The Dharmic Method to Save the Planet by Dr. Pankaj Jain, GreenFaith's Hindu and Jain Scholar in Residence
An eminent scholar recently came to our university campus and spoke about the role of diverse religious communities of the world and their attitudes toward the environment. He showed examples from several indigenous communities from the North America, South America, Africa and Asia. However, when he referred to the traditions of India, he used these words: "India has the most bizarre culture in the world where even a cobra is worshipped. This is a bit of an overshoot." What amazed me was that even in this supposedly globalized world that we live in, India continues to mystify scholars. While most Americans are familiar with the terms such as "yoga" and "Bollywood," Indian perspectives toward the ecology seem to be largely unknown.
It is true that cobras are worshipped by many Hindus, especially on a specific festival dedicated to them (just as there are specific festivals for mountains, rivers, cows, trees and hundreds of other gods and goddesses throughout India). What is not commonly known is that Mahatma Gandhi had a brief encounter with a cobra at his ashram (retreat) once and he too did not want it to be killed by his colleagues. This is one of the shining examples of Indian environmentalism, not an "overshoot" as called by our scholar friend mentioned above. Several scientific studies have pointed out that every being in nature is intrinsically valuable because every other being is directly or indirectly dependent on each other's survival. This is the fundamental motivation of scientists and environmentalists to save the biodiversity in every part of our planet. Therefore, even a cobra has the right to survive. Moreover, other beings have an intrinsic duty to protect it as long as it is not a threat to them.
More than 2,500 years ago in India, Mahavira and Buddha taught the same concept, although in a different framework of philosophy, spirituality and ethics. Mahavira, the last great teacher of Jainism, even proclaimed that ahimsa (nonviolence) is the greatest dharma. (Dharma's meanings include religion, ethics, duty, virtue, righteousness and cosmic law.) Several Hindu and Buddhist texts also propound the same principle in different languages. According to most of these texts, ahimsa improves one's karma. For observant Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, hurting or harming another being damages one's karma and obstructs advancement toward moksha (liberation). To prevent the further accrual of bad karma, they are instructed to avoid activities associated with violence and to follow a vegetarian diet (meat consumption in India has historically been very less compared to elsewhere). They also oppose the institutionalized breeding and killing of animals, birds and fish for human consumption. Just this month, my book is published based on my research with three communities in India and the diaspora with several ecological practices inspired by the Indic traditions.
Although yoga is widely known in the West, what is not so widely known is that yoga is a system of eight "limbs" or components. The very first step of the first limb of yoga is ahimsa. Unless one is firmly rooted in ahimsa in one's thoughts, speech and actions, true practice of yoga cannot begin. In addition, since Gandhi was a dedicated practitioner of ahimsa (and other yogic principles), he can be called a great yogi even though he might not have practiced all the stretching exercises that we commonly refer to as yoga. It is this practice of yoga that develops one's harmony with and reverence for nature in which even a cobra is not to be killed.
When I first mentioned this to my own students recently, one immediately questioned me and asked if Indians in India are not following the principles of Gandhi, how can we expect the same from others? I partially agreed with her. India (and many other emerging nations in the world) is enthusiastically aping the West with its ever-expanding economy and ever-shrinking natural resources. I was also asked recently at a conference on world religions and ecology, what do the non-Western countries expect of the Western countries? If the rest of the world is eager to make the same mistakes as the West did, what route should the West now take to ensure the planet's survival? Perhaps, one answer could be to embrace Gandhi and his ecological practices. If the West is to remain the intellectual leader of the world, the quicker it reforms and transforms itself, the better for our planet. While the West continues to crave more natural resources without changing its lifestyle, it will continue to lack the moral authority to preach to other cultures. It was the West that led the world with its modern scientific and technological innovations for the last several centuries. It will have to be the West that emerges as a new ecological leader, with Gandhi as the foundation of its lifestyle. All voices to save the planet's ecology are hollow rhetoric until that happens.
There cannot be and should not be separate "war on terrorism," "war on climate change," "war on drugs," "war on corruption," "war on obesity" and so on. Our physical, mental and spiritual health, the environment, the global security, international peace and social justice -- it seems like everything will get a great boost if we first become nonviolent in our most basic activity: eating and surviving. "We are what we eat." It is such a simple statement and yet is so widely ignored all over the world. This is the way Gandhi lived everyday and his protest against the imperial power was influential because it was based on his own great life, unlike many contemporary activists whose own lives are nowhere close to the Gandhi's.
Gandhi's entire life can be seen as an ecological treatise. This is one life in which every minute act, emotion or thought functioned much like an ecosystem: his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablutions and everyday bodily practices, his periodic observances of silence, his morning walks, his cultivation of the small as much as of the big, his spinning wheel, his abhorrence of waste, his resorting to basic Hindu and Jain values of truth, nonviolence, celibacy and fasting. The moralists, nonviolent activists, feminists, journalists, social reformers, trade union leaders, peasants, prohibitionists, nature-cure lovers, renouncers and environmentalists all take their inspirations from Gandhi's life and other dharmic teachings.
As an alternative perspective on contemporary India, despite all the recent advances in India's economy and consumerism, Gandhi's inspiration still thrives in modern India. Here are contemporary environmental activists and dharmic leaders who have modeled their lives taking their inspirations from dharmic teachings of India or have resisted the global consumerist pressure in various other ways: Sunderlal Bahuguna, now in his 80s, leader of the famous Chipko Movement in North India; Medha Patkar, astrong voice against big dams in Central India; Dr. Vandana Shiva, fierce critic of Western style globalism and capitalism; Anna Hazare, in headlines recently for his major protest against political corruption and also famous for ecological experiments in his village in Central India; Pandurang Hedge, who is leading Chipko style movement in South India; late Pandurang Shastri Athavale (I have written about his global Swadhyaya Parivar in my book); late Anil Agarwal, founder of Center for Science and Environment; Dr. Ramachandra Guha, another fierce critic of Western-style consumerism, capitalism and environmentalism, including deep ecology; and hundreds of smaller voices spread all over India making India the land of biggest environmental movement on the planet (as noted by Dr. Christopher Chapple in his volume on Hinduism and ecology published by Harvard University). There are also dozens of institutions in several Indian towns founded by Gandhi himself that are still flourishing with their own small-scale production of textiles and agriculture. In addition, almost every Indian political party must use at least the rhetoric based on Gandhi's values whenever there is a discussion on taking technology or any kind of help from the U.S., U.K., France or other major Western power. They all immediately attack their political opponents as if somebody just was "sold out to the West." Finally, there are several recent major Bollywood blockbusters with several Gandhi-like figures reminding the audience of the message of Gandhi (nonviolence and civil disobedience).
Yes, Gandhi's immortal soul and other dharmic traditions of India are still vibrant even in the 21st-century globalized consumerist society. Several decades ago, in his nonviolent movement for civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King said, "Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method." It is time again to go back to these cherished values propounded by Christ, Gandhi and Dr. King: nonviolence not just toward other human beings but also toward the entire earth. All three also practiced and preached an absolute simple lifestyle and it is time again to practice the same lifestyle.
Please join me on a free Webinar on May 19 to discuss these topics further. Click here to register online.
This posting was originally published on the Huffington Post. Click here for the original post.
This posting - by GreenFaith Rabbinic Scholar in Residence Rabbi Lawrence Troster - was originally published in the Huffington Post. Click here for the original posting.
