Reb Arthur's Latest Thoughts

Wellsprings of Life: Hagar & Rosh Hashanah

Hagar weeps as her son Ishmael apprpaches death from thirst

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish Torah-reading is Genesis  21. In it, Abraham’s second wife Hagar and his first son Ishmael are sent forth from Abraham’s family, with a leather-skin of water that is not enough to meet their needs in the dry wilderness.   In extremis, Hagar gently lays Ishmael beneath a tree and begins to weep as she fears his death.   (The Torah uses the word Tashlich  for this laying-down, teaching us that in the Rosh Hashanah ceremony of Tashlich we are not casting our misdeeds away into the flowing water, but seeking to transform their energies for the sake of Life, as Hagar did.)   Then, says the Torah,  Hagar’s eyes are opened, and she saw the wellspring that she names “Be¹er Lachai Roi, The Wellspring of the Living ONE Who Sees Me."   It saves their lives.

As I try to see this story, it seems to me that when Hagar’s eyes were opened, her tears poured forth so fully that she herself created the wellspring.   Today, all around the world we face the death of trees and the dearth of water, the deaths of many other life-forms and millions of our own Ishmaels.   Many parts of Earth are becoming as scarce of water as was the ancient Middle East. As our planet heats and scorches, our Mother Earth is parched and can no longer pour forth from her breasts the pure water that nurtures and sustains us.   May our own tears for Mother Earth pour forth to water the wellsprings of new life. May we open our eyes, and act!  -- act out of seeing the Living ONE Who Sees Us.

 May we pour forth the tears that make healing action possible!

And as Mother Hagar needed nourishment, so do those of us who draw on flowing Spirit to do the work of healing Mother Earth. Please click on the “Donate” banner on he Left margin, to pour forth as well the money that is also necessary if we are to make healing action possible.


Torah Portions: 


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Climate-Crisis YOM KIPPUR: Fast with Abe Lincoln at his Memorial

Sorrowful Lincoln at the Memorial

Atonement and At-One-ment: Sundown to Sundown--September 22nd & 23rd

Yom Kippur at the Lincoln Memorial:

Sponsored by The Shalom Center

 Yom Kippur is the day of both Atonement and At-One-ment.  At this moment in history we humans are in need of atonement for the ways in which we have desecrated the Earth. This desecration is the result of our lack of At-One-ment – our separation from all life -- our separation of ourselves from the Earth of which we are in truth an interwoven thread.

This year Yom Kippur occurs immediately before Pope Francis’s unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress.  We offer this Yom Kippur service at the Lincoln Memorial as an invitation for our Jewish community, along with people of all faiths, to come together, acknowledging our shared need for atonement. And we will gather as one of a number of faith-based events planned for that week in support of Pope Francis' response -- the encyclical Laudato Si -- to the climate crisis and its roots in world-wide social crisis.

At the Lincoln Memorial we see the image of a sorrowful leader who mght well be fasting with us today in atonement for our damage to the Earth and to many human communities, in atonement for our subservience to great corporations as oblivious in their cruelty as the slaveholders he faced. And who turned his sorrow into action, into transformation. Into At-One-ment.

The Memorial enshrines and honors not Lincoln alone but also the millions of Americans who have gathered there to stand for the dignity of every person. It is the pre-eminent American symbol of our collective responsibility to work for freedom and democracy for all people. “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

The schedule for our service:

Kol Nidre -- 6:30 to 8:30 pm, Sept 22 Morning Services -- 10 am to 1:30 pm, Sept 23 Ne'ilah  -- 5 to 7:40 pm Sept 23, concluding with the blowing of the shofar and leading to an interfaith vigil. (THIS SERVICE WILL BE AT JOHN MARSHALL PLACE PARK at 4TH AND C STREETS NW.)

While drawing upon the structure of the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy, we intend to focus our worship experience with more Chanting, and Reflective Spiritual Exercises; and we will invite other faith traditions to participate during the day, asking them to bring their prayers of atonement.  We will move towards prayers and feelings of At-One-ment with all that is.

This invitation to other people of faith is an acknowledgement that we share a worldview about responsibility to the interwoven life of Earth, even while we understand this commitment may be  rooted in specific teachings that are especially sacred to Judaism, or to Catholicism, or Islam, or to any one tradition.

In that spirit and to make clear our sharing, we have placed on this page, our Home Page, three statements that, out of three different traditions, come to the same conclusions: the full text of the Pope's Laudato Si, the   Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis  now signed by more than 400 rabbis from every stream of Judaism; and the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, set forth by leading Muslim spiritual teachers from around the world.

It is critical that we now act together, entering into shared atonement for what has occurred,  into prayer for the future of all life, and into commitment to act in the spirit of AT-ONE-MENT.

  After the traditional afternoon break in Yom Kippur services we will reconvene and continue our liturgy at 5:00.

We will conclude the Yom Kippur liturgy, as we traditionally do, with the long shofar blast as three stars appear in the sky – a fitting affirmation that our lives are interconnected with the movement of the universe.

At 7:30 Wednesday evening, as Yom Kippur is ending, there will be a multi-faith vigil called to usher in the Pope’s address the next day. At that point, we will welcome others and transition into a multi-faith service.

We will be joined in “breaking our fast” by people of faith who have been fasting for as long as ten days near the White House calling attention to the need to act for the sake of all life.

Please be aware:

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and it is not appropriate to publicly eat or drink during the day.  Jewish tradition is clear that in cases of serious threats to health, the protection of life transcends even this most solemn fast. If you need to eat or drink during this service, we ask that you do so away from the congregation. Many people will wear white clothing to signify our intention to purify our souls and our lives. You are encouraged to:

Invite friends, family and colleagues who may want to join us for any or part of Yom Kippur. Bring a chair or a cushion, so that you may be more comfortable. Bring food for yourself for the Break Fast. Most important, remember it is a sacred and holy moment in time, in our hearts and spirits – and so we ask that you join us with this awareness.

  Please visit our Facebook page "Yom Kippur 2015 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC" by clicking to <> and let us know if you will be joining us Share this invitation with your friends and encourage them to come.

Whether you can join us at the Lincoln Memorial or not, if you want to support this and our related work to bring a moral, religious, and spiritual dimension to the active healing of our Earth, please click on the "Donate" button in the left margin of this page.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Sharing Texts on Climate: "Laudato Si" & Jewish Sages

File Attachment: 

 [Rabbi Daniel Swartz, chair of the board of the Pennsylvania chapter of Interfaith Power & Light, has brought together, in parallel,  passages from Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si with texts pf Jewish teachers across the millennia.  The attachment actually shows the passages  side-by-side. Below, the first passage in each category is from Laudato Si; the second is a Jewish teaching. We join in commending this as a fruitful text for study on Yom Kippur, or the festival days or Shabbat of Sukkot  --  AW, ed.] 

Discussion Guide for Encyclical Text Study -–

Laudato Si and the Jewish Sages: Reflections on Climate Justice”


Overview: The texts in “Laudato Si and the Sages: Reflections on Climate Justice” are designed to spark reflection and action global climate change.  We hope it will help people take a new look at the connections between climate and justice, human responsibility, our role in the world, and what this means to us as people of faith.  While it is especially intended for use on Yom Kippur afternoon study session, it can easily be adapted for many other occasions in synagogues, elsewhere within the Jewish community or in interfaith settings. 

