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“Why Were You Not Zusya?”

Judy Weiss
September 29, 2016


by Rabbi Judy Weiss

from the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

IN A NOVEMBER 2014 CARTOON in the Washington Post, Tom Toles skewered the Republican obstructionist stance on climate change. In a dialogue between a Republican elephant and Toles’ beardless version of Uncle Sam, the elephant argues, “We shouldn’t cut our carbon emissions because China won’t cut theirs.” Uncle Sam replies, “They just agreed to cut theirs.” The elephant comes back with: “We shouldn’t cut ours for some other reason.” The cartoonist doesn’t waste time reciting technical details about how China is cutting their emissions, but simply communicates that the U.S. has no excuse for failing to deal with our own emissions.

It’s a particularly apropos message for the Jewish high holidays. If we skim the makhzor’s (prayerbook’s) list of failings for which atonement is required, we see that the elephant has sinned by denying, lying, scoffing, effrontery, contentiousness, breach of trust, and, when referring to China, perpetuating baseless hatred and slander.

I imagine that our prayerbook could be pithier and more penetrating if it were written in a series of cartoons. In some ways, rabbinic stories serve a function similar to political cartoons, conveying hard-to-hear messages by painting a picture with stereotyped characters in stylized settings — all of which serves to lower our natural resistance to self-criticism. Here’s one story often recounted at the high holidays (as told by Martin Buber in his Tales of the Hasidim):

“Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ”

social-media-jpgThe humble and unassuming Zusya affirms for us that the sin we should truly regret is our failure to use our talents and time to be our best selves for our families, communities, and the world. This lesson applies also for the America of Toles’ cartoon: We must use our finest science and cleverest innovative skills to be our best America, while urging China to be their best, too.

AS A GENERAL RULE, scientists work best when in their labs, studying data or finding ways to improve each other’s results. They aren’t usually specialists at communicating basic scientific findings to non-scientists, and they don’t usually get involved in policy responses. Yet there are times when society’s well-being requires scientists to leave the comfort zone of their labs and enter the public dialogue. Climate scientist James Hansen left his job at NASA because Bush administration officials restricted what he could say. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University began reading social science studies to learn how to communicate difficult information to the public. She became a specialist in giving educational lectures on climate change to conservative and evangelical groups!

Dr. Michael Mann of Penn State, too, was drawn into the public climate debate because his dissertation, in part, happened to disprove a favorite climate-denier talking point. Like other climate scientists who have entered the public debate, Mann received tons of hate mail and threats, was harassed by nuisance subpoenas from elephant politicians, and was slandered by rightwing journalists who ignore facts and foment climate denial.

Yet Mann, Hayhoe, Hansen and a host of other climate scientists haven’t been silenced by the intimidation tactics of bad-faith players. They’ve met the challenge to be the best Mann, Hayhoe, or Hansen they can be, given the current scientific realities and political dysfunction.

Mann has just written a book with Tom Toles — The Madhouse Effect, How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (2016, Columbia University Press) — which includes the political cartoon about China cutting its emissions. The book aims to help the public see through the maddening lies, distortions, scoffing, and needless contentiousness of climate-change deniers and climate-policy delayers. It nicely balances Mann’s explanations of why the deniers are wrong about climate science, and why national climate policy is urgently needed, with Toles’ darkly comical cartoons. The combination of serious text with funny drawings works.

Other climate scientists have begun raising public awareness about the impact of airplanes on climate change, and a variety of universities have begun to reconsider their very large carbon footprints from travel. Some scientists are asking colleagues to be more selective about when they fly: While some trips are essential for work, learning and networking, other trips could be eliminated or made virtual through communications technology. (For more information, see

Northwestern University scholar Laurie Zoloth, while president of the American Academy of Religion, told the New York Times that “the scientists on my campus are frantic” about this issue. In 2014, she introduced AAR colleagues to the Jewish concept of the shmita, in which every seventh year, as she put it, “all agricultural work stops, the fields are left fallow, and every living creature, animal, and person can eat from the field and the vineyard and the wide open world, when the boundaries of ownership and possession are broken so that the poor can take what they need, when all debts are released.” She then proposed that the 2021 AAR conference — it will be a shmita year — be suspended in order to reduce travel emissions. After all, with many major religious leaders urging governments to act on climate change, how can scholars of religion continue as if nothing had changed? It would be inconsistent with being our best “Zusyas.”

Of course, until our society transitions from fossil fuels to clean energy, we have few carbon-free options available to us, so it’s impossible to do one’s work and live one’s life with a zero carbon footprint. That’s one reason it’s especially galling that tricksters affiliated with a Republican PAC have been stalking the dedicated climate activist Bill McKibben, hoping to video him driving a car or using a plastic bag. McKibben’s work with has helped stop the Keystone pipeline, ignited many other pipeline protests, and energized the climate movement in a major way — that’s him being his best Zusya. A plastic bag at a grocery store is meaningless, whereas stalking climate advocates constitutes bullying, anti-Zusya behavior.

