Rabbi Jonathan Klein's Blog

My Photo
Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What I Said to WeHo City Council to Support a Citywide Fur Ban

Dear Friends,
I have not been blogging for a while (two years!), but instead I have been being an activist! I now direct Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, a citywide worker justice organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes the faith community to stand with workers and their families for dignity in the workplace.
However, recently I have been taking the strategies fine-tuned for clergy activism in economic justice matters and have applied them to Animal Rights (AR) advocacy. This week, the city of West Hollywood became a national champion for AR legislation when a coalition of activists passed the first citywide ban for the sale of fur apparel. I was blessed to be there that night; here are my remarks to city council:
"Gladiator fights. Foot-binding. Child labor. Beheadings. Public executions. Slavery. Acceptable norms for human behavior have changed dramatically over the centuries. Yet our speciesism still leads to horrible atrocities to G's creations.
Animals are sentient beings. They experience fear, pain, tenderness and love.
Simply because we can torture non-humans without fear of the law does not entitle us to maim, mangle, or mutilate any breathing creature. I believe that G endowed us with the knowledge and conscience to know that we are inflicting pain on others.
We don't need fur,
We do need kindness, compassion, love...a return to Eden, where fig leaves were what covered our bodies.
The Bible teaches us compassion upon all earth's inhabitants:
  • One may not muzzle an ox in the field.
  • One may not put a yoke on two different species, lest the weaker animal suffer.
  • One may not remove the eggs from a nest in front of a mother bird.

The unnecessary suffering of animals is against every major religious tradition, and we have the opportunity here to lessen the suffering of so many animals if this body does what is right,

what is compassionate,

what is morally correct,

and eliminate the unnecessary, cruel, nightmarish sale of dead animal skins in West Hollywood. Please! Thank you."

The only problem with this (besides that it was written on a random songsheet from the previous night's grocery contract fight vigil, spontaneously, scribbled using a fellow AR activist friend's notebook) is that I ended it somewhat incorrectly by referring to the sale of dead animal skins. That would include leather....I feel the pressure to get rid of all my leather apparel; as a new convert to abolitionist veganism, I feel the guilt growing daily for my ownership of leather shoes and belts.

I decided to post these words in part because IT IS TIME FOR THE FAITH COMMUNITY TO ORGANIZE ITS SUPPORT FOR NON-HUMAN ANIMALS, WHO SUFFER HEINOUS, TORTUROUS ACTS, WITH UTTER DISREGARD UNRIVALED ANYWHERE. This is the beginning, I hope, of creating an organization to support animal rights legislation and more as The Communal Conscience for Animals. Let me know your thoughts!


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Jewish Obligation for Healthcare Reform

A message I sent today to Los Angeles Rabbis:

Dear Rabbinical Colleagues, Jewish leaders,

With the healthcare reform bill passing the House, we need added pressure by religious leaders, both lay and clergy to show that all Americans truly are committed to healthcare reform. Our colleague, Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater, led the charge a couple weeks back with an action in Pasadena that got great local coverage and brought the interfaith community together. While CLUE-LA is not taking the lead on these actions, I unequivocally support healthcare reform activism as an integral component of our Economic Justice agenda which will ensure that the working poor and the poor in general are “lifted up.” Currently, the system is so broken that as many as one-fourth of all children in Texas, for instance, are uninsured, unprotected.

Spiritually speaking, Healthcare Reform is necessary for our imitation of God: Just as God sustains this world—HaM’chadeish b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit, “The One who renews daily, continually, the act of creation”—we, too, must sustain the Crown of Creation, the human race. Our Modeh Ani prayer thanks God for our daily blessing of waking up, and even our morning prayers acknowledge that Im yipateiach echad mehem, o’ sheyisatem echad meihem, I efshar l’hitkayem v’la’amod l’fanecha: “If You were to open one of [the bodily pathways intended to be closed] or close one of them [meant to be open], it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You.” God sustains our health; so, too, we must sustain the health of others.

This is in many ways an extension of Sotah 14a:

R. Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What means the text: "You shall walk after God" (Deuteronomy 13)? Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after God; for has it not been said: "For God is a devouring fire" (Deuteronomy 4)? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One. Just as God clothes the naked, as it says, "And God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them" (Genesis 3), so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, for it is written: "And God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre" (Genesis 18), so do you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners, for it is written: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son" (Genesis 25), so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead, for it is written: "And God buried him in the valley" (Deuteronomy 34), so do you also bury the dead. [Soncino translation]

Of course, for those of you who were at our gathering last month, will remember mention of a couple of these passages. Rabbi Beerman masterfully showed that God is a tailor and a gravedigger, a low-wage worker, our Torah being bookended with Adam/Chavah being clothed and Moses being buried by God.

Perhaps this could be chomer lidrush for upcoming divrei Torah? If any of you are writing on healthcare reform, I would be very interested in reading it or perhaps even publishing it within the CLUE community.

Thank you for your ongoing commitment to the working poor of greater Los Angeles! I hope you can make this action; please let me know if you will be there! And of course, please support the work of CLUE-LA.

Many Blessings,

Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Executive Director Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) 464 Lucas Ave, #202 Los Angeles, CA 90017 213.481.3740 x101 jklein@cluela.org www.cluela.org Facebook Me! } Join our Mailing List
"Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue" --Deuteronomy 16:19
meaning, "Justice through just means must be pursued" -- Rashi (medieval commentator)

This is such a small example, referring to Sotah 14a, of how Jewish tradition is committed to the poor; in the Healthcare Reform debate, the voice of religious tradition should be solidly pro-reform. Not just Jewish tradition, either. So why is it that the vote was so close in the House? Five seats made the difference between life and death for this bill?

It's simple: With only one Republican breaking from party lines and voting in favor, the debate has moved from the heart to the head. It's power, greed, control, fear, and corporate interests undermining the greater good. Religious leaders are a necessary force to move people from their heads (i.e. their personal pocketbooks) to the heart (i.e. compassion for those other than themselves). Increasingly, and we see this most strongly in California where the safety net has been eviscerated and everything is about cutting costs (read: trampling the poor) rather than raising revenues (read: communal responsibility).

I beg my religious friends to speak from their traditions, which invariably speak from the heart. Rachmana liba ba'ei, The Merciful One Requires the Heart.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Are We or aren't We created in the image of G?

I''m contemplating utilizing capitals whenever using pronouns such as You, Me, He, etc.

If people are created B'tzelem E-ohim, in the Divine image, then perhaps we should start recognizing one another's divinity in everyday writing....

Perhaps, in order to keep a check on hubris, i will also start making the word "i" in lower case.

It reminds me of the famous, and most influential perhaps of Chasidic stories, the papers in the two pockets: Simcha Bunim of Pshischa taught that every day, one should carry pieces of paper in his or her pockets. In one pocket, written on it is "For me the world was created." In the other pocket, "i am but ashes and dust." On days of low self-esteem, we pull out the paper that says "For me the world was created." On the days of hubris, "i am but ashes and dust."

How do we get people to think about the crucial balance between self-esteem and hubris? And, how do we make life less about ourselves and more about others' welfare? This is my personal core question, and why i left the inner sanctum of Jewish communal life to be the director of an interfaith organization which is, by definition, devoted to the Other.

I am just not blogging enough; time to start saying things with a little more regularity....thank You, my dear friend Nukhet, for urging me to write more!