The texts are presented in two formats:  Below, you can find a more complete four page selection, designed for in-depth or multi-session discussions; it can be studied in a larger group setting or in hevruta or small groups. I’ve included some questions here on each topic highlighted by the texts, as well as some summary questions.  It’s a lot of material, so obviously everyone should feel free to pick and choose which texts to cover.  There is also a single page below, which is accompanied by its own questions. It is meant to serve as a ready-made one-hour program, to be led by a professional or lay leader, or even for people to reflect on individually.

The texts in the left column are drawn from passages in Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home, the recent encyclical letter by Pope Francis.  An encyclical letter is a high level written pronouncement issued in the name of a pope, second in authority only to an “Apostolic Constitution.”  Every paragraph in Laudato Si is numbered – the paragraph numbers for these texts are indicated after each text. The paired texts in the right hand column are drawn from a wide variety of Jewish sources, ranging from Tanach to a rabbinic letter written in response to the Pope’s encyclical. 


To help set a reflective tone, you might begin with a song, niggun, or a reading such as this selection from Laudato Si:

Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances? Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride rough-shod over everything around them. This too affects how they treat the environment. ¶225

To close, the group might read one of the prayers on the fourth page and/or sing Hashiveinu or another appropriate song.

Discussion Questions

Note on the texts used:  The two texts in the left column are drawn from passages in Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home, the recent encyclical letter by Pope Francis.  An encyclical letter is a high level written pronouncement issued in the name of a pope, second in authority only to an “Apostolic Constitution.”  Every paragraph in Laudato Si is numbered – the paragraph numbers for these two texts are indicated after each text.  The first right column text is drawn from Adnei Kesef, a Torah commentary by Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279-1340). The second is an excerpt from a letter, signed by over 400 rabbis, drafted in response to Pope Francis’ call for climate justice.


Our Connection to the Earth: Do you think of the earth as a sister or mother?  Would it make a difference if you did? Do you feel the connection to animals, plants and even “lifeless stone” that ibn Kaspi writes about?  What might make that connection stronger? What relevance might the commandment to let the land rest every 7 and 50 years (note: this is considered to be a 50th year) have today? When you think of “the environment,” do you think of something separate from humans or connected to us?

Climate Justice:  Do these texts make you think differently about the connections between climate change and justice?  Why or why not? What are some ways Jews might connect our traditional efforts to help the poor with work on climate change? Did you know that a letter in support of faith-based efforts to address climate change has been signed by over 400 rabbis?  Did you know there is a similar letter that Muslim leaders have recently published?  Why is climate justice a topic faith communities should address?

Summary Questions: Which text has served as a shofar for you and woken you up?  What actions have you taken or not taken that might call for T’shuvah (repentance, return). Which texts resonated most for you?  What new understandings do you have?

 Next steps:

  • Your congregation/organization can link up across faith traditions through Interfaith Power and Light, which has affiliates in most states. PA IPL produced this document, and it’s hosting its annual conference in Philadelphia on October 25th. For more information on PA IPL, go to and for other states, go to




1) Redefining Progress


There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘pro­gress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour” as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from tech­nological and economic power as such. The fact is that our immense tech­nological development has not been accompa­nied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. …But human beings are not com­pletely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the un­conscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. … Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be consid­ered progress. Laudato Si, 105, 194


1) Technological civilization is the product of labor, of our exertion of power for the sake of gain, for the sake of producing goods.  It begins when we, dissatisfied with what is available in nature, become engaged in a struggle with the forces of nature in order to enhance our safety and increase our comfort… How proud we often are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce.  Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats.  … To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow humans and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a great hope for our progress than the Sabbath? The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, pp. 27-28


2) Climate Justice

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot ad­equately combat environmental degradation un­less we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”.For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particu­larly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled wa­ter; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impov­erished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go.   ¶48



2) The unity of justice and Earth-healing is also taught by our experience today: The worsening inequality of wealth, income, and political power has two direct impacts on the climate crisis. On the one hand, great Carbon Corporations not only make their enormous profits from wounding the Earth, but then use these profits to purchase elections and to fund fake science to prevent the public from acting to heal the wounds. On the other hand, the poor in America and around the globe are the first and the worst to suffer from the typhoons, floods, droughts, and diseases brought on by climate chaos.   So we call for a new sense of eco-social justice – a tikkun olam that includes tikkun tevel, the healing of our planet.  We urge those who have been focusing on social justice to address the climate crisis, and those who have been focusing on the climate crisis to address social justice.

-- From the “Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis,” 2015


3) Global Inequity

The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the re­sponsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”. 95



3) Is it not enough for you to graze on choice grazing ground, but you must also trample with your feet what is left from your grazing?  And is it not enough for you to drink clear water, but you must also muddy with your feet what is left?  And must My flock graze on what your feet have trampled and drink what your feet have muddied? Ezekiel 34:18-19


4) Just Solutions

Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of en­vironmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries. Imposing such measures penalizes those coun­tries most in need of development. A further in­justice is perpetrated under the guise of protect­ing the environment. Here also, the poor end up paying the price. Furthermore, since the effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now, some countries with scarce resources will require assistance in adapting to the effects already being produced, which affect their economies. In this context, there is a need for common and differ­entiated responsibilities. As the bishops of Bo­livia have stated, “the countries which have ben­efited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.” ¶170

4) When they collect taxes from the people of the city in order to build a protective wall … it is collected according to wealth (ability to pay) and only after it is divided up, they also collect from those closer to the wall, those closer paying more (because they are in greater danger if the wall should fall) And if there is a house close to the wall that does not have money and one far from the wall that does, do not collect from the close one, because it does not have anything. Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 163:3


5) Solidarity and the Common Good

We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as in­struments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.¶14


5) Some people were sitting in a ship.  One of them took a drill and began to bore a hole in the ship under where he was sitting.  His companions said, what are you sitting and doing?  He said, what has it to do with you?  I am boring a hole under my part of the ship.  They said, but the water is coming in and sinking the ship under us. – Leviticus Rabbah 4:5


6) Intergenerational Justice

Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely util­itarian way, in which efficiency and productivi­ty are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. “The environment is part of a logic of re­ceptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next”. ¶159



6A) Once, while the sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree.  Honi asked him:  “How many years will it take for this tree to give forth its fruit?”  The man answered that it would require 70 years.  Honi asked:  “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”  The man answered:  “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me.  So, too, will I plant for my children”.   Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 23a


6B) “The voice of your brother’s bloods cry out to me.”  Why plural? Because he spilled his brother’s blood and that of all possible descendants. Rashi on Genesis 4:10


7) Our Connection to the Earth

LAUDATO SI, mi SignorePraise be to you, my Lord. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she groans in travail (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. 1-2