THE LESSON OF ZUSYA doesn’t just apply to people, but to corporations, too. In February 2016, Jim Hightower wrote an essay for his monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown: “Reinventing Business ‘Ethics’: How Corporate Honchos Gave Themselves Cover to Be as Rapacious as They Wanna Be.” Hightower tackled the idea developed over the last thirty years or so that the only obligation of corporations is to maximize profits for their shareholders. This “shareholders-first postulate” has effectively turned many corporations into societal bullies.

Hightower notes that national laws, state laws, and corporate charters do not require corporations to maximize profits over all other moral, ethical, social, or community responsibilities. An example of an older, traditional corporate statement of responsibility was written in 1943 by Robert Wood Johnson, founder of Johnson & Johnson, which designated five groups of stakeholders to be served by the company: customers first (including the doctors and medical workers who used the company’s products), workers second, managers third, and communities fourth. Shareholders, Johnson declared, were the “fifth and last responsibility.”

Johnson also explained that while “business must make a sound profit,” a corporate executive must live up to a moral code: “We must be a good citizen — support good works and charity, and bear our fair share of taxes. We must maintain in good order the property we are privileged to use. We must participate in the promotion of civil improvement, health, education, and good government . . .” The credo is still found in Johnson & Johnson’s corporate offices and on their website. It reflects the traditional idea that corporations are expected to be their best selves, their best Zusyas.

Alan Murray, editor of Fortune magazine, writes that economist Milton Friedman was wrong in denying the responsibilities of business to society. “ ‘The social responsibility of business,’ the economist often said, ‘is to increase its profits.’ Period.” Murray highlights seven corporations to watch as they strive to be their Zusya. H&M, for example, an international clothes manufacturer and fashion-setter, has pledged “100 percent circularity” — to move “from the linear ‘take, make, waste’ to circular production,” thereby creating a sustainable fashion industry. The company asserts that the planet cannot afford a textile industry as it is conducted today. Therefore, they are aiming to transition to 100 percent sustainable fabrics (along with the use of recycled fabrics), 100 percent renewable electricity in their stores, warehouses and offices, and a fair living-wage policy in their supply chain. Their goal, says H&M, is to “decouple growth from resource use.”

Another of Fortune’s seven corporations to watch as they change the world is Bit Corp, founded by former coal industry employees to provide computer and internet services to clients while training former miners. And several not-so-small companies have made big changes that are seemingly inconsistent with their bottom line. CVS, for example, has decided to stop selling tobacco products, since they are inconsistent with the company’s mission as a provider of medicines.

social-media-jpgElon Musk’s electric vehicle and solar businesses (Tesla and SolarCity) also reflect concern for the greater good, as described by David Robert ( “Clean energy markets are inevitable. Musk just wants to hasten their arrival. That is how he frames the overarching goal of the Master Plan: ‘Here is what we plan to do to make [sustainability] come sooner.’ . . .”

“With Tesla,” Robert continues, “the idea wasn’t only to make money selling cars, it was to revive the moribund electric vehicle market — mission accomplished. SolarCity was meant to make solar panels a mass market — mission accomplished. If Tesla’s solar roof . . . fail[s] but demonstrates that there’s a viable market for clean-energy products, I don’t know that Musk would be pleased. But the larger and more important part of his aim — to unleash consumer capitalism on the problem of sustainability — will have succeeded.”

And he will have become his best Musk, his Zusya.

Jim Hightower’s website offers a wonderful essay ( on the meaning and history of populism in America. Populism is not about a crass businessman exploiting popular anger; the term has been misapplied by the media to corporate-sponsored hucksters who really only promote plutocracy and anti-populist programs. Hightower calls himself America’s most popular populist, and offers a wonderful populist motto: “Everybody does better when everyone does better.” For me, Hightower’s motto could replace 90 percent of the Jewish high holiday liturgy: We all do better becoming our best selves when we are surrounded by role models, and a supportive community of people all striving to be their best selves.

THIS FALL, we all have many personal, moral, ethical decisions to make, as well as political voting and community activism decisions. It often sounds like climate change is just about choosing lightbulbs, a type of vehicle, or whether or not to fly. But climate change is not, and cannot be, just about personal behaviors. It also has to be about helping Uncle Sam limit carbon emissions and be the best Uncle Sam possible. It’s our job to elect officials at every level who acknowledge human-caused climate change and will enact and strengthen government policy to coordinate our collective behavior on the issue. It would be insane to change our personal behaviors while electing hucksters to office who would undo our personal efforts with bad state or federal policies. Their emissions will be our fault.

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