NPR interviews Reb Arthur, Plus Videos & Swarthmore Sit-in

NPR Reflects on Freedom Seder 1969;
Plus Video of Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, Tom Hayden, Reb Arthur
At “Teach-In + 50: End the War Against the Planet”

 For me, Passover is always extraordinary; this year, even more than usual.

To begin with, just as we entered the NYC synagogue for our pre-Palm Sunday/Passover challenge to the Carbon Pharaohs, my email buzzed with the news the Forward had named me one of the “most inspiring rabbis.”

Then our multifaith prayer service and street theater were amazingly moving.  They inspired me – a lesson in how inspiration works, seeding more inspiration in a growing spiral.

Then the next weekend, I got a last-minute call: NPR’s interview with me and Topper Carew (a civil-rights activist/ moviemaker) about the original Freedom Seder was about to be broadcast.

Appearing on April 4, it honored the 47th yohrzeit of Martin Luther King and the 46th anniversary of the Freedom Seder, which I wrote and then helped lead in 1969. It wove together the story of ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery to Pharaoh with the liberation struggle of Black Americans. For the interview, and with it a video of that first Freedom Seder itself, click here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2015/04/04/397323302/in-freedom-seder-jews-and-african-americans-built-a-tradition-together.

Earlier, I spoke at the University of Michigan on the 50th anniversary of the first Teach-In against the Vietnam War (at which I spoke in 1965). Among the other speakers were Tom Hayden, Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, and Sandra Steingraber. More than 1,000 students took part in what we called“Teach-In + 50: End the War against the Planet.”

For video of our speeches, click to https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/teach-in-50/. Then scroll down to see the video of “Panel 3: morning of March 28” with Tom Hayden; Jahi Chappell; Sandra Steingraber; and me. My speech was titled “Facing the Carbon Pharaohs: The Role of Spiritual Communities in Organizing to Heal our Climate Crisis” (I am introduced at 54 minutes/ 18 seconds into the video.)

The Passover Seder is structured around intergenerational learning: children ask questions, grown-ups explore the story. Not only did this happen with great joy in our family-and-friends Seder with our 5-year-old granddaughter as we directly responded with our own many answers to her asking of the famous Four Questions, but again in a more public way in a visit I made to Swarthmore College.

Why Swarthmore? Two reasons, powerfully past and powerfully present.

Past: In the fall of 1982, in the midst of teaching a course at Swarthmore on the great Jewish theologian/ philosopher Martin Buber,  I uncovered what for me has become the heart of my religious understanding of the climate crisis: the YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh Name of God is “pronounceable” as Breathing.  

The Breath of Life is the most sacredly intimate aspect of the Divine. We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out.

The burning of fossil fuel has dangerously wounded exactly that Breath.  The climate crisis is a crisis in the Name of God, and it affects human communities through drought and famines. floods and superstorms.

Present: So out of that Swarthmore history as well as my own religious commitment to protect the lives of our children, I was especially moved to learn that Swarthmore students were sitting-in at the College Administration building to insist that the College move its money out of the fossil-fuel companies that are burning our world and killing human beings.

Some have sneered at this effort on the ground that Pennsylvania has been a coal state and cannot change. But that is as silly as saying that Detroit in 1940 was an auto-making city and could not change. By 1942 it was making no autos and thousands of tanks. That was because we faced, and knew we faced, an emergency.

Now we face an even worse emergency. Coal producers can become solar/ wind producers, and give life instead of death to our children. Moving Our Money to Protect Our Planet will make that possible.

OR — the Billionaire owners of Big Coal, Big Oil, & Big Unnatural Gas can arrogantly and cruelly behave like the ancient Pharaohs and Caesars, bringing Plagues upon all our countries.

The prophetic haftarah we read each year on the Shabbat just before Passover calls upon Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of parents and children to each other, lest the Earth be utterly destroyed. This is not just a quaint remark from the distant past. For as the Passover Haggadah says, in every generation some arise to destroy us; and in every generation, we must struggle to free ourselves.

In this generation, the greatest danger of destruction comes from the Carbon Pharaohs. And freeing ourselves requires moving toward a new society of shared and sustainable abundance, powered by renewable energy. As our forebears sought the Promised Land, today we must all seek to shape the Promised Earth.

To honor the oncoming Passover and the Holy Week that grew out of Passover — and to join in their commemoration of past resistance to Pharaohs & Caesars by emulating their resistance today  —   with joyful determination I joined the Swarthmore sit-in.

A dozen students and two faculty members – both from the Department of Religion in which I had taught more than thirty years ago – were sitting-in at the Administration office when I arrived. I shared with them The Shalom Center’s program we call Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP).

It points toward four levels of money-moving: (1) moving our household and congregational purchases of energy from coal to wind power; (2) moving our credit cards and bank accounts —  away from national banks with major investments in Big Coal or Oil, to local banks and credit unions that invest in neighborhood enterprises; (3) moving our own investments (as the students were demanding Swarthmore do) from lethal Fossil Fuel stocks and bonds, to life-giving profitable companies; and (4) in the decisions of Congress and state legislatures, moving the present huge subsidies to Big Oil that come from our tax money, to encourage instead the development of wind and solar energy.

In the sit-in room, we had a wonderful conversation about the possibilities. I encourage others to join this conversation by taking up the question with your own alma mater, your own synagogue or church or mosque — so as to “become” Elijah – turning our hearts toward all our children and their children, to make sure the Earth and their lives are healed from the dangers of destruction.

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