May Day & Torah

Biblical Ecology & Economics for the 21st (or 58th) Century

There are two May Days in Western cultural tradition, one celebrating the Earth and the other calling for social justice. Torah treats these "two" issues as one.

One May Day is rooted in ancient pagan celebration of the spring, including Maypole dances.

The second May Day is rooted in the struggle of American workers beginning in the 1880s to win limits on the work-week to five days of eight hours. One apt slogan: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.”  A recognition that social justice required not only decent pay and treatment for workers and their unions, but also time – free time -- for the workers’ own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth.

The two versions of May Day have remained unconnected.  And in the political world, the two focuses –- social justice and healing of the Earth  -- have also remained mostly segregated from each other.

Though the US and the world are struggling with both economic and ecological crises, most people see them as unconnected. In the secular “social justice” world, many organizations  ignore ecological issues. In the secular  “environmental” world, many organizations ignore issues like disemployment or income inequality or overwork.  And in both worlds, there is little talk about the need for free time, restfulness.

Even in the religious world, the loudest voices in American Christianity affirm an economics of minimal regulation of private property and competition, and minimal protection for the Earth from human exploitation.

But Torah says otherwise. Leviticus 25 & 26 call for an entire year of rest for the land and its workers, every seventh year. Deuteronomy adds that in that year, everyone’s debts are annulled. (Deut. 15: 1-3). Thus Torah sees economics and ecologics as intimately intertwined, affirms that both the land and the people need time to rest, and calls for a practice of strong, spiritually rooted regulation of both.

Green Festival, Green Hevra, Green Earth

Green is the color of today.

 Our own Green Hevra, the green of trees and grasses, and the green of Islam in one of its great festivals.

Today, as many of us who are involved in the Green Hevra (there's a description below) are both taking joy in and mulling over the excellent work we did in an intensive two-day retreat this week,  we might also pause to take note of today’s beginning of the four-day Muslim Festival of Eid-al-Idha.

 The festival remembers and honors a moment that Jews remember as well. Abraham / Ibrahim / Avraham prepared to obey God’s command to offer up his son as a sacrifice – and then at the last moment heard God calling on him to save his son and offer instead a ram caught by its horns in a nearby thicket.  And obeyed.

Muslims honor his willingness to obey God, and they translate this honor into feeding the poor and the outcast.  Drawing on Ibrahim’s offering of the ram, Muslims will take the meat of a ritually slaughtered lamb to share with their extended families and with the poor.

The Shalom Center says to the Muslim world --  Eid Mubarak! May your festival be blessed!

May it help us all to make real the teaching of these days: “Do not kill your children; Feed the poor!”

May we deeply learn that our present mode of life is lifting the deadly "knife" of overburning fossil fuels -- the knife that will kill our children and grandchildren. May we turn away, to make an offering of life, instead.

 I’ve just returned from a two-day intensive retreat of the year-old Green Hevra, a network of about 15 Eco-Jewish organizations, ranging from Jewish organic farms and an eco-focused summer camp to an educational center for kids in Jewish schools for learning Torah of the Earth to groups focused  on the hands-on physical greening of Jewish buildings to several organizations (including The Shalom Center) that fuse Jewish wisdom and practice with eco-policy activism.

The gathering was deeply joyful for me, both collectively and personally --  because the Hevra took several important decisions to address the climate crisis, and because the Hevra honored me as a teacher in a circle of blessing.

The GREEN HEVRA decided to adopt  “Growing a Sustainable Climate” as a focus for the work of the Hevra as a whole and as an important theme in much (not all) of the work of the member organizations.

We identified two special times for lifting up this work

Toward a Jubilee Economy & Ecology in the Modern World

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[This essay is a chapter in Rabbi Waskow's book Godwrestling -- Round 2 (Jewish Lights, 1996). The book is available as a free gift from The Shalom Center, personally inscribed by Rabbi Waskow as you choose, if you use the Donate button on the left to make a tax-deductible contribution of $36 or more.

[At the end of this essay you will find citations on teachings from the Hebrew Bible & related materials toward a Jubilee Economics and Ecologics.]::

One lesson that we have discerned from studying the story of the Flood [see a previous chapter from Godwrestling -- Round 2] is that it is profoundly necessary for us to affirm and celebrate the cycles of life if we wish to preserve the cycles of life. Are those cycles now in danger? And if so, how can we affirm them?

OYL! -- Corruption, the Spirit, the Earth, & Us

Photo of

This is not an oil "spill" we are facing in the Gulf, the way water might spill from a dish or oil from a tanker -- a finite amount in the first place, and then we clean up.

This is more like piercing, penetrating, raping the deep-hidden places in the body of Mother Earth, a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, with such ultraviolence that Her very guts are pouring out, drenching and poisoning us.

But we can take this disaster as a teaching toward a Turning in our lives and action.
To that end, we will present some concrete proposals for action at the end of this essay.

But let us begin by assessing the depths of our distress.

Every morning brings us fresh outrageous news about BP's and Big Oil's obscenities in the Gulf oil eruption -- and the fawning of paid-for governmental toadies:

Using sex, drugs, and money to bribe officials in the first place to overlook unsafety -- so that for years, the Materials Management Service has allowed dozens of wells to be drilled into the Gulf without requiring the Oil companies to get the permits they were legally obligated to get.

Giving BP a pass to drill without even checking environmental standards, though BP was already guilty of hundreds of safety violations in other places and of deaths from its mismanagement of oil wells.

Lying about how much oil is pouring into the Gulf.

Keeping independent scientists from measuring it themselves.

Getting US government approval for new permits and bypassing environmental-impact assessments even weeks after the president announced there would be a moratorium on new permits (in the light of the BP blow-out).

The article that follows looks at four aspects of this disaster, and how to deal with it: (1) spiritual failings; (2) corrupt politics; (3) making policy choices; and (4)prayerful political action.

1. Spiritual Failings

First and most basic, there is a spiritual teaching of all traditions that the US government and global corporations have been systematically violating.

The gulf disaster is an issue of power and the Spirit, not technology. It is rooted in a spiritual disease. One passage of the Hebrew Scriptures -- Leviticus 25 and 26 -- and millennia of human experience describe this as refusing to let the earth have its Sabbath rest.


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