A special day in the life of a rabbi

My Tuesday touched on almost everything I care about most deeply. I wouldn’t normally write up my dairy, but these are values I hope we can all work together to make real.

10.00am, Mill Hill: a meeting of councillor, community and faith leaders, two days before the anniversary of the Grenfell fire, ten days before the Great Get Together in memory of Jo Cox, to learn to work together. Emily, now studying to be a C of E minister, describes how she became the landlady of a pub in Colindale and transforming it from a place known for violence into a beloved local hub. ‘Find the dormant talent’, she says: they’ll come forward, musicians, magicians, gardeners…. She’s the opposite of what the Mayor of London called ‘A culture of institutional indifference’.

12.30, Victoria Station: coffee with broadcaster, naturalist Mary Colwell. She walked 500 miles for curlews, the emblematic bird whose haunting song cries out the decline of once rich meadowlands. Her book Curlew Moon shows her knowledge, faith and passion for this beautiful world. Intensive farming is robbery of the land: we can’t just take and take again, as if the earth has no inner life and its creatures don’t matter. I think of the Torah: ‘The land is Mine’ says God. The mystics teaching that one life runs through all existence; what we destroy is always also part of our own spirit. A pragmatist, Mary campaigns for the best compromise for farmers, wildlife, food production: creation must live together.

2.00, Charing Cross: more coffee with Marie van der Zyl, new President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Her life has given her a special and profound commitment to the diversity of the community. We too discuss togetherness: can we create a Street Festival of Judaism? Can we advance Eco-Synagogue, supported by all denominations from Liberal to the Chief Rabbi? How do we work with friends, and antagonists, of other faiths and none? In a crisis, God forbid, could all British Jewish clergy say psalms together: ‘From the depths I call to you, God’?

(Another chance to get running practice; hate being late.)

3.30, St Pauls: (refusing coffee) meeting Graham, advisor to the Islamic Finance Council and the Church of Scotland, who’re working on a declaration of values. It speaks of ‘Stewardship’, ‘Love of the Neighbour’, ‘Justice and Equity’. ‘Could there be a Jewish voice?’ he asks. ‘It’s already there,’ I say, the unnamed source of these very principles. He smiles and nods: that’s why he’s invited me. My first request is to change ‘Old Testament’ to ‘Hebrew Bible’. No-interest loans to the poorest, micro-finance, supporting the earth which supports us: how can faiths together make these ideals real?

4.30, tea in a quiet corner. I try to study the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto’s sermon on chukkah, God’s laws beyond the grasp of human rationale. There are times, he writes, when reason cannot help us. The mind must immerse itself in the purifying waters of the sacred. Only faith can strengthen and console us…But my phone goes; a question about wedding plans; another about conversion; a call from Refugees at Home.

6.30, meeting Nicky in the Strand to celebrate Tim Robertson’s appointment as Chief Executive of the Anne Frank Trust. His speech is outstanding: this would have been Anne’s 89th birthday, he notes, reading from the diary about her hope in life…He explains the experiences which motivate him to lead the Trust in teaching against racism across the UK: his years of work in child protection, love of literature and nature (Wordsworth first), commitment to education, religious practice as a Quaker (keen to visit our synagogue).

Nicky and I travel home together. Then it’s back to the desk. I haven’t prepared tomorrow’s teaching. I need to make a personal list of people who are ill. But I’ve a full heart, the gift of so many courageous, innovative people, who live the values I passionately care for too.

Bedtime: ‘Not yet!’ says Mitzpah the dog, waiting eagerly for his night-walk.



Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!


Living in peace with creation

Only last week, in the beautiful poem with which the Hebrew Bible opens, we read of a God in love with the world. ‘God saw that it was good’ is the chorus line of creation.

Now, just one week’s reading later, God sees that the world is bad. Losing patience with humanity ‘whose every thought is evil’, God determines to destroy the earth. Only Noah is to survive, with the precious gene-pool of all living things sealed away in the floating bubble of the Ark.

Everyone knows the story. Except that we sing it from the point of view of the animals who ‘came in two by two’. What about those who didn’t? And the people? Were they all so awful that they really deserved to drown?

