Friday, October 11, 2019

Discovering Ourselves in the Process of Discovering Each Other

It was a rare gathering, one in which vulnerability was on full display. Walls fell away and defensive fortifications crumbled, all of the ways we use to separate ourselves from each other by closing off what is hardest to share in being who we are. There were tears and outbursts of passion. So too did compassion flow as people met in the open camp of true encounter. There were interruptions, as when a speaker used pronouns that excluded some among us, a lovingly firm challenge calling the speaker to pause and consider. And so the speaker did, setting at ease the one who had taken a risk.

        Race and racism became real as lived experience, challenge felt by the most open of those whose whiteness brings privilege, if even in spite of ourselves, yet to acknowledge. There were shallow assumptions of Christians in regard to Israel, failure to understand the deep roots of anti-Semitism, Jews challenged to convey the immense complexity of our historical fears and why. And among us all, there were microcosms of identities within identities. 

There were times when those most alike met as a caucus, Ashkenazi Jews meeting separately from Mizrachi and S’fardi Jews, Christians of color meeting separately from white Christians. It felt awkward, painful, to so separate, and yet to strive within our own microcosms to break down the walls we carry within ourselves just a little more by looking most honestly and freely at who we are.

It was a three-day conference under the organizational umbrella of “Faith in Action.” The organizing rubric of the gathering was, “Anti-Semitism, Racism, and White Supremacy.” From the beginning we were challenged to bring all of ourselves into the open camp, to truly share who we are. In so sharing so we could dare to tread upon the common ground, to know the love that joins us, even as we walked gingerly among the minefields. We gathered to the singing of an old spiritual, sung from deep within the soul of a people, all of us sharing, trying to feel what it means, to grasp the intimations of its meaning beyond the words, “Before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free….” How to hold the fear of a black mother and father among us for their young son growing up to be a black man in America?

How to hold the courage of a young trans person only recently become in the world who they always knew they were within? It was their courage in quivering voice that challenged the one who spoke with pronouns that denied this young person’s presence. How to hold the brave awkwardness of a white Christian man trying to figure out his place in all the swirling of identities, amid all the sharings of what it is to be of a minority of one sort or another. How to hold and honor the depth of not knowing felt by most of the non-Jewish participants who listened as Jews discussed in a fish-bowl setting the ways of our relationship and struggles with Israel and each other? 
How to hold the tender truths of who we are among ourselves as Jews? We shared of our fears in the face of resurgent anti-Semitism, and of the challenge in discussing Israel even, especially, among ourselves. As Jews shared in that fishbowl setting, there was something poignant and tender in a common thread of attachment to Israel, a thread so frayed for all the torment in the nature of our relationship to what is today, and yet a thread of hope that joins us to each other in our struggles and in our yearning. As walls fell away, trust emerged, vulnerabilities shared in the open space of our gathering.

       It is a powerful teaching that pulsates just beneath the surface of the weekly Torah portion Sh’lach L’cha (Numbers 13:1-15:41). The words mean send forth. Moses calls on leaders from each of the tribes to go ahead of the people to scout out the land. All but two, Calev and Y’hoshua, return with a gloomy report, warning the people that giants live in the land and there is no way for us to enter. As the people weep and plead for a leader to take them back to Egypt and the chains of slavery, the scouts tell of the giants in the land and then say, we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers/va’n’hi b’eyneynu k’chagavim, and so we were in their eyes. It becomes a powerful teaching about identity. How do we see ourselves, and how does our self-perception influence how others see us? Should it matter to us how others see us?

With an ironic twist, the Torah teaches of strength found in vulnerability. On the surface, the narrative is about a people’s desert journey. In reading Torah, it is always important, though, to remember that the sacred narrative is not primarily about them and then, but about us and now. 

       So does the Toldos Ya’akov Yosef, an early Chassdic leader, teach of Moses’ call for scouts to go forth to search out the land. It is not about an external search says the Toldos, rather, dayka la’tur et atz’m’cha/it is surely to search out yourself. Moses tells the scouts to see what the cities are like in the land to which they go, whether the people live in open or in fortified places. The great Torah commentator Rashi teaches of this verse’s import, if they dwell in open cities they are strong, and if they dwell in walled cities they are weak.       
             Strength does not come from walls, from closing ourselves off from each other. As the Toldos Ya’akov Yosef guides us, we needn’t read the text as too often read, as simply about a long ago military matter, the gauging of an enemy’s strength. It is about us and about where true strength is to be found.

