Earth Day as a secular chag

Thursday, April 8, 2021 | netzach she’b’gevurah 


Dear All,

It’s Earth Day two weeks from today. This prompts me to think about Earth Day as the secular equivalent of one of the festivals of Jewish life. Doing so helps us to better understand both Earth Day and the Jewish calendar.

In a theological sense I’m not a believer. If emunah is translated as faithfulness, then I strive to be a faithful Jew; but if it signifies actual faith, then I am a doubter, to put it mildly.

(If I had to describe my theological orientation it would be in a phrase that Rabbi Art Green used many years ago – a spiritual humanist. This was a riff on the notion of a secular humanist – which I’m not, despite my absence of emunah. Art himself, a few years after he introduced this phrase, published Radical Judaism. In a marvelous moment, I was chairing a session, I think at Limmud, where he was speaking. In the Q&A I said to him, “Art, you wrote this great essay on spiritual humanism a few years ago, which had a big impact on me. But now you don’t sound like a spiritual humanist, you sound like a panentheist.”

“Yes,” he said, in his beautiful and distinctive voice, “I have moved on….”)

But emunah in the sense of faithfulness – to the tradition, to core Jewish ideas – remains central to Hazon’s long-term work. Extreme weather events, extinctions, falling sperm counts (likely caused by endocrine disrupters): these need science, public policy, philanthropy, governmental interventions; this will be the aggregate work of our lifetime, and it is well underway at this moment in human history. But underneath all of this is both a spiritual malaise and, more deeply, something just fundamentally wrong – morally and ethically, not just practically – in how we relate to the natural world that sustains us.

This is the place of both humility and necessity for the world’s religions including, in a sense, the overarching postmodern secular religion whose implicit presumptions influence so much of how we live. It’s a place of humility because, frankly, whatever claims we may make for the wisdom of Jewish tradition (or Catholicism, or anything else), we have been found wanting. Whatever we have done, thus far, is somewhere between “nowhere near enough” and “not even vaguely enough.”

But it’s a place of necessity because values underpin policy. What is the motive force underneath any of the mass social movements we have seen over the past few years, or frankly anything, large or small, that is larger than me and my tribe, however defined? The answer to this is a steadily enlarging sense of the sanctity of human life and the unique value of each person. (And vegans would add: and why stop at the boundaries of human life; should we not expand our concerns to all sentient beings?)

There is no traditionally secular frame that, by itself, encompasses all of this. Utilitarianism will not quite do it. And, in any case, secular culture – as we continue to see – is thin, and we desperately need the thick culture which is provided by religions at their best. Having concern for the whole world doesn’t quite do it. Marxists had a concern for the whole world in the 20th century, and the French revolutionaries in the early 19th century. Revolutionaries sure of the rightness of their cause are invariably intolerant of those with whom they disagree. At their best, religious traditions build ongoing bridges, backwards and forwards, between noble and idealistic visions on one side, and the daily challenges and choices of human behavior, on the other.

It may seem a stretch to loop this back to Earth Day, and in some ways I accept it is. But Earth Day has at its kernel a post-religious love of the world. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, and I think the first fifty was, in a way, just the beginning. We need Earth Day to impinge on our consciousness. Businesses should close. Schools should close. Governments at every level should devote the day to the long-term future of our communities. We should go outdoors and clean-up. We should go outdoors and learn. We should go outdoors and plant.

At Hazon, we’re proud to have founded #SoundTheCall last year. The idea was to rally the Jewish community to really speak up during Earth Day. We were aiming for a few hundred people, and in the end more than 1,500 participated. This year we’re expanding the frame and explicitly labelling it not as “Jewish” but as multi-faith (which indeed builds on the contributions of folks such as Bill McKibben and David Gergen last year.) We’re partnering with EarthX, who are co-producing it with us this year.

Please join us for Earth Day. #SoundTheCall is focused on the three commitments of our Brit Hazon:

  1. Make some further change in your behavior
  2. Give money and time to organizations working on these issues year round
  3. Raise your voice for substantive change – in any institution you are part of, and in public space.

Most of all: go to your calendar , and block out Earth Day – April 22nd – every year going forward. Challenge your institution to devote this one day of the year to fleshing out a vision for living more lightly on this planet – and figuring out how you’ll advance that vision in the coming year.

And, no: I didn’t forget that it is Yom Hashoah today. For anyone who has been in Israel on this day, it is a solemn and moving and intense day. Places of entertainment are closed. The siren goes off at 10am, and people stand to attention, in silence. We lack a sufficient frame, and we require it. But Yom Hashoah in its own way is a reminder that liturgical creativity – that calendrical innovation – is possible and necessary. I want us to be on guard against fascism and antisemitism and intolerance. But I want us – and every community in the world – to dedicate ourselves to striving to ensure the conditions that enable peace and prosperity in the future. If Yom Hashoah helps us towards that vision, too, then we will really learn from the past.

Shabbat shalom,

Nigel Signature


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