When people quote the Hebrew Bible, they often do so as if it were a single book with a single voice. But the Bible is not a book, it is a library. It has many books, written at different times by different individuals or groups with often very different ideas about God, humanity and the world. Even within some books like the book of Genesis, modern biblical scholarship has shown that there are multiple sources edited together. And within the Bible, a later source occasionally comments directly or indirectly on an earlier source, a technique scholars call intertextuality.
A case in point: Genesis 1:26-28 is often quoted to show that the "Bible" condones environmental exploitation by humanity because God creates humanity in God's image and then commands them to "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth." Taken out of context, it appears that humanity has been given free rein over Creation, but that interpretation fails to understand that being created "in the image of God" does not mean that humans have the right to be God. As my teacher in ethics, the late Rabbi Seymour Siegel said, we are to imitate God, not impersonate God. We are the agents of God's power on earth and that power is only granted us by the grace of God, a power which is limited and carefully bounded by accountability. This is shown in the very next verses in which humans are only allowed to eat a vegetarian diet. Permission to eat meat is given only after the Flood. In addition to the original context, it is always important to see how a religious tradition later interpreted its sacred texts as the original meaning may have been understood very differently in later generations. And in the case of Genesis 1:26-28, the later Jewish and Christian traditions never interpreted these verses to refer to unqualified human permission to exploit Creation.
There are, in fact, at least four different models in the Hebrew Bible about the human relationship to Creation. Each voice comes from a different source and each one still has something to teach us today. I have called these four models: the Caretaker, the Farmer, the Citizen and the Creature.
Genesis Chapter 1 is part of what modern biblical scholars call the Priestly or P source, which was probably written by priests from the Temple in Jerusalem and received its final form in the fifth century B.C.E., although many P texts in the Torah were originally written several centuries before that. This particular biblical voice sees humanity as the caretakers or stewards of Creation on behalf of God. They believed that Creation was "very good" in the sense of being harmoniously ordered at the beginning and it was only humanity who could maintain or destroy that order.
The Caretaker model is also expressed in Psalm 8 which is a poetic meditation on the reality of the power that humans have over the rest of God's creatures. But it is also about humility and responsibility. The author of the psalm was standing outside at night looking at the millions of visible stars (which were celestial creatures in his cosmology) and wondering why God even notices humanity at all. The psalmist shows astonishment at the power of humans, which he characterizes as little less than the celestial creatures: Why should God have elevated such lowly creatures to such heights of power? The psalm expresses an underlying paradox that amazes the poet: the insignificance of humanity before the power and majesty of God, who has nonetheless granted humanity a divine-like control over the other creatures of the world. This power is reflected in the fact that humans have the ability to catch, to kill and to eat all categories of animal life, both wild and domesticated, birds and fish. This psalm speaks of the reality of human power and how that power sets us apart from all other creatures. It is the recognition of the effect we have had on every part of this world. There is no place and no creature that has not felt the presence of human power and it is naive of us to think otherwise.
The Caretaker model recognized both human power and human responsibility. It speaks to us today because humanity does have real power in the unprecedented reach of our technology to affect the environment. We must acknowledge that with this power comes what the philosopher Hans Jonas called an "imperative of responsibility" since all life, not only human life, is threatened by our misuse of our knowledge and technological skill.
The second model is found in Genesis 2. In this source, (called by biblical scholars J after the use of the divine name YHVH which was originally transliterated as Jehovah and probably written in the 10th century B.C.E. in Judea), God forms a human (in Hebrew: adam) from the earth (Hebrew: adamah). One biblical scholar suggested that adam should really be translated as "earthling" to show the intimate connection between human beings and the earth from which they come and to which they are connected by the need to cultivate the ground in order to live. The ground will also be the place they return to when they die (Genesis 3:19).God then plants a garden and places the human in it "to till it and tend it." The verbs have a root meaning of work and protect but the verb for "work" (l'ovdah) can also mean "to serve." Therefore, the earthling both works and serves the land as the source of all humanity's life-giving sustenance. This original balance of working, serving and protecting the earth is disturbed after the disobedience of the humans in the story of the eating of the fruit of knowledge in Genesis 3. Humans are now punished by having to toil hard in order for the earth to give forth its produce. What was once guaranteed is now contingent on human behavior. In this model, the land is not an inert substance but alive and morally sensitive to human action. This moral responsiveness is found in the story of Cain and Abel where God says to Cain that "your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground!" (See also Leviticus 18:28 where the land will "spew" the people out for acts of immorality.)
In many other texts in the Hebrew Bible, the places where humans dwell are akin to a garden: settled, ordered, peaceful places of plenty. Outside of human cultivation is the "wilderness" (Hebrew midbar). This term does not have the positive connotation that we now often give it. In the Hebrew Bible it is often depicted as a place of disorder, deserts, demons, wild dangerous beasts and migratory brigands. The Prophets often connect the continuance of human settled order to human righteousness and warn that the settled places will become "wilderness" if society continues to oppress the poor and the powerless.
We can learn several important messages from this model: first of all, our deep connection with the earth. Everything we eat and use ultimately comes from the earth. By eating the food grown in the earth we really are earthlings: the same substances that come from the earth make up our physical selves. So we really come from the earth and we will really go back to it when we die. Secondly, we can learn a kind of agrarian ideal: we have to live with the soil, not only exploit it. We must not only work it but serve it and protect it. Thirdly, we must learn that economic and political oppression are linked to environmental degradation. This has been found to be true time and time again across the world and helps to create conflict and social unrest. If we want to keep our gardens fruitful and sustainable, they must also be just.
If the first two models of human/creation relationship are stewardship models which privilege human welfare, the third and fourth models are more biocentrist or, from a theological perspective, creation-centered. A creation-centered model is a holistic, more universal model. Creation theology sees the universe as a place where humans are part of an order in which they do not necessarily have a prime place. Humanity is, in this model, part of a Creation community in which they are, to use Aldo Leopold's terms, citizens and not conquerors. The first kind of this paradigm can be called the Citizen model of the human/natural world relationship and is the religious counterpart to Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic.
The Citizen model, like the Caretaker and Farmer models, is an attempt to control human power over the natural world but starts from different initial principles.
Leopold's Land Ethic limits human power by tying humans to a larger ethical community that includes the whole biosphere. Leopold's impetus came from a sense of the tragic loss of biodiversity that he saw around him as a forester and conservationist. Leopold asserted that contemporary ethical theory is inadequate to protect the biosphere and must now be expanded to include non-human life and the landscape itself. He wrote:
"There is yet no ethic dealing with man's relationship to the land, to the animals and plants which grow upon it ... The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants and animals or collectively the land. ... A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it."
In this new ethical approach, something is right when it "preserves the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
A biblical version of the Land Ethic is found in Psalm 148. The psalm is a creation hymn, a poetic map of the universe. It reflects the Israelite cosmology of a three-part universe: God, heavens and earth, or heavens, earth and Sheol (the underworld). The psalm's structure portrays Creation as divided between a heavenly choir and an earthly choir. The heavenly choir includes the sun, moon, planets and stars, whose role it is to praise God and to act as witnesses to a revelation of God. The earthly choir consists of the forces of the natural world, the landscape, animal life (both wild and domesticated) and all kinds of humans. They are copying the heavenly choir, uniting with them in the same role and singing the same song of praise to their Creator.
The universe reflected by Psalm 148 is a harmonious order in which humans have no primacy even if they have their own special place. They are part of the earthly choir and join in the activity of the heavenly choir in a unification of purpose. There is no dominant human power over the rest of Creation. Psalm 148 pictures human society as part of a community of worshippers, which includes animal life, the forces of the natural world, such as the weather, the landscape and the heavens. The purpose of this community and therefore the purpose of all life is the praise of God.