7) We are composed of four substances: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human, the categories of created things.  In our pride we foolishly imagine that there is no kinship between us and the rest of the animal world, how much less with plants and minerals.  To eradicate this foolish notion God gave us certain precepts, some concerning minerals, others vegetable, others animal, and others human.  Above all we are bidden to be compassionate to all other human beings: “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Next in order come our relationships with the animals… for this reason, the Torah commanded us to show pity to them, to send away the mother bird.  In a descending scale come the precepts governing the plant world, since they are further removed from us.  We are forbidden to cut down fruit trees and the like.  After this comes the soil and inert matter, which is further removed but still akin to us.  Thus the land itself must be rested every seven years.  To conclude, the Torah inculcates in us a sense of our modesty and lowliness, so that we should be ever cognizant of the fact that we are of the same stuff as the ass and mule, the cabbage and the pomegranate, and even the lifeless stone. Joseph ibn Kaspi on Deuteronomy 22:6-7


8) God’s Love in Creation

Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains – everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighbourhood square – going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves. 84


8A) One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all creatures; none is by or for itself, but all things exist in continual reciprocal activity -- the one for the All; the All for the One. Third Letter of Ben Uziel, Samson Raphael Hirsch


8B) Master of the universe, grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day,among the trees and grasses, among all growing things,there to be alone and enter into prayer.There may I express all that is in my heart,talking with God to whom I belong.And may all grasses, trees, and plants awake at my coming.Send the power of their life into my prayer,making whole my heart and my speechthrough the life and spirit of growing things,made whole by their transcendent Source. O that they would enter into my prayer!Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication, and holy speech;then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your presence.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Likutey Moharan Helek I, 5:2


9) Hope

Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start. 205, 71



9) There is hope for a tree; if it is cut down it will renew itself; its shoots will not cease.  If its roots are old in the earth and its stump dies in the ground, at the scent of water it will bud and produce branches like a sapling. Job 14:7-9

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God,

You are present in the whole universe

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love,

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor,

help us to rescue the abandoned

and forgotten of this earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives,

that we may protect the world and not prey on it,

that we may sow beauty,

not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts

of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united

with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle

for justice, love and peace.

-- From the close of Laudato Si



Between the Fires


We are the generation that stands 

between the fires:

Behind us the flame and smoke

that rose from Auschwitz and from Hiroshima,

From the burning forests of the Amazon,

From the hottest years of human history

 that bring upon us

Melted ice fields, Flooded cities, Scorching droughts.

Before us the nightmare of a Flood of Fire,

The heat and smoke that could consume all Earth.


Here! we ourselves are coming

Before the great and terrible day

of  smiting Earth —

For we ourselves shall turn the hearts

Of parents to their children

And the hearts of children to their parents

So that this day of smiting

Does not fall upon us.


It is our task to make from fire not an all-consuming blaze

But the light in which we see each other fully.

All of us different, All of us bearing

One Spark.

We light these fires to see more clearly

That the Earth and all who live as part of it

Are not for burning.                                             

We light these fires to see more clearly

The rainbow in our many-colored faces.


Blessed is the One within the many.

Blessed are the many who make One.


By Rabbi Arthur Waskow, drawing on traditional midrash about the danger of a Flood of Fire, and on the passage from Malachi 3:20-24



Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

6 Months to Go: Pointing toward Paris, Assembling on Sukkot, Healing Mother Earth

Six months from right now, the official governmental representatives of the entire human race will hold a crucial international conference in Paris (from November 30 to December 11) to address the climate crisis.  The success or failure of that conference can make an enormous difference to the future of the human race and the whole web of life upon our planet. Can we prevent world-wide climate-spawned disasters? Can we turn our science and our moral wisdom toward walking, step by step, into shaping a world of shared, sustainable abundance -- eco-social justice? If past governmental behavior is any indication, the  governments will probably get stuck in Paris – unless we, the Peoples, insist on action. What we do during the next six months will decide what happens in Paris. We initiated the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis as a Jewish analogue to Pope Francis’ encyclical. As of this morning, 333 rabbis have joined in this Letter. It makes clear that ancient Jewish wisdom demands modern Jewish action. One approach we called Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP):

  • Households and congregations could decide to purchase their electric power from wind instead of coal.
  • Jewish households and groups could shift their investments from lethal fossil-fuel production into life-giving enterprises.
  • The citizenry could insist that our tax money stop subsidizing Big Oil and instead support renewable energy.
  • These actions would weaken the power of the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs that are bringing plagues upon our planet, would strengthen life-giving enterprises, and would make clear that burning the Earth is a moral abomination.

And we suggested that every Jewish community assemble public city-wide meetings this coming fall, pointing toward Paris -- to energize Jewish and multireligious responses to the climate crisis, as the crucial Paris conference comes near. In these meetings, different approaches would be discussed and people choose what they will do to insist that the US government take vigorous action in Paris, despite pressures from the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs.  The 333 rabbis drew on a remarkable passage of Torah to suggest that an auspicious time to do this will be October 4, the Sunday of Sukkot. For not only is Sukkot the most Earth-conscious of our festivals, but Torah  (Deut 31:10-12) calls on us once in every seven Sukkot festivals to Assemble the whole people to relearn together the heart of Torah. This historic teaching is in Hebrew called "Hak'heyl” (Assemble!) This very year is a ”seventh year”  --  the Sabbatical Shmita/ Year of Release when the Earth should be allowed to rest. So that means we could create Hak'heyl this coming Sukkot. The focus of this Hak’heyl should be Pointing Toward Paris. Insisting that the US government take a vigorous stand in Paris, despite whatever pressures the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs bring to bear. If you are interested in Assembling such a Hak'heyl gathering in your city this fall, please write us at We can help with program ideas, contacts with people, relevant sacred texts, scientific explanations, prayers as if the Earth really matters. The ancient call for Hak’heyl meets, in our own generation, the most urgent moment of human history. For the Torah’s timing and the crunch of history to conspire – “breathe together”--  in this way is  uncanny.  And powerful. We might even say, providential. But only if we respond.  


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Bread, Sinai, & Speaking in Tongues: Ten Notes on Celebrating Shavuot

Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks” (referring to the “super-week” of seven weeks between Passover and the holy day of late spring -- 7x7 + 1=50) comes this year from Saturday night May 23 through Monday evening May 25.

 Here are ten steps into understanding Shavuot and its Christian offshoot, Pentecost (from the Greek for “50th day”), which this year falls on Sunday, May 24, the 50th day after Easter:

1. The Torah describes a festival that celebrates the fulfillment of the spring wheat harvest by offering at the Temple two loaves of leavened bread and the First Fruits of the farmers’ work and the land’s abundance.  This ancient understanding invites us to renew our connection with the Earth as a sacred connection with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh , the Interbreath of life that connects all  life upon this planet.

2.  The text of Torah never gives any precise date for the Revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai.  The early Rabbis, bereft of the Land and strongly desiring that all future generations be able to experience the Torah in much the same way Passover made it possible for all future generations to experience the Exodus, interpreted Torah timing to make the biblical Festival of First Fruits into a festival of Torah.

Some Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah text then defined Revelation in radically open ways. Some suggested that the only expression that actually came forth at Sinai was the first letter of the Ten Utterances: an ALEPH. But the ALEPH is a “silent” letter, just an opening of the throat. So in that understanding, the deepest Truth was simply that the Universe opened its throat, wanting to speak.

3. In another view, the whole Revelation was the first word: ANOKHI,  the Hebrew for an elevated,

surpassingly awesome meaning of “I.”  (The ordinary Hebrew word for “I,” like the Latin “ego,” is “Ani.”) My own direct experience and understanding of this supernal I is here:  <>

4. In the treasury of so-called “Gnostic” ancient texts written in the Semitic language Coptic and found in our own generation hidden at Nag Hammadi in Egypt,  one was labeled  The Thunder: Perfect Mind.

