Three Gifts from Jewish Tradition

Nigel Savage’s address at the Summit of Conscience for the Climate, Paris, 21st July 2015 | 5th Av 5775


I’m honored to be here, part of this incredible group of people.

This has been a fascinating, inspiring, thought-provoking day.

I want to say a personal thank you to Cardinal Turkson, and through you to His Holiness the Pope. I think I am not the only Jew who feels that this Pope speaks for me. I hope you will take this as a compliment if I say that he is not only an extraordinary Pope and a wonderful man, but in my language a great rabbi, and even a tzadik. Thank you so much to you and to him for inspiring us and challenging us and for modeling what is possible.

I’m here today because for 15 years I’ve been leading an organization called Hazon, Hebrew for vision. We’re working within and beyond the Jewish community to create a healthier and more sustainable world for all.
You could argue, of course, that the Jewish people have been thinking about sustainable energy ever since God spoke to Moses out of a bush that was burning but never consumed. Moses might have been the first environmentalist: He recycled a staff into a snake, he got Egypt to turn off all its lights for three days, and he convinced an entire nation to go on a 40-year nature hike.

Given everything that’s already been said today I just want to add three specific points, deriving from my organization’s work and from Jewish experience.

The first thing is this: it’s not just that we’re gathered here today, across difference, to try to have some influence on climate change and its human consequences. The opposite is also true: focusing on environmental issues is actually an opportunity to build profound and even life-changing relationships, and thus to take on some of the other great challenges of our time.

That’s what’s happening in Hyde Park, Chicago, where a synagogue and a group of black churches are working together to grow food and to help people in need. That’s what’s happening in Boulder, CO, where Hazon helped to launch one of the first interfaith CSAs in the USA.

I see this most strongly, at a bike ride that Hazon produces in Israel.

We’ve done it every year since 2003, to support a Master’s in Environmental Leadership at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. It’s a program that brings together Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians, Palestinians, Jordanians and Americans.

They’re not there because they care about co-existence; they go there because they’re thinking about the issues we’ve talked about here today and they want a professional degree so they can staff NGOs and governments in the region.

And truthfully: some of the Israelis don’t love the idea of studying with Palestinians and Jordanians. Some of the Palestinians and Jordanians don’t even tell their families that they’re studying in Israel, because that would be so unpopular.

But year after year these students come together, specifically because of environmental crises, and year after year in facing these issues and studying together they build remarkable relationships. They go to each other’s homes. They speak together at various events. They celebrate together and they sometimes mourn together.

It’s not that they agree on everything – they don’t. But when they disagree it’s as we might do here today, with respect, with affection, with a deep sense of shared values.

If Israelis and Palestinians and Jordanians can study together about environmental challenges, so too can Muslims, Christians and Jews in Europe and the States; so too can Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus across Asia and around the globe; so too can Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East.

I think His Holiness Pope Francis was modeling exactly this idea in the way that he chose to honor Patriarch Bartholomew, right at the start of the encyclical – he was deliberately using a shared future challenge to help to heal and strengthen a complex historic relationship.

When we face the largest challenges together it gets us into a problem-solving frame of mind, and it helps lift us above narrow, parochial or tribal interests and constraints.

So that’s the first thing, for all of us: let’s consciously and deliberately use the tackling of climate change to build relationships and respect across difference, especially between groups where there is tension or even strife – every place that we can, every way that we can.

The second thing is about how to face despair. Because far too many people are overwhelmed by climate change and the big global issues. They start to think about them and they get overwhelmed and depressed and then they turn the page and they move on.

I think of the old line about the definition of optimism and pessimism. The pessimist says, “I just don’t see how things could get any worse.” And the optimist says, “oh, I think I can…”

So here, I offer simply the gift of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. Right now we’re in a period known as the “nine days.” Year after year, generation after generation, this has been the time when the Jewish people mourned our losses – first the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and expulsion from the land of Israel, 1900 years ago, and then other catastrophes subsequently.

It culminates this weekend with tisha b’av, a fast which is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. This was the day of which, when he heard of it, Napoleon in this city said, “A nation that cries and fasts for over 1,700 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their return.” This is the day when, metaphorically, we enact our own death. We don’t eat, we don’t drink, we don’t listen to music. We don’t greet each other. It’s the only day of the entire Jewish year when we don’t wear a tallis or tefillin for our morning prayers.

But tisha b’av is also the closest that Jewish tradition gets to a resurrection story – because in the afternoon, we do greet each other. We put on our tallis and tefillin. We break our fast. We come back to life.

And life, in Jewish tradition, always means hope, and always means a commitment to making things better. There’s a midrash, a rabbinic tradition, that the mashiach, the messiah, will be born on the afternoon of tisha b’av; that in the world to come tisha b’av will be a day of celebration.

Moreover tisha b’av teaches that the original destruction was the consequence of our own misbehavior (in particular, in fact, of speaking ill of another person). That has profound psychological consequences; it meant that tisha b’av was framed not as a reason for passive victimhood, but as a result of our own actions. The resulting sense was that the future was in our own hands, that suffering shouldn’t disempower us but should instead spur us to action.