As walls fall away and we come out into the open space of shared humanity, our vulnerabilities revealed for all to see, the gift of new opportunity emerges. Acknowledging that sometimes we feel like grasshoppers so easily crushed, in sharing of both fear and pride a new strength emerges. So may we learn to share, bravely coming out into the open space of encounter, discovering ourselves in the process of discovering each other. 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, October 4, 2019

Climate Strike - A Modest Proposal for an Environmental Ethic

             The Climate Strike on September 20, 2019 was the largest global action in the history of the world. According to various news reports more 4 million people joined in the strike. There were more than 4,000 events that happened in more than 150 countries. In addition to labor unions, and well-known organizations like MoveOn, 350, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, other participants included: Friday for Future, started by Greta Thunberg; Extinction Rebellion, a London-based organization dedicated to creating political change through nonviolent direct action; Our Children’s Trust; Future Coalition; and Friends of the Earth International, and many more. The Climate Strike was to call for an end to the age of fossil fuel. “Climate Justice for All,” was a rallying cry for Climate Strikers.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies land use and the world’s food system as critical issues that must be addressed, if we want to create a sustainable future. According to the IPCC, the world’s food system is “a top cause of deforestation.” Population growth, increasing demand for food, feed and water, more resource-intense consumption and production, and more limited technological improvements in agricultural yields will result in higher risks of water scarcity, land degradation, and wide-spread food insecurity. Shockingly, the IPCC reports that one-third of the food produced is either lost or wasted. The IPCC report calls for reduced food waste, eating less meat, practicing sustainable land management, eliminating poverty, and reducing economic inequality as necessary and practical steps that offer the best chances to tackle climate change. The IPCC report calls for reforestation and carbon dioxide reduction as necessary first steps. 
In the United States, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D. Cal.) has introduced a resolution that would require climate education be taught in all schools. Many members of Congress support the Green New Deal, which in simplified terms is a proposal to wean the US economy from fossil fuels, and create new clean energy industries. Importantly, proponents of the Green New Deal argue that we have the necessary tools and knowledge to begin to implement many of the proposals included in the Green New Deal. But do we have the political will?
There is both domestic and international opposition to calls to end the age of fossil fuels. The Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP) exemplifies this opposition. The RCEP is China’s response to the failure of the Trans Pacific Partnership. If it is finalized later this year, the RCEP will include 16 nations that encompass one-third of the global GDP and almost one-half of the world’s population. One goal of the RCEP is to liberalize trade and investment by reducing government oversight and regulation. A second goal is to protect intellectual property rights. A controversial center-piece of the RCEP is a mechanism called the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). If adopted the ISDS would allow corporations to sue states, if state regulations have a negative impact on corporate profits. Critics of the ISDS argue that it is already testing the government’s ability to protect human rights and the environment in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, India and elsewhere.

           Faith communities in the United States can help us get past the present impasse by reframing the debate. A study conducted by Yale University and George Mason University entitled “Climate Change in the American Mind” offers some clues. The study found that 70 percent of Americans (people living in the United States) think of themselves as Christian, and 64 percent of us think the global warming is either extremely, very, or somewhat important. According to the study, two primary motivations for wanting to mitigate global warming are to provide a better life for our children and grandchildren (29 percent), and to protect God’s creation (19 percent). Taking our clues from this study, an ethic for the future must be both intergenerational in the fullest meaning of the word, and ecologically sustainable. A theological ethic based on these two principles will emphasize the importance of achieving balance in all our relationships--present and future to the seventh generation. Mutuality and reciprocity are two key concepts in this ethical framework.
The concept of mutuality carries with it a sense of shared or common interests. Mutual relationships are by definition balanced relationships. Parental concern for our children and grandchildren implies that the present generation is willing to balance its interests with the needs and interests of other generations--both present and future--to safe-guard everyone’s well-being. There are well-established metrics of well-being, which include such things as access to affordable health care, education, housing, public safety, environmental sustainability, and so forth. Mutuality is not an abstract concept. The ethical mandate is to extend the concept of mutuality beyond the family to include the broader community, recognizing that we live in through our relationships with others--including the earth. We live in a cosmic web of mutuality and interdependence. Mutuality is not a foreign concept, but rather a basic value that makes and keeps us human.
Reciprocity is a second key concept in the ethical framework that I am proposing. Narrowing defined, reciprocity means that there is a give and take, an exchange of things of relatively equal value between or among parties. More broadly, however, we may think of reciprocity and an anticipatory ethic. We act in ways that anticipate a response from others. Thus, our actions create a space for the action of others. The commandment, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is an example of the ethic of reciprocity. The concept of reciprocity empowers us to act in ways that are consistent with the kind of future we envision and want to create, and it creates a safe space for others to respond to our actions. The response may come in the form of a challenge, a refinement, or in some new and novel way we had not anticipated. Reciprocity is, thus, a dialogical model. We live each moment of our lives in dialogue with the earth, with others who are seen and unseen, and with future generations.
        The dominant ethics in Western culture have been the ethics of right and wrong, and the ethics of ends and means. The proposal introduced in the foregoing paragraphs leads away from the ethics of certainty, which is implied in the ethics of right vs. wrong and ends justifies the means, toward a more flexible framework. It is a relational model that asks us to begin with an awareness of our present situation. Know thyself. Aristotle said that self-knowledge is the beginning of the moral life. It still is. If we will simply have the courage to examine our present situation, our relationships with others, and our hopes for and obligations to future generations, I believe we can fashion a fitting ethical framework that will benefit both the present and our shared future.
David Hansen