Psalm 148 and Leopold's Land Ethic emphasis the interconnectedness of all life in one moral community. From the recognition of belonging to that community arises an ethical imperative. In Leopold, this interconnectedness is derived from the common evolutionary origins of all living creatures and their ecological interaction with the environment. In Psalm 148 the interconnectedness is derived from the common origins of all Creation from God. From this model, humanity must find a way to create a sustainable relationship with the whole choir of Creation.
The final model is what I call the Creature model. From this perspective, humans have neither primacy nor even a special place in God's eyes. This is the most biocentrist and radical perspective in the Hebrew Bible and is found in only two sources, which stress humanity naiveté and arrogance.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes 3:17-21 the author says:
"So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts. For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other and both have the same life breath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing. Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust."
According to most biblical scholars, the author is responding directly to Psalm 8 and its picture of humanity as little less than the celestial beings and being radically different than animals. Here humans and beasts are the same: they come from the earth, they live, they die and then they return to the earth. This is an example of the intertextuality that I mentioned earlier. The author is rejecting the Caretaker model of humanity and asserting that we are the same as any other creature. One of the radical challenges that Darwinism made to traditional religious views of humanity was essentially the same: There is no qualitative difference between all species of life. They all evolved from the same original organisms. Modern genetics has shown us how close that relationship is. For example, humans and their primate cousins, the chimpanzees, have some 98 percent of the same genetic structure. This knowledge is important for us to realize in forming an environmental ethic as it replaces human arrogance with a sense of our real connection to all life.
In the Book of Job in chapters 38-42 there is another version of the Creature model. These chapters, which come near the end of the Book of Job, are God's speeches to Job out of a tempest. They are the climax to a work that is a meditation on the nature of evil in the world. The Book of Job is a parable about a pious man whose piety is tested by God through the loss of all his possessions, his children and his health. Job's friends come and give him conventional explanations for his suffering. He demonstrates that the traditional theology for his suffering is inadequate, cruel and immoral. Job demands an accounting from God for this injustice and, finally, God appears in a tempest to answer him.
But God does not directly address Job's objections. Instead, God asks a series of rhetorical questions about whether Job can match divine power and wisdom in creating and sustaining the world. The speeches are magnificent poetic evocations of the breadth, diversity and terrible beauty of God's creative power. Humans or human society are not even mentioned in these speeches. In the final chapter (42), Job admits his ignorance and limited perspective about God, accepts his suffering and is silenced. God then rewards him with the restoration of his wealth and the birth of new children. Job eventually dies "old and contented."
These final chapters have been subject to numerous interpretations. Whatever the meaning of God's answer to Job, it seems evident that God is trying to demonstrate to Job that divine providence is radically different from the conventional theology Job believed in and expected to work. Concerning these chapters, biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson concluded, "The brunt of that harangue is that creation is a wondrous and mysterious place that baffles human assumptions and expectations because it not anthropocentric but theocentric" (Creation and the Persistence of Evil, p.155-6).
Chapters 38-41 are powerful responses to human arrogance and myopic anthropocentrism. The author of Job is telling us that we are not always the center of God's concern and that we can never understand fully the workings of God's universe or the nature of God. We can, however, find deep spiritual nourishment in the contemplation of Creation. By contemplating the "wondrous and mysterious place" that is Creation; we can look beyond ourselves and be brought to a better understanding of perspective on the universe.
These four voices from the Hebrew Bible can be seen as complimentary not contradictory. The editors of the biblical canon evidentially found it important to include them all as they must have resonated with the community that found these works to be sacred. Today, we need not choose one over the other but understand how the wisdom they represent can still teach us to care for Creation in humility and love as the most primary expression of God's revelation.
This blog posting - by GreenFaith Fellows Rabbi Edward Bernstein - was originally published on The Huffington Post. Click here for the original posting.
The anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar on the Jewish calendar, observed this year May 9-10) has become a major holiday throughout the mainstream Jewish community in Israel and around the world. On Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), many synagogues recite Hallel, the collection of Psalms of thanksgiving (Psalms 113-118) that are central to the liturgy of the major festivals throughout the year.
I'll leave it to numerous other bloggers, columnists and reporters to provide geo-political analysis regarding the relationship between Israel, the Palestinians and its neighbors. As my Blog's focus is on Judaism and the environment, I'd like to take the opportunity to note Israel's contributions to environmental awareness and sustainability.
For many centuries, Jews primarily dwelled in urban areas as they were barred from owning land in their host countries. The immigration of Jews to the historic land of Israel in the late 19th century and early 20th century revived a lost spiritual connection between Jews and the land. In fact, in antiquity, Jews in Israel had an agrarian economy that thrived on the relationship between humans and nature. The late visionary ecologist and Biblical scholar Nogah Hareuveni created the Neot Kedumim biblical garden that brings to life the lush natural images that are evoked throughout the Bible and early rabbinic literature.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews arriving to Palestine with no agricultural background suddenly had to become farmers. Their survival depended on their working the land with their own hands and figuring out how to live in mutually benficial relationship with it. The mythology and ethos of the early Zionist pioneers was that they would drain the swamps in the north and make the desert bloom in the south. The sentiment was right, even as recent Israeli environmental advocates and scientists have worked toward restoring some swamps and desert to its original natural state for the benefit of the natural foliage, fauna and earth.
Trees have played an important role in the Jewish reclamation of the land, particularly under the leadership of the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet. While Theodore Herzl and the early visionaries of the Jewish state may not have known all of the science of trees -- how they fill the atmosphere with oxygen, nourish the soil, prevent soil erosion -- they knew intuitively that the soul of the people was nourished by planting trees. They weren't perfect in their calculations. The Carmel fires last December raised questions about whether pine and eucalyptus trees are best for Israel's dry climate, and efforts are afoot to adjust tree planting to Israel's ecology (See: "After fire, what types of trees are best suited for Israel?"). What has not changed is the recognition that the soul of the people of Israel is dependent on a thriving symbiosis with nature, and trees are vital to this relationship.
Israel at 63 is a thriving, growing economy that is noted for its innovative ethos, as illustrated by Dan Senor and Saul Singer in Start-Up Nation. One of the most exciting business developments from the perspective of environmental sustainability is Shai Agassi's company Better Place. Responding to rising oil prices, dependence on oil produced largely by hostile, undemocratic nations and the environmental crisis created by fossil fuel dependency, Agassi's firm has begun to create an infrustructure to support electric vehicles throughout Israel. The technology of electric cars has been around for awhile, but Agassi is implementing a vision of economic viability for the electric vehicle. Better Place is building service stations around Israel where electric vehicles would get a "fill-up" of electric charge or trade out their spent batteries for a used one. In addition, the service stations will be powered by a revitalized smart grid that will draw largely upon renewable energy. As this system starts to come online in Israel, other countries are taking notice. Better Place has undertaken similar projects in Denmark, China, Japan and the American states of Hawaii, California and Oregon.
Every year at this time, Israelis and Jews around the world reflect on whether this will be the year in which, at last, Israel and its neighbors will find a lasting peace that will be mutually beneficial for both Jews and Arabs who live between the Jordan River and the Meditteranean Sea. While Israeli and Palestinian politicians wrestle with the details, the wills of their constituencies and with each other, some Jewish and Arab citizens have found ways to discuss regional cooperation on a grass-roots level. Not surprisingly, the areas of common interest revolve around their shared ecology. The Arava Institute brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to discuss and implement vital innovations in management of water resources, sustainable agriculture, sustainable development, energy conservation and ecological research. The future success of endeavors such as this will bring great benefit to the region and the world.