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Op-ed I wrote in November, 2008 after the Elections

Sadly, it never saw the light of day, though it was allegedly distributed on JTA:

78 Percent, Jewish Hope for America

There has been a lot of talk about hope recently.  President-elect Barack Obama has energized a previously unimagined younger base. Record numbers of people everywhere took to their cell phones and laptops for the first time as well as to the streets, young people emptying out their piggy banks to invest in a man whose values they believe stand in stark contrast with the current administration's world view--militarism, greed, conscious rejection of science, and conflicting public "Joe six-pack" populism with private good old-fashioned elitist cronyism.  Hope incarnate electrified the nation on election night, and stories featuring octogenarians and older charmed viewers with tales of disbelief that a black man would soon sit in the whitest of houses. 

For Californians, however, there was an evisceration of hope.  A mean-spirited campaign aimed to negate the rights of same-sex couples to marry has undermined our trust in the democratic principles upon which our government operates.  Proposition 8, which eliminates the constitutionally-defined right of same-sex couples to marry by rewriting the state constitution with a hateful clause, simply does not make sense when Obama announced that "change has come" to our country.  Millions of people are deeply bewildered by the cognitive dissonance of election night, when we proudly elected the nation's first President of color while we simultaneously managed to create another deeply sinister first:  A majority vote robbed the rights of a minority under the guise of democracy.  This is an historic nadir in American history.  Never before have we witnessed a constitutional change meant to pummel a protected subgroup, yet alone one that consists of our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles.  Homophobia runs deep, perhaps the last bastion of culturally acceptable public bigotry in our society.  So much for hope, or "Change we can believe in." 

Nevertheless, there are a few things that still allow hope.  For one, the vote for Proposition 8 in 2008 passed by a much smaller margin (52% yes, 48% no) than Proposition 22 eight years earlier (61% yes, 39% no).   Moreover, some surveys leading up to election day suggested that Californians for the first time believed in the rights of same-sex couples to marry.  Inconsistency between these surveys and election returns partly results from confusion in the voting booth; phone-bankers promoting the No on 8 campaign regularly encountered befuddled voters who thought that voting yes on 8 would protect marriage equality.  A stumbling block was placed before a semi-blind electorate, and that contributed to the narrowest of losses.  Perhaps most encouraging and edifying, the Jewish community voted overwhelmingly against banning civil rights for gays and lesbians.  Exit polls suggest that 78% of Jewish voters in Los Angeles voted against Proposition 8 and only 8% supported it.[1] 

Jews have succeeded in part because of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws," ensuring the rights of minority groups.  Such a guarantee is second nature for the People of the Book.  We have long championed this protection, recognizing that our own narrative is that of the sojourner in strange lands, the Wandering Jew despised by the generations as the scapegoat for societal ills.  Abraham, as part of an upcoming Torah Portion, tells the residents of Hebron during his negotiations for a lot to bury his wife that he is a "resident alien" among them; the Jewish Founding Father depended on the good will of the majority when all he wanted to do was mourn his wife's passing.  Speaking with the voice of God, the bible teaches us to "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"[2] and "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."[3] 

Jews know better than to target a minority group; in fact, on all levels, the great vast majority of our community voted for a black president and for LGBT rights, not to mention animal rights by giving farm animals freedom of movement (Proposition 2) and being pro-choice by rejecting the cruel requirement to notify a minor's parents prior to having an abortion (Proposition 4).  We were strangers, so we refuse to oppress strangers, people unlike us, and those who have been marginalized by society.

These voting patterns in 2008 are consistent with the past one hundred years.  Post-Ellis Island Jews have always voted in overwhelming numbers for the progressive candidates, and not just FDR (who got 90% of the Jewish vote in 1940) but even LBJ, who ran against Goldwater, whose paternal grandparents were Jewish!  Obama garnered more Jewish support than Kerry.  We have contributed core leadership for every civil rights and social justice struggle, drafting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the conference room of Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center, contributing disproportionate leadership in the National Organization for Women and founding Ms. Magazine, and even leading much of the anti-war movement in the late sixties.  If there is any reason to be proud of our religion, it is our consistent selflessness and compassion for the plight of others.

Traditional Judaism does affirm a biblical injunction against sex between men, and this led many undoubtedly in the Orthodox community to support Proposition 8.  However, rabbis have never been forced to marry anyone for reasons beyond their control.  Our clergy have never had to officiate at interfaith weddings and they never will.  The specter fabricated by the Yes on 8 proponents that religious institutions would lose their tax-exemption status if their clergy refuse a same-sex wedding is completely false.   In fact, Proposition 8 actually removes the discretion of rabbis to perform weddings: it undermines the separation of religion and state by forcing our religious institutions to reject gays and lesbians, who are simply asking for an affirmation of their private love for one another.  For this reason, even Orthodox Jews could have in good conscience voted against the initiative (and many did), as it deems gays and lesbians persona non grata in their synagogues.

We believe in justice.  Yet sometimes we forget that we are demanded to pursue it.  We cannot idly watch the country crumble and believe that our economy is self-correcting, that warfare ends without political will, or that morality will trickle down so that lesbians and gays need only receive civil unions.  It is easy, with our people's unprecedented financial and social success, to silently submit to the ubiquitous belief that economic power is a hostile zero-sum game and that those without self interest above all else will lose.  Perhaps this explains our communal silence in the face of a bloody, costly war that diverts $10 billion away every month from our economy; some of us fear that Israel and the United States will lose if we don't keep killing Iraqis.  Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of dead.  We ignore that other biblical dictum, to never stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. 

In the Jewish Journal immediately following the elections, not a single article addressed the tragic vote against gays and lesbians despite numerous expressions of excitement regarding the election of Obama.   Was it a lack of contributors on the subject?  Or was it a "senior moment" for the editors, Hope confounding our words and dazzling us out of our wits, leaving us unable to acknowledge the immeasurable pain felt by so many ?  Beyond insensitive, it is dangerous.  In Arkansas, a horribly homophobic Unmarried Couple Adoption Ban passed as well, eliminating the rights of individuals "cohabiting outside of a valid marriage" to adopt children.  Can Jews remain silent as our gay and lesbian friends and family brace for the next potential removal of their rights?  As my grandmother might say of Jewish silence, "It's a shanda for the goyim," an embarrassment reflecting poorly on us.

Beyond our demonstrated commitment in the ballot box to civil rights, the California Jewish community has tremendous wisdom to offer those struggling for marriage equality.  Our historic effort to bring justice to so many groups, built upon our own past suffering, continues despite pundits who attempt to distort our record.  It is precisely now that embracing our people's commitment to justice requires our active participation in the struggle for marriage equality.  Jewish unwavering support for marriage equality and opposition to Proposition 8 also upholds our nation's Founding Fathers' respect for religious diversity. A model religious community looks at the democratic greater good rather than absorption in self interest, which tragically appears to be the model of several churches and other religions which have both funded Proposition 8 and actively advocated against same-sex marriage, gathering the votes to ensure its passage.  Jews, perhaps more than any other faith, can refute the premise that rejection of gays and lesbians is often synonymous with religion.  In short, Jews can and will save religion from becoming anachronistic and meaningless in the 21st Century.

