Beyond the Gulf Disaster: Tisha B'Av & Prayerful Grass-roots Action to Heal the Earth

Just as the oil blow-out in the Gulf grew from Big Oil's unwillingness to restrain itself from gobbling up even the most hidden sources of fossil-fuel energy, so the growing planetary climate crisis grows from the same insatiable  hunger.  Big Oil and Bog Coal have bevcome "drug lords" who have shaped our society so as to force us into addiction to the burning of fossil fuels. Like Big Tobacco, they have denied their products are addictive or dangerous. But like Big tobacco, they can be confronted and their power to keep addicting us can be limited or ended.

All our religious and spiritual traditions warn us against this kind of insatiable hunger for material goods -- often called greed — and urge us to integrate community, calm, and restfulness into our lives along with striving.

The Gulf crisis points to our need to shift from Big Oil and Big Coal to sustainable sources of energy, if we are to prevent a planetary climate catastrophe even worse than what is happening in the Gulf.(See for the background information on these efforts, see our articles "Oil, Corruption, the Spirit, the Earth, & Us" and "The Earth is Not for Burning."

How can we create a grass-roots response that is rooted in spiritual  commitment and effective political action? 

My model and my motto is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said as he came home from the March on Selma, Alabama,  that brought about  a Voting Rights Act at the height of the civil-rights movement:

"I felt as if my legs were praying."

For there is only one answer to the disgusting, lethal --- literally lethal --  mess that we confront, imposed on us by the overweening power of Big Coal and Big Oil to purchase parts of our government.

That is prayerful public empowerment  -- enough citizens angry enough about the poisoning of our planet and hopeful enough about the healing of our Earth to answer the oil blow-out in the Gulf by creating  a democratic blow-out across America. Small "d."

A movement now as powerful as the civil rights movement was 45 years ago, when it forced Lyndon Johnson to bring Congress the Voting Rights Act.
That movement got laws passed by using both the conventional forms of lobbying -- writing Congressmembers, visiting their offices, etc;  and unconventional forms --  nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience, sit-ins, marches, freedom rides, freedom schools, mass mobilizations, vital vigils.
It took concerted action by Congress as well as many local governmental and private bodies to end racial segregation and to make sure that African-American communities were included in the American political process. Just so, it will take concerted Congressional action -- as well as many actions by local and state governments and by "private" bodies like businesses, religious congregations, labor unions, PTA's --  to go beyond the dangers that the overburning of fossil fuels now pose to our country and our planet.

Yet for years the Congress has been paralyzed by the power of Big Oil and Big Coal.  Now there are two climate bills before the Senate. One is sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass) and Joseph Lieberman ("Not-Very-Indep' -- Conn). The second is sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  They are very different, and the differences deserve more detailed examination than I can do this morning. In the next few days, I can explain what the two bills mean.

 Meanwhile, we can start planning for the kind of grass-roots action --- spiritually rooted, politically adept -- that  characterized the successes of the civil-rights movement and the others that followed it in the second half of the 20th century.

In the earlier section of this letter, which I sent out last week, I mentioned  the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av (this year, July 19-20).  It commemorates the destruction of two Holy Temples in Jerusalem -- one by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE and one by the Roman Empire in 70 CE.  In the rabbinic tradition, that disastrous day was also the day when Mashiach (Messiah) was born -- born but hidden away because humanity was not yet ready to usher in the Messianic Days of peace, justice, healing.

So Tisha B'Av is a day of both grief and hope.

I proposed celebrating it  in a new way. For many of us in this generation, the Holy Temple is not just in Jerusalem but is the whole round planet.  Earth, all Earth. In danger of destruction, and begging us  both to grieve and to give birth to the Messianic Days. Or at least a far more decent world.

So I  propose a way of observing Tisha B'Av that will draw on its spiritual depths in a politically activist way: "praying with our arms and legs."

I propose observing Tisha B'Av this year in a way that sees all the Earth as a sacred Temple that is in danger of destruction brought on by human hands. We need to address our grief as we watch disasters like the Gulf oil blow-out, the droughts that are destroying large parts of Africa, the melting snows and glaciers.  And we need to hold high the vision of a planetary community (Birthing of Mashiach) that is also part of the tradition of Tisha B'Av.

I suggest that on July 19-20 we both create a strong presence in Washington DC for Tisha B'Av, and encourage many communities throughout the country (and beyond?) to do this.

In regard to Washington:  Imagine gathering anywhere between 50 and 1,000 Jews (and others if they feel so moved)  at either or both the Capitol and White House, reading all or part of Eicha (the Book of Lamentations), interspersed with Kinot (laments) for the Earth.  (Tamara Cohen, who is the Barbara Bick Memorial Fellow of The Shalom Center, is working with me on a liturgy for Tisha B'Av that would focus on the endangered Earth as Holy Temple.) 

There should also be time for hope. -- Traditionally, t'fillin (celebratory prayer boxes) that for Tisha B'Av were for sadness' sake not put on in the morning were put on at afternoon-prayer time, to celebrate Mashiach's birth.  So perhaps that moment could become a time for singing songs, for kids as well as grown-ups to paint pictures of the decent future, and for other joyful expressions of Mashiach-time.

Depending on what is happening at that time earth-wise on the Gulf Coast, in the Senate, etc., the Tisha B'Av gatherings could  put forth specific demands/ proposals for healing the earth. Demands like --

  • Prohibiting any further oil-well drilling off the costs of the United States.
  • Insisting that Congress plan step by step for the shift from coal to wind and solar power for generating electricity in America, in a ten-year time frame.
  • Setting the Hanukkah standard for using oil  by 2020 -- one day's oil meeting eight days' needs, as the story of Hanukkah says happened when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple.  

The Shalom Center will provide the new Earth-centered Tisha B'Av liturgy  to those who are ready to do this in their own locales, perhaps at politically sensitive places like EPA offices or BP installations, etc. or perhaps in their own congregations. (Writing letters to Congress or newspapers is OK on Tisha B' Av, according to Jewish tradition.)

And if there is a "critical mass" of Washingtonians who will join in doing this, The Shalom Center will be glad to send out information on this,  inviting people from say, NYC to Virginia, to come to DC.  (Jewish tradition does not prohibit traveling on Tisha B'Av).

Some participants in DC (or elsewhere)  might feel moved to do nonviolent civil disobedience, others not.  Some might observe the full 24-hour Tisha B'Av fast from food and water, others not.  Some might extend the no-food part of the fast beyond Tisha B'Av. Some might want to visit specific Congresspersons.  Etc.   

I suggest this as a model for similar actions that might be undertaken by varied American communities -- actions like proclaiming our independence from fossil-fuel domination and damage on Independence Day, July 4. Like focusing the fast of Ramadan on learning self-restraint in our urge to gobble up the earth's abundance. Like renewing and transforming the meaning of Labor Day.

Please let me know what you think of this possibility, and what you would want to add to it, how you would want to change it, and what you yourself would bring to make it real.

Shalom, Arthur


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