Jewish liturgy has incorporated the words of Isaiah (2:3): "From out of Zion shall come forth Torah." As the modern State of Israel marks its anniversary, my hope is that from out of Zion will come forth inspiration, innovation and regional collaboration that will pave the way toward environmental sustainability and peace.
GreenFaith Fellow Carole Caplan published this blog posting originally in the HUffington Post. Click here to read the original post.
It was in early 2008 that my Jewish community moved back into our new spiritual home. Our old building had long suffered from poor design, flooding and roofing issues and from a heating/cooling system that worked only parts of the building at any given time. After much research and discussion, it had become clear that doing nothing would no longer be an option. Although we sincerely explored both renovation and moving, we soon realized that the best option for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation would be to tear down and rebuild.
Sitting in the sanctuary today, with it's impressive ceiling overhead, you might not realize that only the bottom 7 feet of the room are being heated and cooled. And although the warm wooden cypress slats that line the walls will easily embrace you, you might not remember that they once lined mushroom houses in upstate New York. Similarly, the ceremonial doors that welcome you to the building remain impressive in size, but it might go unnoticed that they were fabricated from trees that were sadly removed from the property during our construction. In so many ways, it is precisely what you don't realize, what you might not remember and what is invisible to the eye that make our JRC building sacred. Stewardship has been woven into the fabric of our communal history and is now a foundation of our communal spiritual life.
I've been thinking a lot about sacred space lately, as Passover preparations one again urged me to ritually remove every crumb of bread from my house. This act of separating clean from unclean imbues a palpable sense of intention to a space that previously had none. Similarily, the secular ritual of spring cleaning separates my experience of Chicago's long winter from the possibilities of warmth and growth yet to come. In connecting to these ritual acts of separation, I find myself connected to a greater sense of order. I am reminded that in Hebrew the word for sacred is kadosh. Though most commonly translated as "holy," kadosh can also be translated as "to set apart, or make separate." Through these acts of separation, connecting with an order that is ordinarily forgotten and often unseen, I am somehow again made whole.
It was with study and discussion of Jewish values that JRC committed to set apart our building project from traditional building plans. Importantly, the process of building green allowed us to consider how our seemingly individual project might actually be connected to a greater whole.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has taught that kadosh perhaps best translates as "intense," and certainly the intensity of our commitment toward stewardship of the earth and her resources contributed significantly to the sacredness of our space. Energy and water saving technologies were matched with the heartfelt desire to bring our values to life. The quality of the indoor air was discussed alongside the design of how our prayer space would look and function. Decision after decision was considered regarding the impact the building would have on the natural environment outside of us, as well as the impact this built environment would have on those who would soon dwell within. Bringing ancient teachings to life, we had the chance to do in community what we might not be able to do in our own homes. We watched with wonder as our values and dreams took shape hand-in-hand. Being neither the wealthiest nor greenest of congregations, I still find it extraordinary that a small congregation in the southwest corner of a Chicago suburb could become the first LEED-Platinum house of worship in the world. Ours was a journey grounded in values-based decision-making, and we courageously took action to make those decisions more than simply words. We are proud that the creation of our sacred space was undertaken in a sacred manner and joyous that we have been able to share our story with others seeking to do the same.
When I enter the sanctuary to pray, the large windows reveal the trees outside as they weather the changing seasons. As I witness them from this sacred space, my connection to them is unavoidable. Sacred space should touch you in a way that leaves you transformed, and at JRC this is most certainly true. Touched, I seek to connect with those around me. Transformed, I seek to act. I have come to realize that sacred space lies not in what I can see and touch in our building itself, but resides instead where we find ourselves coming together with intention and called to look beyond ourselves to serve a greater whole.
May the prayers of all of our hearts join together with the work of all of our hands so that we might soon bring a lasting sustainability into being.
GreenFaith Fellow Kurt Nelson originally delievered this statement at Dartmouth College's Sustainability and Social Justice Dinner during the college's Earth Week 2011 activities. Click here to read the original post.
I'm the religious one this evening.
So if you need to get more food or check your blitz (note: blitz = email).
this might be the best time.
My name is Kurt.
I'm a chaplain and an educator.
I use reusable mugs,
and carry around cloth napkins.
I'm a vegetarian (most of the time).
I take the bus to work.
I turn my heat way down.
I'm an ecological activist.
An inter-faith activist.
And I'm a Christian.
And for me, those things go all together.
It's holy week.
And it's Passover.
And I'm sure there's someplace I'm supposed to be this evening.
But instead I'm here,
with you all.
Because I think sustainability matters.
And I presume you do too,
or else you wouldn't be here.
And I've been asked,
like the others tonight,
to speak to why sustainability matters.
But that seems fairly evident to me.
If something is good,
it should be sustained.
And so instead, I think the essential question becomes,
sustainability of what,
and sustainability for whom?
And that's where I think things get interesting, and tricky, and wonderful.
Because it becomes not essentially a question of technology,
but a question of our basic values.
A question of what we hold to be really and truly good.
And I fear that we've gotten really bad at talking about such things.
Especially when we disagree.
And into that void has stepped our tacit, increasingly-universal values,
of wealth, economic growth, power, and comfort.
And that's why I think the conversation has to happen with religious folks of all kinds,
and non-religious folks, and naturalists, and pragmatists,
so that we can paint a brighter, deeper, more vivid,
and more multivalent picture of the good.
So for me, the conversation about sustainability must involve three things:
(I am indebted to the Rev. Fletcher Harper for this tripartite construction, executive director www.greenfaith.org)
These are big, unwieldy ideas,
but here's what I think I mean:
Stewardship means management.
It means taking care of things that we have some control over,
but not ownership of.
It seems obvious to me that we have issues with control.
We act as if we believe that there's an endless supply of
clean air and water. Of gas and coal and oil.
Of food and arable land.
And thus we have the right to do what we want.
To do what's easiest and cheapest.
Often we trace these issues,
rightly, to the idea of "Dominion" that we find in the book of Genesis.
You know, "be fruitful and multiply…have dominion over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.." (Genesis 1:28)
It's a problem, no doubt.
And good-hearted people respond to me all the time,
that we ought not have "Dominion"
we should just be another animal
like ants, or birds or beavers or whatever.
We are, after all, evolved of the same stuff.
And while I appreciate that, and think it's partially true,
I think it misses the self-evident fact,
that we are not like ants and birds and beavers.
Because we're clearly far more capable of destruction.
The problem isn't Dominion,
I don't think,
It's bad dominion.
We do have some control.
And thus we're capable of destruction.
but also, I hope, more capable of preservation,
We are certainly evolved of the same stuff,
but we are immensely powerful beings.
And thus, we must be more responsible stewards..
With great power, comes great responsibility.
Yes, Spiderman said that. And so did Jesus (Luke 12:48)
This word might not resonate with all of you,
but it's, I think, the easiest to see of these three
in these bucolic green hills we call home.
Spirituality, for me, means a deep love and connection
in this case, to the land,
to the mountains and trees.
Spirituality is rooted in the basic experience,
I pray we've all had,
where we behold a vista,
or a stream,
or a flower pushing up through the snow,
and have simply thought, "wow."
Spirituality means treating food, and natural landscape,
and birth and life,
as the miracle that it is.
And loving it for that.
And finally justice.
Justice means reminding ourselves,
that sustainability isn't only,
and perhaps isn't even mostly,
about mountains and trees,
but about other people.
And about their and our connection to land and food
and clean air and water.
And it's especially about the poor,
The widows and orphans.
about native populations,
and kids and urban landscapes, and the list goes on.
