Making the End of Global Scorching into a Jewish Imperative

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Dear Chevra,
The following proposal to mobilize the Jewish community to reverse global scorching was presented at the COEJL Leadership Institute held in California in early April 2000, and engendered a great deal of interest. It became the subject of a major workshop on planning a national campaign, and was discussed by many regional affiliates and by the national COEJL board.
What do others think of the proposal?


By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
One of the most dangerous eco-disasters that we face is Global Scorching (to my taste, it gives us all too warm a feeling to call it "global warming").
At least in part, it is resulting from two major acts of human technology: flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, and destroying the great forests that act as "banks" for carbon dioxide.
These actions, though global in effect, take place in ways that are intimately involved with everyday life, and could therefore be addressed by grassroots effort.
Imagine COEJL taking as an over-arching task and mission the involvement of the American (and then world) Jewish community as a body that becomes committed to slow down and ultimately reverse the process of global scorching.
For such a task, synagogues and similar Jewish groups could choose to play an especially effective role. They stand between and connect micro- and macro-communities:
On the one hand, they can encourage change in the life-styles of their member households; on the other, they can affect the macro-politics of the US government and major corporations.
This memo will examine four planes of action: physical practice, education, spiritual life, and political action -- that would be the necessary components of such a campaign.

THE PHYSICAL PLANELet us start on the most direct and physical plane, where change must actually happen if the planetary atmosphere is to be healed.
(I do not mean that change would begin at this level; for many people -- most! -- it is necessary first to change ideas, feelings, and spiritual experience. By starting to imagine the physical results, we can define the task that lies before us in these nonphysical spheres.)
The direct physical goal: To get Jewish organizations, buildings, homes, and households to make deep cuts in the amounts of fossil fuels they burn, and the amount of irreplaceable forest products they use.
The indirect physical goal: To get American society (and other societies where Jews have substantial numbers and influence) to reduce their use of fossil fuels and to protect and restore forests.
The first set of goals can be accomplished by the Jewish community on its own; the second requires outreaching political relationships, which will be dealt with in Part 4 below.
Synagogues, Jewish retirement homes, JCCs, etc., could make a high-priority decision to retrofit their buildings to use less fossil fuel. They could celebrate the new path as an eco-kosher commitment to use high-efficiency insulation, replace oil or coal furnaces with natural gas, etc. etc., even if this costs more in the short run.
They could arrange bus or carpool transport for congregants to come to festival and Shabbat services, and actively discourage the use of individual autos.
They could set up revolving loan funds to help congregants make the down payments to retrofit their own homes and businesses.
By pooling the purchasing power of large denominations and/ or regional bodies like the Federations, these groups could reduce the prices of non-polluting power systems (natural gas, solar power, wind power) and transport systems (hybrid gasoline-electric cars, fuel cells, etc.).
They could urge auto companies to make high-mileage cars available and to take low-mileage vehicles off the market -- and jointly define the most responsive auto company as the one their organizations, homes, and companies would buy from (and boycott the worst).
They could make it scandalous -- violations of a new and far more obviously urgent version of kashrut, or violations of a Jewish communal obligation as strong as the one to support Israel in its most precarious moments -- for a Jewish household or organization or a business owned by Jews to be using low-gasoline-mileage cars or oil heat or other high-CO2-producing technologies.

THE EDUCATIONAL PLANEHow does the Jewish community get to the point we have described above, of making deep changes in its life-style?
It will take intensive education and organizing inside the Jewish community.
We set the goal of making sure that every Jew understands the scientific basis of Global Scorching, understands what acts of public policy (governmental and corporate) would help prevent it, and understands how Jewish tradition, practice, and spiritual life are engaged in healing our planet from this disease.
To do this means we must unite three strands of knowledge:
Ecological science;
Policy expertise.
At every level of Jewish education, all study -- of the festivals, of lifecycle ceremonies, of the texts of Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah, the early Zionist vision, and so on -- would be refocused on what these texts taught about the relationship between adam and adamah, humankind and earth.
The texts should be treated honestly, in all their ambiguity. It is more important to keep asking the question than to find that the answers were always what we today would call pro-environment. For millennia Jews have been concerned about the adam/ adamah relationship; the intensity of their concern and their ways of addressing it have changed, depending on the life-situation of the Jewish people. We can learn from these changes without being locked into the specific answers that Jews have worked out in the past. It is the process of study NOW that matters most.
Secondly, science and public policy about the issues of technology , climate change, and global scorching should be constantly intertwined with Torah study. Most important of all is to assert that science, public policy, and religion do not live in boxes, isolated from each other.
Imagine Jewish day schools in which the workings of a fuel cell, passive solar power, the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, etc. are the main subjects of discussion in science classes and political science/ civics classes, and in which teachers of these subjects know and teach how Torah has addressed or might addrss these questions.
Imagine a synagogue adult-education class in which for a dozen weeks, three experts -- one in geology/ ecology, one in public affairs, one in Torah -- were present and teaching at every session.
Imagine a synagogue school in which the festival cycle were shaped by the hands-on year-long rhythm of planting and gathering, watching and reporting on rain and sun, growth and withering, so that the festivals emerged organically from the year rather than being the objects of a paper study in the classroom.
Or imagine a synagogue school in which the students once a year carried out a major inventory of the synagogue's energy use, its policy about automobiles, its use of recyled materials, etc, and once a year explored its land use, the possibility of growing organic food, etc. -- and integrated all this with Jewish traditional teachings and contemporary science.