Afterwards, God is sorry. It’s history’s first ‘Never again!’ In soothing words, God ensures Noah that

All the days of the earth [the rhythm of] seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day-time and night-time shall never come to rest (Genesis 8:22)

It feels a little late. According to the Zohar, when Noah opens the portal of the Ark and looks out on the mud-flats of devastation where once there had been villages, fields and forests, he weeps. So Noah is sorry too.

What about us? Do we regret, or really care about, what we do to the earth?

The Torah tells us what was wrong before the flood: ‘All flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth’. But what does this broad indictment actually mean?

Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, explains: ‘even the cattle, wild animals and birds interbred,’ corrupting their species. Blame the animals, too.

Nachmanides (1194 – 1270) disagrees, maintaining that the plain meaning is that ‘all flesh’ refers only to humans. Our species did wrong, but all living beings had to pay the price.

This is disturbingly close to home. If we’re not disturbed, we’re probably missing the most important issue confronting our civilisation.

To return to the critical sentence: what might ‘destroyed its way’ mean to us? The Hebrew for ‘way’ derech, appears in another, much-loved verse about the Torah and wisdom as a whole:

Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

Are our ways, towards each other, nature and life itself, ways of pleasantness and peace? If not, how can we make them so, urgently?

Every day I receive letters about cruelty, the callous neglect of human life and contempt for nature. Some provide distressingly explicit details about the deliberate, sadistic enjoyment of the pain suffered by animals, – and by people.

While I obviously abhor the particular abuses described, such communications leave me with a more difficult question: am I, too, complicit? Can I live without colluding with, or even relying on, the practice of cruelty and injustice to someone else, to some other living being, somewhere?

Can we live in ‘peace and pleasantness’ with each other and with nature?

No issue is more urgent


President Trump: Why many of us are angry

I struggled with a surge of anger last night as I listened to President Trump announce the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement. Like millions of others, I’m trying to work out how to direct my outrage constructively.

Beneath the anger lies pain.

From my earliest memories, I’ve experienced the world as a place of wonder.

That nature is a sacred gift is not merely some intellectual idea which makes sense to me after due consideration. I feel it viscerally, intuitively, in my very bones. It’s not a thought, but a command. It calls out from every tree, river, bird and animal. I hear it as God’s voice throughout creation. It has the eloquence of the wind and the waves; the vast sky is its articulation. It speaks in the tiny eyes of baby animals and the urgent cries of fledgling birds. Its voices are the silence of hungry children and the sickness of families with no source of clean water, and the hunger of men and women whose land, the earth which fed their ancestors, has turned to desert, or lies beneath the rising waters.

This voice penetrates the consciousness more powerfully than any form of merely human words. But if I must translate it into language, what it says is simple, brutal and commanding: ‘I am life; do not destroy me’.

I am often ashamed of my own existence, fearing the damage I may inflict on what I reverence, the woodlands and fields, the animals and birds, children. I’ve long ago resolved to be a planter, not an uprooter, of trees, and not to kill for my food. But still I feel faithless to this great world of sanctity and beauty.

It was with these thoughts of wonder and shame that, alongside hundreds of millions, I welcomed the Paris agreement and felt great relief in its wake. Whether the 2 degrees centigrade limit on global warming is too high and should be 1.5 degrees; whether the accord is enforceable; whether signing was for certain leaders no more than an act of public show; how the accord relates to social justice: all these remain vast areas of uncertainty. But Paris was a huge move in the right direction.

Now one man has made what may be for him a small, almost casual step backwards, but it is a vast leap in the wrong direction for all humankind.

Part of the reason I’m angry is because of the contempt shown towards the 195 nations who signed in France. The agreement was the result of a vast international effort, supported by the leaders of all faiths and none, headed by Pope Francis in his magnificent encyclical Laudato Si.

But I am mainly angry because of the cause itself. President Trump’s claim that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” is indeed true. But what good can global warming do to Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Detroit? Research and industry are themselves already (finally) moving towards renewable energies and different technologies. Is the aim to penalise his own country?

Closer to home, doesn’t the President of the United States represent his own children and grand-children and their future on this earth, not to mention my children and yours, and all the children yet unborn who will inherit the wrongs on which our generation turns its back?

The hope is that the President doesn’t represent the USA, let alone the globe, and that his intentions will be challenged in states, cities and courtrooms. Perhaps he will yet experience a change of heart.

The hope is that we will not agree to let this wonderful, breathing world be asphyxiated by our own indifference or negligence, that we simply love it too much, that we will do more because others threaten to do less.