Each year I've taken a group of students to the tenderloin district of San Francisco
to work and explore issues of poverty and homelessness.
And after spending about 10 minutes in the tenderloin,
full as it is, with homelessness,
you realize that you can find cigarettes and lottery tickets,
processed foods, and booze,
and indeed crack pretty much everywhere you turn.
But that you have to walk blocks and blocks toward affluence,
to find a stick of green,
or a piece of fresh healthy food.
It's a food desert,
amidst the wealthiest city,
of a state that exports 12% of its food
And you can't find a thing to eat,
other than alcohol, chips, or sugar.
And you realize that growing,
or even selling real food in such a place,
is an act of disobedience.
And it's as simple as that.
Fresh foods in the tenderloin,
Kids with asthma and heart disease from diesel Trucks.
blowing up mountains in Appalachia to get at coal more cheaply?
Finding work for all the people whose livelihood depends on blowing up those mountains?
And Justice is essential to sustainability.
Lest it become the purview only of the affluent.
Stewardship, Spirituality and Social Justice,
point us to the good.
And we need to get far more in touch with our joy and with our sense of good,
when it comes to what and whom we're sustaining,
than with our guilt.
Now, religion has been setting the bar for ineffective guilt,
for at least 2 thousand years.
But I want to congratulate you environmentalists,
for raising that bar even higher.
Guilt has its place,
but it's ultimately a fairly weak motivator.
Guilt tells us what's wrong.
But joy, and hope, and love,
they tell us what's good and move us forward.
And sustainability is about the good.
It's about what we do..
But it’s also about what we learn and teach and talk about.
We're losing an ideological battle right now,
by ceding the ground of the good to the corporate state.
Which tells us that all value, is monetary value.
And we need to push back together.
Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Spiritual Seekers, and the list goes on.
We need to paint a multi-faceted picture,
of the good.
I don't usually dispense advice,
but tonight, I have some.
If you're part of a religious organization that's not moving toward sustainability…
Pardon me, but get it together.
Preach about it, pray about it,
Pray about it outside. talk about it.
Do scripture studies on it.
Compost, plant a garden, teach the youth.
Do your own waste audit.
Go paper free for a week.
Take small steps.
Demand it of your leaders.
Tell them it will save money.
Tell them it will attract young people.
Tell them you will leave if they don't.
And then remind them that it's not about guilt,
it's about joy and the good.
If you're part of a religious organization that's doing well on this front,
then tell your story.
Blog it, preach it, tell your friends,
gather with other religious communities.
Gather with non-religious folks.
The job is not done until the story is told.
It's part of the work, my friends,
and we're not doing it very well.
And if you're not part of a religious community,
whatever your hang ups,
and I get them, believe me,
to get over it,
and reach out.
I'm not saying you have to be religious.
but build partnerships.
Talk and listen.
We are in this together,
and we need each other.
We all have things to learn,
and work to do.
And every step we take in congregations and communities,
even if small,
is a step for a hundred families, not just one.
So just, please, do it.
No matter why you care.
If it's about global warming or natural spaces,
or duty to the poor or native communities,
or Jesus or Muhammad,
Even, I guess, if you think it's the next great business venture,
(But I'm skeptical)
Ultimately, sustainability is about the good.
So let's talk about it,
do something about it,
and connect to it together. Okay?
GreenFaith Fellow and Catholic writer Doug Demeo's blog was originally published in the HUffington Post. Click here for the original posting.
A few years ago, when I first learned about Mountain Top Removal operations (MTR) during a cultural immersion experience in West Virginia, I became so numb and overwhelmed with disgust, I imagined myself incapable of doing anything constructive. A few months later, I found relief in composing a poem about the sheer destruction of our Appalachian Mountains. Each time I recite "King Coal" in front of people, there is a bit of emotional release. However, when I look around the earth, today, the weight of creation crucified seems too much to bear.
Increasingly, natural gas and the issue of "hydro-fracking" are holding people's attention. In making the documentary, GasLand, Josh Fox investigates what lies beneath the surface of "America's fuel." He begins describing the serenity of his home in the woods and the winding stream which feeds the Delaware River in northeastern Pennsylvania. Offered $100,000 for the sale of property, Josh chose instead to see just how under siege our national lands are to gas exploration. The same feelings that gripped my awakening to MTR returned as I watched the film. The immensity of ground water contamination and the apparent impunity in which industry operates is stunning. At hundreds of drilling sites from coast to coast, shale beds are injected with millions of gallons of water mixed with nearly 600 highly toxic chemicals. This activates mini tremors, which release natural gas from the bedrock. Among other public health problems, local supplies of drinking water are destroyed.
I grew up enjoying the woods around Lake Cochituate in Framingham, Mass. With pond hockey in the winter and baseball during summer months -- and a lot of swimming and sailing on the lake -- I relate to Josh's deep affection for his surroundings. I too found solace outdoors.
By the end of GasLand, Josh claims the Pennsylvania woods for everyone. People of all ages should be free to experience the pleasures of nature, which includes having access to fresh drinking water.
Today is Earth Day. It is also Good Friday. Could God be delivering a clearer message? Consider the characteristics of crucifixion, at least according to Mel Gibson's theology in The Passion of Christ. Four features stand out: 1) infliction of pain beyond measure; 2) innocence is the victim; 3) death is the result; and 4) all of us are complicit in some fashion.
In order to appreciate these characteristics, there is no way around a litany of environmental woes. Hundreds of square miles of the Appalachian Mountains: lost forever. A majority of colorful coral reefs: gone. Amazonian and Indonesian Rainforests: one or more of the planet's lungs, ripped out. Nuclear meltdown; a Gulf's gush of oil; concentrated animal feeding operations (C.A.F.O.s). We can certainly add to this, but the evidence is in. Innocence is being crushed at the hands of every means of torture, resulting in a swoon of death. And as far as I know, if there is any blame to go around, only one species is hooked on fossil energy and "the good life."
In faith, we can more fully open ourselves to nature's pain, which is Christ's pain. The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it (Psalm 24: 1). While we contemplate the great sorrow of earth and sky, we must acknowledge our role. Perhaps only then may we sense a transformative understanding of resurrection and what it means to share in "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev 21: 1).
We can live in harmony with nature. This is our industrial calling. The definition of economy is management of home; the prefix "eco," derived from the Greek word oikos, means home. Thus, if we care for life on this one planet, then we as economists, engineers, entrepreneurs and many other kinds of professionals, will develop our practical knowledge -- through the best of theory and trial -- that cities, buildings and factories must purify and replenish as surely as do wetlands, forests and oceans. Any industrial innovation or retrofit must look to the evolutionary rhythms of God's creation to enable the healing and regeneration amenable to a new heaven and a new earth. There is no Super Plan separate from our most inspired ecological and theological know-how. The emerging realities that John envisions in the Book of Revelation begin here and now. In welcoming and co-producing God's will, whether in economic, industrial or spiritual terms, we must conceive no less than oneness with all creation.
There are plentiful signs of commercial oneness with creation. Harmony is afoot in the sustainability movement across cultures and economies the world over. Yet, we just might not be able to perceive these signs until we share in the awareness of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness: "the horror, the horror."
Good Friday is Earth Day, an especially opportune time to see and feel and repent of creation's pain -- which is ours.
GreenFaith Fellow Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein's blog posting was originally published in the Huffington Post. To see the original post, click here.