So I offer this gift from Jewish tradition freely to anyone anywhere who feels a sense of despair when we talk about climate change and its impact on the world and on so many people. Imagine being a rabbi in 71 CE, after the temple was destroyed, or a Spanish Jew in 1493, after the expulsion from Spain, or a concentration camp survivor in Europe in 1945. It would have been easy to give up; easy to despair; easy to lose faith in humankind or the possibility of things getting better rather than worse.

But that’s not what we do. That’s not what Jewish people have done in the face of our tragedies. And today as we all face potential tragedy, this Jewish injunction to hope, like the Pope’s encyclical, is now universal. We must not avert our eyes. We must not give in to despair. And we must not give up, none of us.

And this leads to my third point. Because in Jewish tradition, it’s not just about hope – it’s about action. The Jewish people didn’t just keep going: in every country in which we found ourselves, in every society, in every circumstance, we strived to create a better world for all. Part of the secret of Jewish hope and action is the famous line from Pirkei Avot: lo alecha hamlacha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena- “you are not obligated to finish the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.”

It’s like the third rabbi who speaks on TV after G!d has announced that we’ve behaved so badly, as a society, that there’s going to be another Noah-scale flood, in three days’ time. The first rabbi says, “repent, repent.” The second rabbi says, “repent, repent.” And the third rabbi says – “listen up, everyone – we’ve got three days to figure out how to live underwater…” The lesson is that we should use creative thinking (and humor, where we can) to adapt and respond.

So I want to say a word that in the United States, where I live, seems to be like a swear word – it’s not something you ever mention in public company. It’s a word all elected officials try to avoid. And it’s a word that religious and environmental leaders don’t say much, either. That word is “taxation.”

Everyone is against taxation.

But the word “taxation”, of course, is not about taxation itself; it’s about the things we want that taxation helps to provide.

That’s why this concept is so deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. It underpins the well-known distinction between “charity,” which I take to be essentially voluntary, and “tzedakah” – the closest equivalent Hebrew word – which means that which is just; that which I am obligated to do. That is why the Jewish community has had strong systems of taxation going back for two thousand years; it’s why UJA-Federation of New York is, to this day, the largest local philanthropy in the world: because our tradition teaches that commitment to the whole has to be backed up not just with inspiring words but with obligation and with cash. When my wife and I give to UJA-Federation we don’t feel that we’re giving charity, as an optional extra, something to receive praise for; we’re doing that which, in our understanding, is required of us by our tradition – not because, any less than anyone else, we want to have less money, but because what we do want is what that money pays for – helping people in need and educating for the future.

This is an idea that I think we all of us, all of us in this room, all of us listening to this or reading this, should take head on. Because if we really tackled this issue directly, we could do so much good – it would be amazing.
This September is the start of a new 7-year cycle in the Jewish calendar.

Imagine if, over that time-period – from now until 2022 – the world’s governments invested an extra trillion dollars – one trillion dollars – with half that money going to improve sustainabililty and cut carbon outputs, and half going to the neediest and most vulnerable people in the world. Wouldn’t the world then be a distinctly better place, seven years from now?

Well it turns out, we could do that, if we wanted. Take the world’s richest billion people, the middle classes and the more affluent in Europe, the US and around the world. 1 trillion dollars, divided by a billion people, over 7 years, comes out to about $3 per person per week. $3 a week. A cup of coffee at Starbucks. That’s all it would cost.

By the way: in the last ten years many of our governments have introduced pretty serious smoking bans. At the time they were controversial; five years before they were introduced people didn’t believe they were even possible. But there are millions of people today and in years to come who won’t get cancer because those laws were passed. Not one of us today would repeal those laws given the chance – and that includes most smokers. Taxing carbon emissions is like taxing cigarettes, except that we all use carbon, and we all need to cut down. So when they meet here in Paris this December, let’s ask our governments to invest an extra trillion dollars from those of us who can well afford it, to really make things better in the next seven years. We, our children, and our children’s children, will thank us for it.

I want to end with the Hasidic story of a man lost in a long dark tunnel, who can’t see his way out. Suddenly a woman appears and says: “Can I help?”

“I can’t see my way out of this tunnel,” says the first man.

“Here,” says the newcomer. “Take my torch. It will help you find your way.”
The man takes the torch, but he’s still unhappy.

“Look,” he says, “it’s no good. The torch only lights up a few yards. This tunnel must be hundreds of yards long.”

“You’re right,” says the woman. “The torch only lights up a few yards. But start moving forwards and then it will light up the next few yards. They may seem dark now, but move forward and it will look different. And before you know it, you may not just be further along in the tunnel, you may even be outside in the bright daylight.”

My hope and my blessing for us all, here today, and for the many millions of people whose lives we may touch, is that we keep walking steadily through the tunnel, trusting that the journey is important, that our destination can be reached, and that as we walk, by our light, the world will steadily be illuminated for all.

Thank you.

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