's ecological interpretation. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a leading philosopher in the Conservative Movement also provides a compelling explanation on this passage's lessons to us on justice in general. He writes:
"I recite the Shema each day because it proclaims God's justice, and justice must be a critical element in the God I affirm. The calculus of reward and punishment articulated in [Deut. 11:13-21] may be too simple and ultimately inaccurate. ... Nevertheless, I find this paragraph, with all its problems, central to my beliefs, for it insists starkly (even if too starkly) that God is ultimately just. Somehow, justice is an inherent part of the world and of God; and since God is the model for human beings, the possibility of justice must be inherent in us as well."
He further writes: "The Rabbis too had problems with the doctrine of justice announced in this paragraph, but they included it anyway, because they too had a deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice."
I believe that the paragraph still rings true, even if not literally. When a whole society does the right thing, behaves in the right way, learns to love God and love their neighbors, the overall quality of life for everybody gets better. If everybody lived such a life, we would all feel the reward. In our day, environmental stewardship and society's virtuous behavior are intertwined with each other. My hope is that humanity will heed the call of this ancient Scripture to clean up our planet and restore justice to the world.
This blog posting appeared originally in the Huffington Post.