Most of its 60-some verses begin with the same “ANOKHI, I” and they are almost all celebrations of a female, feminine, and paradoxically all-inclusive  understanding of God:

I [Anokhi] am the first and the last    

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

 I am she who is honored and she who is mocked

I am the whore and the holy woman    

 I am the wife and the virgin

 I am the mother and the daughter

 I am the limbs of my mother    

I am the sterile woman and she has many children

I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband

 I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth


I believe this text, like that in our officially accepted Torah, is an attempt to describe the Holy ONE Who became audible and visible in a transcendent moment at “Sinai.”  Its title evokes The Thunder that Torah says was seen, not only heard, at Sinai.  For the full text and the story of its recovery, see  <>

5. In one of the Ten Utterances that come from Sinai, the Holy Voice  insists that we not “take My Name in emptiness.” I do not think that means never to say “Oh My God!” etc. I think it means to keep fully in mind that the Name YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh is a Breath; that we should always be aware that  every breath we take is the Name of God; and that the Breathing of our Mother Earth is the Name of God. “Do not breathe empty-minded, empty-hearted!” says the Voice.

Make a Shavuot practice of following your breath as it enters your body, is carried by your blood to every limb and organ, then leaves as you breathe out the CO2 to enter a tree, a field of grass -- and there to be transmuted into oxygen and breathed out, for us to breathe in. As you breathe, let your breath carry these words: "We breathe in what the trees breathe out, the trees breathe in what we breathe out."

6. Another of the Ten Utterances tells us, “Do not carve out false gods and worship them!”

I do not think this means only that we must not carve out and worship physical statues of stone or wood or metal.

 I think it means, “Do  not carve the One Flow into pieces and worship these mere pieces of Truth. Do not make gods of race or of nation, gods of wealth and of power, gods of greed and addiction. For these ‘gods’ may seem to have ears but hear not, hands but touch not, noses but breathe not.  These idols are dead,  and those who make them and worship them will bring death on themselves.”

7. Traditionally, the Haftarah (prophetic passage) that is read on the festival of Shavuot is Ezekiel’s mystical vision of the Chariot. Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz, in A Big Jewish Book, their amazing collection of the poetic, mystical, and subversive or superversive passages of Jewish wisdom over the past 3,000 years, make their own poetic translation of this passage.

For a way of reading it intended to lift the reader closer to Ezekiel’s own ecstatic state, first see <>

and then <>

8. The early rabbis also decided that on Shavuot, we should also read the Scroll of Ruth. It celebrates the earthiness of the Torah’s understanding of Shavuot, and especially the Torah’s commitment to social justice in sharing the abundance of the Earth.  Ruth, a penniless woman from a pariah community, is treated with love, generosity, and justice.

Read the book, imagining Ruth as a penniless woman from Guatemala trying to enter the USA across the Rio Grande. How would she be treated today? How does the Bible demand she be treated?

9.  According to Christian tradition, there was a Shavuot on which Jews who were followers of the radical Rabbi Jesus --  who had been tortured to death because he organized spiritually rooted opposition to the oppressive Roman Empire  and its local puppet government -- gathered to celebrate the Revelation of Torah.

They experienced being touched by the Ruach HaKodesh – the Holy Breathing Spirit.  As if that Breath had spoken to them in every human language (as only Breath can do, since only Breathing encompasses all tongues), they found themselves able to speak in the 70 tongues of humanity.

In Christian tradition, this moment became known as Pentecost, from the Greek word for “Fiftieth Day.” From this moment they went forth to bring their vision to all peoples – sometimes by speaking words of conscience and sometimes by conquest, torture, and death..  From this moment stems all the spiritual triumphs and spiritual disasters of the Christian Church.

How do we make sure that the Holy BREATH is about speaking, not killing or torturing or conquering?

Christians have no monopoly on oppression, torture, or killing. Some Muslims, some Jews, some Buddhists (see Burma and Sri Lanka) have turned to tyranny, out of fear or privilege or fury. For a Jewish perspective on how the festival of Sinai and Torah might look upon the festival of Israeli independence, Yom HaAtzma’ut, see my essay at <>

10. Go back to experience again two lines from “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” as what the “I” of Sinai spoke to us all:

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

These lines bring us back to the “Anokhi YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh,” the first words of Torah heard at Sinai.

For if the YHWH is a Breathing,  It would indeed be what everyone can hear and no one can say.

Its letters, if we try to pronounce them, would indeed be the name of the sound and the sound of the name. A Breath.

If we hear Her in the all-night Torah-learning that the mystics bequeathed us for Shavuot, could we learn to think, to feel, to commune, to be silent in a different way?

Could we hear the Shavuot of Harvest and the Shavuot of Sinai as One:

“I am the earthy food that goes into your mouth, and I am the airy words that come forth from your mouth.”

Could The Thunder teach us that Earth and Torah are one, The One?

Could we hear the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Breath that interbreathes all tongues, all languages, all life-forms, reminding us to Hush’sh’sh’sh, to Sh’sh’sh’sh’ma – to Listen to the still “silent” Voice and cease from our oppressions of each other?

May the Shabbat and Shavuot that come at this week’s ending and next week’s beginning help us achieve these deepening of Spirit in the body!

P.S. If these ways of experiencing Shavuot appeal to you, click to <>. There you can join a Shabbat/ Shavuot retreat from this coming Friday afternoon May 22 to Monday afternoon May 25 that Rabbis Phyllis Berman, Jeff Roth, and I will be leading at a lovely retreat center between New York City and Philadelphia. Last Call – All aboard who’s getting aboard!


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

God, Earth, and Earthling: 2 eco-theologies

This past Shabbat, in the same mail–delivery to my door,  there arrived both a copy of Rabbi David Seidenberg’s magnum opus Kabbalah & Ecology (published by Cambridge University Press), and the in-print Fall 2015 issue of Tikkun magazine, includinng an article of mine  on “Prayer as if the Earth Really Matters. ”  

My article encodes into liturgy an explicitly unconventional eco-Jewish theology. It joins a series of articles in that issie of Tikkun that are a kind of anthology of eco-theologies in various traditions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and several strands of spiritually open secular thought. 

Rabbi Seidenberg's book  and my article (a distillation of much of my own eco-theology) present two new theologies, both rooted in Torah, looking at different aspects of Torah yet both reframing the relation of God to Earth and human earthlings.

David’s work, as his title announces, draws chiefly on Kabbalah and addresses its way of understanding tzelem elohim, the Image of God. He brilliantly shows that many Kabbalists extended the sense of the Image not only to the human species but to the universe as a whole and therefore all the beings within it. And he wonderfully explores the implications of this finding — intellectual, spiritual, scientific.

 My work is much more rooted in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible -- as the spiritual explorations of an indigenous people of shepherds & farmers

who are close to the land. To understand God at the heart of this, I hear— literally hear —  YHWH as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh – the Breathing/ Interbreathing Spirit of the world --  ruach ha’olam – and I hear the shmei rabbah / Great Name of the Kaddish as a Rabbinic continuation of this outlook  weaving together all the names of all beings, including galaxies and quarks, rabbis and rabbits.

