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Tisha b’Av in the Age of Climate Change

Judy Weiss
August 7, 2016


by Rabbi Judy Weiss

from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

RosietheTefillinWearerTHE FIRST TIME I went to Tisha b’Av morning services, I was surprised by something rather insignificant: According to Ashkenazic custom, Jews don’t wear talleisim (prayer shawls) or tefillin (phylacteries) during the morning Tisha b’Av service.

For me, not laying tefillin is a bigger deprivation than fasting. I love my weekday morning ritual of wrapping the tefillin strap around my left hand and fingers, and reciting the promise from Hosea: “I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, lovingkindness, and mercy. I will betroth you to me with faithfulness — and you shall know the Lord.” Abstaining from this on the morning of Tisha b’Av signifies complete rejection, abandonment, and despair, suggesting that the Jewish community has failed to live up to its “betrothal” vows and has failed to encourage the growth of a morally just and mercifully compassionate society.

Now, you may think that Tisha b’Av is boring or not quite relevant to your life — that it’s just about ancient history, the destruction of the Temple and the exiles, tragedies and traumas suffered by Jews throughout history. As a 21st century Jew, however, I find Tisha b’Av to be an important element in the continuity of Jewish culture and Jewish values across the ages. I also find that if I detach myself altogether from the daily assurance that I am wedded to “righteousness, justice, lovingkindness, mercy and faithfulness,” I disconnect from a pressing sense of responsibility, and allow myself to feel despair instead of accountability for our contributions to society’s injustices.

If tefillin and Hosea’s promise don’t resonate with you, consider the recent finding (reported in the Washington Post) that even people who are knowledgeable and alarmed about climate change and are committed to cutting their personal carbon footprint tend to have very low levels of “public-sphere action” such as lobbying with, or donating to, climate organizations. The study’s researchers say why this matters: “Without a concerted national policy effort, private individual behavior can only go so far. Governments possess greater leverage for mitigation because they can implement policies that restructure choices available to millions of people and organizations, but it is unlikely that the U.S. will adopt future ambitious climate policies without public demand.”

The study also cites one factor that increases the likelihood of becoming socially active on climate change: having other people making you aware of activism opportunities and encouraging you to work side-by-side for political solutions that can fix the energy and environmental woes of our nation. If alarmed environmentalists feel isolated and don’t get inspired and drawn into an active network by people whom they know and trust, they can end up feeling even more isolated, personally powerless, and discouraged.

So forget about putting on tefillin; consider, instead, who might need you to wrap your arms around them, to bind them to you so they can face the challenges of working for political action. For unless and until we unite to seek government action on the crisis, and donate to organizations that work for large-scale responses, we share in overall blame for the imminent destruction of our collective “Temple” — our planet’s climate balance.

IN INDIA this past May, according to the New York Times, new temperature records were set at 123º, and some city streets were actually melting. In 2012, the heat in Chicago was so high that train tracks warped, resulting in at least one fatal derailment. Similar derailments were brought on by heat in Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. “Earth sees eleven record hot months in a row,” Scientific American recently declared. But what can you do about speeding locomotives or out-of-control warming by yourself?

A recent poll by Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication says that 40 percent of Americans believe that Congress could be convinced to enact climate legislation. That is a pretty hopeful number, given the deadlocked state of our Congress — yet only about 10 percent of Americans have actually written, emailed, or called government officials about climate change. What’s stopping them?

I only know what almost stopped me. I was quietly sitting at a synagogue dinner at which my friend Lisa gave a dvar torah about feeling powerless in the age of climate change. A poised marketing manager in her early fifties, Lisa spoke gently, measuredly, moving from point to point, occasionally consulting an index card. She began by letting us listen in on her private musings about how to protect her three daughters from global warming. With a singsong inflection that she often uses in more humorous presentations, Lisa listed her efforts: she drives a hybrid car, hangs laundry to dry, composts, and eats vegetarian. But nothing she can do as an individual, she admitted, is enough in the face of a problem as enormous as global warming.

As she spoke, I heard her describing my situation: I have kids, am a vegetarian, don’t own a car. Lisa was verbalizing what my heart was feeling,but my brain hadn’t wanted to confront. She was arguing that the only way to protect her family was by joining an organization that seeks to motivate the whole nation to work together to find a political solution — that we must , in other words, become involved in American politics. But I despise American politics — its circus-like culture, its disregard for facts, its ideological thinking, which so often preempts compassion, Indeed, as Lisa described legislative solutions for climate change, my heart grew cold. Then suddenly my head objected, and I began wrestling with myself, trying to break away from my calcified attitudes towards politics. How could a loyal friend dismiss Lisa’s words and her hopes for the future? I forced myself to listen again; I then joined an organization with her; soon it was me convincing her to come with me to its next national conference.