If ever a holiday was intended to have "spring in its step," it's Passover. As I noted in my last post, Passover is much more than a celebration of the Exodus. It is also a celebration of spring and is rooted in agricultural rites that demonstrate a clear link between the Jewish calendar and the earth. While contemporary Jewish culture tends to thrive in urban society, Judaism has much to contribute as a faith tradition to the global conversation on harnessing religious and moral values to save the planet from human destruction. Our current state of affairs demands that Jews revisit our ancient traditions and liturgy that remind us of humanities oneness with the earth and the divine Source of life.
One of my favorite Passover rituals is the reading in synagogue of the biblical book the Song of Songs during the Sabbath that falls during Passover. For one thing, the love poetry is bursting with pastoral images of pomegranate orchards, herds of goats, lilies and roses. The images evoke spring and are perfect for this season of rebirth. The Sages of the Talmud understood the love poetry to be composed by a youthful King Solomon who inherited his father King David's gift for composing religious verse. The Sages' canonization of the text reflected their belief that the text must have been not only divinely inspired but that it was to be understood as an allegory of the loving covenant between God and Israel. How else could this erotic poetry have made it into the Bible?
Rabbi Akiva (2nd century, C.E.) underscores the point by calling the book the "Holy of Holies" of Hebrew Scripture. I imagine vigorous debates in the ancient academy where rabbis considered by some in their day as prudish sought to censor this book to keep it out of the hands of their youthful students with their racing hormones. These rabbis were countered by Rabbi Akiva and his school who recognized the work as great literature that had to have been divinely inspired. An allegorical interpretation was attached to the text, but the text itself remained in its pristine, graphic beauty.
In certain respects, the debate over the Song of Songs' inclusion in the Jewish canon has raged throughout the ages until this day. In William Kolbrener's insightful new book, Open Minded Torah, his chapter "Eros and Translation" contrasts two very different translations of the Song of Songs. A scholar of English literature, Kolbrener cites the translation of the King James Bible, published in 1611, during what Kolbrener calls "the most Hebraic of periods in English literature." He notes the King James translation of Song of Songs 1:2: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine." This translation is true to the plain sense of the original Hebrew text. Kolbrener contrasts the King James translation with the Artscroll translation, a contemporary Orthodox Jewish publication. Artscroll draws upon classical rabbinic texts, including Rashi, and incorporates their allegorical interpretations into the body of the text. Direct translations are relegated to footnotes. Thus, Artscroll renders 1:2: "Communicate your innermost wisdom to me again in loving closeness."
Kolbrener notes that the 1611 King James translation does "not shy away from presenting the physical, even the fleshy meaning of the original Hebrew, for they also understood that the tangible world serves to express the divine." At the same time, he laments that a contemporary Jewish text shies away from a direct translation. He notes that the allegory without the original text "presents a disembodied religion of passionless ideas, turning reading the Song of Songs into a cognitive exercise. Our relationship to God, however, is not merely intellectual. God wants not only our minds, but our desires as well."
In expanding on Kolbrener's critique, I believe that Judaism is rooted in finding the Divine in the natural world through the fullness of our sensual capabilities. This includes becoming more at one with nature in order to enhance our religious spirituality. Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, decries what he describes as the growing trend of "Nature Deficit Disorder," a condition in which more and more people spend less and less time outdoors. When children grow up spending more time in front of a screen of pixels than on a see-saw in the playground, he posits that there are serious risks to our society's collective mental and physical health.
I can't speak to the science behind Louv's theories, but from a religious sensibility the concept of "Nature Deficit Disorder" makes a lot of sense. In my understanding of Jewish tradition, our religious experience is enhanced by oneness with the earth that leads one to a sense of awe of God's creation. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that "the beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living."
The Song of Songs enriches the springtime Passover festival with its poetry and sense of wonder towards Creation. This poetic religious spirit will sustain us in our quest to redeem our broken planet.
GreenFaith Fellow Rabbi Eddie Bernstein wrote this article for the Huffington Post, where it can also be found. See the link at the end of this posting.
"[God said], 'For the Land is Mine. You are but strangers and sojourners with Me" (Leviticus 25: 23).
"In every generation, each person is obligated to see him or herself as having gone out from Mitzraim (Egypt) [from slavery to freedom]." These words are central to the liturgy of the Passover seder, observed this year on the evenings of April 18 and 19. They are intended to invoke the central historical narrative of Passover, the Exodus, and its moral, eternal message that all human beings are created in the image of God and are all of equal dignity. While the Exodus narrative plays a central role in the Jewish observance of Passover, it doesn't tell the whole story.
The major Jewish festivals all have historical reasons for their celebration: Passover commemorates the Exodus; Shavuot, the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai; Sukkot, the booths in which the Israelites dwelt in the wilderness. At the same time, the Bible itself portrays the festivals as rooted in the agricultural cycle of the year. As Passover approaches, it's worthy to examine this nexus between the historical and agricultural origins of the holiday. I believe that their convergence speaks to our generation in a fresh, meaningful way with respect to our stewardship of the environment. Our physical and spiritual freedom today depends on our society rediscovering and appreciating the earth as a web of life of which humanity is a part.
The Hebrew Bible presents a deep connection between the spring time reawakening of the earth from its winter slumber and ancient Israelite rituals to mark the change of seasons. The festival takes place in the month of Aviv (spring), so the rituals associated with the festival are richly connected to the seasonal cycle of the year. The Biblical text describes the Lord's Passover that takes place at dusk on the 14th day of the first month at which time the Paschal lamb was sacrificed. The next day, the 15th of the month, is the Festival of Matzot/Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:5-6). It has been suggested by Biblical scholars that the Passover offering was an ancient Near Eastern spring time festival among shepherds offering thanks to a divinity for sustaining their flocks and allowing them to reproduce. The Festival of Matzot was a spring time observance marking the beginning of the grain harvest. The ancient Israelites took these disparate rites of spring and imbued them with greater significance as part of the annual commemoration of the Exodus.
As Judaism has evolved over the ages and as Jews in the modern world have adopted multiple levels of observance, Passover continues to capture the collective Jewish imagination and the Jewish communal yearning for freedom and respect for human dignity throughout society. At the same time, the rituals of the holiday are connected so deeply to the earth and its seasons. It is as if the earth is listening to our celebration of freedom and crying out, "Me too!"
When the liturgy of the seder calls on us to travel back in time to experience the transformation from slavery to freedom, we can also imagine a time when human beings were more at one with the land, the seasons and the entire natural world. If we take the wisdom of the ancient Israelites back into our own day, we might discover our society's collective transformation to a culture of consumption that is destroying our planet and destroying our souls from within. In upcoming postings of this blog, I hope to explore more in depth specific areas of concern in which the earth and human society are suffering as a result of human exploitation of the earth and ways in which contemporary readings of classical Jewish sources can enhance our communal conversation on creating more sustainable lifestyles.
Regarding Passover, let me conclude with some practical tips to create a more eco-friendly Passover:
• Donate to food pantries. In the season of spring cleaning, many Jewish households take seriously the observance ridding the home of chametz, leavened, grain-based food products. Don't waste it. Pass it on to those in need.
• Buy local, in-season, produce where possible. Minimize your carbon footprint and support farmers near your home community.
• Avoid disposable plates and cutlery. This environmentally unfriendly practice has crept into many traditional homes where year-round utensils are not used for the chametz-free holiday. This Passover, let's reduce waste while eliminating chametz. Consult a rabbi or published guides for kashering (making fit) utensils for Passover use, and/or consider purchasing Passover-only utensils.
Humanity is intended to be a guardian of the earth, not a plunderer of its resources that will enslave future generations to greed, consumption and waste. Passover calls on us to act sustainably toward each other and toward the earth. I look forward to our further explorations of Judaism and environmental stewardship.
