Reb Arthur's Latest Thoughts

Birth of a New Year

2014 has seen a number of political and spiritual disasters: for example, the Gaza War; the election of the most anti-democratic, anti-Earth US Congress in at least the last century and possibly since the pro-slavery Congresses of the 1850s. Why did these things happen? One powerful answer came even before 2014 from Gloria Steinem:

In the fall of 2013, as Gloria Steinem approached her 80th birthday, The Shalom Center not only celebrated her lifetime of transformative activism, but sought to learn from her (and from me), “What does 80 look like for a life-long activist?”

What I recall most vividly from that whole amazing evening was this:

Gloria drew on her long experience as a feminist to remark that American society stands in the same place as a household when a long-abused wife at last decides to walk out.

“That is,” she said, “the moment of greatest potential freedom—and of greatest potential coercion.  Enraged by the wife’s bid for freedom, many abusive husbands at that moment  turn to violence.”

Indeed, in 2014 we lived through both the bubbling-up of new freedom and the danger of greater coercion:

 In 2014, for the first time, 400,000 people flooded New York  to demand “Climate Action Now,” against the Carbon Pharaohs that are abusing Earth itself with modern Plagues. Among the marchers were members of many Jewish organizations that were for the first time speaking out on climate as a Jewish issue.

And in 2014 we saw with fuller clarity how the Earth itself, abused by these Carbon Pharaohs, has rebelled through droughts and floods and superstorms.

And in 2014, we watched as some of the Pharaohs, like the biblical archetype, responded with still more abuse: The burning of oil has resulted in global scorching, the melting of arctic ice, and the beginnings of disaster for all seacoasts. So some oil companies have responded not by changing course but by seeking permits to drill for still more oil to burn, in the very Arctic regions where the melting of the ice has made oil-drilling easier. And oil companies spnt millions to buy a new Congress from he 2014 elections

In 2014, for the first time, social media made possible the bubbling up of a national movement protesting the long-standing abusive practice of police violence against unarmed young Black men. Jews who joined in the movement lit Hanukkah candles in public places like Philadelphia’s 30th Street Amtrak Station. Rabbis were arrested in demonstrations against racism, for the first time since the ‘60s.

In 2014, the attempt of Hillel International to limit the free expression under local Hillel auspices of views about the State of Israel and Zionism –- an abusive imposition made much worse by the far more abusive Gaza War — brought forth a wave of “Open Hillel” resistance, and a national conference of Open Hillel people.

Similarly, efforts by various “official” American Jewish organizations to quash criticisms of Israeli government policies or of the directions Zionism has taken or even the presentation of critical plays written by Israeli playwrights have resulted in still more outspoken resistance.

Other “abused wives” – marginalized and oppressed communities — have also walked out of the abusive structures built by official American society.

What next –- more freedom, or more coercion?

Let us enter 2015 with clarity about the choice, and with conviction to create more freedom and more justice in every sphere where abuse has become habitual.

And as the old year ends, I hope you will follow the example of Rabbi Leonard Beerman and increase your own contribution to The Shalom Center, to help us continue and increase our work to help the abused communities of America and Earth win more freedom, more justice, fuller healing. To do so, please click on the Donate banner in the left-hand column of this page.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Black Lives Matter, Green Lives Matter, ALL Lives Matter

Multiracial Menorah by Zoe Cohen. See her work on
First, some thoughts about the title of this article: The phrase “Black Lives Matter” was coined by Black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Some activists have warned that the meme “All Lives Matter” might defuse the intensity and importance of recognizing the  continuing (and in some ways worsening) racism in US  economic, cultural, and political systems. If “All” is used to replace “Black,” it might indeed help people pretend that racism is no longer an issue. But where both “Black” AND “All” are used (and “Green” besides), I think that says two things: Racism remains rampant in the structures of our country, and other aspects, forms, and targets of the Disease of Domination are also worsening.

From the beginning of our reporting on and encouragement of the resistance to one specific aspect of racism that arose out of Ferguson, The Shalom Center has connected the issue of racist police violence with the broader issues of mass incarceration; torture; and political disfranchisement of the poor, old, young, Black, & Hispanic (all heavily intertwined with racism);  along with hyper-enfranchising of the ultra-rich and the burning of the Earth (which have racist results but go beyond race in  attacking their victims). — We have pointed out that the “Pharaohs” of our social system are behind them  all — that the key issue of domineering, unaccountable power is behind and beneath all the issues.

The burning of the Earth has actually —through Superstorms, floods, droughts, and famines — killed many more Black and brown people than police have.  And not just in absolute numbers:  the burning has far disproportionately killed and damaged those communities. The truthful equation is: Racism x CO2 = Mass death.
Yet it is also true, and crucial to realize, that the same structures of power that impose racist oppression also oppress not only “white” human beings but many other life-forms on our planet — all of them sacred and valuable in themselves and crucial to the health and life of the whole human species.

For millennia — ever since Jews took as central to Jewish identity the story of how a band of runaway slaves toppled Pharaoh’s power and built a new community — the great thrust of Jewish thought and action has been to resist the Disease of Domination.
Sometimes it comes from beyond the Jewish people –— like the Babylonian, Syrian-Hellenist, Roman, Inquisitorial, Tsarist, Stalinist, and Nazi empires; like the racism rampant in American society during and since slavery; like the world-destroying Carbon Pharaohs of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Unnatural Gas.
Sometimes the Disease of Domination has arisen within the Jewish people – but those outbreaks of Domination Disease have been confronted by Jews who were and are committed to the Prophetic vision of justice, peace, and a rhythm of rest for humanity and the Earth. That began with the ancient Prophets who confronted Jewish kings, and it has persisted to Jews in our own generation who have opposed the Occupation  by the Government of Israel over Palestine beyond the 1967 Green Line.

