Redwoods, Tobacco, & Torah

[This article appeared in the September 1997 issue of Tikkun. Copyright © 1997 by Arthur Waskow. Do not reproduce without permission from the author.]

For two decades, various American religious communities have put on their agenda the application of religiously rooted ethics to the behavior of large corporations. They have done so chiefly through “socially responsible investment” funds. Such funds either eliminate the negative (by refusing to invest in enterprises that are for example racist or eco-destructive) or accentuate the positive (by investing, for example, in “green” businesses and creative new enterprises led by women).

In the last six months, these issues have heated up in at least one religious community — the American Jewish community. On the one hand — “accentuate the positive” — The Shefa Fund has recently taken great strides in persuading major Jewish pools of money to join with Christian institutions in revolving loan funds to support inner-city enterprises.

On the other side — “eliminate the negative” — objections have been raised to the behavior of specific businessmen who are not only Jewish but are involved in organized Jewish life. There is evidently something in the air, since such concerns have erupted on opposite sides of the continent, in two quite different industries — tobacco and lumber — and without any previous coordination. The questions that have surfaced pose some important dilemmas not only for Jews but for members of other religious communities as well.

What are the two cases? In New York, two Jewish philanthropists, Edith and Henry Everett, have long urged the Jewish community to address the sale of cigarettes as a violation of the prime Jewish value, p’kuach nefesh — saving life. When they began, there were few people who thought this was a “Jewish issue.” But gradually others have come to agree with them.The New York Jewish Week was convinced to stop taking ads for cigarettes, and many Jewish Community Centers and Federations forbade smoking in their buildings before laws were passed to that effect .

The issue arose in a new and sharper way when James S. Tisch was proposed for the presidency of the Jewish Federation of New York. For the Tisch family’s major business holdings include ownership of a major tobacco company, Lorillard.

To the Everetts, among others, the logic seemed clear: Just as the community had decided not to print ads for a deadly drug , so it should refuse to honor someone who benefits in such a major way from the manufacture and sale of that deadly drug.

But the majority of those with voting clout in the Federation were not convinced. Many leaders argued that the community should not penalize someone for doing what was perfectly proper under American law, thereby putting Jewish businessmen at a disadvantage in American society and depriving the community of an effective leader or a major donor. Mr. Tisch was elected to the Federation presidency.

Meanwhile, in California and Texas, a similar conflict emerged. The last privately owned old-growth redwood forest -- the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, California -- is owned by the Pacific Lumber Company, which used to be independent but in 1985 became the target of a hostile takeover by Maxxam Corporation. Maxxam is publicly held, but themajority of its stock is held by Charles Hurwitz, a Jewish businessman who lives in Houston, Texas, and his family.

Following the junk-bond financed takeover, Maxxam doubled the rate of logging ancient redwoods and set off a twelve year storm of litigation and
controversy. Former Pacific Lumber shareholders have won $150 million claiming that the takeover was accomplished by means of fraud; pensioners won $7 million on claims of breach of duty in Maxxam's treatment of their pension fund; lawsuits are still pending on behalf of the non-shareholder constituencies; and environmentalists won a U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting logging in one of the ancient groves of Headwaters Forest.

After the Maxxam takeover, the redwood forest became the site of demonstrations and protests involving thousands of activists -- scattered among them, some members of the few small Jewish congregations in the remote redwood region. In 1995, some of these Jews took a more explicitly Jewish stance: They wrote to Mr. Hurwitz at High Holy Days, appealing to him to change his logging policies. A year later, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, two local rabbis joined with more than a thousand people who were arrested for peaceful civil disobedience on Maxxam's land in the redwoods (among more than five thousand demonstrators).