Democracies can fail.  In 1933, an emasculated German state, the Weimar Republic, suffering under the throes of a disastrous downturn in its economy, democratically empowered its leaders to throw away its own civil liberties. Twelve years later, over seventy million dead worldwide, historians quickly concluded that the worst evil unleashed on this planet emerged out of a democracy desperate for leadership and change.  Perhaps now more than ever, the Jewish experience and ethos can be an Or l'goyim, a light unto this nation.  Maybe hatikvah, "the hope" once imagined by the dreamers of a Jewish state, laden with the pursuit of justice and love for the stranger, can inform this latest incarnation of hope.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Yom Kippur Day 5768: Isaiah and the Dignity of Workers

This was my Yom Kippur Morning address at USC Hillel

The Prophet Isaiah describes a hypocrisy abounding in his society as part of the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah.
G makes a request: “Give a full-throated cry, hold nothing back, Raise your voice to the pitch of a Shofar, and tell my people of their rebelliousness, proclaim their wrongs to the house of Jacob.”
A religious insincerity is then detailed, people who "are eager to learn My [meaning G's] ways, as if they were a nation that has always acted justly, and has not forsaken the teachings of its G."
For unknown reasons to the masses, their prayers seem to be ignored. They ask G, "When we fast, why do You pay no heed? Why, when we afflict ourselves, do You take no notice?"
G's response silences them: "Look here: Because on your fast day, you think only of your business, and oppress all your workers! Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with cruel fist! Such a way of fasting on this day will not help you to be heard on high."
The prophet then juxtaposes this meaningless, hypocritical fast with what meaningful fasting entails. G says, "Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? To share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?"
Only then, says G via Isaiah, will "your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal. " Only then, says G, will "your Righteous One walk before you, the Presence of the Lrd be your rear guard." Only then, says G, "when you call, the Lrd will answer; when you cry, G will say, Here I am.
Only when the fasts come with ethical behavior, only when Shabbat is celebrated with a commitment to justice, will we feel secure and beloved by G.
All of this begs a question: Why is it that on this holy day, arguably the most significant holiday in the Jewish calendar, especially this year when Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, do we hear this message about hypocrisy? Why not provide a text that simply asks us to change our ways, such as the haftarah that is read between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, on Shabbat Shuvah? Obviously part of the answer is that the portion describes fasting, which is one of the five afflictions we observe for this holiday along with not wearing leather shoes, not putting on perfumes, oils and lotions, and not engaging in sexual activities, but is that the only reason? For what reason did the Rabbis believe that we need to hear that fasting without sincerity is pointless and, perhaps, even harmful?
Phrasing the question differently, in what ways do we act outside of our consciences? When we do something that we know we shouldn't do, do we feel guilt?
Daily, we are confronted by ethical challenges. Paper or plastic? Feed the poor guy we pass by, or getto class or work on time? But more likely, there are ethical challenges we don't even acknowledge. Moments of inconsistency, or worse, hypocrisy.Here's some examples that plague us:First, How many of us actively advocate positions we believe in our hearts to be morally correct? Preserving the environment through political advocacy? Anti-poverty legislation? Presidential candidates that we support? And even if we do, do we do enough?

Second, If we are against animal suffering as I believe nearly everyone here is, do we at least attempt to reduce our consumption of animals, given that we can survive with less meat?Third, on Facebook, one can join a "cause." I am a member of two causes right now, Save Darfur and Stop Global Warming. For the latter, there are 715,155 "members," or Facebook users, who have joined the "Stop Global Warming" cause. One is able to give money to these causes. With nearly three-quarters of a million people connected to "Stop Global Warming," can anyone guess how much has been given? I have not given either, by the way....$9,791 as of Thursday. This means the average gift to that cause, admittedly on Facebook which is a new agency for giving money, is less than two pennies. For Save Darfur, there's a little more being given: 7 cents per person. You can dismiss this data, but ask yourself; when was the last time you gave to a cause? Even as Jews give disproportionately relative to other communities, are we doing enough? Fourth, most of us here, statistically, believe that women should have the same or at least similar rights as men. Yet, why is it that still, after all these years of advocacy, do we still lack pay equality? Is it possible that deep down, even the male champions of egalitarianism feel somewhat threatened by women taking their jobs? More personally, how does chivalry interfere with a healthy, mind-game-free relationship between you and a member of the opposite sex? Why is it that the rules say that the guy must ask the girl to marry her? How does that undermine full equality? It might be subtle, but it is real. The fifth and final example. All of us here, statistically, believe that slavery should not exist. We hear about the sex slave industry and are aghast. However, in so many instances, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the toys and gadgets we buy, so many things are created by people earning substandard wages for these items. Do we ever ask ourselves, why are these things so cheap? If we are honest, we begin to understand that it is because sometimes someone simply isn't earning the money they deserve in order to take care of their family. When we had our house bolted to the ground for seismic reinforcement a few years ago, I spoke to the Latino men crawling around in the filthy crawl space under my home. Astonished at the feats they were performing in choking dust with no space, I said to them, "mucho trabajo." A lot of work. They retorted, "y poco dinero." little money. My heart dropped. It didn't surprise me, though, as I saw the way the guy who brought this crew over to my house treated them. As his chattel, his servants. Slavery in a more pervasive yet subtle fashion is alive and well, and as much as we try to avoid it, we cannot entirely remove our contribution to the underemployment of the hard-working, typically dehumanized people that we depend on to bring food to our table and build our homes. It is with regard to this fifth category that I would like to share some additional thoughts. Rather than just offering lip-service about our moral failings, I want to offer a tangible take-away. The hotel industry is a lucrative business for those at the top of the pyramid of management. Millions and millions of dollars go to the Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Radisson, Sheraton, and so many other multinational conglomerates. However, these profits, which are higher than ever, are dependent on thousands of low wage workers who park our cars, bring us room service, clean our rooms, wash our towels, and set our wake up calls. Some of these positions are low wage jobs without a union supporting the workers, with as little as 8.50/hour going to housekeepers, with no health insurance. Imagine trying to provide for your family at such low wages. When you stay at a hotel overnight, do you consider the nearly invisible workers who make the experience so luxurious? Certainly, there are basic ethical guidelines that will ensure that housekeepers, whom you never see, yet entirely depend upon, are treated respectfully. In fact, I am involved in an organization that is advocating "Kosher Travel: Being a good guest." Tips for travelers, which I have distributed include the following: ► Stay in union hotels and encourage others to do the same. With a union, housekeepers can express concerns about their health and workload. With all the anti-Union sentiments out there, I believe that it is important to look at each union separately, on its own merits. The hotel unions are critical for the basic rights of thousands of people nationwide to be treated with dignity. There’s really no union fat cats getting rich off the union dues in the hotel unions. Moreover, statistically we can see that a union hotel offers a worker a better standard of living than a non-union hotel.► General neatness: Clean up after yourself! Put trash in one place and keep the bathroom decent. People treat hotel rooms like there is no consequence. Reality is that hotel workers are assigned a number of rooms to complete during their shifts; if they deal with particularly messy rooms, the burden for them to finish on time is increased. Why do that to someone you don't even know? Clean up after yourself. ► Strip the bedsheets yourself before checking out, you save housekeepers time and shoulder strain. I hadn't thought of that one before, but it makes sense. They spend hours on beds alone, and typically, these are relatively petite women who are being asked to lift heavy beds. I hate making my own bed, i can only imagine what it is like for these women. ► Pile your towels in an easily-accessible spot in the bathroom. Or better yet, use less towels.► Leave a tip ($2-5/night). Tips ensure that people feel visible. A $5 tip for a $150 or even $200 or more room is so minor for you, but the world for them. ► Fill out customer comment cards. If your room was clean, give thanks to the housekeeper!These are such simple acts. And yet, in our zeal to serve as upstanding citizens, we can easily forget the ways we are, as Isaiah warned long ago, neglecting to "share our bread with the hungry." Take these tips for travelers, along with your own insights for how you can be a more responsible, ethical member of society, and rehumanize those so quickly forgotten, ignored, and struggling on a daily basis to provide food for THEIR children, THEIR elderly parents, their siblings. As the Rabbis said, "For sins between Gd and people, the Day of Atonement atones. But for sins between two people, the Day of Atonement does not atone until he has made peace with his fellow." Through our acts of kindness to those who we may never meet but whose lives we affect, we can make this peace required of us for atonement. And then, Isaiah's prophecy will be complete: "If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word; if you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon; the Lord will guide you always; God will slake your thirst in drought, and renew your body's strength; you shall be like a watered garden, like an unfailing spring. Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins, and lay the foundations for ages to come. You shall be called "Repairer of the breach, Restorer of streets to dwell in." [Isaiah 58: 5-12]
May each of us do our part, and encourage others to do their part, to fulfill this prophecy. Amen.