So it is not surprising –-  and it is inspiring –-  that in America today, Jewish outrage over the epidemic of police killing of unarmed Black civilians has sparked new lights for Hanukkah. In many cities, Jews will be gathering at some public place on the last night of Hanukkah –— this coming Tuesday evening, December 23 –— carrying Hanukkiot (the nine-candled Hanukkah Menorahs) to affirm that Black lives matter. The powerful image of a multiracial menorah is by Zoe Cohen. Her work can be seen at

My own Jewish life began in 1969 with my writing the Freedom Seder, an expression of Passover that reached beyiond Jewish liberation to call as well for the liberation of Black Americans and other oppressed peoples from their modern Pharaohs. So I am delighted by “Freedom Hanukkah,” and The Shalom Center strongly supports these efforts.

We support them both for the sake of justice throughout America, and for the sake of enlivening a new Jewish community that sees our festivals both as expressions of the seasons of the Earth and and as spiritual frameworks for political activism.

The upsurge of new grass-roots Black leadership responding to the police violence in Ferguson and Staten Island has posed demands that go beyond police violence. These demands include ending racism in the mass incarceration of Black men, in the devastation and defunding of public schools that serve Black communities, in the economic injustice that destroys Black families even more violently than white families.

We see these post-Ferguson demands for broad and basic change — uprooting racism — as an expression of the ancient impulse to oppose the Domination Disease. And we see opposition to the Global Scorching that threatens the whole web of life upon our planet as another expression of that impulse.

Indeed, at The Shalom Center we take special note of the pattern in which these two “separate” forms of Domination flow together in an even more repressive way. It is Black, Hispanic, and Native communities as well as poverty-stricken white farmers desperate to sell anything, even their own drinking water, that suffer the most from the Plagues brought on us by the Carbon Pharaohs. Asthma, homes destroyed in superstorms, famine arising from prolonged droughts – all these wound worst the most vulnerable.

Poisoning and burning Mother Earth is intertwined with poisoning and oppressing human beings.

So to say that Black Lives Matter is also to say that Green Lives Matter – for their own sake and because the Green Faces of God breathe out what we humans need to breathe in. Without those Green Faces, no animals, no humans, could live. It is to say that All Lives Matter, and that Domination is deadly and disastrous. It is to look behind and beneath specific issues — even the horrors of racism, even the deadly climate crisis — to see the issue behind them and beneath them — unchecked, unaccountable, irresponsible, deadly Domination. Pharaoh. Caesar.

Long ago, the Torah itself, then the Prophet Zechariah, and still later, medieval Jewish artistry all saw the Temple Menorah as a living, breathing Tree of Life.
We — human beings who are committed to create Community and resist Domination —  WE are the light-bearing Menorah of every generation.  Our lights are kept lit by the Breath that breathes all life.

We at The Shalom Center are continuing to keep these lights well lit, and we ask your help to do that. We ask us all to join with each other, including us on The Shalom Center’s Board and staff, in the Green Menorah Covenant to grow from the grass-roots new communities of life, resisting Domination.

On the left is a “Donate” button through which you can strengthen our work, make the Hanukkah vision real, and join in the Green Menorah Covenant.  


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Amer Jewish Committee Declares War on Sioux Nation -- and the Rest of Us

Sioux Nation leading People's Climate March, Sept 21, 2014, NYC

On November 17, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota Oyate) called the U.S. House of Representatives’ November 14 vote for the Keystone XL pipeline an “act of war,” and vowed to block the project from crossing its lands.
“The House has now signed our death warrants and the death warrants of our children and grandchildren. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe will not allow this pipeline through our lands,” said Rosebud Sioux President Cyril Scott. “Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.”
On November 18, the US Senate refused to
pass a bill that would have compelled construction of the KXL Pipeline.
On November 19, the American Jewish Committee urged the Obama Administration to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. The AJC said that the pipeline is “critically important for U.S. energy security… “

What is this “energy security”?  For at least a decade, it has been the reason the AJC gave for supporting extreme extraction of fossil fuels: coal from smashing West Virginia mountains, oil from piercing the heart of the Gulf waters, unnatural gas from fracking Pennsylvania shale, Tar Sands from Canada – the dirtiest highest-carbon version of fossil fuel.
The AJC has cared nothing for the “security” of the Sioux nation through which the KXL Pipeline is intended to go. Nor for the “security” of Black neighborhoods clouded by a coal-dust epidemic of asthma. Nor for the “security” of oil-drillers aboard deep-ocean-penetrating oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, nor for the “security” of its fisher-folk and the abundance of the Gulf.
What “energy security” means to the AJC is that the US should use any energy at all from anywhere in North America – so as to avoid using oil from any Arab state or Iran. And all this is intended to protect Israel from the possibility that US policy in the Middle East might be affected by a US desire to please Saudi Arabia or any other oil-rich Arab or Muslim country.
But the AJC policy does not just ignore the security interests of the Sioux Nation, Black neighborhoods, and Gulf fisher-folk. Its policy attacks the future of our planet, because it supports the emission of more and more Carbon Dioxide into our global atmosphere. It puts a chokehold on Mother Earth – out of an addiction to Domination Disease, the same disease that put a chokehold on Eric Garner, killed him, and then concluded that this killing had no criminal implications.
That means the AJC urgency to burn Tar Sands worsens the death threat to those who will be as vulnerable in the future as those who in our recent past have been suffering from the unprecedented droughts in California,  Australia, and Russia. It worsens the death threats to those who will be as vulnerable in the future as those who in our recent past have died from Superstorms in the Philippines, New Orleans, the New Jersey shore.
And – irony of ironies – the AJC’s support for burning fossil fuels threatens the future of the State of Israel. Already, Israeli scientists have warned that the worsening of CO2 global-scorching effects will in the next 50 years enormously expand the Israeli Negev desert, and that the predictable ocean rises will put parts of Tel Aviv under water.