Click here to view the Huffington Post version of this posting.
10 teachings on Judaism and the Environment, written by Rabbi Larry Troster.
This article, written by GreenFaith Fellow Sasha Adkins, is focused on grief and healing as it relates to the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Take the GreenFaith Pledge!
GreenFaith was invited to EPA headquarters as Lisa Jackson signed an important rule on mercury pollution.
GreenFaith Fellow Jennifer Durant - a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary -preached the following sermon on Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011. Her sermon was based on Joel 2:1-2,12-17.
A little girl grew up walking, swimming, tanning, and playing on the five town beaches. She lived just a half-mile from the closest one, and she knew the beaches and the blue-green water with its regular tides, coming in and going out belonged to and came from God, the source of all living things.
The living ocean reached out to her when at 5, she reluctantly tiptoed in to take swimming lessons in the 65 degree, clear, seashell littered water. As she got older, she biked past one beach or another; down to the Harbor past the fishing pier, and over to the boat marina, where the boats bobbed on the living ocean. The sea gulls frequently accompanied her. God’s ocean filled with fish, coral, and crabs fed, entertained and sustained the girl.
Then one winter, the blizzard arrived with 27” of snow in less than 24 hours, a new moon and high winds, with gusts exceeding 100 miles per hour. The resulting extraordinarily high tides meant washed out roads and giant ocean waves rolled up so high and strong they broke right over the woefully inadequate sea walls. Mighty breakers washed over houses just 1/2 mile from the girls’, peeling roofs off houses like tops off tin cans, forcefully dividing houses in half, and collapsing walls and foundations like nuts in a food processor. Shingles, stoves, chimneys, china, stuffed animals, and one little girl were carried out to sea, never to be seen again.
As the wind howled outside and tree branches snapped, from the safety of her warm house just far enough away from the ocean, in her mind the girl saw the waves cresting over the housetops, and she wondered, could this wild, dangerous, destructive, life-taking ocean be of the same life-giving God? What kind of God is our God?
The Judeans Joel prophecies to might be wondering the same thing. What kind of God is our God?
The Judeans have a serious problem. They’ve broken the covenant. In less than forty days, they’ve broken their promise to be God’s people, to worship only God. And now, Joel tells them, “You better tremble in fear!” And darkness surrounds them.
From our view in 2011, the Judeans seem awfully far away. Moses hasn’t just brought us the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, and we certainly haven’t made a golden calf we’re worshipping...or have we?
Aren’t we just as guilty as the Judeans for worshipping golden calves under different names? Money, power, prestige, technology, politics, other human beings like athletes, movie stars, and musicians? Aren’t we just as guilty as the Judeans for breaking the covenant by not loving God with our whole heart, and mind, and strength, and by not loving our neighbors as ourselves, so as to displace all those golden calves?
What kind of God is our God?
God, calling the Judeans to “return to me with all your heart,” is also calling us. Return to me, says God. Return, after breaking covenant, after breaking your promise to me, like Adam and Eve thousands of years ago in the Garden of Eden, like the Judeans did, less than forty days after the promise for them to be God’s people, and for God to be their God was established. We can take consolation in the human consistency, knowing we are not the first to break covenant, nor will we be the last.
But mere consolation is not what our God has in mind. Our God has in mind so much more than consolation. The very same God whose ocean feeds and sustains us, or whose ocean wildly destroys our homes and our lives offers the Judeans and every one of us the opportunity to repent and return to relationship. The very same God, in a wildly calculated and intentional move ultimately sends us Jesus, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, and to reconcile us to come to him; calls us to come. “Return to me with all your heart, mind, and soul...”
Sitting here tonight, you may not be feeling desperate to repent. The temperature in here is comfortable, we have light, we have one another; perhaps your relationships are all in a good place, and the Eucharist isn’t far behind. We’ll come to the table for solace and strength, for pardon and renewal, to be fed the body and blood of our savior.
But don’t forget we also come collectively and individually as ones who have broken covenant with God, and who will break covenant with God in a myriad of ways as our prayers reveal. In our humanity, we break our promises to God regularly. And we know the blizzards and high tides of our lives will come.
Mercifully Lent draws us from our sins and brokenness to turn our trembling Christian hearts and minds intentionally and with great focus toward God. Now is the acceptable time to repent and to turn to deepening relationship with God.
What’s your plan? How will you observe a holy Lent? How will you self-examine, and repent, pray, and from what will you fast? What will you read, whom will you serve, to bring you into deeper relationship with our God?
Walking along the ocean within a week of the blizzard, as the familiar, frigid February water curled in toward the girl on the sand, and then back out to sea again, she noticed the only remaining wall of a house, with the china cabinet and the china still in it, intact.
The same water where she swam destroyed homes, streets she biked on, and paid little notice to seawalls built to hold it back. The storm was the first time she’d been aware of the incredible power beyond, behind, or maybe within the living ocean, a wild power so gentle as to destroy entire homes and leave the china intact.
What kind of God is our God?
Our God is wild enough that like the Judeans, we ought to tremble; and just wild enough to keep asking us to return. Us.
In the wake of oceans of destruction, we are unscathed, intact as God’s precious sons and daughters, created from the dust to which we shall return. But until then, God wants us to return to him with our hearts.
I will love thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defense.
When I was eight or nine, I was playing outside on a hillside near the sea in Rhode Island, where my family spent time during the summer. It was overcast. The air was heavily damp, opaque with mist at a distance of 150 yards. The sound of a foghorn bleated from an offshore buoy like a blind person groping in darkness. I was running around with my brother and friends, barefoot. The stiff blades of crabgrass and the sandy soil were abrasive and cold on my feet. Slivers of moisture hit my cheek as I ran.
Then, my foot ran across a rock whose rough face stuck up above the surface of the ground. And suddenly, inwardly, I felt something very different, coming up through the rock.
An enormous depth opened up from the earth into my body and suffused the air around me. I felt a remarkable presence, eternity packed into a nanosecond, a fullness of time. It was loving and stern, beautiful and awesome, silent and strong, all at once. It stopped me in my tracks. Chronologically, the experience lasted less than an instant. But in a very real sense it has lasted over 40 years, because I remember it clearly today. It was an experience of the presence of God, and I am so grateful.
Because of a rock.
Years later, I am a Christian minister and I run a religious environmental group. Much of our work organizes religious groups to protect the environment. But I’ve found over the years that most people have powerful spiritual experiences outdoors, experiences which move them deeply and which connect them with the divine as powerfully as anything else. These stories – of God entering their lives through plants and animals and landscapes and storms and flowers and rocks – are spiritual touchstones, cornerstones in the foundation of their faith. These are often the most real experiences of God with which they are blessed. When I read in the New Testament about Jesus regularly heading for the hills to pray, I know exactly what he was doing, just as I understand why God called creation “good” day after day after day at the very beginning of Genesis. The earth reveals God to us and connects us to the Spirit.
And yet, people’s stories of their outdoor spiritual experiences rarely see the light of day. I’ve asked hundreds of people. Most of them have never shared their experiences with another person. They’re often embarrassed, reluctant or afraid. It’s not a compliment today to be called a tree-hugger, and too many Christians still believe that if you get too close to the earth you cease being a follower of Jesus.
