Friday, March 11, 2022

One Jewish thing to save the earth

If it would slow climate change and help the environment in general, would you be willing to accept minimal packaging of everything you purchase? For an entire year?

It would, and I think that most people would agree to it. 

Would you agree to doing it for eleven years? What if there's something that would accomplish as much in one year as minimal packaging would in eleven?

Well, there is. Following a vegan diet for one year reduces greenhouse gases by as much as it takes eleven years to accomplish through minimal packaging.

To be honest, there is nothing in halacha—Jewish religious law—that specifically requires or even encourages veganism. There is a general ethical principal called bal tashchit—בל תשחית, "do not destroy"—and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand that it prohibits destroying the earth.

The principal stems from an injunction in Deuteronomy not to cut down fruit trees during a war. Early rabbinic law extends it all unnecessary destruction.

But Judaism still does not require veganism, and I'm not endorsing it across the board. What I'm recommending is that we return to the lifestyle of many of our ancestors, who reserved meat for Shabbat and Yom Tov, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. If you could only afford meat about once a week, why not reserve it to honor Shabbat?

That changed with prosperity. It especially changed in North America, where meat, since at least the nineteenth century, has been extraordinarily plentiful. But just because we can eat meat every day, if we want to, doesn't mean that we should.

Think about it: eleven times as much benefit as something you probably wouldn't mind doing. Or, if you have meat about one day a week, 9.4 times as much benefit.

Monday, July 26, 2021

40 Days of Teshuvah

 Our community presented and discussed the short film 40 Days of Teshuvah on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. The film chronicles 40 days of protests that Black Jewish activist Yehudah Webster led  on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, concluding on Tisha b'Av.

During and after our screening and discussion, several questions came up:

Are there Black Jews in any significant number? Yes. The subtext may have been “Are they really Jewish?” Yes to that as well. While there are some “Black Hebrews” whose Jewishness is questioned, Black Jews like Yehudah Webster and many of his generation are the children or grandchildren of Black Americans who undertook legitimate conversion to Judaism, often under Orthodox auspices. It’s estimated than 1 in 5 American Jews is a person of color.

Is there really any connection between Tisha b’Av and Black Lives Matter? There are two themes of Tisha b’Av. The first is grief: our grief over the destruction of the Temples, the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of our people, and the sufferings of Jews throughout the ages. From the liberal end of the Jewish spectrum, I don’t mourn for the Temple, because I believe that we are better off with a Judaism that doesn’t revolve around animal sacrifice. I identify more with the people’s suffering that we read about in Eicha (Lamentations).

The second theme is the cause of the destruction. Although Jewish tradition naturally holds that Jerusalem was destroyed because of our sins, the sages didn’t emphasize the so-called ritual infractions to which our minds naturally leap. They identified the cause as sinat hinam, baseless hatred. In our time, in our country, the non-judicial execution of Black Americans for offenses that are not even capital crimes is the paramount example of baseless
hatred—and our taxes pay for it.

Is “crying out to God” as we saw in the demonstrations on Grand Army Plaza enough?” No. But is it worthwhile? The Torah tells us that when we were enslaved in Egypt, “God heard the cries of the people” and then God acted to liberate them, so I have to believe that public outcry is legitimate.

But crying out to God is not sufficient. Unlike our ancestors in Egypt, we have means to effect change. I’ve been thinking about some additions to Al Het for Yom Kippur:

  • For the sin of treasuring our quiet, safe neighborhoods so highly that we pay others to oppress everyone we perceive as dangerous.
  • For the sin of talking a good line but doing nothing more.
  • For the sin of posting on social media but taking no action.
  • For the sin of hearing racist speech and remaining silent.
  • For the sin of believing that we deserve the privileges that society accords us.
  • For the sin of valuing law and order more than the lives of other human beings.