Yom Kippur Eve 5768: Dancing in Two Weddings

Here's what I presented on Kol Nidrei Evening at USC Hillel. Let me know what you think!
Dancing in Two Weddings: Being a Jew in a Non-Jewish World
Rabbi Jonathan D. Klein
I’ve always loved situational irony, the idea that what you think will be the outcome in a story ends up being quite contrary to the actual results. I used to be a Twilight Zone junkie, and perhaps my all-time favorite episode was titled “Time enough at last,” starring Burgess Meredith. In this story, Henry Bemis, a misanthropic bookworm of a man, works at a bank. The only thing he wants to do is read, with his nerdy, thick spectacles. The bank president and his wife pick on him with his disheveled, unkempt appearance , so one day he decides to take his lunch break inside the bank vault to read without any pesky people getting in the way. As he’s reading the paper, tremendous explosions can be heard outside and the vault shakes, temporarily knocking him out. Mr. Bemis regains consciousness and opens the vault, to discover that the entire world has been destroyed by the hydrogen bomb. He is the only living person on the planet. Depressed, even suicidal, he strolls about aimlessly. Then a coincidental discovery offers him a sudden change of heart: He happens upon a library. Book after book of reading pleasure await him! The viewer assumes that he has found his paradise amid the ashes of an annihilated planet.

He sorts through them, stacking them up by the months he’ll read them, but then, opening up his first book, he stumbles. His thick glasses go crashing to the ground. A million shards are all that are left. He wimpers, "That's–that's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed... ! It's not fair! The camera fades out with Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone narration: “The best laid plans of mice and men and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time.” A memorable cinematic moment of situational irony.

Now here’s a real life example of it. An old friend, Susan, grew up Orthodox. However, she had ambitions to act and moved to New York City to pursue this dream. To act means to make sacrifices in order to get the parts, so when an audition opened up in the village downtown one Saturday afternoon, Susan decided that she would follow only the strict letter of the law and try out. Acting didn’t involve doing any m’chalel Shabbat, desecration of the Sabbath, did it? Sure, if she had to drive there it would, but boldly, Susan chose to walk from the upper west side down to the village, roughly a five- mile stroll. When she arrived, surrounded by lots of ambitious actors and actresses, you might be able to guess what happened; a casting crew member said to her, “Welcome! Please sign in here” and handed her a clipboard with a pen attached.

A simple story, but with a torrent of complexity. Navigating between two worlds, Susan had to make a supreme compromise if she were to advance her personal goals. A life of strict adherence to an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, challenged by necessity. Which would win out? Tradition? Or personal ambition?

She had to sign in, didn’t she? No choice but to break the Sabbath. Sure, it’s the fifth of G’s illustrious ten commandments, carrying a penalty of death in the bible but today, thousands of years later, isn’t it simply a remnant of old world thinking?

For that matter, perhaps so is fasting? Maybe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, known as Shabbat haShabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is just like any other day? One might say, “I like that Judaism has all these rituals, like fasting on Yom Kippur, and as long as I’m not TOOO hungry, or as long as Yom Kippur doesn’t become an inconvenience because I have a discussion section that conflicts with services, I’ll observe it. Or perhaps you could say, since my parents aren’t making me go and it just isn’t the same as my home services, I’ll stay home.

Or maybe go to a football game tomorrow afternoon. Isn’t going to football a lot like breaking the fast? I mean, both of them are parties, aren’t they?

In Prague, there still stands a large clock tower that used to chime the hour to the inhabitants of that city.
The Jewish shtetl where Jews lived was located behind the clock tower, and so they looked only upon the back of the large clock, watching the hands ticking backwards through the glass.
The residents of the shtetl painted Hebrew numbers on the back of the clock, Hebrew which is written from right to left, so that they could tell time backwards.......
Sometimes as Jews, it is as if we really are seeing time backwards, as if we are living on the wrong side of the clock tower, that three is nine and eleven is one.
An old Yiddish phrase says it is impossible to dance at two weddings at the same time. Well, Jewish history has shown that Jews are quite apt at accomplishing the impossible.
Dancing at two weddings is what we do every day, our legs shuffling in a large circle to Hava Nagila while our upper bodies arch backwards to shimmy under the limbo bar, a beer in one hand and latkes in the other.
And sometimes just when we feel we have this whole thing under control, everything is in sync, suddenly it all collides.
We look around like a squirrel in the middle of the road, and wonder, which way do I go. The wheels of confusion are fast coming your way, do you dodge them? Do you pray? Do you tuck your head down and try to disappear?
And tomorrow, at the end of Yom Kippur, at Ne’ilah services right before we break the fast, Neilah literally meaning the Closing or Locking of the Gates of Repentance, when we hope to be not just inscribed but SEALED into the book of life, where will you be? When your fate for the year is being finalized, will you be there?
Or does the tailgate call you? Does your sorority beckon to you not only to stay here for this weekend instead of going home for Yom Kippur, but also to choose football over repentance? Does your social network reprioritize your “Jew weekend,” suggesting that as a consolation prize for your saddened parents, who want you home because you’ve been with them every Yom Kippur for twenty years and they miss you, as a consolation you have chosen to come to Hillel for services, tempted to take a picture of you holding a prayerbook or lighting a yahrzeit candle just to prove to them your undying religious commitment? Do you think that breaking the fast is fun but tailgating is better? Chanting Avinu Malkeinu Chatanu L’fanecha,Our Father Our King, we have sinned against you sounds interesting, but chanting S-O-U-T-H-E-R-N C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A with friends is what life is all about?
Are you saying to yourself, I’ll get myself sealed in the book of life next year, and if not next year, well whenever Yom Kippur doesn’t conflict with Trojan Football and it is more convenient.? As a side note, a few years ago, the only game that USC lost was the weekender which conflicted with Rosh HaShanah.
Anyway, I’m still gonna fast. Sure, it might be hard to concentrate, and I might get a little dizzy during the game, but I’ll do it. And then maybe a bunch of us will break the fast at the frat. Everyone knows that Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, didn’t play on Yom Kippur during the World Series. But Orthodox rumor has it he didn’t go to synagogue either; he fasted in the dugout. Conventional wisdom is that he was at shul. Everyone agrees he played baseball on Shabbat. Only John Goodman in the Big Lebowski doesn’t BOWL on Shabbes.
Maybe the Yiddish proverb is right; we really can’t dance at two weddings at the same time. We have to choose the wedding we will attend. Perhaps in this supreme effort not to fall behind socially, that is precisely what we are doing. Falling behind.
You see, when the school year began nearly a month ago, our journey began, our journey into new discoveries, new accomplishments, and the High Holidays come some time near the beginning of that journey, sometime in the beginning in order for us to take a step back and survey what we are about to do, survey where we are about to go.
For the older students, too, who have done the drill many times of packing the car for school, there’s still tremendous excitement each year to start off anew, fresh, to reconnect with now-old college friends, with a chaotic clock moving both forward and backward simultaneously, dancing at two weddings, one with mom and dad, the other with Mister or Misses Right.
Each of us have packed up our cars, we have filled our tanks, checked our oil, pulled into the highway of experience, surrounded ourselves with so much noise; rush, auditions, football, and when there is no noise, there is still white noise, the humming of the tires, the whirring of the fans, the thoughts in our head, the landscape whisks by us in our great rush to get this journey underway.
And then we see a sign on the side of the road. It says “Roadside View.” Yom Kippur.
So we pull over, take out our camera, frame the picture, and slowly we lower the camera from our eyes as we realize that we are witnessing, tonight, the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen.

