Beyond Copenhagen: Varied Jewish approaches to unscorching Earth
Beyond Copenhagen: Varied Jewish approaches to unscorching Earth
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 12/20/2009
I am writing from the midst of a great winter storm. It is at moments like this that it is hard to convince our kishkes, our innards, that global “warming” is dangerous. That’s one of the reasons i insist on talking about “global scorching” — more honest to the geological reality and more evocative of the emotional reality.
Copenhagen is over: at the official leadership level, a dismal failure. At the grass-roots level, it sprouted another stage of growth.
Which narrative controls the future — top-down failure or grass-roots growth — depends on us.
The officials came up with a vague agreement among five major nations, no binding decisions, a too slowly approached process toward a too-limited target for even the non-binding decisions, anger among many other nations about both being ignored in the process and short-changed in the results, and a very tentative possible success in beginning the creation of a world fund to aid poor nations make the shift into non-fossil economic devlopment.
Four major culprits: Big Oil & Big Coal, which have blocked effective action by the US; the US government (President & Congress), which has kowtowed to them and failed to commit a serious level of money to meet the needs of poor nations; the Chinese government, which rejected effective outside verification of its promised cuts in CO2 emissions.
Pressure for deeper commitment, coming from African and Latin American nations and small countries most vulnerable to global scorching through drought and flood, fell short because they had too little power to force the rich and large nations to meet the world’s needs.
On the streets in Copenhagen and around the world, however, the summit sparked much more action and much more coherent connection. A true transnational movement is emerging, as will have to happen if the human race is to prevent utter disaster. There will have to be many more people going beyond their own households to address public policy, with much greater effort from those people. In the US especially, climate activists will have to make much closer alliances with health-care, anti-war, and pro-jobs activists if climate healing is to prevail.
(What do these issues have in common? I am at work on an essay looking broadly at them and what lies beneath them, including a way of understanding God that emerges from the multiple crisis we are in. The essay, entitled “The 21st century — In God’s earthquake, Domination — or Community” will go to you early in January.)
In the US, attention now turns to the Senate where debate continues on the Kerry-Boxer cap-and-trade climate bill and the pressures to water it down. Perhaps most crucial: Will the bill allow the Environmental Protection Administration to establish strong regulations on emitting CO2? If the Senate strips EPA of that power, as some Senators are trying to do, it will be better to defeat the bill and get EPA to act.
One example of grass-roots energy: Last Saturday night (12/12), was both the second night of Hanukkah and the night 350.org, a transnational climate-activist network, had urged world-wide candle-lighting vigils to impact Copenhagen.
Around the world, there were more than 3,000 such vigils. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the bitterly cold streets of Copenhagen in night after night of nonviolent demonstrations.
In Philadelphia that evening, about 60 people from various Jewish congregations, some interfaith environmental groups, the local climate-crisis 350.org, and the Philadelphia [High-School} Student Union gathered at Independence Hall to light Hanukkah menorahs
and other candles as a message to Copenhagen to get serious about a fair, strong, and binding agreement to stop the worsening of the climate crisis.
The Shalom Center initiated the event, and our Board member Rabbi Mordechai Liebling was one of three key organizers and emceed the event itself. He and Margaret Lenzi, a member of The Shalom Center and of Congregation Mishkan Shalom — and an amazing political activist — were crucial in getting this done.
John Strauss and Sarai Shapiro led us in singing “This Little Light of Mine,” Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” and Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Race.” We gave and heard speeches from Steve Jones, the PSU president; Judy Wicks, renowned restaurateur and founder of Philadelphia Sustainable Business; Andrew Lavine of Philly 350; and me.
Ron Goldwyn, press secretary to Congressman Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia, presented a proclamation from the Congressman honoring the work of The Shalom Center on climate healing. Peter Handler of Mishkan Sjalom Congregation made an extraordinary out-size Hanukkah Menorah based on the 350.org logo. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell of the Reform movement led the Hanukkah candle-lighting.
My talk emphasized three relevant aspects of Hanukkah:
Lighting hope in the midst of gloom and darkness;
Affirming the ability of grass-roots communities and movements like the Maccabees to “declare our independence” from top-down, elephantine power conglomerates like the Seleucid Empire and Big Oil and Big Coal;
Radically reducing our use of oil and other fossil fuels in the spirit that “one day’s oil in rededicating the Temple Menorah met eight days’ needs.”
The event and the Hanukkah connection were well-covered in advance by the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY, the local NPR station. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency nationally circulated an Op/Ed essay of mine on the Jewish principles that should underlie our climate policy.
Below you can see the URL for some photos by Jesse Brown. In addition, we had the whole event videotaped and will soon post both the whole thing and probably an excerpted version on The Shalom Center’s section of YouTube and our Website.
If any photo is used, please credit ‘Rev. Jesse Brown” or “ImagesByJesseBrown.com”
Now that we are past Hanukkah, for Jews it is already time to focus on the festival of Tu B’Shvat, Rebirthing of the Trees — and for Christians once they have completed celebrations of Christmas and its Twelve Days, and for Muslims, once they have fulfilled the New Year month of Musharram and its tenth day, Ashura..
The Tu B’Shvat festival celebrates both the biology of the renewal of tree life in midwinter and the mystical sense that God’s Own Self is a Tree of Life with its roots in heaven and its fruit here — on earth — not only in trees but in all our lives.
