Speech at the Windsor Celebration by Nigel Savage, member of the Jewish delegation and Executive Director of Hazon
I’m honored to be here this afternoon. I’m not a bishop, not an imam – I’m not even a rabbi. Though if any three of us walked into a bar, it really would make for the opening line of a terrible joke.
I’m an Englishman in New York, where I run Hazon, now the largest environmental organization in the American Jewish community and I’m one of the founders and leaders of the Jewish Climate Campaign. I’m happy to be at this conference but humbled very deeply by the challenges that together we face.
A year ago, Martin & Alison asked me to help develop the Jewish contribution to this process. How could we catalyze deeper transformation in the Jewish world, over the coming years?
You could argue that the Jewish people have been thinking about sustainable energy ever since God spoke to Moses out of a bush that burned but was never consumed. Moses was perhaps the first environmentalist: He recycled his staff into a snake, got Egypt to turn off all its lights for three days, and convinced an entire nation to go on a 40-year nature hike.
The key question I’ve been asked to address today, is: what does the Jewish people, and Jewish tradition, have to offer the world, in the face of the immense challenges we face? How can one small people make a difference, and how can we help others to make a difference?
When we began, we thought we might focus on Shabbat – the idea that the Jewish people introduced into human history, that people should rest one day in seven, and that the land should rest one year in seven. What would it mean to encourage rest and non-consumption as a deeper contemporary ethic? We thought about keeping kosher – whether a particular food is fit for us to eat, and the multiple implications of that in the 21st century. Central aspects of religious tradition have a renewed relevance when we apply them to the greatest challenges that humankind faces today. None of us has a monopoly on truth.
But in the end, as we thought about facing climate change and environmental destruction, we started to wonder about what lessons might be learned simply from Jewish persistence – how it is that we began in the land of Israel, three millennia ago, and we’re still here today, still learning the Torah, still teaching our children, still working to make a better world for all. We focused on two key elements that have been central to Jewish survival and that seem particularly relevant as today we think about challenges for the whole world that easily seem overwhelming. I share them with you this afternoon in the hope that they may be of use both within and beyond the bounds of the Jewish community.
The first is about vision: big vision, the small steps we take to bring that big vision to fruition; and the necessary process to connect the two.
One of the big visions of Jewish tradition, repeated thrice daily at the end of the traditional prayers, is l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai – to heal and improve the world, as the divine realm.
The small steps towards this great vision have been the attention Jewish tradition has always placed on daily behaviour: have I given tzedakah – done that which is right?; did I build a parapet on my house?; have I taught my child to swim? Did I say a blessing over this food? Have I called my mother recently? (OK, unlike the others, that last one’s not technically a religious obligation – even though the penalty for overlooking it is much more severe.)
And the process to connect these small steps and the large vision is halacha and education – the way that we self-obligate ourselves and the way we learn, for ourselves and for our children, knowing that education leads to action.
So in the Jewish community, over the next six years, we’re suggesting a big vision, small first steps, and a way to connect the two. And we offer these ideas to other communities: we were honored and delighted that the Sikhs, in their EcoSikh document, incorporated elements of what we’ve developed in their own plan.
For us, our vision is that Jewish communities be genuinely transformed, in relation to a wide range of environmental issues, by September 2015, at the end of the next shmitta – sabbatical – cycle in Jewish life. That’s enough time to imagine radical change in our communities – how we heat our buildings, how we use energy, how we travel, how we source our food, how we integrate environmental education in all that we do. Solar power in Israel. A green Jerusalem. Halving the amount of meat we eat. A vision that’s big enough to get people excited, but near enough in time that it’s not pie in the sky. It’s imaginable.
And then a process – a Green Team. Any two or more people, in every synagogue, every Jewish school, every community center or youth group – developing that big vision, involving people, talking and learning, and then picking one thing – one first small thing – and bringing it to fruition, and then working at the next, and the next.
That’s how Hazon launched the first CSA – Community-Supported Agriculture program – in the American Jewish community in 2004 – partnering a synagogue with a local organic farm, putting Jewish purchasing power behind sustainable agriculture, and along the way both strengthening Jewish life and helping people in need.
At the time we said: it’s our vision that a decade from now most Jewish communities in N. America will have a CSA. As crazy as it seemed then, we’re now halfway through that first decade: we’ve gone from 1 Hazon CSA in 2004 and 5 by 2006 to 32 this last year, and at least 40 next year. That means over 8,000 members, buying over 400,000 lbs of produce, and giving over 30,000 lbs to people in need. It’s become the largest faith-based CSA system in North America. Suddenly the notion of a CSA in every Jewish community doesn’t seem so crazy. That’s what we’re aiming for when we talk about a big vision, a process, and small specific first steps to get started. And one new vision we have for our CSAs: this year we announced that we hope to launch at least one or two multi-faith CSAs, partnering a synagogue with a local church, gurdwara, mosque or temple. That way we’ll use the CSA not only to support local farmers, not only to educate and strengthen Jewish communities, but also to build understanding and relationships between people of different faiths.
Because here’s the thing: as Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, one of the great rabbis of the 18th century, put it, in a famous book on Jewish behaviour: “I write not to tell people what they don’t know, but to remind them of what they already know.” Responding to environmental challenge is no longer about learning what to do; it’s about doing what we know. This is not about learning what to do; it’s about doing what we know. We no longer need to learn about the consequences of our behaviour; we need to figure out how to change that which we already know needs changing. That’s why we need a vision, a process, and specific first steps.
And that leads me to the second gift of Jewish history. When we read the reports and think about the future, it’s easy to get depressed. It’s understandable that so many people today feel disempowered by what we know about climate change and environmental degradation – understandable, but not ok.
The Jewish people faced the destruction of the second temple and exile from the land of Israel – but we kept going. Expelled from England in 1290; expelled from Spain in 1492. Pogroms; The Shoah. Yet no matter what the Jewish people has faced we kept going. And we 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. There’s a tradition that mashiach, that the messiah, will be born on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates destruction. That’s what it means to face destruction and still have hope. And part of the secret of Jewish hope and action is our refusal to accept excuses for inaction. As Pirkei Avot famously puts it: “you are not obligated to finish the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.”
That Jewish lesson of hope, and that long-term perspective, is one that I think we all need today.
Because the world’s governments need to take tough decisions in Copenhagen. We know they can do it. In the last few years many of our governments, local and national, 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 governments need to take tough decisions. We’re gathered here today to let them know that the world’s religions, in the name of the ancient wisdom that together we steward and the hundreds of millions of people we represent, call on them to rise up to the highest possible standards. We, and our children, and our children’s children, will thank them 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 another man 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 man. “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.