Put the camera down. Turn off the engine. Lean against the car and take a look. From here you have the most extraordinary, picture perfect view of your self.
These are the Days of Awe. A Place in Time for Awe.
From here, from this mountain top we can see all of the hills and valleys of our daily life. We see the road of our years winding its way, now through the bright, clear stretches of our worthiness, now through the tangled jungle of our failures.
The air in this place is clean and fresh. The view ... spectacular. From here, from this Place of Awe, we can chart out the course we want to take on the map of our selves.
From here we can figure out where we want to go. From here we can reacquaint ourselves with the meaning of it all, we can reacquaint ourselves with Gd.
What a complicated dance we do at our two weddings! In the Talmud, the Rabbis were pretty talented dancers. Way back, almost two thousand years ago, the direct descendant of football culture, the bloodsport of gladiator fights, was a potent drug that surprising to most of us, many Jews felt intoxicated by. They wanted to participate; just as we love to go to OUR coliseum for football, Jews back in the day wanted to cheer in THEIR ancient Roman coliseum. One, we know, Rabbi Shimon B. Lakish (Raish Lakish), was even a gladiator[1]. The gladiator, literally sword carrier, would be showcased before the bout, and people had their favorite gladiator heroes. There were ticket scalpers who bought seats for the games in advance and then marked up the prices. In earlier years, Julius Caesar was said to have started a newspaper, Acta Diurna, or the Daily Acts, which reported the gladiator news. Moreover, gladiators attended gladiator schools. The famous gladiators, apparently, even did product endorsements for items that were sold at the arena, their names on billboard-like signs. There was music performed at the gladiator fights, with the tempo of the music fluctuating with the pace of the bout. There was a referee who presided over the match.
Does this sound like Trojan football? The Daily Trojan a substitute for the Daily Acts?
The rabbis hotly debated whether Jews should be allowed to attend the gladiator games. When a gladiator lost in his mortal combat with another gladiator, if the crowd decided that he would die, he would grab the thigh of the victor, who while holding the fallen gladiator’s helmet, would plunge his sword into his neck or cut his throat, depending on which weapon he was carrying. It often depended on the crowd to decide the fate of the loser. Some rabbis believed that under no circumstance should a Jew witness or involve oneself in a cruel, barbaric gladiator game. However, R. Nathan encouraged participation, believing that Jews held moral superiority and thus could help save the life of the fallen gladiator. “Release him!” they should shout.
At which wedding do we dance? Tonight, together, we are dancing thousands of years of tradition, formality, awe. Tonight, we take our words so seriously that we recite a special prayer, Kol Nidrei, with the solemnity of a courtroom, two Torahs flanking the cantor, for something as seemingly trivial as promises we might make, in the year to come. Tonight, we go to bed hungry, reminding ourselves that there are hundreds of people nearby in Skid Row who not only go to bed hungry, but don’t go to a bed. Tonight, we imitate the angels, dressed in white, the one time in the year when we recite the Sh’ma’s “Baruch Sheim Kavod malchuto L’olam va’ed” out loud, “Blessed is G’s glory, G’s sovereignty is forever and ever,” just as they do on high. Tonight, we are angels, figuratively and spiritually; pure, clean, excited at the opportunity to remove all our faults, our failings accumulated over the year, renewed in our struggle to be good when in so many ways we really want to be bad. Tonight, amid our imitation of the angels on the one hand and our pretending to be like the dead on the other, neither of which eat, drink, wear leather, put on perfume, experience sexual gratification, or bathe, we experience spiritual rebirth, a resuscitation from the death that permeates our daily grind, the insults we yell at crazy drivers on the road who cut us off, the fury we feel when we wait in lines at the bank with stupid people taking forever, or perhaps the hostility we express toward our parents who are overbearing, the ridiculous distancing we provoke for no legitimate reason with friends who somehow didn’t mean to offend us but because of our own insecurities we read as intentional affronts. Tonight we are honest with ourselves, perhaps for the first time in a year, confronting our own demons and personal baggage that weigh us down. Tonight we perform a Cheshbon haNefesh, an accounting of our souls, checking to see if we really are living our lives to our highest moral and spiritual potential and if not, confessing our failures. Tonight, when we pound on our hearts during the prayer for forgiveness, ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, it is as if we are knocking on the door of our heart saying, “Let me in! I want to know you. I want to be whole.” Tonight we realize that we can be reborn.
And tomorrow? Yom Kippur day? The day when we REALLY feel the effects of fasting? All of this gift of rebirth is available to us still. We in fact have an opportunity to discover our own sincerity regarding these prayers. Will we continue to fast? Will we take the promises of tonight and put them into action tomorrow? Make an extra effort starting tonight to apologize to those whom we have wronged?
And tomorrow, is it Game Day or Yom Kippur Day? Can we dance at both weddings, without jeopardizing our sincere commitment to both brides and grooms? As we read the words of Jonah, will you be recalling the ways you, like that ancient prophet, have hidden from G and shirked your responsibility to be a force for good? Or will those words not even enter your mind because you won’t hear them, choosing instead to dance at the other wedding, partying it up as USC fights to the death, like gladiators of old, against that most vile of enemies, Washington State University? Oh, the evil!
I’m asking YOU.
As the great musician Meatloaf’s song once asked, What’s it gonna be, boy?
What's it gonna be boy? Come on, I can wait all night. What's it gonna be boy, yes or no? What's it gonna be boy, yes... or... no?
And if your answer is Meatloaf’s, then it might go something like this:Let me sleep on itBaby, baby let me sleep on itLet me sleep on it
I'll give you an answer in the morning

Like Susan, we are confronting simple questions,
Complex answers. And these questions are no longer our parents’ to answer. They are ours. No one ever said adulthood is easy.
You obviously know where I stand, but in truth, it doesn’t matter where I stand regarding your life. The decisions are ours, to make for ourselves. I bless all of us with the strength and grace to live our lives according to the values and principles that we believe are meaningful for us. May we ask for m’chilah, forgiveness, from those we’ve wronged, and leave this evening with a deeper sense of our personal challenges, so that we can celebrate the love, the beauty, and the wisdom bottled up deep within us and let it shine forth like the shimmering rays of light over a beautiful ocean sunset, tonight, tomorrow, and forever after. Amen.
[1] http://www.babaganewz.com/teachers/pdfs/16IsraelFeature.pdf, http://www.babaganewz.com/teachers/pdfs/1609lesson.pdf

RH Evening: Sustainability and Judaism

For Rosh HaShanah Evening 1, 5768, I gave the following address:

Sustainability and Judaism
Rabbi Jonathan Klein

There are so many ways to start this sermon. I’m not mister polished sermon-giver, but then again, what I want to talk about, namely the issues of global warming, population growth, our dangerous dependence on oil, and the resulting real threats to our lives, are so anxiety-provoking that perhaps a polished sermon will have less impact than just saying what needs to be said.

My wife and I had a baby. Zimra Telma Klein shares the letter Z with her mother and uncle Zach, and I pray will also share a love of Zmirot, or songs, with me. Telma is the name of our nanny who faithfully took care of my two other kids for about five years before succumbing to cancer earlier this year. Zimra was formed out of the love we feel blessed to have in our lives together. There is nothing more beautiful than a new baby entering the world, with all the hopes and aspirations of her parents cradling her with a belief that she will redeem the world from its own tendency toward chaos. We were born with a belief by our parents that we could be the savior of humanity.

Our kids are precious to us. Zimra is an angel. A couple of weeks ago, she started chuckling when we tried to make her laugh. Kinneret, her older sister, we call “a love bug” because she can’t help but give us hugs! She is so proud of her latest accomplishment: starting Kindergarten. Rocky, our oldest, and I have a special relationship, complete with bike rides nearly every day to the Coffee Bean for a doughnut and milk. I am so deeply in love with my children. As well I should be! I used to say, “Dayeinu,” “this is enough.” Love is what it’s all about. However, life isn’t that simple. I’m sure you know, we can’t avoid worrying about things, it seems. Especially if you are a Jewish mother.


As a seventies and eighties child of the cold war, I remember an endless stream of movies that spoke of the annihilation of the planet through nuclear war. Rocky IV, War Games, The Day After, Red Dawn, James Bond’s Octopussy, For Your Eyes Only and From Russia with Love, White Nights, Rambo, The Hunt for Red October, in some ways, Terminator…the list is practically inexhaustible. I grew up knowing of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how close our planet was to nuclear annihilation. Carl Sagan, the scientist who hosted a powerful series titled “The Cosmos,” spoke passionately of a looming “nuclear winter” that would come as a special feature of MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction, if ever World War III, a nuclear war, would break out.

Fear of the overnight extinction of humanity was a continuous malaise on my parents’ lives, and I inherited this anxiety. Then, all of a sudden, one day when I was gazing at the New York Times as a college student, I read that the wall had come down. A frenzy of new freedoms was unleashed in Germany, words like Glasnost and Perestroika part of the American lexicon to describe the changes under way in what was soon to be called the Former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev named Time’s “Man of the Decade”, stunned that the entire culture of fear of the commies/ruskies/Soviets was suddenly ending. We couldn’t believe that it was all over, the United States to be the sole superpower in the world.

Most of you have no memory of these issues. You know about nuclear weapons, you may have memories of chemical weapon fears with Iraq’s Scud missiles, but it was always on foreign soil. You don’t have the memory of a popular DJ in LA talking about the 255 nuclear warheads pointed directly at Los Angeles.

At this time of new years, let’s take a few moments to discuss what it is that YOU fear. What are the issues that you consider the greatest threats to society as a whole? What keeps you up late at night?

(take answers)

These are all significant issues. Personally, I watch my three children at play, care-free, imaginative, idyllic, and just cannot escape moments of sadness, knowing that they will suffer from the dismal treatment of our environment pervading and perverting our society today. The more I understand the real issues of global warming and, perhaps more immediately but connected, the horrible, deadly dependence our society has on oil and other non-renewable resources, all the sweet lullabies and choruses of “hush little baby, don’t say a word” do not put me to sleep.

I have been blessed by the influence of powerful teachers who have taught me that to be a Jew means to live a life of commitment to Tikkun Olam, perfecting this world. As Leo Baeck once noted, Judaism is not merely ethical but ethics constitutes its essence. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophetic philosopher and scholar, would have turned 100 years old this past year. When he marched in Selma, AL, with Dr. King, he said he felt his legs were praying”. He also said that "Life without commitment is not worth living.” What are your commitments? Mine tonight is to help stop the human contributions to global warming. Let’s start off with a pop quiz…

Global warming is an increase in the average temperature of the Earth's lower atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. Since the Industrial Revolution, that temperature has gone up by a little over 1 degree, with more rapid increases predicted by scientific models.
Visible, shortwave light comes from the sun to the earth, passing unimpeded through a blanket of thermal, or greenhouse, gases composed largely of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Infrared radiation reflects off the planet's surface toward space but does not easily pass through the thermal blanket. Some of it is trapped and reflected downward, keeping the planet at an average temperature suitable to life, about 60°F (16°C).
Some of the long-term consequences include:
Melting of polar ice, with a resulting rise in sea level and coastal flooding;
disruption of drinking water supplies dependent on snow melts;
profound changes in agriculture due to climate change;
extinction of species as ecological niches disappear;
more frequent tropical storms; and
an increased incidence of tropical diseases.

Carbon Dioxide, Methane, and water vapor.

Electricity plants burning coal, then automobiles.
Among factors that may be contributing to global warming are:
· The burning of coal and petroleum products (sources of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone);
· deforestation , which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;
· Methane gas released in animal waste;
· and increased cattle production, which contributes to all three of these causes.

30 Academies of science and scientific societies, which includes the every National Academy of Science of the G8, (meaning Canada, France, Germany, the US, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the UK) are universally convinced of the anthropogenic origins of global warming. A handful of scientists disagree, but within the scientific community they are vastly outnumbered. Even when they disagree, they may only differ in some smaller aspects of the equation. Only one questionable scientist has published materials doubting the existence of climate change; most of the doubters feel that the data is too broad make conclusions, but don’t rule out the possibility that it is human in origin.


A Carbon Footprint measures the impact we have on the environment in terms of the amount of green house gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide.

I would like to share with you two early memories:

For fourth and fifth grades, I was bussed to Pacoima as part of our state’s effort to promote integration through mandatory bussing. Along with the shift in classmates from white suburban WASPy kids to brown Latino kids, I remember horribly hot, non-air conditioned rides and the choking stench of vehicle exhaust streaming back into our yellow schoolbus through the windows. I would wait outside for the bus in the San Fernando Valley heat. I recall days when we were not able to play on the playground because of the sweltering heat. I remember many, other days when to take a deep breath hurt. Not because of overexertion during a heatspell, but because of SMOG. Days were rated for air quality, with “smog alerts” regularly interfering with our playground antics. “Smog alert?” The very air that we breathe, considered too filthy for breathing??

For father’s day in 1973, my father received a Pete Seeger record. I was only four years old but I felt it was MY record. I absolutely loved that record. (wait, does everyone know what a record is? Maybe not. Here’s one to remind you. We used to call it vinyl. LPs, meaning long-playing, to distinguish them from my parents’ childhoods when they listened to 78s. LPs rotated 33 1/3 times per minute, so you could put lots of music on the disks. What a technological advance! Anyway, I digress…) My older sister Debbi used to have this steel-stringed guitar, and I used to imitate Pete’s insanely quick guitar moves on Bob Dylan’s song about a boxer who died in the ring, called “Who Killed Davey Moore?”

“Who killed Davey Moore? How come he died and what's the reason for?Not I, said the referree, don't point your finger at meI coulda stopped in the 8th and maybe kept him from his fateBut the crowd would have booed I'm sure at not getting their money's worthIt's too bad that he had to go, but there was pressure on me too you know It wasn't me that made him fall, no you can't blame me at all“Who killed Davey Moore? How come he died and what's the reason for?“Not us, said the angry crowd, whose screams filled the arena loudIt's too bad he died that night but we just like to see a fightWe didn't mean for him to meet his death, we just meant to see some sweatThere ain't nothing wrong in that. It wasn't us that made him fall, no you can't blame us at all”It goes on with the denial of blame by the manager, the gamblers who bet on the match, the boxing reporter, and even the man who knocked him out in the ring.

Who killed Davey Moore? why and what's the reason for?Not me, said his manager, puffing on a big cigarIt's hard to say, It's hard to tell, I always thought that he was wellIt's too bad for his wife and kids he's dead but if he was sick he shoulda saidIt wasn't me that made him fall, no you can't blame me at allWho Killed Davey Moore? why and what's the reason for?Not me, says the gamblin' man, with his ticket stub still in his handMy it wasn't me that knocked him down, my hands never touched him noneI didn't commit no ugly sin, anyway I put money on him to win It wasn't me that made him fall, no you can't blame me at allWho killed Davey Moore? why and what's the reason for?Not me, says the boxing writer, pounding print in his old typewriterSaying boxing ain't to blame there's just as much danger in a football gameSaying fist-fighting is here to stay, it's just the old American wayIt wasn't me that made him fall, no you can't blame me at allWho killed Davey Moore? why and what's the reason for?Not me, says the man whose fists layed him low in a cloud of mistWho came here from Cuba's door where boxing ain't allowed no moreI hit him, I hit him, yes it's true, but that's what I'm paid to doDon't say murder, don't say kill, It was destiny, it was God's willIt wasn't me that made him fall, no you can't blame me at allWho killed Davey Moore? why and what's the reason for?

Dylan was clear. As Heschel once said, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

If a hundred scientists say that climate change is partially due to anthropogenic, or human causes, for every one that says it isn’t, when do we reject the one nay-sayer? When is a fact a fact? Can we afford to just chalk up our passivity as the success of another Bush-ism, our President notorious for rejecting the scientific community on this issue and so many others? When 48 Nobel laureates, 63 National Medal of Science recipients, and 136 members of the National Academy of Sciences disagree with President Bush’s position on this issue, do we just nod our heads?[1] Should we allow ourselves to continue to grow cynical in this post-Watergate world and ignore the real threats to our way of life, pointing fingers at everyone else for global warming trends? Stoically stand defeated in the face of what is becoming the worst environmental disaster in the history of our planet?

More Pop Quiz questions:

Living in the US, we eat 2,175 pounds of food per person per year.
This provides the U.S. consumer with an average daily energy intake of 3,600 Calories.
The world average is 1631 lbs, or 2,700 Calories per day.33

Americans are consuming more food, which is leading to a greater usage of non-renewable resources. This abundance is thanks to the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s, when technological advancements in agriculture increased crop yields immensely. World grain production increased by 250%. Wonderful, we certainly believe. However, one small problem. In an article titled “Eating Fossil Fuels,” one researcher points out that “This additional energy did not come from an increase in incipient sunlight, nor did it result from introducing agriculture to new vistas of land. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers ([stemming from] natural gas), pesticides ([stemming from] oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation.” The Green Revolution increased the energy flow to agriculture by an average of 50 times the energy input of traditional agriculture.5 In the most extreme cases, energy consumption by agriculture has increased 100 fold or more.6

In other words, the more we eat, the more we deplete.


As of one decade ago, Americans were consuming 1,450 gallons/day/capita (g/d/c), with the largest amount used on agriculture.


How does your car compare?

In 2003, the population growth rate was 1.1%. At that rate, the projection was that by 2050, in YOUR lifetime, there will be upwards of 520 million people in the United States. Meanwhile, the amount of arable land is rapidly shrinking due to the destruction of topsoil. Add on top of this agriculture’s heavy dependency on fossil fuels, likely to disappear in this century but possibly as soon as within the next 50 years by some people’s estimates, and we are looking at serious problems unless we figure out alternatives.

Global warming is real. In 1995, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that global temperatures would rise between roughly 1 ½ and 6 1/3 degrees by the close of the 21st century if the production of greenhouse gases was left unbridled. Even if we do stop the release of new greenhouse gases, they predicted that those that have accumulated will still increase global temperatures by 1 to 3 ½ degrees. Meanwhile, there has been only increases in the use of fossil fuels since then, so greenhouse gas emissions have risen. Nearly every year for the past two decades, our global temperatures have gone up.

Americans constitute less than 5% of the world's population.
However, we produce a quarter of the world’s CO2,[2]
Consume 26% of the world's energy,[4]
and yet we have only 3% of the world’s known oil reserves,[5]
and generate roughly 30% of the world’s waste.[6] [7] The average American produces 100,000 pounds of trash in his or her lifetime.[2] (4lbs/day X 365.25 X 80 =116,000)
An American's impact on the environment is at least 250 times greater than that of a Sub-Saharan African.[8] [9] China has a much higher population density (4.7x), but its per capita energy consumption is nine times lower than the US. Thus, though there are two billion people in China, they only use about half the energy we consume.[3]
Furthermore, our use of fossil fuels has gone up 20-fold in only four decades.

Are we out of our minds? Blind to the growing crisis?

American Geophysicist Marion King Hubbert theorized in 1954 that oil production follows a bell curve for any particular site. He also speculated that “Peak Oil,” that is, the point of maximum oil production, would happen between 1965 and 1970 for the United States, around 2005 for the rest of the world. He was right on regarding the US. Is he even close to being right regarding the rest of the world’s oil production? The latest estimate is 2010, only three years away. Are we prepared for the downward slope of the bell curve as we strip the planet of its oil reserves? Perhaps not in our lifetimes, but in our children’s?

We may have already peaked our natural gas production in North America with the possible exception of Alaska. It is already in decline in the UK. One estimate is that we have 75 years left for use of natural gas.

Mother Earth does have large quantities of coal available, perhaps enough for the next 250 years. However, burning coal to make electricity is the largest polluter and creator of greenhouse gases. Should we rely on non-renewable resources that will slowly poison our air, melt our frozen drinking water, and sink our coastlines?

Science is merciless in providing us with truth. Cornell University professor of ecology and agriculture, David Pimentel, and others argue that if first, environmentally-sound agricultural technologies are implemented; second, renewable energy sources are established on a universal scale; and third, energy efficiency is radically increased, only then does the United States have a chance at a sustainable economy. The biggest catch? They estimate that our population needs to be capped at 200 million people. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, according to their study.[6] (http://www.energybulletin.net/281.html: Published on 2 Oct 2003 by From The Wilderness Publications)

So much needs to change.
Hubbert wrote in 1976, twenty two years after presenting his theory that held, [7]: “Our principal constraints are cultural. During the last two centuries we have known nothing but exponential growth and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of nongrowth.”[4]
Our overly consumptive society is a house of cards made from plastics produced from nonrenewable oil. It looks virtually impossible that we will ever produce these fuels in sufficient quantities to satisfy our needs. Once the oil is gone, all those things produced through use of petroleum products will no longer be produced unless we find alternatives. This includes food. The good news, which is only good if we take it seriously, is that there are alternative sources of energy.

What does any of this have to do with Judaism?

Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the bible, teaches us: When you lay siege and battle against a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.[5] This principle is understood as “bal tashchit,” “Do not destroy.”

The rabbis, reading the prohibition of Bal Tashchit, followed hermeneutical principles and said that if it is against divine law to cut down trees in the context of warfare when winning the war is critical and burning down trees can offer a strategic advantage so that it would be tempting, then cutting them down when things are less critical must clearly be prohibited. In other words, the principle of Bal Taschit was expanded beyond the context of warfare to everyday life. “Do not destroy,” Bal Tashchit, is an obligation year-round. The rabbis expanded it beyond prohibiting deforestation.

Maimonides, the medieval philosopher and law code writer, teaches that “Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys buildings, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner, violates bal tashchit”[6]

The Talmud further prohibits killing animals for convenience (Hullin 7b), wasting fuel (Shabbat 67b), and a minority opinion classifies eating extravagant foods when one can eat simpler ones as a violation of Bal Tashchit (Shabbat 140b).]

