Call for ideas: Green Judaism

I’m looking at beginning a new project this fall, centering around “Green Judaism.”

In preparation for this, I’m reading books and visiting websites about Jews and sustainability. I’m already savoring Rabbi Jamie Korngold‘s God in the Wilderness, and my rabbi has suggested I take a look at Hazon. I also hope to visit with and talk with local groups like Beit Kayam and Tuv Ha’aretz.

But I’m also open to your suggestions. If you wanted to learn more about the connections between environmental sustainability and Judaism, what books would you read? What leaders would you talk to? What websites would you mine for information?

Post a comment here, or send me an email with your ideas. I’m looking forward to hearing from you — thanks!

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Clean air and the breath of creation

As part of my Jewish conversion process — and also out of my own curiosity — I recently read Arthur Green’s “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow.” There’s a great deal of food for thought in these pages — including an entire chapter on “Kabbalah for an Environmental Age.” One passage in particular that struck me was:

The main Hebrew term for “soul” is neshamah, actually meaning “breath.” When the Torah depicts God blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7), Adam becomes a “living being,” a bearer of soul. Our soul comes into being in the moment when God breathes life into us. That moment, we come to understand, is every moment. God is constantly blowing the breath of life into us. We are being created anew, reborn, in each moment.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about air quality. It’s just the way my mind works sometimes.

When reading Green’s text, I started to consider each breath we take in as an individual renewed act of creation. Even Eastern meditative practices focus keenly on the breath, postulating that the space between breaths is where God lives.

But living in a world of dirty and unclean air necessarily cuts us off from the Universe or the Divine — or whatever word you choose to use — and this is a separation entirely of our own making. We have polluted our skies with smoke stacks, coal burning, aerosols, vehicle emissions, and even with our efforts to reduce this assault on our environment, we’re still causing more problems than we’re solving.

Concerns and controversies about global warming and climate change aside, the continued pollution of air and waters is one byproduct of modern living that I simply can’t get my mind around. More specifically, I don’t understand how we tolerate practices — both personal and industrial — that poison the very air we breathe and the oceans, rivers, lakes and rain on which all life depends.

It reminds me of a conversation I had about 15 or 20 years ago with a friend about the AIDS virus. My friend called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) an “immature” virus, because it kills its host, and ultimately itself (within the confines of that particular host). Looking at our continued pollution levels, I’m beginning to wonder if human beings aren’t an immature species — destroying the very environment we need in order to survive, and therefore destroying ourselves.

There are some immediate, personal remedies for this. A simple one is walking to the coffee shop (where I now sit) instead of driving, and stopping on my way back in the grove of trees that stand at the entrance to my community. These small actions won’t correct the massively higher levels of industrial pollution, but any reduction — any constructive change — is a step in the right direction.

For me, standing among old-growth trees — particularly towering evergreens — and breathing in crisp, clean air is a highly spiritual experience. There’s no major epiphany, no life-altering religious conversion like Saul on the road to Damascus. But spending some time in the midst of these natural air filters is a great reminder of what clean air can and should feel like in my lungs.

And perhaps with every inhalation of clean air, I am in the present moment renewing creation itself, one breath at a time.

Easter eggs and sustainable communities

As our cities have grown larger, we have worked hard to distance ourselves from one another — compartmentalizing our lives through fences, apartment blocks and gridlocked cars. Even as we are in increasingly close physical proximity, we have grown more suspicious of each other. We isolate ourselves, not getting to know our neighbors, hoarding our resources and supplies for our own use, telling ourselves we definitely don’t need anyone else to get by.

Natural disasters and severe economic downturns have proven otherwise. And so has a family farm celebrating Easter in Western Oregon.

Yesterday, some friends stopped at a local family farm on their way back from a day at the Oregon Coast. The farm was hosting a free Easter egg hunt, with prizes given to whoever found eggs marked with special symbols. My friends’ kids had a blast — and brought home several dozen colored eggs. For free.

When two dozen of these eggs were passed along to us, my boyfriend was skeptical. Free eggs from a random family farm, given away by people he’s never met? Why would they just give away so many eggs? Might they be poisoned, or just plain bad?

“How much trust do you put in your fellow human beings?” he asked as he gazed down into the bag.

“Quite a lot, actually.” I reached into the bag, pulled out a teal-colored egg and peeled off its shell. I offered some to Mike, but he declined.

“You go ahead,” he said. “I’ll just wait and see if you die overnight.”

Poisoned Easter eggs would have been a particularly heinous — and stupid — way to prey on small children, and until Mike shared his suspicion, it hadn’t even occurred to me to be wary of farmers hosting free holiday fun for their neighbors and anyone else who happened by. Why not just believe the best possible explanation, rather than the worst?