Standing up for truth

One short sentence sticks in my mind out of everything I’ve read this week. It comes from Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

‘Post-truth is pre-fascism.’

The book was published in 2017, under Donald Trump’s presidency. It is a sharp warning to those who believe in civil liberties, equality, freedom, truth and justice to wake up. But it is not just relevant to the USA. It applies wherever fascist groups are on the rise, and where they already dominate, in much of Africa, in Putin’s Russia, in many Arab lands.

Snyder is a professor of history at Yale. His major field is Holocaust Studies; he wrote the much acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. He doesn’t suggest we’re living in the 1940’s, or even the late 1930’s. But he does say we’re nearer than we like to think to that terrible cliff-edge towards which Weimar Germany tottered, slowly and ever more feebly, and over which it fell in 1933.

I’ve heard similar from my mother, and others, who remember from their childhood those frightening years in which democracy allowed itself to become weakened, fatally.

Snyder’s concise, punchy book is no lament. It’s a call to action. Pursue truth, he argues, bringing evidence of the dangers of lying from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Refuse to be misled; reject collective prejudice. Avoid the Facebook bubble; seek out facts; read proper print. Engage in civil society; meet others who’re doing the same. Don’t be silent. Don’t do the easy thing; don’t hide behind the convenient vestige of conformity. If you do, you’ll find yourself conforming to actions you truly ought to loathe.

His argument is familiar from ancient Jewish sources. ‘Acquire truth and do not sell it’ is a saying of King Solomon (Proverbs 23;23). But is truth saleable? Isn’t it really ourselves we sell when we abandon truth, handing over our souls to the marketplace of lies and prejudice?

This week’s Torah reading is a discourse about sacrifices. One of them is an atonement offering for failing to be truthful, for swearing falsely, lying, and perjury.

The rabbis of the Mishnah were aware that life can seem simpler if one doesn’t get involved. ‘Should you say: “Why should I get caught up in all this bother?” you’ve been told [in the Torah] “If you are a witness, if you see or know, but fail to tell…”

Post-truth makes aiders and abetters of those who fail to stand up for honesty. Passivity is the ally of oppression. The failure to fight for human dignity, justice and compassion turns us into accomplices of prejudice and tyranny.

I write so strongly because I am afraid, of Isis and Islamism; of Putin’s Russia; of the rise of the far right in Europe; of Trump’s way of doing politics, his apparent contempt for the environment, human and natural; and, yes of the possible consequences of leaving an EU which has kept its member states from war for seventy years.

Truth, integrity, freedom and human dignity are inter-dependent. We’re on the threshold of Passover, The Season of our Freedom: if we believe in freedom across the face of the earth, we must stand up for it.

God and Farming

It’s not often one has the privilege of taking part in a conference which is as high in the sky as spirituality and transcendence, yet as rooted in the ground as a row of wheat or the hoofprint of a cow in the frozen grass. But yesterday I was on a panel about metaphysics at the Oxford Real Farming Conference together with the founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, Colin Tudge, and a Christian theologian and a Sufi.

This is not the beginning of a ‘the rabbi, the priest and the imam’ style joke. The session was one of the most moving and inspiring experiences of my life. The room was packed; there were farmers, foresters, and men and women of all walks of life for whom growing, gardening, the tending of animals and the nurture of the earth were a profoundly spiritual as well as an eminently practical pursuit.

Professor Tim Gorrange was a Christian, Dr Justine Huxley, the Director of St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation a Sufi, and I a Jew, but we spoke the same language.

We shared an understanding of God as present in all being, of all life as sacred, silently articulate with the vital presence of the divine.

We shared an appreciation of creation as an integrated whole, and a view of humankind not as chosen by divine right to dominate, but rather as entrusted to respect, care, nurture and stand in humble accountability as part of the great web of life to which we and all things belong.

We spoke of listening, of trying to learn through the different disciplines of our faiths the art of becoming attentive to the silent voice which speaks from within all life, a voice which our civilisation all too often ignores, or imagines not to exist. We talked of the importance of the experience of reverence, and of how the cultivation of plants and crops can help us too to grow in wonder and respect.