The founder of Neo-Orthodox Judaism in Germany, Samson Raphael Hirsch, teaches that Bal Tashchit is the “first and most general principle that G asks us to observe…. God's call proclaims to you, "Do not destroy anything! Be a mentsh! Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mentsh and have the right over them which I have given you as a human. However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human but an animal and have no right to the things around you.[7]

The Sefer ha-Chinuch, a medieval listing of all the 613 Commandments listed in the Torah, explains, “This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can.”

IN other words, “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a Jewish teaching! With this in mind, I have placed a listing of 59 ways you can avoid wasting resources, particularly nonrenewable ones.

Are we willing to be guided by our values, our Jewish value of Bal Tashchit which teaches that it is a crime to waste the gifts provided for us by G? Is it possible that this ancient wisdom, handed down to us long ago, was a call for sustainability? That perhaps when we thought the world was smaller and that we were the center of the universe, in pre-Copernican Europe, that we were actually more cautious, more conscientious of the fragile balance between human survival needs and our ecosystem? On this birthday party for Mother Earth, Rosh HaShanah, in which our Shofar is our noisemaker and apples dipped in honey and honey cake our birthday cake, are we raising a toast to a carefree child with a lifetime ahead of him? or to our 4 billion year old Mother, whose years on this planet are finite?

The biblical prophets such as Jeremiah and Amos looked at the greed and mass consumption and dehumanization present in their days. Our rabbis teach that the first Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 because of the detestable disregard of the law.

Our prayerbook addresses our distorted understanding of the fragility of our existence on this planet. On page 188, we read Umipnei Chata’einu galinu me’artzeinu v’nitrachaknu me’al admateinu, “because of our sins, we were exiled from our land and distanced from our earth.” Chata’einu, our sins, implies being off-center from our understanding of right and wrong. Our sense of things is distorted, thus leading us to destructive behaviors. Because we have lost our sensibilities and have exploited the planet for our own selfish needs, without realizing it, we were exiled from our land and distanced from our planet. Is this rewriting of our prayerbook a prediction of the future?

Richard Levy, the brilliant writer of this Machzor, also provides us a beautiful interpretation of divine cause and effect on page 84.

And IF you listen intently to My mitzvoth
Which I am making your mitzvot this very day,
Showing your love for A-onay your G And giving service
With every inclination of your knowing heart
And all the strength with which you live
Then shall I give your land rain in its proper time,
Autumn rain and spring rain,
That you may harvest your grain,
Your wine and your oil.
I shall give grass to the field for your cows
That you may eat your fill.
But beware!
If you turn your knowing heart away
To serve gods that are alien,
Bowing down to different kinds of powers,
Then the breath of A-onai will flare against you
To shut up the heavens so there will be no rain,
So the ground will not give her produce,
And you will perish at once from the good earth
Which A-onai is giving you.
Place these words upon your knowing heart
Teach them to your children throughout the day…
That your days upon the land that is God's gift
Will be as many as the days of heaven Above the earth.

Our tradition is clear: It is our responsibility to be stewards of this planet. Our tradition has long understood the fragility of the earth and the sometimes destructive nature of human beings. The complex system of Mitzvot, or Commandments, are meant to remind us of our own free will, that we individually have the capacity to build up or break down, to be the problem or part of the solution. All of us here know what needs to be done to at least give us a chance at surviving this real challenge for our children and grandchildren, but are we ready to make the necessary sacrifices? Are we prepared to restrain our natural desire for more, more more?

I have included a list of ways you can reduce your carbon emissions at your seats. Please read it carefully. You will see that some of these are quite doable, some of them difficult for college students. However, you can influence your parents, and you can join a campus coalition of environmentalists and activists who see sustainability, the notion that we need not be continuous consumers of natural resources but could actually create a different ethic, one that can be found in other parts of the world:

In Denmark, 23% of its electricity is provided via wind power.

In France, at least 60% of energy needs are provided by nuclear power plants. While not a renewable resource, nevertheless I believe nuclear energy should be reconsidered given its very small carbon footprint.
In Israel, all new homes built since the 1970’s oil crisis are mandated by the Knesset to add a water heater.

Personally, I have already installed a water recirculator in my home to lower water waste. This summer, I abandoned an older gas guzzler and went hybrid. And finally, in order to encourage the development of solar energy, I have purchased a kit for my Prius to increase its fuel economy that will add a solar panel to its rooftop. The “solar Prius” promises to add as much as 29% to my fuel efficiency, so that I can get upwards of 70 miles per gallon. We’ll see if it works, but the principle of Bal Tashchit mandates that I try.

Every weekday morning, helmets on our heads, my son and oldest daughter take off to their school. Before we leave our driveway, Rocky calls out,
“A one, . . a two… a one, two, three, and…
Modeh Ani L’fanecha,
Melech Chai v’kayam,
Shehechezarta, bi nishmati, b’chemla, b’chemla
Rabba emunatecha.”

Thank you, G, Ruler of life who sustains us,
For you have returned our souls to us with kindness.
Great is your faith in us.

I am not rigid on too many rituals; singing Modeh Ani, however, is law in our household.
How can one celebrate life without being thankful for all that we have?
Our daily rebirth out of our slumber,
Our annual recognition of our capacity to change through repentance every High Holidays.
Hayom Harat Olam, today is the birthday of the world.
On this Rosh HaShanah, I invite you to take stock of your life,
Your lifestyle.
How might you become less of a consumer and more of a producer?
In what ways can you enter into the discourse over sustainability,
Lowering your carbon footprint personally
and advocating for changes societally?

Rock of Israel,
Source of Life,
As the psalmist wrote, “I have placed G before me always,”
so too help us to place our planet’s survival in our thoughts all the time.
May we encourage one another to see beyond ourselves,
To our children and to our children’s children,
Living responsibly,
Always asking questions,
Never ignoring the answers.
We only have this fragile crucible,
With a thin layer of breathable air,
With only a small amount of drinkable water,
With disparities in our resource distribution
“A-onai, s’fateinu Umocheinu tiftach, ufeinu nagid t’hilatecha.
G, open up our lips and our minds, that our mouths may declare how glorious your world is.

[1] http://www.durangobill.com/CreationismBush.html
[2] http://www.illinoisrecycles.org/facts.html.
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over-consumption
[4] http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/wwf1976/
[5] Dt 20:19-20.
[6] H. Melachim 6:10.
[7] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, #56, as found on http://www.coejl.org/learn/je_tashchit.php.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Me in the Jewish Journal (funny picture); Rabbinic Commitment to Change


A rabbi's job includes social justice advocacy; i'm always looking for excuses to take a larger role in community affairs. I"m on the Board of Rabbis now, as well as serving on the Environmental Commission of Assemblymember Karen Bass's district and taking an active role in CLUE's campaign for the Wilshire Plaza Hotel workers. Lately, I have also been quite involved with PJA's Economic Justice Working Group: www.pjalliance.org.

Why aren't more rabbis finding ways to get involved beyond their synagogues? It's an urgent need, as Jews become more and more comfortable with the status quo (as their economic power separates them from those still struggling). Lo Ta'amod al dam reiyecha, do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, means we cannot remain silent.

All clergy must read Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" if they want to function in their roles as clergy.

Sometimes, there are tensions, though, between one's belief system and those in the community with which one works. This is one of the reasons why I waited so long to sign the Jews Against the War petition. When it comes to hotel workers, though, there is virtually no reason to stay away. Management needs to share the profits--and clergy must share the prophets--period. The Century Plaza settled, which is wonderful. Let's celebrate the successes and commit to fixing the failures....

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Obama over Giuliani...