by Arthur Waskow
From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents
For details about Jewish organizations and the monumental People’s Climate March in New York on September 21, click here.
• That human actions, driven by international corporations (which we call Carbon Pharaohs), are bringing a climate crisis on all life-forms on Earth, a crisis of a breadth and depth unprecedented in human history;
• That in the religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions of practically all human cultures on the planet are teachings, stories, practices, and symbols that could and should be brought to bear to heal our wounded Earth and move toward a planetary Beloved Community;
• That such teachings, stories, practices, and symbols are present in Biblical traditions, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and appearing again and again, in ways that invite their use to face “the fierce urgency of Now.”
Building upon these insights, we invite the Jewish community to join in a campaign to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet. Providentially, the initials of this campaign title spell “MOM/POP.” We didn’t plan it that way.
There are several ways in which American Jewish communities can act:
• By drawing on the traditions of public witness, nonviolent activism, and civil disobedience to work for a strong, enforceable, nationwide process for achieving major reductions in CO2 and methane production;
• By seeking a profound shift in cultural assumptions and citizen behavior, away from the consumerism and materialism that constantly presses for increased burning of fossil fuels;
• By making active, loving concern for the Earth a moral obligation, and disregard of the Earth’s needs a moral abomination;
• By using economic clout to pressure the Carbon Pharaohs to “let our people go” forward to a sustainable, renewable-energy economy.
HEALING THE CLIMATE IN THE FACE OF CONCENTRATED CORPORATE WEALTH AND POWER will take a major involvement of the U.S. public in numbers and intensity at least equal to that of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Those numbers and intensity did bring about a cultural shift that defined racism as an abomination, and a political shift that outlawed segregation and greatly increased the political power of the black community.
The American Jewish community was then a major component of the movement to challenge racism, and now needs to be a major component of the environmental movement. The seeds — but only the seeds — have been sown within the Jewish community for an intense flowering of climate-healing activism. These seeds include The Shalom Center’s and the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Committee’s creation of pre-Passover/Easter religious services focused on the climate crisis, combined with vigils, rallies, and civil disobedience; the beginning in the Jewish renewal community of an “eco-kosher” life practice applied not only to food but to all consumables; the growth of such young people’s environmentally conscious organizations as Eden Village Camp, Hazon, the Jewish Farm School, and the Yiddish Farm; and the Interfaith Power and Light’s encouragement of annual sermons on climate questions, centered on Valentine’s Day. These and other seeds now need active cultivation.
For Jews, the highest communal intensity and largest concentrations of people tend to emerge during the major seasons of fast and festival — Passover, the high holy days, and Khanike — and in the strongest moments of sacred intergenerational connection such as bar/bat mitsve. Refocusing these festivals and lifecycle events may help change the cultural assumptions that support overreach, greed, and destructive domination of the Earth.
Passover may be most appropriate for public action to focus attention on the powerful institutions committed to fossil fuels vs. the possibility of a healing and healed community, for the Passover season conjures up the memory of Pharaoh, Plagues, Exodus, Wilderness, Sinai, and Promised Land. These symbols of healing alternatives carry as much energy as the Almighty Dollar and other idolatrous symbols of the disastrous status quo. To make climate-healing the focus of such high-intensity moments, however, requires us to weave it into the fabric of religious life, rather than to focus on a blip here, a blip there.
HOW CAN WE WEAVE INTO THE DAILY CONSCIOUSNESS OF JEWISH IDENTITY the metaphor of the modern Pharaohs and their modern plagues? One crucial thread in the fabric is money: What do we do with it? The divestment work of the environmental group, 350.org, has shown that challenging the use of money to prop up our Climate Pharaohs can energize people, especially college students. We therefore believe that religious leaders, congregations, and Jewish organizations should and must address the issue of how their investments reflect their values. Should Jews invest in the modern Corporate Pharaohs, or in the smaller, more nimble, more responsive and responsible companies based on renewable and sustainable sources of energy?
Our aim is to persuade Jewish groups to move their money away from the Climate Pharaohs and towards renewable energy and low-carbon businesses, especially those that serve communities most vulnerable to climate change. Our campaign speaks of “moving our money” rather than “divestment” because “divestment” is a troubling word for the American Jewish community, for reasons discussed below — and because many households and congregations do not really have “investments,” but only bank accounts. “Move Our Money” focuses on these smaller financial holdings as well as big ones, to make possible a much broader and more inclusive campaign. “Move Our Money” also emphasizes the possibility of alternatives, of “Yes!” as well as “No!” It thus accords with a profound Jewish impulse toward hope and blessing, not as mere emotion but as a source of action.