That is an existential threat to the State of Israel.

So the AJC’s policy actually is a Declaration of War not only against large areas of the USA and many other regions, but against the Israel that the AJC policy was invented to protect.
Let’s be clear about one thing. I was taught by my own teacher of US history  — Howard K. Beale at the University of Wisconsin, a fine historian as well as a fine teacher –never to claim to be “neutral” when we wrote history. Each of us, he taught, comes with a bias. The only honest way to deal with it is to reveal it.
So let’s indeed be clear – The Shalom Center’s understanding of Torah and of the consensus of the world’s scientists has for more than a decade guided us into strong urgency for shifting our economy, our society, our culture out of the Carbon-Burning Era of human and planetary history. Away from obeisance to the Pharaohs and false gods of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Unnatural Gas. Toward, instead, a society and culture rooted in knowing when Enough really is Enough, one rooted in renewable and sustainable and communally controllable sources of energy.  We have skin – and breath and bone – in this “game.”
Indeed, the deepest teachings of  Torah arise from the wisdom of an indigenous people  — shepherds and farmers who felt, saw, touched God through their relationship with grass and trees and sheep and soil and sun. We should be allies with the indigenous Sioux Nation — not enemies.

And since our beginning, The Shalom Center has cared about encouraging a State of Israel that takes seriously the Prophetic Jewish values of peace, justice, and respect for the land itself  — the values on which the State was explicitly proclaimed.
So for the sake of Torah, for the sake of all the human and more-than-human life forms of the Earth, for the sake of the very Name of the Holy One Who is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, and for the sake of the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel —   we urge the American Jewish Committee to change direction. To decide that moving swiftly toward the Era of Renewable Energy will best serve its own desire to support Israel.
And in urging this, we at The Shalom Center are not alone. As is true of many policies of some of the “major” American Jewish organizations, this AJC policy is not supported by the majority of American Jews.
What is supported? Here is a statement recently set forth by thirteen American Jewish organizations. Many, but not all,  are small and young: they represent the future, not the past, of American Jewish life. Their statement was occasioned by the AJC’s renewed call for building the Tar Sands Pipeline, but in this statement is a vision of the necessary future – not a critique of AJC.  Here is their vision:

Thirteen Jewish organizations, under the umbrella of the Green Hevra, have issued the following joint statement publicly calling on the U.S. government to reject the Keystone XL pipeline:

It has become abundantly clear that we are consuming far too many fossil fuels. In this Sabbatical/Shmita year, when the Torah calls for deeper gentleness toward the Earth, we are especially conscious of the dangers to the Earth from the drilling, transporting and burning of tar-sands oil. The resources that would be devoted to the Keystone XL pipeline should be devoted instead to initiatives in clean energy, a fast-growing field in which we hope the United States will take a leading position.

Climate change, worsened by burning more and more oil that the Keystone XL pipeline would permit, poses a grave threat to the security of the United States, Israel and the world.

Jewish tradition is not monolithic, and the issues around the pipeline are complex. But the Jewish community has consistently sought to take a stand in favor of creating a better world for all. It is hard for us to believe that building the Keystone XL pipeline could possibly do so.

This is not the first time that Jewish organizations have taken a stand against Keystone XL>  and we call upon fellow Jewish leaders to join us in encouraging President Obama and Congress to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

Signed by the following members of the Green Hevra:

Aytzim: Ecological Judaism
Eden Village Camp
Energiya Global
Habonim Dror North America
Jewish Climate Action Network
Jewish Farm School
Jews Against Hydrofracking
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College / Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
The Shalom Center
Shoresh Jewish Environmental Programs

You will notice The Shalom Center is among the signers. We agree with the statement, and also believe that an important part of our own task in the “cultural ecology” of a transformative spiritual movement is pointing out when a path risks danger and destruction, as well as heartening all who walk a path that chooses life and Breath.
Blessings of truth, justice, life, and shalom –


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

"Ferguson" Protests Shut Down Highways all around USA

"Ferguson"  protest closees major highway in Baltimore

SLATE on-line news magazine reports that in many US cities, protests that begin over the “power racism” of the Ferguson crisis are broadening to address racial injustice at the hands of police in many cities, and are shutting down a number of US highways.

The list of cities includes NYC (the FDR Drive & Hudson Tunnel), Boston, Nashville, Portland, Providence, & Durham. This photo above is Baltimore. (Expand it by clicking on the title of this article.)

Already these protests have become the first nation-wide protest ever, against rampant racist behavior by many police forces.

If these protests remain nonviolent, they might  bring fully into American consciousness the continuing cancer of institutional and structural “power racism.” They might spark a major reexamination of this major aspect of our rampant Disase of Domination, a reexamination committed to face the truth.

Not easy — for this Disease of Domination corrupts and poisons offical US actions not only toward Black, Brown, & Native communities but also toward the Earth, the poor, middle-class workers, women, students and teachers in the public schools, and many other elements of our society

And if the institutions that claim to be the forces of “order”   — the police, National Guard, and the military — refrain from using force and violence against these protests, we might see the beginnings of a profound reconciliation of the deepest chasm in our country — the chasm of race.