(I wouldn’t have given these eggs to my children to eat without testing/inspecting them myself first, however.)

Nearly twenty-four hours later, I’m still here. No ill effects from the free eggs. I’ve used the remaining dyed eggs to make a very colorful Easter egg salad (which Mike did in fact eat).

The Golden Rule teaches us to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. This same founding principle exists at the heart of many religious traditions — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Wicca and more — and is (or should be) the very cornerstone of any organized society. We need each other if any of this — our jobs, our daily lives, survival in general — is going to work.

The goodwill generated from a free egg hunt may well bring in some new business for the farm. Maybe that was the motive; I have no idea. But the neighborliness born of these celebratory and other acts of generosity contribute to a more cohesive, interdependent, trusting — and ultimately sustainable — community.

Passover 5769

Tonight marks the beginning of Passover, or Pesach. At Seder tables across the globe, people are coming together to remember the Hebrews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt. Others use this time to promote freedom from modern oppression, or to celebrate the renewal of springtime. More than a few Seders this Passover season will focus on environmental responsibility.

The traditional Seder dinner symbolizes the meal eaten by Hebrew slaves the night that the Angel of Death took the lives of the Egyptian first-born, while passing over the homes of the faithful, whose doors had been marked with lamb’s blood. This was the final plague visited on Egypt by the God of Moses, and the last straw that convinced the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.

(Of course, the Pharaoh’s soldiers later chased the Hebrews down in the desert, but that’s another story.)

I doubt there’s literally a Dark Angel of Climate Change, but we are being plagued by increasingly frequent and violent natural disasters, faster melting glaciers and ice caps, growing mounds of garbage and still having to figure out what to do with tons of toxic waste.* And there’s no “green” lamb’s blood with which to mark our doors; climate change is a global phenomenon from which no one is spared.

Some researchers say we’re already past the point of no return, that the worst-case scenarios of worldwide drought, famine, flooding and mass extinctions are now all but a certainty. Others say we’re close to that tipping point but not yet past it.

So what does this have to do with Passover?

Passover is about severing ties with the past. It’s about having the courage to step beyond previous restrictions and limitations to imagine and create a new reality. The effects of climate change are upon us, but we can and must clean up our own planet, essentially working toward liberating ourselves from our own mess.

This can start at the Seder table tonight. You can use only organic ingredients to make your Passover meal, or buy your wine from a sustainable vineyard. You can incorporate climate change solutions into your Passover story and discussion. You can donate funds from your tzedakah box to an eco-friendly charity. Huddler’s Green Home Community gives some great suggestions on how to make your Passover celebration more eco-friendly.

But it has to reach beyond holidays meals and dinner conversation. The Hebrews fled Egypt not only for themselves, but for their children, grandchildren and the generations to come. That’s the focus our environmental policies and green actions need to take now. The impact of what we do today — for good or ill — likely won’t be felt for many years to come. But our actions do still have a very real impact, even if we’ll never see it ourselves.

This Passover — and Pesach celebrations for years to come — can be about liberating ourselves from our own destructive behaviors, and liberating our children’s children from a planet destroyed.

* According to a 1995 report from the Reason Foundation, the United States disposes of 13 million tons of hazardous waste each year.

Sukkah shelters

We’ve just passed the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when many Jews construct a sukkah — “hut” or “booth” — reminiscent of the shelters in which the ancient Hebrews dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert following their flight from Egypt.

Some Jews will spend the entire week-long Sukkot observance living inside the sukkah, while others will only take meals or entertain guests within the hut’s walls.

I love the fact that it gets people outside.

In the twenty-first century, particularly in developed countries, we spend way too much time indoors. The elements beyond the four walls in which we live and work too often become something to be endured on the way to and from the car. We might garden, go hiking or barbecue outdoors on weekends, but how much time do we really spend outside on a daily basis?

I once asked a rabbi why anyone would want to celebrate 40 years of wandering in the desert. That didn’t sound like a good time to me. His response was along the lines of commemorating the exodus from Egypt and re-experiencing the journey that is often required between enslavement and real freedom and self-determination.

I’ve come to look at the holiday more as an opportunity to reconnect with ancient roots — Jewish or otherwise — hearkening back to a time when people truly lived with and on the land, whether in agricultural communities or as nomadic bands seeking a “promised land.”

There are special requirements to be met in constructing the sukkah, dictating shape, dimensions, materials and so forth, but I’ve always been fascinated by the roof, which must be made of organic material that is not attached to the ground — so no living tree branches — and which must be open enough that the stars are visible at night from inside the sukkah.

This means that even while taking refuge within the sukkah, we’re never truly cut off from the skies above. Many still refer to the night sky as “the Heavens” and will look upward when praying or rejoicing. It’s natural to gaze through the small window of our atmosphere to the vast universe beyond, and have that as our means of connecting with forces larger than ourselves. Plus, I imagine it’s rather romantic and even a bit mystical to muse and slumber in the sukkah, with starlight above filtered through palm fronds.

Admittedly, I’ve not yet built my own sukkah. I doubt my HOA would appreciate a plywood hut sitting on the lawn for seven days. I’m reminded of A.J. Jacobs, who in his book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” had difficulty finding a location where he’d be allowed to construct his sukkah, and so instead set it up in the living room of his New York City apartment. So instead of stars, I imagine he got a great view of ceiling plaster.

But the sukkah’s permeable roof also means exposure to the elements, even though limited. Again, this would be a hard sell here in Oregon, where the weather turns chilly and wet around this time of year. But isn’t that the point? Exposure to the elements is a good reminder that human beings are a part of a larger natural world over which we have no real control.

Sukkot — as well as extended camping trips and other outdoor activities — brings us face to face with the fact that living at odds with the environment simply doesn’t work. We can’t stop the rain. We can’t stop the cold, or the heat. Thinking and living otherwise puts us in real danger. Survival is dependent upon living in harmony with the natural world — understanding and respecting our environment, rather than behaving as though we are its master.

Green Atonement

The Days of Awe — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between — give us an annual opportunity to examine our words, actions and intentions of the previous year, and to make amends for any wrongs we have committed — to ensure that our names are written and sealed into the Book of Life on Yom Kippur, to begin the new year with a clean slate.

Green geek that I am, I decided instead to spend these ten days looking at some of the ways I’ve failed my planet in the past 12 months.

* I’ve gotten lax about taking canvas bags with me to the store. Sure, those plastic grocery bags come in handy when walking the dog, but many of them are torn after carrying food and so cannot be repurposed.

* Several times when I’ve found a jar of ancient pickles or old spaghetti sauce at the back of the refrigerator, I threw it out instead of emptying the jar into the trash (no garbage disposal) and then recycling the glass.

* I didn’t bring my worm composting bin inside soon enough when the summer weather turned hot. Most of the worms died. Same goes for my potted herb garden, which got burnt up in the sun.

* I’ve thrown away several used printer cartridges instead of saving them for recycling. My dog likes to eat them, and I don’t want her ingesting plastic or ink. But instead of finding a safe place for storage, I’ve chucked some of them instead.

* Putting out food for two stray cats is attracting raccoons and possums into my courtyard and is messing with the wetland ecosystem my neighborhood occupies.

Yes, I only buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, recycle my newspapers and magazines, and use both sides of the paper when printing. I often choose to walk or take mass transit instead of driving, and I don’t let the water run when washing my hands. But some mornings I cringe to discover I’ve left a fan or external hard drive running overnight in my office. I know I can do better.

My boyfriend laughs at my assortment of decorative ribbons, which had adorned gifts but now collect dust on a bookcase. The ribbons are still good, so I won’t throw them away, but the pieces are too short to be useful. I’m trying to be a good steward, and find myself in nearly constant conflict.

Maybe “green guilt” will soon become a speciality of psychotherapists. I have collections of damaged-but-repairable items I no longer want — like a leather belt with a worn-through notch — but which I can’t seem to rehome. No one on Freecycle or Craigslist wants this stuff. If I give it to Goodwill, it will just end up in the trash. So it continues to clutter my space instead.

Part of my green atonement needs to be about balance, so that I can enjoy my life and my home while still being part of the environmental solution.

Thinking globally and acting locally isn’t always easy. It’s a lot less painful, say, to buy a handful of carbon offsets for an upcoming trip or to munch on an organic bean burger at an Earth Day festival, than it is to pay closer attention to our mundane habits — even when it’s precisely those little every day decisions that make the biggest difference. Or so the green advocates keep saying.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I’m wondering how to make amends to the Earth, with more consistent actions that are small, uneventful and immediate. On the Day of Atonement itself, I can fast in recognition of dwindling global resources and wear white in hopeful honor of a cleaner planet. Moving forward, I can shop more often at local farmers markets. I can be more vigilant about making my own green cleaning products. I can set up a secure container for recycling printer cartridges.

And I can take a breath and forgive myself when I stumble. I am an eco-conscious yet imperfect human, and I’m afraid the Earth and I are both going to have to live with that. To me, that’s one of the most reassuring and inspiring messages of the High Holy Days: that we can make mistakes and make amends, and then we can try again.

I just hope global warming is as forgiving.