The Move Our Money campaign is not an end in itself. It is not likely to cause enough disruption to the Carbon Pharaohs to force them to change their business plans or even to diminish the millions they spend on buying elections and lobbying Congress. The campaign can, however, mobilize large numbers of people in ways that will help delegitimize the Carbon Pharaohs and help increase investments in wind/solar-energy companies and in projects for empowering the vulnerable poor to act on climate issues. It could also provide the coalition-building needed to create political muscle to change government policies.
The American Jewish community, often in the forefront of progressive social change, has hung back on this crucial issue, well behind the examples of “divestment/reinvestment” activism set some Christian churches and denominations. Why the Jewish reluctance?
Some has perhaps been caused by anger in Jewish venues toward church efforts to divest from Israeli enterprises — even though “divestment” was popular among Jews thirty years ago when it was aimed at South Africa.
Yet there are deeper and more historical reasons for Jewish reluctance:
• Rabbinic Judaism flourished in a community that was increasingly severed from the land-and-food-based Judaism of the Bible — not only severed by the Roman Empire from the Land of Israel, but often severed from other lands by a series of expulsions. As a result, there was little encouragement to make an emotional, spiritual, or political connection with any land. So the Jewish focus became sustaining sacred communities, rather than eco-social communities.
• When Jews moved out of communal isolation and entered broader society, this focus on nourishing just and sacred communities was often refocused on work for social justice, and addressing “environmental” dangers has to some progressives seemed a cop-out from that commitment.
• In the last generation, the Jewish community has become much more affluent, and a few families have become billionaires — including some involved with Carbon Pharaoh companies. Some of these super-rich have great influence within major Jewish organizations. The result has been an unwillingness to take on the tough issues of tar sands, fracking, mountaintop destruction, etc.
• In the atmosphere of this new affluence, Jewish social-justice efforts in most “mainstream” organizations are being directed toward ameliorating the lot of the poor and perhaps preventing their being further disempowered (for example, by restoring part of the Voting Rights Act recently disemboweled by the Supreme Court), but not toward confronting top-down corporate power and not focused on the “environment.”
• In addition, some Jewish organizations have defined the key energy issue not as planetary ruin but as U.S. energy independence — and they have embraced using all forms of energy that do not come from the Middle East oil fields, including North American oil, coal, and natural gas, however destructively they are obtained.
ON THE OTHER HAND, there remains in Jewish symbols, festivals, life-cycle events, and daily practice the imprint of the spiritual and ecological outlook of an indigenous people of shepherds and farmers. This imprint can be traced in the lunar aspects of Passover and Rosh Khodesh, in the nature-oriented rituals of Sukkot, in various prayers and rituals. It has not been abandoned, though it has sometimes been obscured, and it offers profound resources for celebration of the Earth and for policy-making intended to heal it.
Today, there is an emergent generation of Jews, especially in the U.S., who have little fear of being severed from the land and are open to much greater spiritual and emotional connection it. For them, healing Planet Earth is a very high priority.
Some among this younger generation are attracted to alternative institutions like Jewish organic farms, which address climate questions not by confronting corporate power or changing public policy, but through personal and communal, hands-on work.
Those among these younger Jews who do seek to change public policy find little support in official Jewish institutions for such vigorous advocacy, and often move outside the Jewish community altogether to do it.
We therefore have both an obligation and an opportunity: To draw deeply on Jewish wisdom from the ancient to the modern to shape a campaign to confront the Carbon Pharoahs who are bringing plagues on the Earth and human society — and to attract (mostly) younger Jews to carry out a campaign against them.
One crucial step is to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP). Households, congregations, and whole denominations should take this crucial step by:
• Moving purchases away from coal-powered to wind-powered electric companies, and away from gasoline-powered and low-mileage cars to bikes, public transit, and hybrid/high-mileage cars.
• Moving monies away from banks that are investing our money in Big Carbon, to community banks and credit unions;
• Moving investments away from the stocks and bonds of death-dealing Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Unnatural Gas, and moving it instead to investments in stable, profitable solar and wind-energy companies; to businesses that help those who suffer from asthma and other diseases caused by Big Carbon; to businesses that are producing solar-sourced or wind-sourced power for homes, cars, and workplaces; to businesses that make their own buildings energy-efficient; to community banks and credit unions; to neighborhood stores that sell locally grown foods; to community-based enterprises that are dealing with the asthma epidemic, especially in poor neighborhoods heavily affected by coal dust and gasoline emissions.
• Organizing our congregants to insist that local and state governments similarly Move Our Money from investments in death to investments in life.
• Insisting that Congress Move Our Money — our tax money — away from subsidies to Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Unnatural Gas, and instead to supporting research, development, and production of life-giving renewable energy.
If you would like to take an active part in such an effort to raise these questions in your own community, congregation, or denomination, please send us an email. We have resources to help.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., is director of The Shalom Center. The newest of his books is a revised edition of Seasons of Our Joy (Jewish Publication Society) and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights).