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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

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] ( 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.

[5] Dt 20:19-20.
[6] H. Melachim 6:10.
[7] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, #56, as found on

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn I was going to buy a new Hummer in late 2012 and drive around the country for a vacation, Now I am going to have to shave my head and join the Hari.s, Muslims, Jews, Jehovah s, Mormons, Christians, and a few other wing nut groups just to cover all my bases.
]future and past of the earth
[/url] - some truth about 2012

2/26/2010 5:46 AM  

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