So it felt utterly fitting that on the day that they arrived in my mailbox was not only Shabbat but also the 8th day of Passover, Its fervently messianic Prophetic reading – “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb; in all my holy mountain nothing vile or evil shall be done; the intimate knowing of the Breath of Life shall fill the Earth as the waters cover the sea””) gives it the name of “the Passover of the Future.".

My outlook begins with the spiritual findings, parables, and teachings rooted in one people’s experience of one sliver of a multi-ecosystem land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean,  and I midrashically extrapolate from there/then to the planet as a whole in an era when what we extract and consume from the Earth is no longer only edible food but also burnable fossil fuels.

 Whereas the Image of God that draws David comes from the first Creation story, I focus on a crucial thread of Torah starting from the second Creation story --– adam birthed from adamah, and YHWH breathing life into the newborn human species as a midwife breathes life into the newborn human individual. (“Earthling” and “Earth” are the closest we can get in English to the richness of “adam and adamah” in Hebrew.)

 From there I see a crucial thread of concern for Earth-earthling relationship that runs through Tanakh — beginning with a parable of the disaster of failed adam/ adamah relationship in Eden, and then yearning toward a series of  sacred efforts to repair the disaster: the parable of bountiful Manna that comes with restful Shabbat; the attempt to make shared bounty practical through the Sabbatical/ Shmita Year and its hope of  the Jubilee/ Homebringing Year; and ultimately the vision of the Song of Songs  --  Eden once again, this time for a grown-up race of human earthlings and our well-beloved Earth.

I am delighted that both these new Jewish theologies are emerging in response to the planetary crisis we are in. Indeed, they both point to the ways in which the world we actually live in, and the policies and practices we develop to address it, call us to re-imagine God –-  that is, to create new theologies.

I had time on this past  Shabbos/ Yontif & Maimouna to begin perusing David’s book-- which I had not been able to do in any thorough way via electrons. (My eye-brain connections still live in the 20th century.)

I’m very impressed indeed.   Extraordinary breadth of scholarship, both in Jewish texts and in ancillary readings on e.g. evolution and other related fields. And a strong thread of Akiba’s “Study is greater –--  if it leads to action.”

I was especially tickled to see David’s comments on the Great Chain of Being. (The “Great Chain of Being” is a theory of the world as a hierarchy from “inanimate objects” like rocks up to the Divine King and Lord.)

In my Tikkun article I explicitly took on the GCB thus –

It is both factually and theologically notable that this liturgical song [“We Have the Whole World in Our Hands”] transforms an older hymn in which the refrain was, “He has the whole world in His hands.”

That assertion — He is in charge of the world —  is closely related to a major traditional metaphor in most Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayer. In that metaphor,  God is King, Lord, Judge —  above and beyond the human beings who are praying.  In regard to the Earth, this metaphor crowned a series of hierarchies:

The “Great Chain of Being” is a theory of the world as a hierarchy from rocks and rivers up to vegetation, thence up to animals and then to human beings and finally up to the Divine King and Lord. 

Today we know that the relationship between the human species and the Earth is ill described by these metaphors of hierarchy.  Not only do we know that what we breathe in depends upon what the trees and grasses breathe out; now we know that within our own guts are myriads of microscopic creatures that occasionally make us sick but far more often keep us alive and healthy.

…  So  those metaphors of ordered hierarchy are no longer truthful, viable, or useful to us as tools of spiritual enlightenment.

If we are to seek spiritual depth and height, the whole framework of prayer must be transformed.

I hope that many of us will read both David’s book and the whole issue of Tikkun. My own essay is also at  --

 <>. And the Introduction to David’s book is posted at <>, together with instructions on how to order it..

 From our different perspectives, David and I are both especially interested in efforts to synthesize ancient wisdom with post-modern science. 

 For him, the question is how Kabbalah and modern Science (especially an ecological-scientific frame of mind) may track each other.

 From my different focus on the Tanakh, I am interested in –

  • connecting the warnings of Lev 26 with modern ecological predictions;
  • connecting YHWH as  Interbreath of Life with the Oxygen/CO2 interchange so that the “climate crisis” – resulting from a catastrophic overdose of CO2 --  can be seen as a crisis in “YHWH” Itself – a crisis in God’s Name;
  • seeing paragraph 2 of the Sh’ma as a  proto-scientific statement about the relationship between idolatry (“carving out” only a part of the Breath/Flow/ Great Name to worship as ultimate) and eco-catastrophes;
  • seeing Pharaoh, enslavement,  and the Plagues as a teaching affirmed by modern political/ economic science that top-down arrogant power oppresses both human beings and the Earth, requiring struggle for eco-social  justice. (So for me, eco-theology flows smoothly into political activism.)

In short, I bring “social science” and “political science" and biological/ climatological/ ecological science into relationship with the early “science” of shepherds and farmers observing their own relationship with the Earth, making systemic theory from their observations  --- and treating that relationship itself as sacred and our understanding of that relationship as Torah.

I take great joy in the simultaneous emergence of two eco-theologies – one that begins with the Image of God in the first Creation story, and another that begins with the Earth/ earthling relationship in the second Creation story. (David’s work does not ignore the second story, but his focus on the Image and on Kabbalah draw him in a different direction.)

May we be able to weave the two stories together as does our earliest Torah!



Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 


Moving America from Carbon Pharaohs to Democracy,
From Burning Mother Earth to Healing Her,
From Worshipping False Gods
To Celebrating the Holy One Who Breathes All Life.


We face today a crisis in human and planetary history that our religious traditions presage and prophesy.

We who are believers and seekers in the ethical, religious, and spiritual traditions that teach us to love and heal the Earth, will gather at Damrosch Park near the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City on the afternoon of Sunday, March 22,  a week before Palm Sunday and Passover and in their spirit, to challenge the Carbon Pharaohs and Caesars of our day  — specifically the Brothers Koch.

 For our traditions are rooted in moments like the present crisis: moments when Pharaohs and Caesars, heading institutions of enormous power and overweening arrogance, overwhelmed and oppressed human communities and brought Plagues upon the Earth.

The story of Pharaoh points not only to ending oppression but going beyond it: to the necessity and possibility of Transformation. A subjugated community was able to look beyond its own oppression to the Holy One, Who beckons to us all to free ourselves and heal our endangered Mother Earth.

That story tells how the God of New Beginnings told the Israelites to bake unleavened bread – - Matzah — because there was no time for the bread to rise before they must set out upon their journey of rebirth. Today as well, we experience what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of Now.”

The ancient Jewish people encoded that story into the festival of Passover, when millions gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the dissolving of oppressive power long before..

And the storied festival inspired a band of Jews committed to freedom and transformation, spiritual, political, and ecological, to gather to challenge a much later Empire   — Rome. Led by Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrators gathered, bearing Palm branches,  in the local capital of the Roman Empire, the city of Jerusalem, for the solemn challenge that Christians today call Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.

The gospel of Luke describes how defenders of the status quo challenged Jesus to make his followers be silent – – for evidently they had been singing and chanting as they marched through the city. Jesus responded, “If we were to be silent, the very stones would speak!”