Then just before Yom Kippur, these two rabbis and a third from the redwood region placed an open letter to Charles Hurwitz in the Houston
Jewish weekly newspaper. These "redwood rabbis" urged Mr.Hurwitz to make a "teshuvah shelaymah," "a genuine change of direction," and
suggested that he had the "opportunity to do a historic deed of goodness, a great mitzvah" by dedicating himself to the protection of Headwaters

In February, the "Redwood Rabbis," now with support from Jewishly rooted environmentalists across the country, led 250 people in a ritual
celebration of a day set aside in the Jewish sacred calendar as the New Year of the Trees — but they held the celebration in a grove of ancient redwoods and ended it by deliberately trespassing on Pacific Lumber’s property to plant a number of redwood seedlings.

Maxxam did not have these Jewish celebrants arrested as it had done with hundreds of others who had trespassed in the same space to protest the logging plans. Was this gleam of light a sign of deeper change?

As the Maxxam shareholders meeting approached, environmentalists among the shareholders proposed to add two non-management trustees, both environmentally conscious, and to commit the company to become a “willing seller” of 60,00 acres of redwood forest to buyers that would protect the forest.

Letters went out to all the shareholders from a multi-partner coalition headed by the Rose Foundation of San Francisco, including an inter-religious committee on socially responsible investment headed by a Catholic nun, and including also representatives of the California Teachers Retirement Fund. Proxies began to flow in.

People in the Jewish community began to mobilize as well. When the shareholders met in Houston in May, a letter from thirty-eight rabbis was waiting for Hurwitz. For the first time, a group of Houston Jews braved the wrath of the wealthy Hurwitz family to speak out: the Houston Reconstructionist Havurah publicly advertised a meeting critical of Maxxam for endangering the redwood forest.

(When the pre-Yom Kippur ad had appeared in the Houston Jewish newspaper, the Herald-Voice, Hurwitz’s sister had visited the editor and publisher to complain and hint of possible consequences. Her visit simply stiffened the newspaper’s resolve and independence. After the stockholders meeting, they ran a long article exploring the entire issue.)

By the day of the stockholders meeting, proxies for the pro-environment position added up to 9% on one of the items and more than 6% on the other — prodigious figures for such a challenge in its first year.

Since Hurwitz seemed especially sensitive to the Redwood Rabbis and other Jewish criticism, the pro-environment stockholders made sure that Jewish wisdom and ethics were brought to bear on the issue along with Christian and secular-ecological ethics.

How to make clear that logging the Headwaters forest would not only damage the earth but also damage Maxxam — a concern probably closer to the hearts of many stockholders and ultimately the argument best calculated to win over Hurwitz himself?

The rabbis’ letter was put forward as evidence that Maxxam was in danger of bringing upon itself pariah status in our society, in which consumers might boycott it and lenders refuse to lend to it — a situation that would surely damage the shareholders.

One strong Jewish archetype of the self-destructiveness of arrogant power was put forward as well: According to biblical tradition, the Pharaoh of the Exodus — by hardening his heart against appeals to compassion and good sense — had brought upon his country a series of ecological disasters that finally shattered his own household and himself. The analogy also reminded the company’s management that it could still avert disaster by turning toward opening, rather than hardening, its heart.

Although Maxxam has entered negotiations with the Federal and California governments toward possible sale of part of the forest, it remains determined to log old-growth redwoods when possible. The struggle will heat up again this fall when regulations run out that prevent logging till the end of the murrelet nesting season. Environmentalists are already planning protests if Maxxam tries to resume logging. What will the Jewish community do?

From both the Hurwitz and Tisch cases, we see emerging a broader question: In American society, can the Jewish community hold its members ethically responsible and accountable in Jewish terms?

In the Middle Ages, autonomous and ghettoized Jewish communities could and did enforce their standards on all their members. But now, in voluntary American Jewish communities the beit din (rabbinical court) is irrelevant unless both parties to a dispute agree to obey it.

Shall we give up on any notion at all of communal Jewish ethics? Or create new ways of making clear what our ethical standards are?