The decision whether to smash these protests or respond to them with hope and openness will not be decided by the police and military alone. It will depend on us — all of us. What will we demand?

 Many Americans believe or assume that slavery is over, a thing of the past. Its very worst aspects are. But the system left a scar deep within our body politic,  a subtle but profoundly wounding cancer that  we have pretended did not exist.

Among those who see themseves as masters, there is an arrogance so deep it pretends there’s nothing there. Among those who communites have been directly wounded,  subjugation has taken forms of political restrictions, economic subordination, educational  deprivation — and, of course, the danger that any young Black man could be humiliated, imprisoned, or killed by the police.

Notice that this fear does not affect only those who actually get attacked. Every one who is taught to share the fear is forced either into humiliated self-denial, or rebellious fury.

So together we might all welcome this great upsurge of dignity. We might accept that even if we find it a little harder to reach the dinner-tables where we intend to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, we have  now the opportunity for an even deeper Giving of Thanks.

May we tomorrow thank the God Whose Justice Jefferson feared, for providing us with the possibility of deeper, fuller justice that arises from our turning ourselves toward sorrow, honest self-understanding, confession, and then — only then — reconciliation.

To see the reports of highway-closing protests, click to

For my fuller analysis of what the past is and future might be in regard to this crisis, please click to


Pope Will Call MultiFaith Gathering on Climate

Climate & Faith:
Religious Apathy, A Papal Call, & the Need to
MOVE toward New Forms of Community

According to a major Catholic publication, Pope Francis has decided to call for a world multireligious conference of religious leaders on “Climate Change” and to issue a Papal Encyclical on the climate crisis.

I want to begin with celebration of this decision, then address the evidence of deep unconcern or apathy about climate in many US religious communities, and end with my suggestions of what might be causing the apathy and how to get past it – including how the Pope’s action might help.


This report says the news came from Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo,  an Argentinian who is close to the Pope and is Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, when he delivered Cafod’s [British Catholic Agency For Overseas Development]  annual Pope Paul VI lecture on Friday a week ago.

(A Papal Encyclical is a letter to the whole Church or even to the whole world, as Saint Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), may the memory of this tzaddik continue to be for a blessing —  uniquely did on the dangers of nuclear weapons for Easter 1963.)

The Shalom Center and Interfaith Moral Action on Climate have called for both these actions in letters to Pope Francis.  (I am not claiming we were the key factors that led to that decision; but perhaps our letters helped.) If the reports are accurate, these actions by the Pope could be a major turning-point in religious involvement.   Hallelu-YAH!  — Let us praise the Breath of Life!  

To truly celebrate the hope of such actions by the Pope,  we need to face a darker undertone that explains why these actions by the Pope could be so important. A recent national survey of opinion about climate in the US by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that in most US white religious communities, there are low levels of concern over climate change:

Climate Change Concern Index by Religious Affiliation
Source: PRRI/AAR, Religion, Values, and Climate Change Survey, November 2014
The numbers below correspond to these four categories: Very
concerned; Somewhat concerned; Somewhat unconcerned; Very
All Americans 29 21 29 21
Hispanic Catholic 43 30 21 6
Unaffiliated 38 22 26 14
Black Protestant 37 21 26 14
Non-Christian 43 22 35 9
Jewish  27 26 35 13
White Mainline  Protestant 22 21 31 26
White Evangelical 18 17 34 30
White Catholic 17 24 32 28

Moreover, it is very rare for white Christian clergy to give sermons about the climate crisis. (There is no report on Jewish clergy.) Interestingly, Black and Hispanic clergy do much better.  So much for the white-environmentalist self-flattering thought that the non-white communities don’t care!

The involvement of religious and spiritual communities at a new level calls for us to address not only moving away from the Carbon-Pharaoh economy but moving toward a new kind of world community, rooted in compassion and community: a world community of sustainable and shared abundance:

A world community that addresses the needs of disemployed and low-income workers, of the desperately poor as well as the desperately overworked –— poor or affluent; of those denied the possibility of creating their own music, dance, art, poetry; of those denied public health uncorrupted by poisons in the air and earth and water, and those denied the individual healing of a shared medical system; those denied privacy by an intrusive corporate market, and those denied liberty by an encroaching government.

These people are being ill-served now by the top-down economy, ecology, and culture of the Carbon Pharaohs; but I think they are not so much “unconcerned” as frightened and baffled by what it will mean to them to move into a different world. So any transition to a post-carbon society must for both political and moral reasons meet their needs.

This is a new understanding of the Bible’s Sabbatical Year, the Shmita Year of “Release” in which organized agricultural bossiness paused, the free growth of the Earth was freely available to all, and debts were annulled. It is the world of “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  It is the world of “right speech, right action, right livelihood” in the Noble Eightfold Path.

This is Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.” For those ancient visions must today be translated for a world not only of agriculture, as was their original context, but of high-tech mining, drilling, communication; of new ways to draw on the ancient wind and solar sources of energy. What are jobs and income and restfulness in that world? What are schools and the arts and health in that world?

Our world.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such new communities already among us. We need to lift them up and multiply them.

If a Papal Encyclical on Climate addresses these questions; if a  multireligious conference called by the Pope to address the climate crisis includes not only the official leaders of religious communities but at least some of the grass-roots and pavement-top prophets and practtitionrs of hope, then it can truly address the apathetic, “unconcerned,” among the religious communities reported in the PRRI study. 


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Torah of Truth vs. Torture: Sen. Udall's Sacred Task

Prisoner tortured by US Army under offfical orders, Abu Ghraib 2004

File Attachment: 

For a brief moment of sacred opportunity RIGHT NOW, the American people has a chance to learn the truth about our government’s deliberate use of torture as an act of policy. Senator Mark Udall holds that moment in his hands. We can all encourage him by calling his Congressional office at 202-224-5941.

