I was ten minutes into a Shabbat morning sermon at a large synagogue when I said, “Both as Jews and as environmentalists, we give ourselves a bad name by telling people what to do. It’s pedagogically ineffective and, more than that, who am I to tell people what to do? I find it hard enough to figure that out for myself.”
As I said this, I felt the attention in the room shift noticeably.
Although at the time I was pleased, I realized later that what had happened revealed something quite challenging. Until that moment, half the people in shul simply hadn’t been fully present. A few of them may have been thinking: “Oh, don’t tell me this stuff; it’s rubbish. The world is fine. Leave me alone.” Probably, a far larger number were more like, “I feel bad enough already. We’ve got two cars. I’m on a plane ten times a year. My kids have more stuff than they know what to do with. Don’t make me feel worse than I already do.”
This should lead us toward an awareness not so much of the environmental challenges themselves, but rather of two separate but connected phenomena that make it so hard to address those environmental issues in the first place. First, human beings address acute and specific crises far more easily than chronic global challenges, and second, we prefer moral issues that are black and white, far more than the moral complexity that comes in various shades of gray. Both these phenomena are clear when we look at how people mobilized to end slavery, to give women the vote, to end apartheid, and to free Soviet Jews. These were enormous efforts. They involved millions of people, working over long periods, to accomplish enormous goals. But, in each instance, one could define success in just two sentences — for example, “There should be a free and democratic South Africa. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Nelson Mandela were president!” And, in each instance, one could define good and evil, placing oneself in the camp of the good. (“They are racist and I am not…”) The push in recent years for marriage equality in this country is the most recent clear example of these two phenomena in action.
By contrast, the environmental challenges of our time elude us on both counts.
In the first instance: How do we define success? We will not, in our lifetimes, wake up to this headline in the New York Times: “Great News. Climate Change Fixed! Go Back to the Way You Were.” The impossibility of imagining success, or even defining it, is a far greater psychological problem for the environmental movement than I think has been recognized.
And linked to this is the moral ambiguity. We are hard-wired to define in-groups and out-groups, to see ourselves as good and to see others, over there, as bad. Environmental challenges make this impossible. There is no “over there.” I do not blame “the oil companies,” “the airlines,” “the auto companies,” “big Ag.” We are consensual customers of all of them. We have grown up in a world that is, literally, unsustainable. Many of our most routine behaviors turn out to be profoundly unhealthy, both for us individually and as a global community. But we cannot rip our lives up overnight. We live as we live, a jumble of choices, habits, struggles, and contradictions — some that we change and some that we do not.
Into this almost impossibly murky mental morass, a Jewish environmentalist stands to speak. No wonder it is hard for people to listen. What can we say? We can provide no clarity, define no success, and offer no moral superiority.
I am not setting up intellectual problems that I will now neatly resolve. On the contrary: My entire point is that we will live with this messy reality for the remainder of our lives. These are not resolvable challenges. What we must do is to recognize them as such — and to use that knowledge to underpin the work that can and should be done.
This is why — for instance — Hazon’s mission statement is not, “We create a healthy and sustainable Jewish community…” but rather, “We work to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community…” The former phrase is absolute and implies a resolvable outcome. The latter phrase is what Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb recently referred to as an “asymptote” — we may get a little closer to it, but we can never arrive there as a final destination.
And while we should ride our bikes, eat more locally produced food, work toward greening our institutions, and switch to solar power — all of these are functions of being alive and aware in the 21st century. We should advocate for them, yet also recognize that they are not particular to the Jewish community or Jewish tradition.
What is striking is that we have not begun to really understand the gifts that we do have within Jewish tradition, many of which actually offer greater relevance than we realize:
Tisha b’Av, for instance, is a real gift to the environmental movement, and to the world — the notion that a people can endure disaster and destruction (of all sorts), recall it, remember it — and yet not allow it to lessen our sense of hope or our determination to work for a better world.
Halakhah and kashrut are real gifts — not in a formal religious sense, but in the 2,000 years of experience we have in how to induct self-restraint in ourselves and in our children.
Shmita, the sabbatical year, is a real gift, raising profound questions about the length of our cycles of time, and about the necessity and possibility of inserting multiple cycles of rest into all that we do.
The biological ecosystems that we wish to preserve must also be matched by an understanding of the power of cultural ecosystems. This is what is so powerful about environmental programs such as Adamah and Teva, because they enable young Jewish adults to join up the dots in profound ways — to see how the richness of Jewish tradition may have real value for the complex challenges we face today, and to face those issues squarely and honestly.
Cynicism arises when our words are corrupted — for instance, by promising or implying that we can fix what in reality we cannot. Hope, by contrast, is a function of truth telling, not just in shul on Shabbat morning, but at all times. We will not resolve many of the greatest challenges of our time — but neither may we desist from engaging them with all that we know, all that we have, and all that we aspire to.