Earth Etude for Elul 9: The Important Ten Percent

by Rabbi Judy Weiss

~ Rabbi Dr. Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, taught a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b-55a, in a study session for the Israeli Knesset in 2014 (listen to her re-teach it at Mechon Hadar, here). In this passage, the rabbis conclude that we’re responsible for protesting when we observe someone doing something that is morally wrong. We must protest even if we think the offenders won’t heed our warnings, and even if we fear being stigmatized for speaking out.

The talmudic passage teaches that if we fail to protest a wrong-doing that we observed, our name becomes attached to the deed because we are just as culpable as the wrong-doer. Hauptman concluded the lesson by emphasizing that to be a good Jew, it isn’t enough to keep Jewish rituals and laws–one must also identify ways to fix the world and then protest until wrongs are righted. Speaking out extends beyond moaning and crying around one’s dinner table. One must protest in one’s neighborhood, city, to the head of state and everyone of his/her aides, and throughout the whole world.

Peter Gleick, an environmental scientist specializing in energy, water and climate change, made a similar point in 2010. He suggested that climate change disasters be named after climate change deniers. His logic was that deniers are stalling action to cut emissions, so our society hasn’t addressed climate change adequately, and the probability of extreme weather events has increased. By naming climate disasters after deniers, we blame those responsible for increasing the odds of these catastrophes.

Yet the sad fact is that it’s our fault, and our names should be on the disasters. If we had protested that Congress was listening to fake scientists instead of heeding the warnings of real climate scientists, then Congress would have enacted legislation long ago. If we had protested and thus created a support system for our nation’s climate scientists, so they would not have had to endure abuse at the hands of misleading, badgering, disrespectful, and wrong (yes, sinful) Senators and Representatives, our use of energy and resources would have been fixed, modernized and de-carbonized years ago. We could have started working to cut emissions more effectively back in 1988.

The Yom Kippur Al Het prayer, written in the plural, reminds us that we are responsible for forming an ethical and just society (see the morning Isaiah haftarah). Summarizing from the Silverman Mahzor, the prayer says we sinned by compulsion or by our own will, we sinned unknowingly or knowingly, with speech or hardened hearts, by wronging neighbors, by association with impurity, by denying, scoffing and by breach of trust. What greater breach of trust could we do to present and future generations than by pushing the climate past tipping points? We sin when: we pretend we have no choice, the problem is too big, we’re afraid to speak about it, with stiff-necks and confused minds we allow impure air and water to continue to hurt people . . . we still deny, delay, dis, digress. . .   and break faith as a community.

Social scientists have found that when “just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.” For change to happen, 10% of the population must be “committed opinion-holders.” So speak about climate change. Go on marches. Write to newspapers. Protest in your Senators’ and Representatives’ offices. Ten percent doesn’t sound like so much. But if you aren’t vocal and committed, then we won’t reach the 10% tipping point and Congress won’t act. Imagine if one day your grandchild asks: What did you do after the deadly 2016 West Virginia floodsEllicott City flood, and August’s Macedonia flood to prevent more climate catastrophes? Will your name become “mud.”

We are all in this together. But together, we can get out of it.

The time to protest is now.

Rabbi Judy Weiss lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and is a volunteer climate change advocate with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Boston Jewish Climate Action Network, and Elders Climate Action’s Boston chapter.  

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