Today the very stones are speaking. Coral reefs are moaning as they die, ice fields are groaning as they melt, mountains are wailing as they are destroyed to mine more coal, shale rock is shrieking as it is pummeled to harvest unnatural gas.

And suffering human communities have also begun to speak: those who have lost their food to famine, their homes to superstorms, their  cities and countries to the rising seas. We join with them all, raising our own voices in song, in chant, and in prayer, to dissolve the autocratic power of the Carbon Pharaohs and to shape both a renewed democracy and a community that can embrace all life.

We choose the Brothers Koch as exemplars of the Carbon Pharaohs because they not only have made billions from the business of burning the planet – but have also devoted their billions to corrupting the political process so as to prevent any democratic action to heal and renew the sacred web of life

We call on them to repent by ending —-

  • their consistent support for the hyper-wealthy few against the struggling many;
  • their enmity to labor unions and worker’s rights;
  • their hostility to absorbing new immigrants into the immigration-woven fabric of America;
  • their support for racist and anti-democratic barriers against the voting rights of Blacks, Hispanics, the poor, the young, and the old;
  • their support of subsidies for instead of carbon taxes upon Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Unnatural Gas;
  • and their  hostility toward the life-giving energies of wind and sun.

We call on them to repent by withdrawing their billions from the election process and from lobbying elected officials, by calling for the reenactment of strong controls over the use of money in politics, and by moving their billions into independent foundations committed to support grass-roots enterprises for renewable energy: solar and wind.

And whether the Kochs repent or not, we call upon the American public to take vigorous action to renew our democracy; to act against the Disease of Domination that seeks to subjugate Blacks, immigrants, women, the poor, and the Earth; to move toward much greater equality of wealth and income; to Move Our Money (in our purchases, our banking, our investing, and our tax-money subsidies) from supporting deadly fossil fuels to supporting green jobs, green energy, green growth; to demand a carbon fee-and-dividend system; and to insist that our government take a far more vigorous stand in the coming Paris Climate Conference for binding international agreements to swiftly and radically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and methane.

We call upon the wisdom of Passover and Palm Sunday to empower us all to bring new life and a decent future to our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our planet, and our spiritual lives.

We welcome all who wish to join with us in this prayerful, nonviolent action. Please let us know by noting your name and email in the Comments section below.

 A short video (3 minutes) draws from the Interfaith Prayer Service in the Spirit of Passover and Palm Sunday: We Challenge the Carbon Pharaohs of Our Generation and We Seek to Create the Beloved Community, An Earth of Promise.   The event took place on March 22, 2015 in New York City.
The service and action were shaped by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and many others.  Read the call to action here. 
Thanks to Herb Perr for producing the video.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Tree of Life or Pyramid of Deadly Domination?

Circling round a redwood
Image icon Circling round a redwood14.61 KB
Image icon Logged forest13.57 KB
Image icon Almond blossoms14.58 KB

Last night I took part in a joyful Seder to celebrate the midwinter Full Moon – the festival Jews call Tu B’Shvat.  The meal of this Seder celebrates the offspring of trees – fruits and nuts. It is the only sacred meal that requires the death of no living being – not even a carrot or a radish yanked up from the Earth. It is for one night the food of Eden, or of the Messianic Age.

Long ago, that midwinter Full Moon heralded the earliest flowering of trees in the Land of Israel  — the almond tree (called in Hebrew “shakeid, early awakening.”) In that way, it was analogous to the pagan tradition of celebrating the first hints of spring. [For photos pf the almond blossoms, a forest shattered by logging, and a joyful redwood circle, see our attached graphics.]

Indeed, in Celtic pagan/ earth-oriented religious tradition, February 1 was /is the cross-quarter festival of Imbolc. It represents the first stirrings of spring, often celebrating the lactation of ewes, presaging the birth of lambs.

In an analogous way, Tu B’shvat comes four weeks before the next Full Moon, when we laugh our way into the hilarious spring-fever festival of Purim, and eight weeks before the next Full Moon, the lamb-barley-liberation festival of Pesach/Passover.

The ancient Rabbis named this day of flowering almonds as the day for counting how much to tithe from the last year’s fruit – that is, when wealthy tree-keepers were required to give a tenth of their fruit to feed the poor who had no trees. In this way the Rabbis turned a moment of earthy celebration into a commitment to social justice.  With the destruction of the Temple and its tithing, with the loss of the trees of biblical peoplehood, even that aspect of Tu B’Shvat vanished.

Similarly, the Rabbis turned the dark-of-the-year Festival of Light into a memory of either Maccabeean victory or a Temple miracle. They turned Shavuot from a celebration of the spring wheat harvest into a memory of Revelation at Sinai.

Indeed, bereft of a land to revel in and of the political power to shape a land policy, the Rabbis turned their attention from God-offerings of food from the land to God-offerings of words of prayer and Torah. Away from making sure the land could rest each seventh year to shaping a decent Jewish community and social justice.

The earthiness of Jewish festivals was still being ignored by official Judaism when my book Seasons of Our Joy was published in 1982, honoring the earthy roots of all our festivals. The first review in a Jewish magazine condemned it as a pagan distortion of Judaism. It was the folk wisdom, yearning for connections to the Earth, that made Seasons into a classic.

One generation later, even the glacial flow of social change in Established Jewish circles has come to celebrate, not denigrate, this surviving sign of the spirituality of a  once-indigenous people. Almost certainly, this change is connected with the growing sense of an urgent and enormous crisis in the relationship between adam and adamah – human earthlings and our Mother Earth.

The change has not yet gone far enough. Those same circles still have not lifted into full consciousness the danger that the climate crisis poses to human life as well as other-than-human life-forms. It is still hard for them to take the healing of our deeply wounded Earth as their highest priority. Bringing about that change should be high on the agenda of every Jew and every Eco-Jewish group. For The Shalom Center, it is.

Meanwhile, about 400 years ago, Jewish mystics revived Tu B’Shvat by making biological trees into a metaphor for the spiritual Tree of Life in which all life on Earth is interwoven into ONE. Now that this Tree of Life is in mortal danger, what the Kabbalists did offers us a path toward making the day into a time of commitment to heal this wounded Tree.

Not just today: the eight weeks from now till Passover, and of course beyond.

Why and how are we facing this danger?

Trees have a lot to do with it. The climate crisis arises out of a brutal attack on the interbreathing of Oxygen and CO2 between vegetation – especially trees – and animals. That interchange has for millions of years kept Earth’s climate in a balance hospitable to the evolution of the human species and human history.
♣    The interchange has been deeply damaged in the last 200 years, and especially the last 50, in two ways: Deforestation of huge parts of earth, diminishing the biological production of Oxygen;  [See attached photo of shattered forest.]
♣    And the huge increase in the production of CO2 by one animal – Homo not-so-sapiens – through the burning of fossil fuels.

The worsening imbalance is what is forcing the Earth into global scorching and the climate crisis.

The mystics who recreated Tu B’Shvat created its four-course, four-cups Seder as a midrashic riff on the Seder of Passover. If Passover is about facing, defeating, and dissolving the deadly power of Pharaoh, Tu B’Shvat is about creating the alternative, a  miniature Beloved Community devoted to life.

Think of it this way: If we intend to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet, we need to take seriously where we are moving our money to, as well as where we are moving it from.