One aspect of the film that was probably  hard to accept was the emphasis that Yehudah Webster and his family, and Rabbi David Jaffe, placed on prayer, especially public prayer. We are less certain about prayer and, in general, about relationship with God, but that’s a major strand in Jewish thought. In Rabbi Oren Steinitz’s Talmud class, we’ve been studying tractate Ta’anit, which is about fast days—specifically, fasting during drought. Taking the Torah to the public square, praying and blowing the shofar there, were among the steps they took. Are Black lives less important than rain?


Friday, November 13, 2020

Yavneh, again

When you don't know what to do and every possible course of action seems wrong, study Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Although tradition holds that King Solomon wrote it, modern scholars attribute it to one or more of his civil servants. It gives, in general, the same advice that Harold Nicolson gave to a young acquaintance who felt trapped and buffeted in a civil-service position: do your job and be meticulous in everything that you can control. The edition of Kohelet that I recommend is The Tao of Solomon by Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

I was thinking of this because of a presentation that the Rev. Michael Dowd gave recently in our community. He spoke forcefully about the inevitability of drastic climate change: that, regardless of anything we do, the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere makes a much hotter world inevitable. Worse, some of the effects of a hotter climate, such as forest fires and melting of polar ice, themselves release even more carbon into the atmosphere.

He also argues that technology won't save us and that faith in progress is actually harmful: the damage has already been done. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that we should take no action. Things we do now (carbon fee, renewable energy, conservation) won't stop climate change, but that is not reason to continue making it worse.

Yet Michael doesn't consider himself a prophet of doom. He calls himself a post-doom, pro-future evangelist.  

As my friend and colleague Malachi Doane points out, we Jews have some experience with rebuilding life after disaster. The classic example is the refashioning of Judaism after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, led by Rabbi Johanan ben-Zakkai and others at Yavneh, outside Jerusalem. They changed Judaism from a religion centered on animal sacrifices in the Temple to one with a God who did not need sacrifices but demanded righteous living. We could also cite the rebuilding of Jewish life after the Holocaust, including the so-called 614th commandment: not to give Hitler a posthumous victory (through despair).

The question, therefore, is what we should do, what I (as a spiritual educator) should do.

My first thought is: help us equip ourselves against nihilism and despair. This especially applies if you teach or lead young people. While adults head straight to denial, it's common for teens and pre-teens to pitch headlong into despair, which can lead to a personally disastrous life course. In young people it could well be drugs or suicide; in adults it might be wanton abandon, heedless consumption.

Activism, even though it will not solve the problem, is the best alternative to despair. 

My next thought is to teach religious limits more in accord with the "carrying capacity" of the planet (inherent limits). As Michael says, future religion should emphasize limits on consumption and degradation of the biosphere. I've suggested, in a conference presentation and article, that Judaism--very much a religion of limits--should redefine kashrut to limit the consumption of meat to Shabbat and Yom Tov, a practice that economic circumstances and agricultural reality imposed on most of our ancestors. A practice also suggested by existing eco-kashrut is to limit our meat consumption to grass-fed animals.

A third thought is to introduce both young and adult learners to Jewish spirituality that is God-centered in a radical sense: one that is congruent with, and embraces, reality. In the same way that we believe that is is valuable to pray for, or recite Tehillim (Psalms) for a person who is gravely ill even if we don't believe that prayers or psalms will effect a cure, we should understand everything and anything we do to protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions as holy acts.

Fourth (and finally), Judaism is already a religion that passes wisdom forward, but we need to incorporate contemporary, scientific wisdom into the culture that we give the future. We do not know what human life a century or two from now will look like. We don't know for sure that there will be Jews then.  It's incumbent on us now, however, to figure out what wisdom we want Jews (and all people) of the future to value and to figure out ways to preserve and transmit it. This is a Yavneh moment. What would Rabbi ben-Zakkai do?

Friday, May 22, 2020

Who wants to die to save J.P. Morgan Chase?

Maybe I should avoid reading financial columns and websites.

Recently many have been concerned about the economic harm secondary to attempts, such as stay-at-home orders, to mitigate COVID-19. That economic harm is real and we shouldn’t ignore it.

On the other hand, some of the writers seem to be concerned mostly about harm to big corporations, not so much about people who are either kept from working or  continuing to work in conditions that endanger their own lives. The latter category includes not only first responders and medical workers, but also supermarket and drugstore employees and many others.