But there wasn’t a ‘we’ and a ‘them’; the room was full of practitioners who have plenty to teach our world. ‘I work from a monastery’, one man said, ‘we create spiritual communities through gardening and the sharing of food. The homeless come; the wealthy come; both those  at the top and at the bottom of the conventional social hierarchy. We come together because we are all somehow broken, seeking healing as part of a greater wholeness.’

Another contributor spoke of the family smallholding where refugees and asylum seekers are made welcome; they tend the vegetables, cook, sing together and learn from one another. His brother is a member of our synagogue.

A pastor told me about his work in creating gardeners with former prisoners, finding healing in engagement with the earth itself. He asked me about the meanings of the Hebrew words for ‘earth’ and ‘serve’: ‘Does avad mean both to work the land, and to be a servant of God?’

We spoke of the urgency of placing responsibility, care, compassion and indeed love back at the heart of our culture. There was wide agreement when I mentioned Hans Jonas’ final lecture, delivered days before he died, in which he spoke of the next revelation as coming not from Sinai or Gethsemane but from ‘the outcry of mute things’.

Yesterday I met some of those who are devoting their lives to listening to that silent outcry, to becoming more deeply attuned to what it tells us about God, humanity, creation and the earth, and who are daily endeavouring to answer the call of its commandments.

Noticing small things

‘What’s that bird with the red patch on its head?’ This is the trouble with holding meetings in the garden; there are so many distractions.

Though they’re not really ‘distractions’; they’re the reason life is wonderful.

‘It’s a goldfinch’, I answered. Two years ago I wouldn’t even have known what a goldfinch looked like. But about that time they decided to start visiting our garden. Since then they’re here virtually every day in their numbers, often three or four at a time feeding on the sunflower kernels and niger seed which we diligently replenish.

Yesterday a fledgling hopped past outside my study. I gave it a stern warning about local cats, though mercifully the dog generally sees them off the territory. (The other day a young bird flew right into my study and sat surveying me from the bookshelf before mercifully finding its way back to the wide expanses of the unrestricted air.)

There are young wrens too; last year a brood kept looking in from the windowsill. My favourite of all was the season the greater-spotted woodpeckers raised a family in our garden.

Last Shabbat a mother blackbird pecked beakfuls of unripe fig-seed from our tree and fed it mouthful by mouthful to its two teenagers, whose young tail feathers were still speckled and brown.

I’m not just writing about these small matters to take my mind away from the terrors and disasters which almost daily afflict our world. Rather, it’s important to remind oneself what life is for, why it is such a privilege, and why even deliberately damaging the wing of one small bird is such an outrageous crime.

There’s a blessing, not said often enough: ‘Baruch she-kacha lo be’olamo; Blessed be the One in whose world it is thus!’ The ‘one’ may be God, or simply life itself, or perhaps they are really the same thing, that vital force in the quintessence of creation which generates such magnificent and infinitely varied forms of existence.

Perhaps we don’t say that blessing enough because we don’t notice. That’s what most adults love about small children. ‘Look!’ they cry, ‘Look at that!’ all their energy and excitement bounding into a great exclamation mark of curiosity and delight. And we relearn through them to look again, the dust blown away from our habituated perceptions.

I can imagine a God who challenges us with disappointed puzzlement: ‘You were in my world, but you didn’t notice!?’ The question applies to beauty and wonder as much as it does to sensitivity towards other people, their suffering, their sensibilities.

At the bottom of the garden the sweet peas are flowering in perfumed cascades (There are some in the synagogue garden too). I know they are just little things. But they are also why it’s so terrible to be forced to become a refugee, why war is so appalling, – because a person loves the scents and colours of home, because its dawns and dusks, its shrubs and trees, its birds and animals make sense, and nowhere else ever does to the same depth, with that same breath of childhood, that same intuition of life’s wholeness. Friends who have allotments say it’s the world in a vegetable patch, everyone aspiring to grow the tastes of home, wherever that once was.

The uncorrupted spirit

Faith and fear, these have been the dual poles of my week, and my life for these last many years.
I believe in wonder; I believe in life; I believe in the goodness of the human heart; I believe in loving kindness; I believe all being is animate with the sacred presence of the divine; I believe that every action matters. With this trust and hope, HaTikvah in its broadest, deepest as well as its specifically Jewish sense, I try to ground my feet and settle my spirits when I feel frightened.
There’s much which makes me afraid. I’m not referring to specific, personal fears; I‘m thinking of the challenges which face us all, all humanity together.
On Monday I attended a conference for faith leaders passionate about theology and ecology. It was engaging and full of practical ideas. But the issues are overwhelming. Why have we lost 50% of the mass of all animal life in the UK over forty years? What value do we place on non-human life? What does it mean to be a ‘creature’ amidst other creatures? Do we hear, in the words of Pope Francis, the cry of the poor alongside the cry of the earth?
On Thursday I met a priest from Latakia in western Syria. He runs the Awareness Foundation, to bring hope through education to young people. ‘The war’s an industry’, he said. ISIS trade in weapons, oil, antiquities; destruction isn’t collateral damage, but a deliberate aim’. Syrian Children feel utterly abandoned: has the world learnt nothing from history? ‘We train teenagers to be leaders. For the first day we just listen – to their sorrows and angers. As they became empowered as teachers their attitudes change.’
He was blunt about the hatreds of the region, so often ingrained by politics and implacable theology, – religion perverted into cruel bigotry. ‘Don’t imagine that at the first kind word it’ll all just melt away.’ 
And one listens to people pour out their hearts…
What does one do? I stopped myself short during the morning prayers. There I was saying to God ‘Shema kolenu – Hear our voice’, but what voices crying out on this earth for access to the human heart and conscience was I failing to hear? How many people are there hungry, homeless, hopeless; how many creatures pecking, scrabbling for a worm or a grain of seed in unpolluted earth?
Yet I still believe in the sheer vitality of life, and in wonder. I believe that the uncorrupted spirit experiences joy and awe at the unfurling of the leaves, the alighting of a bird, the sound of children playing. ‘Cruelty has a human heart’ wrote Blake, but I do not believe that it is our deepest, untaught desire to inflict pain. Rather, the bond of life calls out in us to loving kindness, to be on the side of life with all its needs for nourishment and protection. Hatred is not a natural condition, but an affliction of the soul.
I believe that Isaiah’s words ‘they shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain’ are a cry which issues not just from the mouth of a prophet long ago, but from life itself, – a call both silent and tumultuous to intelligence and compassion. That, I believe, is the voice of God.

Theology meets Ecology

I’ve just returned from a wonderful seminar at the Ammerdown retreat centre together with faith leaders who are passionate about the environment.

One might think that after Paris action is all that matters. Certainly, we were all resolved to play our part in keeping government and the leaders of business to account. But action begins at home, with what we do in our own communities, communal buildings and homes. I’m very excited about the launch of Eco-Church, and have invited its creator Dr Ruth Valerio to speak in our community. There’s no reason why eco-synagogue, or eco-mosque, should not be developed along the same green-print.

But the discussions of text and theology were perhaps the most fascinating part of the encounter. Mary Colwell, who makes programmes on wildlife and the environment for radio and television spoke of the ‘catch-up’ theology has to do if it is to embrace a post-Darwin, and post DNA analysis world in which we understand that we share 50% of that DNA with a cabbage. More challenging still may be to reconcile the concept of a ‘good God’ with the presence of that God in a world of nature in which every leaf and tree is a battle ground in miniature in which species struggles with species for survival.

How then should we understand today the promise of ‘dominion’ granted to humanity by God in Genesis chapter 1? Does it point to a power we have exercised to our cost, or does it entail a responsibility of which we cannot become free? After all, do we really believe that all life is equal, and that humans should not be seen as having a special place in God’s ecology? Yet the occupation of that position with ruthless blindness to the place and value of other forms of life, except when sentimentality leads us to see them as ‘cute’, must surely be a crime.

Is ‘stewardship’ an adequate concept for the human role as God’s regent and servant on this earth, or is the expression too feudal, tasting too much of mastery in an age when we realise our constant dependence on even the bee the beetle and bacteria? How do we serve creation? It needs to be through acts of reason, as well as of love.

What then does it mean to be a ‘creature’ in such an inter-dependent world and what responsibilities are entailed? How important is the sense of kinship with all living being, and how is it related to the similar word ‘kindness’, which translates in Hebrew as the enduring covenant of hesed towards all life?

The fact is that certain texts, whether we are conscious of it or not, have over centuries formed the foundation of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Western attitudes to creation, God and life itself. But their anthropocentrism may call for revision, or at least counter-balancing with other, more embracing and inclusive, texts if we are indeed to ‘serve and preserve’ the garden of life, as God enjoins the first man and woman, before setting them in Eden.