THE SPIRITUAL PLANEIntellectual realization will probably not lead to physical action unless there is a strong sense of spiritual joy and spiritual responsibility that both demands and empowers transformative action.
Our goal is that every Jew come to feel so deeply fed by meaningful prayer, song, meditation, ceremony, and sense of community that no one of them needs to make possessions, speed, convenience, or efficiency into an idol that corrupts and poisons the breathing planetary spirit.
In every recitation of the Sh'ma, the second paragraph addresses the danger of bringing the earth's devastation down upon our heads if we deny the Unity. Imagine making this paragraph a crucial, not a dismissible, passage of the prayerbook.
Imagine defining TuB'Shvat as an annual day for protecting forests and wilderness and wetlands, Hanukkah as a time for minimizing the use of oil and other fossil fuels, rededicating ourselves to the Holiest Temple -- Earth.
Imagine beginning prayers with a breathing meditation that follows our own breaths from our mouths and noses deep into our bodies, then out into the leaves of grass and trees, thence to return to us -- always renewed by this Moebius loop through life. "Kol HaNeshamah T'hallel Yah -- Every breath praises the Breath of Life." "Nishmat Kol Chai Tivarekh et-Shimcha; The breathing of all life blesses Your Name."
Imagine learning to live Shabbat and the sabbatical year of "shmitah / non-attachment" as real rhythms in our lives, when we pause to Be instead of Doing and share our restfulness with the earth itself.
These spiritual exercises can remind us that the Ruakh -- the Breath/ Wind/ Spirit -- that gives new life to the dead, dry bones Ezekiel saw -- that Ruakh Elohim, God's Wind, has as one of its manifestations the Planetary Wind that sweeps the earth: the clarity of an atmosphere that is not choked with smoke and CO2.
And the meaning of Spirit goes even deeper: For it is only through drinking deeply of the Spirit that we stop gobbling up the material things of earth. It is not just that spiritual practice reminds us of our need to heal the earth we live in; the spiritual practice is itself one crucial aspect of the healing.

THE POLITICAL PLANEFinally, the Jewish community does not exist in a vacuum. Like a small but crucial species woven into the life-giving process of an eco-system, we are woven in a larger web of human cultures. We can help renew them, and they us.
Even if the Jews of Americas cut our consumption of gasoline in half, that alone would not shield the earth from a culture that trashes railroads to build highways, that forces people to sleep long miles from where they work and to burn fuel to race between those places.
We need to work with allies to --
Use our ownership of stocks and our ability to channel our buying so as to pressure major corporations into reducing year by year their own use of fossil fuels and their production of machines dependent on burning oil and coal.
That means showing up with proxies at stockholder meetings, beating willows on the ground outside an oil refinery, wailing Lamentations at the doors of an auto factory.
We need to work with allies to --
Use our political clout and our campaign contributions to pressure politicians -- for example,

  • to extend fuel-efficiency standards to SUV's;

  • to invest Federal loans and purchase policies in vehicles and heaters that radically reduce the emission of scorching gases;

  • to support the Kyoto Treaty for climate control and demand the Senate ratify it with as much fervor as Jews supported the Vanik Amendment to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration.

  • That means meeting with a Governor, focusing election contributions on a Senat or, not alone with an eye to their Middle East policy but with an eye to their CO2 policy.
    It means treating a city's public-transport policy and a suburb's policy toward sprawl and highways as a serious issue to the onset of Global Scorching.
    It means supporting major increases in the gasoline tax, with its proceeds used to subsidize public transport and bike paths.
    It means demanding that the Israeli government drop the Trans-Israel Highway not only because it would deface and destroy a sacred landscape, but also because its autos would poison with a Flood of Smoke and Fire the air of the whole planet.

    Obviously for COEJL to adopt such a vision of a nation-wide -- ultimately world-wide -- effort to transform the priorities of the Jewish people would be to envision a long and hard campaign.
    But such a big campaign is made up of many smaller ones. In each synagogue, each Federation, each JCRC, all four of the aspects of action that are described in this memo would have to be undertaken.
    Let us be clear: Such a campaign would face both inertia and in some places in the Jewish community, outright opposition. There is a reason the present Senatorial leadership has made clear it would not ratify the Kyoto Treaty; there is a reason President Clnton backed off from his early first-term proposals for a gasoline tax increase.
    Does a large vision seem too big for us to grasp and carry out? Certainly it is too big for the numbers and the energy that we already have.
    But already, many regional affiliates of COEJL and some of its national actions address specific issues that are part of the global-scorching pattern.
    So in some ways, the next necessary step is to reframe these specifics as part of a larger campaign, as well as to work out the stages of a broad plan to achieve major changes (e.g., broadening of fuel-efficiency regulations; later, passage of the Kyoto Treaty).
    If we see the vision well and speak it clearly, others will join in it.
    "Without vision, the people perish." With a great vision, we call ourselves into great action.
    Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
    The Shalom Center