The origins, practice, and purpose of the festival are so open that there is every reason for people of all religious communities and spiritual impulses to take part in it. God’s abundance and the vitality of forests are so intertwined, the biology and the Mystery so intertwined, that in a planet surfeited with carbon dioxide and starving for more oxygen, this festival can welcome all.
Tu B’Shvat itself comes this year on Friday evening/ Saturday, January 29-20.
On Thursday evening January 14, I will be leading/ weaving a telephone seminar on Tu B’Shvat.
I co-edited the Jewish Publication Society’s festival volume called Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology,which is the most comprehensive gathering of biblical, rabbinic, mystical, modern, and eco-spiritual approaches to trees, The Tree, and their festival. You can order it from JPS at
or by calling 1.800.234.3151
We will be sending out more detailed information on our phone seminar. Meanwhile, please save the date.
The Shalom Center especially fills an important niche in what might be called a “Jewish eco-system” in the eco-spiritual world. We have especially developed two aspects of our niche: building momentum around the festivals as expressions of climate healing, and providing a robust commitment to advocating deep changes in public policy on climate and energy.
Allies in other niches of the Eco-Jewish community have been emphasizing other aspects of the climate issue as a crucial part of Jewish commitment to God’s Creation.
There are two other major centers of eco-Jewish activity. One is a revived COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life). After ten years of vigor and then five years of doing little, COEJL has recently received
an infusion of money that should make possible a lot more action. In formal terms, almost all American Jewish organizations (including The Shalom Center) are listed as co-sponsors of COEJL. In reality, almost all its decisions are guided by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (it is legally a project of JCPA).
It is strongly influenced by the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, of which it is the Jewish component alongside Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical Christian bodies. (Muslim groups have, unfortunately, never been invited to take part in NRPE.)
This means COEJL brings two great strengths and one important deficit to Eco-Jewish activism. One great strength is that it can potentially address a very broad spectrum of synagogues and other Jewish groups that own buildings with a strong voice about “greening” their own buildings and maybe the households of their members. Another is that when it speaks in one voice on climate / energy policy, it can potentially bring a great deal of clout to the table.
The downside is that, like any group with a large and diverse constituency, when it comes to policy it must move slowly and sometimes may sidle up to a crucial question where there is internal division, rather than facing it head-on. In situations like that, pioneering work like that of The Shalom Center can have an important effect on preparing the way for COEJL.
We saw this process at work when we joined first the “redwood rabbis” of California and then a wider interfaith coalition in confronting a corporation that was logging ancient redwoods. We began with a “plant-in” on Tu B’Shva 1996, illegally trespassing on the corporation’s turf to plant redwood seedlings and mobilize Jewish and general public opposition. Then we took part in an interfaith opposition at a stockholders’ meeting. It tookCOEJL about three years to join this effort, in less confrontational ways.
Similarly, in March 1997 we sponsored a consultation on “Cancer, Health, and the Environment: Toward a Jewish Response” that brought together about a dozen Jewish leaders (especially from women’s organizations with a special concern about breast cancer) to talk with experts in environmentally caused diseases. COEJL’s then executive director took part in the meeting but again, it took about three years for COEJL as a diverse body to be convinced that the science we presented was strong enough to warrant COEJL’s acting.
More recently, in 2006 we created the Green Menorah Covenant campaign for synagogues to commit themselves to green their own buildings and congregants’ homes and to act on public policy. Now JCPA, RAC, and the resurrected COEJL have announced the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. It asks American Jews to pledge that they will act to conserve on the individual level, be part of Jewish communal actions on the environment, and advocate for environmental issues with elected officials and in the media. See the pledge here.
So today we celebrate the resurrection of COEJL and intend to keep on with our role as pioneers.
Meanwhile, there has emerged a creative weave of eco-Jewish organizations, much smaller than the Reform movement or JCPA but totally dedicated to eco-Judaism. It is typified by Hazon and the Teva Learning Center and includes the Jewish Farm School, the Adamah Fellows (organic farmers at Elat Chayyim), Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Center, and others.
Here The Shalom Center has been a much more direct participant. This past June, we called a meeting of these groups to explore next steps we could be taking. At that meeting, our proposal for Climate Healing Shabbat on Shabbat Noah won broad support, and Hazon presented the first draft of a seven-year plan for a Jewish Climate Change Campaign that received both strong support and important suggestions for enrichment. It was aimed at the Copenhagen conference in the short run but obviously far beyond it.
In its three-by-three grid of individuals, institutions, and community in one dimension and education, hands-on action, and advocacy in the other, the Jewish Climate Change Campaign is weakest in presenting community-wide advocacy suggestions. It is strongest in its educational work (as in Teva’s national bus tour and Hazon’s conference on food and annual bike rides).
Like the JCPA/ RAC/ COEJL pledge, it is more general than the Green Menorah Covenant pledge and the “Seven Principles and a Yardstick” put forward by The Shalom Center. For our approach, click here.
I think it is accurate to say that our approach to public policy is sharper than that of any of the other groups, and we intend to keep playing two roles: as a “tugboat” nudging, noodging, and tugging at the great ocean liners to take clearer, stronger positions; and as a “seedbed” developing newly creative ideas and handing them over to others to make sprout and flourish.