It’s not logical that 40 percent of Americans believe Congress can be convinced to enact climate legislation, yet only 10 percent of Americans try to get officials to take action. It means that while our heads tell us we need a political solution, our hearts are scared that we aren’t expert enough to meet, write to, or call officials and tell them what we want. But it’s not just about knowing facts — it’s about showing up regularly to say that we care.
Which brings me back to tefillin. Placing tefillin on the head, near the heart, and around the hand, is for me a ritual that coaches me to use head, heart, and hands every day to make the world more just. Hands must work to solve societal problems; heart and head must learn to work together, so that we can confront those problems with full heart and full intelligence.

IN FEBRUARY, Harvard researchers reported that U.S. methane emissions had jumped by 30 percent during the past decade, coinciding with America’s fracking boom. Natural gas leaks at drill sites or from pipelines have become truly worrisome, because the methane it contains is a more potent atmosphere-warmer than carbon dioxide (though methane persists in the atmosphere a much shorter time). Just when we need to slow short-term warming in order to give renewable-energy infrastructure time to expand, we’ve come to rely more heavily on methane!

Of course, we keep hearing the claims of fossil-fuel lobbyists that natural gas and the pipelines that carry it will provide jobs while supplying our energy needs more cheaply than renewables, if only to serve as a “bridge” to a clean-energy future. These arguments, however, never acknowledge or calculate the social cost of carbon — that is, the harm fossil-fuel use causes to our health and our climate, which, if added to the price we pay for natural gas, would demonstrate that it is no bargain.

In 2014, a Minnesota administrative judge told a public utility commission that if they failed to consider environmental and health costs when comparing the costs of natural gas and solar electricity, they were failing to choose the cheapest and best option. In another Minnesota case, the commission was advised in 2016 to update its 1997 estimate for the social cost of carbon emissions (under $5 per ton); the judge wrote that the commission should use the federal government’s more recent estimates, which range from $11 to $57, depending on the circumstances.

This past spring, a coalition of Republican-leaning landowners and left-leaning environmentalists cooperated to move the Georgia legislature to suspend the use of eminent domain for building pipelines. In Massachusetts, the same pipeline company encountered so many fierce objections from landowners, environmentalists, the state attorney general, and state legislators that they withdrew a pipeline application. The legislature now feels intense pressure to procure sufficient renewable electricity because several regional coal powered-plants and nuclear plants have closed or are scheduled to close, while regional power-plant emissions went up in 2015 by 5 percent due to increased reliance on natural gas, despite a 2008 mandate to have emissions decline. All of this should force a focus on increasing the state’s renewable energy.

Also in May, the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court ruled, in a suit brought by four teenagers and environmental organizations, that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection had not complied with the state’s 2008 law requiring it to establish regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions steadily (the deadline for these court-ordered regulations was four years ago). And in Washington, young people won a similar case in which the state Department of Ecology was ordered to issue emissions rules. Environmental lawsuits on behalf of children have now been filed in all fifty states and against the federal government. Such cases demonstrate that, with plenty of vocal input from individuals and the environmental organizations we support, governments can learn how to value the economic, health, and environmental benefits of renewable energy. As for the spiritual benefit of freeing ourselves and our society from danger — it’s priceless.

EXODUS 13:16, the text that undergirds the ritual of laying tefillin, describes placing “a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt.” Today, amid our enslavement to fossil fuels, binding myself with tefillin reminds me that when we bind ourselves together as a powerful citizenry, we can free ourselves all over again from Egypt. Surrendering the ritual of tefillin on Tisha b’Av, on the other hand, serves to warn me of the danger posed to our Temple Earth if I unbind myself from activism. Between now and Tisha b’Av, therefore (starting at sundown on August 13), I urge you to think about ways in which you’re willing to volunteer with or donate to climate organizations, as well as write, call and visit your elected officials. Here’s a fascinating organization to consider supporting: the Environmental Voter Project. Researcher Nathaniel Stinnett has determined that roughly 15 million super-environmentalist Americans actually do not vote! We can work with him and his organization to change that appalling reality.

Rabbi Judy Weiss lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she teaches Hebrew Bible and volunteers in climate change advocacy, co-leading the Boston chapters of Citizens’ United Climate Lobby and Elders Climate Action.