What is at stake? Memory itself.  Truth itself.

This iconic photo of a US prisoner being tortured by US troops in Abu Ghraib prison broke open the story of our government’s deliberate use of torture as an act of policy. 

 (Also attached to this essay are a few additional photos, even more graphic and heart-breaking. If you believe that a broken heart becomes a heart more open to the Spirit and to each other and all life, you may want to take the risk of looking at these photos. To do so, click on the title of this article and then on the two attachments.)

 The policy-makers who ordered this done are still being shielded from the legal consequences of their criminal acts –-  and even from full public knowledge of the American people, in whose name and by whose authority they acted.

 But for a brief moment of sacred opportunity RIGHT NOW, the American people has a chance to learn the truth about our government’s deliberate use of torture as an act of policy. Senator Mark Udall holds that moment in his hands.

 What should happen?

Jewish tradition teaches that torture is utterly forbidden  — for it destroys the Image of God in human beings, installing instead Caesar’s image of subjugation and despair.

 Every Yom Kippur we read in tears the story of ten great Rabbis tortured to death by the Roman Empire. Our tradition decided to keep our memories clear, so that we would forever remember to prevent such crimes.

 For the same reasons, the American people must learn the full truth of torture committed in our name, by an Administration that wanted the USA to be an Empire, not  a democracy.

 Senator Mark Udall has a sacred opportunity & task to let us know the truth — for the truth alone can set us free. The Senator has an absolute right under the Constitution to read into the Congressional Record the full Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA use of torture, but must do it NOW in this “lame duck” session of the Senate.  (He will not serve in the next Senate, which convenes in January.)

I urge Senator Udall to turn this session from a “lame duck” to a free-flying bold Bald Eagle! We can all encourage him by calling his Congressional office at 202-224-5941. 

May we receive blessings of truth, of memory, of celebrating God’s Image in ourselves and in all life.

Torah Portions: 


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Global Scorching & Climate Justice

Where do the Carbon Pharaohs Wreak the Worst Damage?

By Jacqueline Patterson

 [On October 26, 2014, the Pennsylvania chapter of Interfaith Power and Light held its annual state-wide gathering. Among the keynote speakers was Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. Below is a condensed version of Ms. Patterson’s keynote for IPL.  After the text of her talk, I will comment on why I think what she said is crucial both to the "climate movement” and to organizations working for “social justice.”  --  AW, editor]

In my work throughout the country, I see that climate change and the overheating of the Earth come down worst on communities of color and low-income communities. The climate crisis itself is driven by corporations with the systemic aim to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few. And they operate in the context of a larger social system with the same aim --  to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few.  So the impacts of climate change worsen a broad set of social, political, and economic inequities that already exist.

In Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, in 2005 communities were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. When I first visited the community in 2010, they were still recovering from Katrina and had just been re-assaulted as they were inundated by the BP Oil Drilling Disaster. Many of the community members had lost their livelihoods as oystermen and with that, lost their way of life.

Then, in 2012, I found the same communities under siege again by Hurricane Isaac as the levees were overtaken by the storm surge and the communities were completely overtaken by flooding.  When Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana asked the Army Corps of Engineers why the levees, weren’t fortified after Katrina, they stated that they used formula to decide where to prioritize levee fortification which assigned points to various areas based on economic impact.  With these measures of “value” it will always be the most marginalized communities who will be on the losing end of the climate adaptation equation.

I’ve visited Navajo reservations in New Mexico and Arizona and met with multiple families living in the shadow of coal plants within a 50-mile radius of communities like Shiprock, NM. The electricity from these plants powers Las Vegas and Los Angeles, while 70% of those living on the Navajo reservation have no electricity or running water. Though these plants were built on the promises of bringing new jobs to the area, many of the men in the Navajo families have to live in another state in order to work.

Coal plants emit mercury, arsenic, lead, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.  While many Navajo  families don’t have the basic necessities of life, what they do have are respiratory illnesses from ingesting pollution-laden air from these coal plants, every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year.

Then, right here in the Eastwick neighborhood of Philadelphia, we got a call last year about flooding in that community.  As in many communities I’ve visited from Tunica, MS to Irvington, NJ, a developer sold a swathe of homes in a flood plain to low income families of color who, within weeks in some cases and months in others, found themselves inundated by flooding.  Exacerbated by climate change, flooding from storm-water management failures and from the frequent overtaking of Cobbs Creeks’ banks, cause chronic problems for the folks in Eastwick.   They have yet to be able to negotiate a comprehensive flood management plan with the powers that be.

These issues are directly linked to other issues such as voting rights and political representation. Zoning boards, public utilities commissions, and city councils are key offices. Their officials make decisions about where toxic facilities are cited; the extent to which our utilities are actively pursuing advancement of energy efficiency, lowering rates, and transitioning to clean energy. These are also the bodies that decide on permitting of large scale development projects.

The institutionalization of these systemic inequities is why, in my work, advancing solutions is about system change by shifting power and resources from the privileged few to “the people.”  Therefore, in addition to working with EPA on regulations to control CO2 emissions,  my work is about voting rights and campaign finance reform. It’s about making sure we have representative and accountable people in the zoning boards, the Public Utilities Commissions, and the City Councils.

We are working with communities across the country to build local economies where instead of big industry control, we have community owned solar, community owned food, community recycled waste, community initiated green schools, community organized equitable transportation systems, etc.