Concern for the profits of big businesses cannot, in Jewish thought, take precedence over the needs of human beings. Corporations may be people (too) in American law, but they’re not people in a Jewish frame of reference. 

I don’t know anyone who would volunteer to die in order to save J.P. Morgan Chase.

Still more un-Jewish is the suggestion that the virus should be allowed to rampage through the population in order to “cull” the ranks of those who aren’t economically productive: those who are old, disabled, poor, or unemployed.  The most extreme advocates of this like the idea because it would reduce future spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

There is a name for that ideology, and it’s not one that I willingly write. You won’t have trouble thinking of it.

Judaism, in contrast, requires us to relieve suffering, respect the old (I admit that I’m officially old), and care for the poor.

Jewish law does have provisions for the protection of businesses, but they predate “big business.” For example, if a community has one kosher bakery (a sole proprietorship) and not enough Jews to support another, a rabbi could prohibit the opening of a second one.

Above all, Judaism requires us to preserve human life. Even those who observe Shabbat most strictly know that saving a life overrides the rules. If someone may be seriously ill, calling an ambulance is a requirement even if your Shabbat observance otherwise bars using the telephone.

This is why many synagogues and other Jewish organization will not resume in-person programming right away even when  state government allows it. New York is now allowing religious gatherings of up to 10 people--an exact minyan, which is no coincidence--but the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America advised congregations to wait 14 days to see what happens, and then consider limited reopening only if there has not been an upsurge of COVID-19 in their areas. The unaffiliated shul that I'm affiliated with is not planning to resume in-person services until there is an effective treatment or a vaccine.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ordinary spirituality

When we talk about spirituality, we often seem to mean what psychologists call “peak experiences.”

You know: the kind of experience that leaves you overcome with awe and wonder.“Peak” in this sense doesn’t really refer to mountaintops, but common descriptions of peak experiences often seem to involve mountains. For example, reciting the morning prayer Modeh ani at the top of a mountain precisely at dawn.

That could be deeply moving. Or it might not be—that’s unpredictable. In any case, it requires getting oneself up to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise.

Such experiences are necessarily rare, and we can’t count on producing one on demand. So I’d like to talk here about ordinary spirituality, the experiences that available without extreme effort. 

Let’s start with one that’s available every Friday evening. When we sing “L’cha Dodi” early in the service, we turn toward the entrance  for the last verse in order to welcome Shabbat, which is seen metaphorically as a bride arriving to wed the entire Jewish people.

Instead of turning back toward the front immediately at the end of the verse, try visualizing a bride proceeding slowly down the aisle while the chorus is sung. Turn slowly as she walks along and see if it enhances your experience of Shabbat.

Or try to abstain from gossip whenever the opportunity arises. (This is harder than it sounds.) Remember as you do so that gossip is worse than just “not very nice”: it’s lashon hara, evil speech, which is prohibited by the Torah.  

You might try choosing food consciously. Maybe you’re not interested in keeping kosher, but would “Biblical kashrut” make sense for you? That means avoiding just pork,  shellfish, and intentional combinations of meat and milk.

Or perhaps “eco-kashrut” has some appeal: choosing locally grown food when you can, looking for natural products, or increasing the plant-based portion of your diet.

What about visiting a sick person? This is an important mitzvah for all Jews, not just rabbis. In particular, find out whether someone recently home from the hospital needs help with shopping or getting to follow-up medical appointments. (If you could consider doing this on request, even for someone you might not yet know, please tell us.)

Most important: when you do any of these things, remember that it’s not just nice, or good for your health. It’s a Jewish action, a mitzvah.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, is quoted as saying, “It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” Temple is of historical interest for another reason: in 1942, he and Rabbi J.H. Hertz founded the British Council of Christians and Jews, and throughout World War II he exhorted the Allies to intervene against the slaughter of Jews in Europe. 

It must have been a radical step for the chief cleric of the Church of England to say that God might not be very concerned with religion. After all, he was in the religion business, so to speak.

It is, however, a very Jewish idea. Our tradition holds that how well, or how much, you pray is of much less importance than how you live.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Choosing not to choose

In July, I presented three sessions at NewCAJE, the New Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.

I also attended many sessions, including one asking “Can the Center Hold?” with Dr. David Starr, who was one of my teachers at Hebrew College. He’s also a JTS-ordained rabbi, and by “center” he meant “Conservative Judaism.”

Conservative Judaism has portrayed itself not only as the philosophic center of Judaism, positioned between Orthodox and Reform, but also as the “big tent” that had room for everyone. For decades it was the largest movement in American Judaism, but the desire to include all Jews was a constant strain. On one hand, a large share of members became more liberal in practices and views. On the other, a minority wanted the Conservative movement to be more like Orthodox Judaism.

Today the Reform movement is the largest in America. It is also probably the philosophical center, not only because of moving toward the center itself, but also because so many American Jews have moved to the left of Reform.

As I see it, the fastest-growing segment of American Judaism is “Just Jews”: those who do not define themselves by affiliation to a movement, even if they happen to be members of a movement-affiliated congregation. I expect to see growth in the number of communities like ours, attempting to include all Jews by “choosing not to choose.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


When I speak in churches, I often say that Christianity has it mostly wrong about the Pharisees. In the Jewish orbit, it’s something that we rarely think about—but we should. The early rabbis who re-created Judaism in the form that we know were the direct successors of the Pharisees. In other words, we are the heirs of the Pharisees. 

Yet in common speech, “pharisaic” denotes hypocrisy, self-righteousness, or obsession with rules. The term Pharisee derives from the Hebrew root l’faresh, to interpret. Originally, it described Jews of approximately the first century CE who believed that the Torah should be studied for its underlying principles rather than solely as a rule book for ritual practices. Although they were highly concerned with ritual purity, they emphasized ethical teachings over ritual for its own sake. 

Their opponents, the Sadducees, focused on careful adherence to the rules, mostly in Leviticus, for con-ducting sacrifices in the Temple. When Rome destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, those sacrifices became impossible and the point of view of the Sadducees became irrelevant to Jewish life. It was the Pharisees and the early rabbis who refashioned Judaism as a religion that did not depend on specific sacrificial practices in a specific place—a Judaism built around prayer, study, and mitzvot. 

Paradoxically, Christianity also has its roots in the rabbinic tradition, not in the rituals of the Sadducees. Over the centuries, however, the term “Pharisee” became a club used by Christians to beat Jews—often figuratively and sometimes literally. 

Rabbi Jeff Salkin wrote about this recently in a column for the Religion News Service. He raised this issue after Mayor Pete Buttigieg used the term “Pharisee” to criticize Vice-President Mike Pence. Rabbi Salkin does not think that Buttigieg is anti-Jewish. 
He writes that the term embodies “subtle and unexamined religious perceptions—Judaism as a religion of law vs. Christianity as a religion of love; Judaism as a “separatist” faith” and that it is “so ingrained in the way that so many people think, that it has become unconscious.” 

I don’t think that we can eliminate this from almost two thousand years of Christian thought, but I think that we should speak up when the occasion demands it.
Sadly, however, the kind of hypocritical obsession with rules that it denotes still exists in Jewish life. There are so-called religious Jews who may keep strict kashrut and pray together three times a day, but who have no qualms about sheltering child molesters and domestic abusers, mis-educating their children, or cheating the government. 

Or those who vituperatively criticize other Jews. As (Orthodox) Rabbi Bob Carroll says, we should all be at least as careful about what comes out of our mouths as about what goes in. We may choose to ignore it when other Jews merely call us bad Jews, and usually that is best. But should we keep quiet about immoral or criminal behavior carried out in the name of Judaism? Sometimes we fear that speaking out would give fodder to anti-Semites. Yet if we are silent, are we complicit?

One Jewish thing to save the earth

If it would slow climate change and help the environment in general, would you be willing to accept minimal packaging of everything you purc...