We certainly run some ethical risks in seeking to apply communal ethics in public space. First, there is a danger that criticism could degenerate into the lashon hara (“ evil tongue") that Jewish tradition abhors. One way of minimizing this danger is for those who are most concerned to seek first, as Jewish tradition teaches, a private encounter to present their views, ask for change, hear the other party, and be prepared to change their own ideas without abandoning their basic ethical imperatives.

There is also a danger of demonizing the businessperson who is being criticized. A serious Jewish critique must always hold open the real possibility and expectation of tshuvah — “turning” in a new direction. It must try to open space not for shaming the wrong-doer but for ennobling the act of self-transformation.

There is a third danger — that latent anti-Semitism may be heightened by holding up a Jewish businessperson to public critique for behavior that non-Jewish businesspersons also pursue. But there is an obverse danger that if the Jewish community keeps silent, it may seem to condone illegitimate behavior by a leading Jewish businessperson that it would condemn if done by someone else. One way of avoiding these dangers is for the Jewish community to make clear that it is criticizing the behavior of non-Jews and Jews alike when their behavior violates Jewish ethics — and that it urges other religious communities to hold their adherents also to high ethical standards.

Some Jews have suggested that the correct address for protests like the ones against Maxxam’s or Lorillard Tobacco’s management is state and federal governments, not the companies or their owners. If it is such a bad idea to log the ancient redwoods or sell cigarettes, why not get the logging or the cigarettes outlawed?

This makes good sense. It makes even more sense to say even more broadly, as Michael Lerner and the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning have proposed, that corporations should be legally required to undergo a periodic “ethical impact” assessment to see how all the different aspects of their business are affecting the earth and human society.

And yet — why wait for the law to change before we act? Indeed, we know that the path to enshrining a newly understood ethic in the law often runs through way stations of marches, sit-ins, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and other nonviolent protests.

Moreover, why should stockholders of a publicly held company not be free -- indeed, obligated -- to bring their own ethical concerns and their worries about the future of the company to a stockholders meeting? Why should members of a religious community wait till the State passes a new law before they can act on their ethical beliefs? Is the state the only repository of social responsibility?

The assumption that only the State can compel responsibility is rooted in the belief that business is a zero-sum game. If the redwoods win, must Maxxam lose? Most of the world’s religious traditions teach just the opposite. Most of them — certainly including Judaism — teach that the Universe is a web of interconnection; that a blow aimed at one strand of the web shakes and shreds other strands of the web. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is rooted ultimately in the sense that God is One — that the “other” is your self, that if I damage you I have hurt myself and that if I heal you I have healed myself.

At the Redwoods Seder on the Trees’ New Year of Tu B’Shvat, a rabbinical student — Naomi Mara Hyman — looked up at these tallest living beings on the planet — 250 feet tall and more — and said: “What would a Torah Scroll be like that had these eytzim [“trees”] for its eytzim [the wooden poles that hold the spiraling Torah scroll]? How grand, how tall would such a Torah be!” Then, looking at the crowd who had come to celebrate the Seder, she said: “Each of us would be just the right size to be one letter in such a Torah Scroll!”

And that is what we are, of course: each one of us a letter in God’s great Torah Scroll of all life on the planet. Yet being a letter is not enough. Nowhere in the Torah does a single letter stand alone to bear some meaning. In English, the word “I” is but a single letter, standing alone; but in Hebrew, even the word for “I” has several letters. No one, not even “I,” can stand alone.

When one person, one corporation, thinks it is a single letter that can stand alone, that single letter turns to flame and the great Torah Scroll, the earth and the society in which we live, begins to burn.

If the Jewish community and other communities of Spirit and of Faith are to be more than islands of private piety and personal calm, if they are to be communities of ethical responsibility, they must bring together the single lonely letters of each individual person to form living words, sentences, chapters, whole books of wisdom with each other. Living books to be embodied in public, challenging wrong-doers.


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