Tu B’Shvat and its life-filled Seder is a beckoning to start thinking about a new society. Eight weeks from now, we will confront the truth that we cannot actually move into the Beloved Community — the joy of Shabbat, the abundance of manna, the new eco-social community of Sinai, the year-long restfulness of Shmita, the Promised Land, the grownup Garden of the Song of Songs — until we have dissolved into the Sea of Rebirth the top-down tyranny of Pharaoh.  

Now is the time to imagine  —   not alone, but consulting with each other. To plan:

  • Neighborhoods, cities, states, an entire nation  committed to massive tree-planting;
  • Neighborhood coops to produce solar energy  like the successful food coops we already know;
  • Congregations that insist on buying their electric power from eco-kosher sources like wind and sun rather than from burning coal, and urge their congregants to do the same.  

And we need to start imagining and planning spiritually rooted public action of many sorts – election campaigns, lobbying, moving our money from deadly to life-giving uses, marches, vigils, civil resistance, risking arrest.  All the ways we could be resisting the corporate Pharaohs and Caesars that insist on uprooting great forests and burning fossil fuels.

But on this Tu B’Shvat, few and far between are the communities ready to take action as serious as what the Redwood Rabbis and The Shalom Center did in 1997.

Yet  fuller involvement of the US religious communities in the climate struggle is as crucial to making transformation happen as their/ our involvement in the struggle against racism was 50 years ago

Tu B’Shvat is eight weeks from Passover and from the onset of Holy Week in Christian life.  As we approach Palm Sunday & Passover, that time is when  most US religious communities are most focused on our religious teachings & practices and most responsive to religious  action. It therefore invites the strongest possible expression of religious concern, symbolism, tradition for preventing climate disaster

What is more, the power of this oncoming season comes from its content: For both Judaism and Christianity, it is about resistance to top-down, arrogant, pyramidal Power—Pharaoh and Caesar —  that turns human beings into slaves and brings Plagues upon the Earth.

Pyramid or Globe?  Pyramid or Tree? Top-down arrogance or the loving circles of life intertwined?
[See attached photo of joyful circling round a redwood.]
If we lift the Palm Branches of life, the Matzah of urgency, the Globe of Earth’s community  —  we are challenging the Carbon Pharaohs.  We must raise the issue of power — “the issue behind the issues” — in ways that draw on the Jewish & Christian wisdom about confronting top-down power  — and thus to encourage religious communities to keep addressing that question.

The Shalom Center is raising those issues, organizing toward events that will uproot the Pharaohs and Caesars of today and plant the seeds of new community. To do this we need your help. Please click on the Donate button to your left.



Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

When Rabbis Helped Save the Redwoods: Tu B'Shvat 1997

[The article that follows was written by Seth Zuckerman for Sierra magazine.]

It was a ritual at once traditional and radical that drew 250 people to an ancient redwood grove ten miles from Northern California’s Headwaters Forest on a stormy January day in 1997. Between rain squalls they were celebrating Tu B’shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. But this ceremony was not just about spiritual connection with the plant kingdom, and included more than the usual ritual meal of fruits, nuts, and wine. The forestry chair of the local Sierra Club chapter gave an overview of the threat posed to the old-growth redwood forests by the Houston-based Maxxam Corporation. Another worshipper chanted the haunting Kaddish, or mourner’s prayer, in memory of creatures displaced or killed by logging.

Most radical of all, the ceremony set the stage for an act of civil disobedience: the planting of redwood seedlings on an eroding stream bank on Maxxam property to symbolize hope for the restoration of land already clearcut and creeks stripped of their tree cover. Maxxam had refused permission to plant, but the worshippers vowed they would break the law and trespass, seedlings and shovels in hand.

The religious action was part of a larger campaign to invoke Jewish traditions in defense of Headwaters Forest, the largest tract of unprotected ancient redwoods in the world, acquired by Maxxam in a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber Company in 1986. Because Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz is a leading member of Houston’s Jewish community, organizers have been seeking to appeal to him by contrasting his actions with Jewish teaching. They’re also working to build a strong Jewish constituency for the protection of old-growth redwoods and other ecosystems, a campaign that’s part of a nationwide interfaith effort to apply spiritual principles in environmental battles.

Such applications are hardly new-the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, prohibited the Israelites from destroying the fruit trees of cities they besieged. Activists tapped this tradition in 1995 by sending a letter to Hurwitz just before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when observant Jews reflect on their actions of the preceding year. A small congregation in northwestern California, B’nai Ha-Aretz (Children of the Earth), wrote to Maxxam’s CEO urging him to repent his destruction of the forest. The lead author, student rabbi Naomi Steinberg, explains: “Repentance isn’t a private, ascetic process. Judaism is a very communal religion, and part of our duty as Jews is to help each other to repent.”

The invocation of Jewish values may have touched a nerve at the top of Maxxam. At an interfaith press conference on Headwaters in the spring of 1996 in nearby Eureka, Rabbi Lester Scharnberg wondered aloud whether “perhaps Mr. Hurwitz has forgotten the faith of his ancestors.” Scharnberg’s remarks, carried on the wire services and picked up by the Houston press, drew a stinging phone call from Hurwitz’s rabbi, Samuel Karff, who disputed whether this member of his congregation deserved rebuke. Karff defended Hurwitz as a charitable man; the Hurwitz family has donated heavily to Karff’s Temple Beth Israel, and the synagogue’s school is housed in the Hurwitz Building. Despite their disagreement, Karff arranged for Scharnberg to speak with Hurwitz directly.

In the 45-minute conversation that ensued, Hurwitz was taken aback to find a rabbi on the other side of the Headwaters battle, recalls Scharnberg. “He didn’t know me, but he has an image of what a rabbi is,” Scharnberg says, “and he expressed surprise that I was aligned with ‘conga drums, dreadlocks, tie-dye, and hippie radicals who threaten to kill, maim,’ and so forth. I said, ‘I’m not aligning myself with people who kill, but I am an environmentalist.’ “

Scharnberg didn’t have an opportunity to confront Hurwitz again until the May 1998 Maxxam stockholders meeting, armed with a proxy signed over to him by another Headwaters activist. Christian and secular speakers addressed issues of science, economics, and corporate responsibility, and left religion up to Scharnberg. That was probably a wise call given that the roster of Maxxam’s officers and board members has a substantial Jewish representation.

Scharnberg asked the board if Maxxam had considered moral questions in the course of its operations, and if not, how the firm could hope to act ethically. The very question provoked a firestorm of response that continued after the 90-minute official meeting. “The directors of Maxxam were outraged that we should introduce religion into this board meeting,” Scharnberg says. In fact, when the rabbi tried to talk with Hurwitz afterward, the CEO directed him to board member Ezra Levin, who began debating Scharnberg in a conversation peppered with Hebrew and Aramaic. “I finally said, ‘You and I could go on all day like this. You quote your Talmud passage and I quote mine. Both of us know there’s no environmental mandate there. But nowhere in the entire Torah does it forbid rape, and that doesn’t make it right. There’s nothing in there that forbids slavery, and that doesn’t make it right either.’ “

Hurwitz, Levin, and Scharnberg left the Houston hotel in a theological stalemate, but the case is being pressed in many other forums. Last summer, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life—which claims such prominent member groups as Hadassah, Hillel, B’nai Brith, and the American Jewish Congress—called for stronger habitat protections in Headwaters and in all remaining old-growth redwood groves. Several other major Jewish organizations have adopted or are considering similar resolutions. And on Hurwitz’s home turf, a group of Houston Jews rented the Jewish Community Center for another ecologically oriented Tu B’shevat. Maxxam reps called officials at the center alleging that the ritual would be “political” and that “activists would be stapling themselves to trees,” says organizer Annette Lamoreaux. But the event went on without incident.

Back in the redwoods in January 1997, a caravan of 100 worshippers—some wearing talliths, or fringed prayer shawls, as Jews have for thousands of years—hiked onto the timber firm’s property and planted two dozen redwood seedlings along a barren stream bank. Some used shovels, some trowels, some their bare hands. Longtime Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney described it as a miracle. “At a place where demonstrators before have been met with billy clubs, nightsticks, and arrests, we are now walking freely,” he said. “It reminds me of the parting of the Red Sea.”

Nearly two years have passed and student rabbi Steinberg—who lives just a few miles away—hasn’t revisited the site. “I’d rather remember the trees beautifully planted than to see that Pacific Lumber has pulled them up or that the whole bank has fallen away,” she says.

At presstime, the fate of Headwaters Forest was hinging on Governor Pete Wilson’s approval of controversial plans for Maxxam to sell 9,500 acres of key old growth to the public while agreeing not to log ten other old-growth groves for the next 50 years. Maxxam stands to gain $480 million from the sale and would be allowed to log on most of its remaining 200,000 acres. The proposed safeguards for coho salmon in this huge remaining tract, though improved over earlier drafts, are still inadequate, says the Sierra Club.

Steinberg reminds activists to look at the big picture. “If you approach a campaign like this as spiritual work, the moments along the way can be transformative to you as an individual soul.” It’s that transformation of souls that will determine whether “the forest trees shout for joy,” as the Psalmist sang.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Is Murder a “Sacred Practice" in ALL Religions?

The murderous attacks in France last week have called forth a mixture of horror, outrage, disgust, and fear – – all legitimate responses.

One response has been to claim that Islam is – uniquely — a religion of violence, terror, and war. Another has been to claim that the perpetrators of these murders, though they claimed they were acting for the honor of God and of Islam, were acting falsely, betraying the Islam that is entirely a religion of peace.

Both these responses evade the truth.

First of all, within Islamic teachings there are both passages of nurture and streaks of blood.

Some Muslims can authentically quote some bloody words to justify shedding the blood of other-belief believers   — especially those who drip contempt on Islam itself — just as other Muslims – by far the great majority — can quote passages that forbid such behavior.

Secondly, Islam is by no means unique among religions – and atheist societies, too — in having some adherents claim that violence, even aggressive violence not in self-defense, is taught by their sacred texts as in some circumstances a sacred practice.

Some Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs have either called on their sacred teachings or acted as religious communities, invoking communal solidarity, to justify killing “Others,” while other Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs have called on their sacred wisdom to forbid it.

(“Buddhists?? ” you say. “Come on!”  Well, check out what is going on this very moment in Burma, where some groups among a Buddhist majority, with the acquiescence or assistance of a government made up of Buddhists, are carrying on massive pogroms against a Muslim minority.)

It is hard to find a major religion or secular ideology that has not been used by some of its adherents to justify violence against others.

Some atheists have used this fact to accuse religion itself of being the root of violence. But the blood-drenched history of the atheist government of the Soviet Union, drawing on what it saw as “sacred” teachings of Lenin and others about the need to “defend the revolution,” hardly supports that claim. Nor does the blood-drenched history of the non-religious government of the United States, proclaiming the “defense of democracy” as justification for wars against Vietnam, Iraq, and a number of Central American countries.

Why are there streaks of both blood and love in the histories of religious communities?

Most such communities begin with the deep discovery of the One that unites all life, whether that Unity is called “God ” or not. To celebrate that Unity, the community develops practices of compassion and justice, enriched by rituals, text, festivals, and other ways of keeping the knowledge of the One alive into future generations.

Then the community meets another community that claims to be in touch with the One. But this other community has developed different texts, different rituals and festivals and practices, to affirm the One.

There are two different ways of responding to this encounter.

One way is to say that the other community has it all wrong, because “we” know the right texts, festivals, and rituals to invoke the One. Not only are “they” wrong, they are lying when they claim to be in touch with the One. So they must be denigrated, attacked, even killed.

The other religious response is to say with delight that now we’ve learned how infinite is the One, how the Infinite One can only be expressed through many different forms. Through this response, the religious community finds itself drawn toward broadening its arena of compassion.

In most religious communities, both responses emerge again and again and again during generations of encounter with other communities.

We must also take into account that even in communities where the expansive and compassionate response to Otherness has won the day, some specific circumstances can lead to rage and violence. For religious leaders and communities are not immune to rage and violence when their beliefs and symbols are desecrated and they are humiliated.

Thought experiment: Imagine Christian “satirists” in a country with an isolated, low-income Jewish minority putting on a play that includes pouring sewage and pig-offal on a Torah Scroll.

How would various Jews react? Might some demand laws to forbid such versions of  “free speech”? Might some use violence?

In fact, many European countries — remembering how the Holocaust began with such acts of “free speech” (and drawing on a different approach to freedom of expression than the US First Amendment) now forbid certain versions of free speech when used against one or another religion  — such as Holocuast denial. Was Charlie Hebdo immune to these laws because it poured contempt on ALL religions, not just one? 

And then some reasons for the use of violence by some who claim to be acting on behalf of a religious community might not be called “religious” in origin but emerge from the economic, political, or cultural marginalization of a religious community. Religious communities that are kept in poverty or denied a share in shaping the future of their country or even their own community are not immune to feeling rage and using violence.

Does any of this justify violence? No. Does any of it justify the murders of Charlie’s writers and cartoonists or of the Jewish customers at a kosher grocery store?? NO.  Does any of it justify arson attacks on mosques or the criminalization of wearing the hijab? NO.

But these thoughts might point us in the direction of better ways of dealing with outbursts of religious violence. I pose six questions toward that possibility:

Question 1: Even where it is legal to pour contempt on one religion or on them all, is it wise? Is it compassionate?  Should society applaud and encourage such vitriol, or oppose it?

Question 2: In every religious and ideological community, should its leaders be explicitly celebrating the Infinitude of the One, and thus Its manifestations in many different forms – rather than attacking difference as evidence of apostasy and heresy and falsity?

Question 3: Should those who are powerful in every society be acting to ensure that no community – religious, racial, sexual, lingual – be excluded from economic justice, cultural dignity, and political empowerment?

Question 4: Should the same rule be applied internationally and globally, so that no nation, however much a Great Power, can trample on another?

Question 5: Does all this point us in the direction of elevating the principle and practice of nonviolence into a more and more central precept of all religions and ideologies?

Question 6: Should leaders and teachers of varied religions meet once a year to face the bloody streaks of text and action in their own tradition, to publicly make restitution, and to ask forgiveness?

If we answer Yes to this last question and actually make such gatherings happen, we could begin the work that will unfold itself into answering all the questions before.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 


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