I’ve been going to temple since I was 3 years old. Although our family is very involved in the University Synagogue community, I’m certainly not a devout and strongly observant Jew. In fact, I always felt more Jewish by culture (lots of meals at Junior’s, Canters and Zucky’s growing up) than by faith.
I’ve always been struck by the fact that so much of the local environmental leadership is Jewish (Andy Lipkis, Felicia Marcus, David Nahai, Adi Liberman, Fran Diamond, Madelyn Glickfeld, the late Dorothy Green, Sara Wan, David Beckman, Laurie David, and so many more). Clearly, the importance of social action in the community means a lot more than Tikkun Olam and Tu Bishvat.
Yet personally, the environmental ethics and priorities of the local Jewish community has never strongly influenced or impressed me. Until recently.
I’ve been moved to tears in a synagogue very few times in my life: the bar mitzvahs of my sons and the B’nai mitzvah of my wife, come to mind. A rabbi’s sermon certainly never made me cry — until Joel Simonds’ social justice sermon on Yom Kippur.
Joel, a very young rabbi, doesn’t just talk about social justice. It’s the reason he became a religious leader. My sons Zack and Jake love the guy and would do anything for him. I always thought he was a nice man who deeply cared about a wide variety of issues, including the environment. But his sermons ran the typical course of storytelling, underscoring the importance of morals and ethics in modern life.
But his Yom Kippur sermon changed everything.
Joel spoke on Reform Judaism’s 200-year roots in social action and the need to fight for justice in an unjust world. He quoted from the prophet Amos: “Let justice well up like water, righteousness flow like a mighty stream.” Then Joel wondered: If the prophet saw the devastation of our ecosystems and the decimation of our streams and rivers, would Amos still have made this analogy?
Joel asked simply: “How can we claim that our righteousness flow like a mighty stream when our streams have been flowing to create destruction or our streams have dried up?”
Because my life has been water for many years, the rabbi’s words resonated with me strongly. His powerful use of the water analogy and connecting to the impacts of climate change on water were extraordinary.
Also, the rabbi differentiated between social action and social justice. He noted that the local Jewish community has been very strong on social action (donating food for the hungry and homeless, cleaning up beaches and bringing reusable bags, contributing to those suffering from human rights abuses in Darfur or to populations devastated by natural disasters in Haiti or Pakistan), but we have not aggressively moved towards social justice.
It is easy to talk about societal ills, but taking corrective action is so much harder and requires uncommon effort.
He cited climate justice, noting “Our earth is turning on us. It rains when it should be dry. It is dry when it should rain.” But talking about the devastation caused by climate change is not enough. We’ve already seen record heat, record rainfall and record drought, yet the failure at Copenhagen demonstrates the difference between action and justice.
Nothing short of a paradigm shift that moves us towards immediate greenhouse gas reduction will provide the justice so sorely needed before more rivers run dry. Why must nations war over water rights, as well as oil, land or religion?
This November, social justice can begin with the defeat of California’s Proposition 23, an oil industry-backed measure that would suspend meaningful gashouse regulations in the state.
But a broader movement can’t be achieved without strong, enforceable climate legislation in Washington D.C., China, and India. Social justice can occur when the public influences U.S. environmental policy and governance more than the petroleum and chemical industries do.
In essence, Joel declared that any time is the right time for social action, but the time for social justice is now.
“Don’t wait for the Messiah to solve the world’s problems,” he concluded rightly. Justice cannot wait. The environment cannot wait.
Young leaders like Rabbi Simonds make me realize that I have underestimated the potential of faith-based institutions in providing environmental justice. EO Wilson’s effort to protect biodiversity through imploring organized religions to protect the creation is true social action.
Unless leaders like Joel move communities from action to justice, praying for the Messiah may be the most prudent course of action after all.