We are also members of groups like Interfaith  Moral Action on Climate Change with our Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet campaign to move purchasing, banking, and  funding from fossil fuel companies  and to move fossil fuel subsidies that subsidize the ruination of our planet, into funding earth and life affirming practices like energy efficiency and clean energy!

For me as a Christian, there is no more apt model than Jesus in the Temple with the money changers -- as the example I follow in my work to ensure that profiteering does not continue to be the dominant force that trumps human, civil and earth rights as it pervasively does now. Otherwise my work is undergirded by my faith tenets of justice, mercy, altruism, and stewardship.
[I first met Ms. Patterson when I became a co-member of the Steering Committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate. This past summer, she pulled together workshops on Climate Justice for the 50th Anniversary observance of Mississippi Freedom Summer. When I saw these workshops on the program announcement,  I was drawn to go the gathering in Jackson, Mississippi.

[The workshops clarified for me the relationship between “social justice” and “ecological sanity.” The connection needs to be emphasized because many ”social justice” organizations, including many in the Jewish and other faith communities, act as if the climate crisis has nothing to do with social justice. At the same time, many “environmental” organizations ignore social justice. Ever since Ms. Patterson’s Freedom Summer workshops, , I have been using the phrase “eco-social justice” to describe our work.

[This condensed version of Ms. Patterson’s keynote for IPL makes the connection clear, and points out its importance. Indeed, if the “climate movement” and its religiously and spiritually rooted elements are ever to win the crucial cultural and political transformations that we seek, drawing together these “separate” concerns and constituencies will be necessary. Out of such connections can come the new communities of both resistance and resilience: Resistance to the onrush of climate disaster, resilience when the effects of global scorching crash into us, as did Superstorm Sandy and the California drought.--  AW, editor.]


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Spread over All of Us a Sukkah of Shalom!

Words by Reb Arthur; melody by Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfeld, may his meemory be for a blessing

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Blessings to us all as the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot begins tonight — a festival rich in meaning for all Humanity and all of Earth.

(To expand on the song graphic,click on it.)
There are two major symbols of Sukkot – both evocative of a close relationship between human beings and the Earth. (In Hebrew, “earthy humus” is adamah, which gives birth to adam – human earthlings. See Gen 2: 7.)

One of these symbols is that we build  sukkot — fragile, temporary “homes” with leafy, leaky roofs.

Traditionally, families would eat and sleep in these fragile huts for seven days.

Our evening prayers say to the Holy One Who is the Breath of Life — Ufros aleinu sukkat sh’lomecha; Spread Over Us the Sukkah of Your Peace.”

Why does the prayer seek a “sukkah of shalom,” rather than a strong fortress, a tower, a palace, a temple, even a more stable, solid house of shalom?

Precisely because the sukkah is a vulnerable hut —  vulnerable in space and time. See attached a poster from 40 years ago, redolent of that teaching in one of the earliest actions sponsored by The Shalom Center.

In political-military fact and in spiritual truth, we all live lives that are vulnerable, though we often pretend that steel and concrete and toughness will protect us. (See 9/11/01 for evidence to the contrary.) If as the Prophet Dylan wrote, “A Hard Rain Gonna Fall,” no tower will shield us.

Only if we can all recognize that we all live in a vulnerable sukkah can we be at peace with our selves and each other. Our graphic of a Sukkot song that celebrates this vulnerability can be expanded by clicking on it.

(Please note — The words of this song are mine, but the melody is not, despite the  note above. It follows, with different words,  the melody of a sukkah song by Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfeld, whose memory is a blessing.)

The other symbol is that we wave a bundle of three sets of branches and one fruit in the seven directions of the universe  — left, right, up, down, forward, behind – and Inward.  (Seeing it as seven directions, not just six, is the teaching of Rabbi Shefa Gold.)  This wave-offering on Sukkot is the last survival of the many wave-offerings at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

The branches of myrtle, willow, and palm are held in one hand;  a small lemony fruit – the etrog or citron in the other. Then they are ceremoniously united by bringing the two hands together.

There is clearly some erotic/sexual/ earthy/ ”pagan” element in this unification of what is long and wavy with what is small, juicy, and fragrant.  (As Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once said, “If we do it, it’s not ‘pagan.’”)

The etrog looks like the Hebrew letter “Yod,” which is a small dot-like letter. (Its name gave rise to the words “iota” and “jot” to denote something tiny.)  The long stiff palm branch looks like the Hebrew letter “Vav.”  The myrtle and willow branches, soft and curvy, look like the Hebrew letter “Hei.”  So together these four make the “word” Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei, the four-letter name of God – YHWH.

Waving the four in unison, the ancient Rabbis taught, made visible and tactile and earthy the name of God.

But there’s an oddity. The way the four species are held in the hands of the waver, with the etrog for “Yod” in the left hand, if the letters are read from right to left as they should be in Hebrew,  they would spell the Name backward – HWHY.  That word, pronounced “Hawayah,”  means “Being, Existence.”  One fitting metaphor for God, but not the same as the traditional Name.

The only way in which we can see the name in its ancient form is if someone else is watching as the waver waves. Seen from “opposite,” Encountering, the Name does read from right to left as “YHWH.” Only in I-Thou relationship does the Name appear.

For me, one of the richest teachings of this wave-offering came from my son, David Waskow, when he was ten years old and waved the branches for the first time. I asked him how it felt, and he answered: “I felt like I was a tree. I could hear the wind in my own branches, I could smell my own fruit!”

When the Torah forbids the wanton cutting-down of the “enemy’s” trees in time of war, it asks the question, “Is the tree human?” (Deut. 20: 19–20.)

The answer is Yes. A teaching for our generation.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Yom Kippur/ St. Francis/ Eid al-Idha: Invoking Universal Unity

In every year, Yom Kippur calls us beyond the ordinary. Jewish tradition calls it Shabbat shabbaton: sabbatical rest to the exponential power of reflective restfulness.

Yet this year, even fuller: For Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat. And this whole year, the Shmita year when adam (human earthlings) are to share rest with adamah (earthy humus), is called by the Torah Shabbat shabbaton. To how many exponential levels does that take us?

And this year, it doesn’t even stop there. For just as Jews are observing the Great Fast, Muslims are observing their Great Feast – Eid al-Idha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, in memory of how Ibrahim prepared to offer up his son Ismail in response to God’s calling, when at the last moment the Holy Voice told him to relent and he offered up a ram instead. This memory, of course, shares the story that Jews have just told on Rosh Hashanah– with the differences that often arise in how different branches of a family remember a powerful family story.

Traditionally, on Eid al-Idha Muslim families buy a lamb to be slaughtered and divide its meat in thirds — one-third to the immediate family, one-third to the extended family, one-third to the poor — a teaching that might be heard as “Do not kill your children; feed the poor!” A teaching to us all about war and compassion. A physical act carrying the same message as the Isaiah Haftarah for Yom Kippur.

And even more! October 4 is for Catholics and many other Christians the day for remembering and honoring St. Francis of Assisi. The present Pope chose to affirm Francis not only in naming himself but in living simply and preaching compassionately. St. Francis went to Cairo to study with Muslims how they prayed, in order to deepen his own prayer. He committed a holy act of both heresy and treason by opposing the Crusades. And he was deeply in touch with the more-than-human life of all the Earth.

What’s more –- I can hardly believe the fullness of this convergence – this coming Sunday, October 5, is in the practice of the World Council of Churches “World Communion Sunday.” The different Protestant churches view Communion in different ways, but all the members of the WCC have agreed to celebrate and honor it once a year on the same Sunday.

So this is a moment when the Abrahamic communities all yearn toward a universal Unity. And this is the year when we see the beginnings of a Great Turning toward healing of the Earth, in societies — especially the United States –— that have before this shrugged off the unifying connection between adam and adamah.

In honor of this deep tug toward the truth of our interconnectedness, I have written the Invocation that follows. It is rooted in the Jewish invocation of God’s Oneness, called the Sh’ma – but goes even further into a universal phrasing. It draws especially on the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which insists that the Flow of life in rain and rivers, wind and wheat, continues only if we stay aware and act upon the Interbreathing of all life.

We offer it in the hope that all communities of faith and Spirit might find it healing in this weekend, this year, this life.

Invocation of the Universal Unity:

Hush’sh’sh and Listen, all peoples –
Pause from your busy-ness
and hush’sh’sh
To hear — Yahhhhhh,
The One Breath of Life –
For all breath is One:

We breathe in what the trees breathe out,
And the trees breathe in what we breathe out.

Hear in the stillness the still silent voice,
The silent breathing that intertwines life.

If we Breathe in the quiet,
Interbreathe with all Life
Still small Voice of us all ——
We will feel the Connections;
We will make the connections
And the rain will fall rightly
The grains will grow rightly
And the rivers will run:
All creatures will eat well in harmony,
Earthlings / good Earth.

But if we break the One Breath into pieces
And erect into idols these pieces of Truth,
And choose these mere pieces to worship:
gods of race or of nation
gods of wealth and of power,
gods of greed and addiction –
Big Oil or Big Coal –
If we Do and we Make and Produce

without Pausing to Be;

If we heat the One Breath with our burnings —
Then the Breath will flare up into scorching,
The corn will parch in the field,
The poor will find little to eat,
Great ice fields will melt
And great storms will erupt:
Floods will drown our homes and our cities,
And the Breath, Holy Wind, Holy Spirit
Will become a Hurricane of Disaster.

What must we do?
Connect what we see with our eyes
To what we do with our hands.
Turn to sun and to wind
To empower all peoples.

Then the grass will grow,
The forests will flourish,
And all life will weave the future in fullness.

Honor the web that all of us weave —
Breathe together the Breath of all Life.

[The community simply breathes quietly for several minutes, staying aware that each breath comes from all Breath.]


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

The Ocean of Humanity: 300,000+ call for Climate Action Now!

This photo by Jon Fein, echoing one of the prayers of Yom Kippur, shows Reb Arthur with Terry Kardos and her sign aboard Noah’s Ark at the People’s Climate March, 9/21/14]

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My heart is full.

Yesterday, the great People’s Climate March felt to me like Shabbat Shabbaton – –  Sabbath to the exponential power of Sabbath. Not a Shabbat of contemplation only,  but of contemplation and celebration woven of joy in doing the deepest work.

(Click on the photo to expand it. In addition to the photos here, see others at> and>)

I took joy in joining with more than 300,000 people  — some mainstream media are saying 400,000! —  including my son and two of my grandchildren, to do what my heart, my mind, my body had been yearning to do for many many years. (The grandchildren are not incidental; I have them always in mind as I do this work.) That is, to awaken the Jewish people, all communities of faith and spirit, and all peoples to the truth that we are facing the deepest crisis of all human history and that our traditions, ancient and renewed, carry the wisdom of how to meet that crisis.

First came the emergence of a branch of the March for involving Communities of Faith and Spirit. Pat Almonrode of was crucial in bringing us together, and Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith was superb in guiding our planning. Mirele Goldsmith, director of Hazon’s Jewish Greening Fellowship, joined with The Shalom Center to begin the organizing of the Jewish contingent — which we grew into more than 80 organizations, ultimately including the Union for Reform Judaism,  its Religious Action Center, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Then a small subcommittee of us shaped an extraordinary prayer service. It began with celebration of our awesome Earth, continued with lamentation for her wounds, and went from there into active hope – – our commitment to act to heal our Mother Earth. The service was skillfully led by Fletcher Harper and was infused with music  — the world-renowned cellist Michael Fitzpatrick, gospel singer Roosevelt Credit, Peter Yarrow, Neshama Carlebach.

I had the role of chanting  an English-language lament for the Earth,  written by Rabbi Tamara Cohen  for The Shalom Center several years ago,  in the mode of the ancient Hebrew Book of Lamentations, mourning the Babylonian Empire’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2500 years ago. That destruction was repeated by the destruction of the rebuilt Temple by the Roman Empire 2000 years ago.

I prefaced my chanting of the Lament first, as I always begin when I speak, by welcoming the gathered community  — ‘Shalom  — —  salaam — —  peace   —.”  The crowd responded  “Shalom  — —  salaam — —  peace   —.” And then suddenly it came to me to add something new: I added “Earth– – Earth– – – Earth– – – – “ and to this too, to each “Earth” with fuller force and energy, the assembled community responded “Earth!” I think I will be doing this from now on.

Then I  explained about the ancient Book of Lamentations. I said that it is the habit of great empires to destroy what is sacred in all worlds. I said that today we face Imperial corporations, corporate empires, that are wounding and destroying the One Temple of all cultures, traditions, all our communities, and all life forms – – the Temple of our Earth. There was a roar of response from our assembled community of worship when I said that.

I turned to the 30 or so shofar-blowers who had assembled at the foot of the stage. I called out “Tekiah!” and they blew the long blast of the Ram’s Horn to say, “Sleepers, Awake!”  At the end of the Lament I called out “Tekiah gedolah!” and there came an even longer blast. And of course our whole March was a great “Tekiah!”

In the service, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling  led an an extraordinary moment of silent meditative visualization — for each of us, picturing of our most beloved place and time on Earth — the place we would most deeply grieve if we were to lose it as the Earth’s wounds worsen. Two minutes of utter silence of thousands of people gathered in the busy, noisy, hypermetropolis of New York City — an amazing moment Reb Mordechai induced!

And when our service was completed, the 10,000+ of us who had assembled on a long long block of New York City as Communities of Faith and Spirit joined the larger March. We were led by an extraordinary Noah’s Ark, built by students of the Auburn Theological Seminary under the leadership of Isaac Luria. I was able to join the thirty people who actually rode aboard the Ark. From that vantage point I was able to see the ocean of humanity that was pouring out to heal the oceans, the rivers, the clouds and mountains, the air and earth, the many many species, that make up the interwoven ecosystems of our planet.

I was able to see and often to reach out and clasp hands with people walking in the great March whom I had taught, whom I had learned from,  whom I love and who made clear that they love me. Jay Michaelson, who was also aboard the Ark, told me to look out upon my legacy. I laughed and quoted – – I think it was Muhammad Ali – – who said “I ain’t dead yet.”  But if I were, that extraordinary yesterday would leave me feeling well fulfilled.

My heart indeed is full.

But indeed I ain’t dead yet, and my mind continues to stir forward into what we need to do. The March can become a turning point, but only if we make it that by our actions in the months and years ahead.

The day before the March, Phyllis and I took part in the gathering of about 250 religious leaders from all around the world, a gathering called “Religions for the Earth,” sponsored by Union Theological Seminary, the World Council of Churches, and several other major religious organizations. The gathering was wonderful in making possible, both in formal sessions and in lunchtime shmoozing, the sharing of perspectives from the many traditions, both the “world religions” and indigenous peoples.

One aspect of it was disappointing. The original invitation had said the gathering would come forth with a call to the religious communities of all the world concerning the crucial international session in Paris at the end of 2015 at which all governments will decide or fail to take the steps necessary to begin the healing of our wounded Mother Earth. But it turned out that the effort to draft such a statement beforehand became, in the view of the organizers,  too complicated. So there was no way to come to a collective affirmation of what we need to do. The WCC did issue a statement and invite signatures, with a call for action by communities of faith and spirit, but without a clear plan or even suggested specific alternative suggestions for action.

Religions for the Earth also sponsored an evening prayer service after the March. It was held in the towering Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and about 3000 people took part. Its central theme was an individual and collective commitment,  a covenant among us to go forth and act. As a symbol of commitment, each of us was invited to pick up stone from a collection of hundreds that had been prepared ahead of time, and to then take our stone to a place of commitment, the stone a symbol that we were committed to act in accord with an intention that we had  placed upon the stone.

My stone was sharp and powerful, and what came to me was that with this stone, David slew Goliath. The young, small, almost naked shepherd boy destroyed the giant clothed in armor, carrying a giant sword. The commitment I placed upon my stone was to kill no human being, but to resist and dissolve those giant armored, beweaponed corporations that are wreaking havoc on our Earth. Despite the US Supreme Court, corporations are not persons. They were not created in the image of God, as human beings are. We must make them serve YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, and not destroy it — and those corporations that are irreparable versions of Pharaoh we must dissolve as Pharaoh’s Army dissolved in the red Reed Sea.

Yesterday 300,000 of us gathered unarmed, unarmored, open to sun and wind. We were, we are, an ocean of Davids. We celebrate the Breath of Life, and we must act to end its being choked and strangled by the burning Carbon Pharaohs of today.

The specifics of what we can do I will leave till tomorrow. Today — a time to kvell, to celebrate what we have done already.

Shalom, salaam, peace; Earth, Earth, Earth!  —  


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 


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