This is sad. God offers so much through the earth. Look at what Jesus does at his last supper, taking the fruit of the earth and the vine, and calling them “my body” and “my blood.” (Matthew 26:26-29) Read Paul writing about the awe inspired by the fact that the whole universe holds together “in Christ” (Colossians 1:15-20). See how God reminds Job of God’s majesty by describing the near-infinite details of the characteristics of wild animals, all owing their complex beauty to their Creator (Job 39-42). Read the psalmist, who writes that “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork,” (Ps. 19:1) and who describes all creation – animals, plants, landscapes, weather, and people – giving praise to God (Ps. 148). The earth reveals and connects us to God. In the experiences of our lives and in the Bible, it’s right there. What are we so afraid of?
There are few sources of the knowledge of God more powerful than the earth. Christians have known this across the centuries. Augustine – a theological giant from the fourth century – described his classic, The City of God, the “two books” that people can read to find God. “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: ‘God made me!’”
Every Sunday, as I start my sermon, I say a prayer aloud: “Lord God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations deep within our hearts be acceptable in your sight, because you are our rock and our redeemer.” I don’t think that most people realize that when I say “rock,” I mean it literally. Thanks to that rock forty years ago, thanks to the earth, I know God. And I am so grateful.
This blog posting first appeared on the Huffington Post.
Click here to read the original post.
Rabbi Marcus Burstein is a Congregational Representative for the Union for Reform Judaism's East District, and a leader in GreenFaith's partnership with the Union.
I work on a variety of projects in my position at the Union for Reform Judaism, but one of the most exciting is a pilot project called Greening Reform Judaism. This two-year program partners URJ congregations with GreenFaith, a national non-profit organization based in New Brunswick, NJ, that inspires, educates and mobilizes people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership. I recently joined GreenFaith for an Environmental Justice tour in the Ironbound District of Newark, and the ports of Newark and Elizabeth. The trip was designed to educate religious and community leaders about the dangers and hazards of pollution in the area, and how it harms residents and visitors alike.
After meeting at a Baptist Church in Newark, worthy of its own tour for the outstanding social services they provide, we took a bus tour through Newark and Elizabeth, passing many familiar sights: the Amtrak station, Newark Airport, and the Jersey Gardens Outlet Mall. However, after passing those landmarks, we visited other nearby sights that I never knew existed, including:
- Passaic Valley Sewage Authority, which covers 172 acres and is one of the largest wastewater facilities in the Northeast. This facility serves 380,000 residential units, 360 large apartment buildings, 2025 large commercial institutions and 380 major industries in their area. They treat about 6.5 million gallons of liquid from sources outside their sewer service area each week.
- Diamond Alkali/Shamrock Superfund site, which contains the world's largest concentration of dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical which is used in the production of DDT and phenoxy herbicides (which were converted to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War). They have had to cement much of the chemical stock into the ground, but there are also barrels of dioxin still stored adjacent to the Passaic River. After many, long years of fighting and court cases, there is finally a process in place to clean up the dioxin in the river.
I learned that there are 10,000 truck trips each day in and out of the Port of Elizabeth, and I learned how difficult it is to get legislation passed to require the trucks to have clean engines and filters. One study showed that 175 trucks passed by an elementary school every hour. Imagine what that does to the air quality...
There were a few bright spots on our tour, too. The former Ballantine Brewery is leading an effort to redevelop and revitalize their 25-acre property as a green manufacturing area and a mixed-use sustainable site. The new Ironbound Pool and Recreation Center is on the site of a former plastics manufacturing site, even though it took 20 years to clean up the area. Last month, GreenFaith and the Ironbound Community Corporation scored a rare and important environmental justice victory, reaching a settlement with the operator of a garbage incinerator in the Ironbound. The incinerator operators will now take more steps to limit pollution, examine the effects of incinerator waste, and fund the protection of green space in the community. As the Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith explained, "All people should have a healthy environment, regardless of their race or income. Newark's Ironbound community suffers far more than its share of dangerous pollution. This settlement is a step in the right direction for the health of the community."
My friends teased me before I took the tour that they hoped I wouldn't return glowing (radioactively). That certainly wasn't the case, but the tour did inspire me to learn more about the problems I saw, and to try to energize the communities of which I am a part to advocate for those who don't have the means to do so. I hope that you will join me. Feel free to be in touch, and I will be happy to see if we can help make a positive difference in our world.
GreenFaith's Rabbi Lawrence Troster, GreenFaith's Fellowship Director and Rabbinic Scholar in Residence was featured today on a CNN's Faces of Faith in a segment on religion and the environment.
The show was filmed during the Temple of Understanding’s Interfaith Visionary Call To Action Conference on Sustainable Development on Tuesday, October 19 at The Pierre Hotel in New York City. In addition to Rabbi Troster, the segment featured
Karen Armstrong, a best-selling author and religion scholar
Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, Senior Lecturer and Senior Scholar, Department of Religious Studies, Yale University
Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey, Director, Human and Civil Rights Division, Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation.
Fletcher Harper's blog posting on the religious mandate for chemical policy reforn was published recently on the Huffington Post. Click here to read the posting and to review over 150 comments on the article.
NEW YORK, NY, June 3, 2010 | 21st Sivan 5770 - Today the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and GreenFaith join together to launch the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program. Through the Pilot, eight Reform congregations in New Jersey will take part in the rigorous GreenFaith Certification Program, with the Union and GreenFaith underwriting the cost of their participation. The comprehensive Certification Program helps houses of worship across North America become environmental leaders through initiatives in facilities management, religious education and worship, and environmental justice. Upon completion, the synagogues will become certified as GreenFaith Sanctuaries and will be looked to as leaders in the Reform Movement's greening efforts.
The eight congregations participating in the Pilot Program are Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, Temple Emanu-El in Edison, Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, Temple Shalom in Succasunna, and Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly. Although the Certification Program is national in scope, the Union chose New Jersey as the focus of its Pilot Program so that its New York-based staff can visit each of the participating congregations and see their efforts firsthand.
"I am thrilled to partner with GreenFaith to launch the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot, and look forward to working with these outstanding congregations to help them become leaders in the urgent moral challenge of protecting our environment," said Mark Pelavin, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. "Our Movement has focused intensely on our long-standing commitment to environmental issues in recent years and we are inspired by the enthusiasm of the congregations that jumped at the chance to participate in this Pilot Program."
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, said, "GreenFaith is excited to partner with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center to invest in this pilot effort, which is the first of its kind among North American denominations. We look forward to welcoming these eight outstanding congregations into the Certification Program's interfaith community and to helping them become exemplary environmental leaders in the coming two years."
Each participating synagogue has formed a "Green Team" and passed a Board Resolution endorsing the Certification Program. In addition to extensive support from GreenFaith and Union staff, the congregations will receive access to over 200 resources, six webinars and an online community - all organized by GreenFaith - where they can share questions, resources and events with fellow participants.
The Pilot Program congregations will take part in a wide variety of activities as part of the two year Certification Program. They will create an action plan based on a comprehensive audit, green their facilities' operations, conduct environmental justice education and advocacy, offer environmentally-themed worship services and education programs for all ages, and communicate their work to local media outlets. They will take on the additional responsibility of serving as mentors to other Reform Jewish communities nationwide seeking to deepen their engagement with environmentalism. Congregational leaders will attend Union social action programs to share their experiences with the Reform Movement.
As Pelavin adds, "Our Jewish tradition, beginning with the Book of Genesis, commands us 'to till and to tend' our earth, and our synagogue communities take this mitzvah seriously. I look forward to seeing our Pilot Program congregations put these words into action as they lead the way to a greener and stronger Reform Movement." Certification Program Director Stacey Kennealy said, "GreenFaith is encouraged to see the Reform Movement make such a strong public commitment to the protection of creation, and we are excited to see the many ways these synagogues will put their beliefs into action for the earth."
FH Blog entry May 7 2010