These questions will be central to the discourse of humanity and the direction of both theology and ecology over the coming critical decades.

It was wonderful to be among Christians, Muslims and fellow Jews who care equally and passionately about the written text of Scripture and the sacred text of nature, – life in all its dimensions.

How a Temple ceremony can teach us about climate change

I’ve always loved people, animals and plants. My nightmares are full of fears about what might destroy them: terror and violence, or pollution and greed.

I imagine the following conversation as Noah’s flood engulfs the Earth.

A father is chivvying his son up the mountain. The boy asks: “Daddy, why didn’t you listen when they warned you?” He has no answer, only guilt and sorrow.

The Talmud notes that it took decades to build the ark, during which time Noah unremittingly urged his contemporaries to change their ways. They mocked his rebukes and countered his every warning with “O, but we have technological answers to that”.

In worse moments, I imagine that conversation happening between myself and my future grandchildren: “Why didn’t you listen when they told you the way you live was destroying the world?” What will I say then?

The forthcoming climate talks in Paris may be our last best chance to create legally binding international agreements to prevent the world’s temperature rising by more than two degrees centigrade. Global warming isn’t a specifically “Jewish issue”; it doesn’t address our most prepossessing anxieties: Israel, antisemitism, terror, assimilation. But it unquestionably is a Jewish issue, because regarding the survival of life on Earth, the fate of one is the fate of all.

Pope Francis’s outstanding encyclical Laudato Si speaks of the Earth as “our common home”, drawing on the Hebrew Bible as its primary source.

The rabbinic phrase “partners with God in creation” encapsulates exactly the nature of the responsibility to which he calls people of all faiths and none: “I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet…the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots… affect us all.”

There is no room, he insists, for obstructionism, indifference or blind belief in technology.

Contrary to how it has often been represented, the Pope notes that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures”. Rather, we are stewards entrusted with the wellbeing of all creation. Equally, as Naomi Klein states bluntly in This Changes Everything, there’s no place for the unregulated power of money and economic growth as the unrivalled determinant of what societies mean by success. We therefore need to change both out thinking and our conduct.

Where is the Jewish voice in this crisis of civilisation?

Contemporary theologian Arthur Green focuses on the spiritual dimension of ecology, God’s presence in all living being. He finds the call to action in God’s one-word challenge to Adam in Eden: “Where are you?” What God means is: “Where are you in helping me to carry this project of creation forward?” We must deepen our awareness of the basic unity of all life and our responsibility towards it.

He has therefore reintroduced the ancient tradition of ma’amadot, vigils, at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, where he’s principal. In Temple times, when the priests from any town ascended to Jerusalem to serve their shift at the altar, the local people gathered daily for ma’amadot, the recitation of the section from Genesis I, recounting the creation for that day of the week. Explaining the practice, the Talmud quotes Jeremiah: “God has a basic covenant with day and night, with the very laws of nature” (33:25).

Our way of life risks undermining those laws and making our world uninhabitable. The ma’amadot teach us to change. Through daily attention to each facet of creation, light, water, plants, animals, humankind, we deepen our appreciation of it, our determination not to pollute or destroy it and our commitment to work for ecological harmony and justice.

A ma’amad can be as simple as reciting the verses for the appropriate day. It can be a solitary meditation, or a reading in the presence of hundreds. It can be enhanced by poetry, music, pictures and reflections. But it should lead to commitments. The phrases are familiar: conserve more, waste less. Every individual can do something; communities and corporations can do more. Ultimately essential are national and international commitments to renewable energy and a limit on fossil fuels. We mustn’t invest in enterprises which destroy the world. We mustn’t consume their products. We’re all guilty and must all modify how we live.

I’m a lover of woodlands and wild places, but climate change isn’t just about nature. It’s about stopping making the poor pay for our wealth by contributing directly or indirectly to the destruction of their incomes, homes and countries. As Jews we empathise, rightly, with refugees. If we fail to act on climate change we will see refugees in even greater numbers as entire peoples strive to escape floods, droughts and wars over the still habitable corners of once fertile lands.

We owe it to life itself, and to this beautiful world with which we are entrusted, not to let that happen.

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

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