Thoughtful, Hopeful, Jewish: Navigating between Reason and Optimism in Scary Times

Driving through Alabama some years ago, down Highway 40, I came across the End Times Preschool. I was shocked, but not surprised. It’s no secret how fervently some contemporary Evangelical Christian groups believe in the Rapture or Tribulation – that is, the end of the world as we know it. That’s profoundly different from the liberal Judaism I grew up in: optimistic, eager to improve the world, dedicated to making children’s lives better than their parents’.

After all, we survived Crusades, the Great War, the Nuclear ‘80s and Y2K. Civilization was a march of continual improvement, wasn’t it? Human intellect, reason, and science would see to that. (And what of the Holocaust? Science in service of death was surely an aberration.)

Indeed, Judaism’s paradigmatic story of global destruction – the Flood in Genesis – ends with redemption, repopulation, and the establishment of a protecting covenant between God and all living creatures. What begins in pathos ends in hope.

But now, scientists tell us, the end of the Anthropocene is nigh, and a sixth mass extinction has begun. Fueled, in major part, by carbon emissions caused by human industrial activity, global temperatures are on the rise. Habitat is shifting faster than evolution’s ability to keep up. Seas are overly acidic, full of trash and noise. Soil is being lost, and with it, our ability to farm. The gulf between rich and poor is expanding. In coming years, sea levels will rise, swamping major cities. Temperatures will render the Tropics uninhabitable. Antibiotics will lose their power to heal. Human populations will migrate in search of resources. Industrial civilization will likely end; if we don’t change our behavior now, human life may end, too. This doomsday vision isn’t religion. It’s science.

What’s a thoughtful, hopeful Jew to do? How do we navigate between Reason and Optimism as they crash against each other?

We’d be fools to ignore the science. Science is a mode of thinking based on verified evidence, meaningful questions, and a sound process. Peer review flushes out biases and errors. Science, that shining achievement of the Enlightenment, works.

At the same time, we are more than modern. We also possess extraordinary wisdom, the result of centuries of Jewish life and learning. Tapping into the deep wells of our tradition yields bountiful results. Let us be both thoughtful AND hopeful as we face an uncertain tomorrow.

Our sources, the traditional roots of Judaism which have much to offer a world in peril. When we live these values, we remind ourselves that there are more ways to be human than this current industrial phase. When we live these values, we can bring ourselves back into sync with truths from which we’ve become estranged. We can inspire others and, perhaps, salvage something that’s good and true.

KEHILLA – COMMUNITY

The core of a healthy future rests in communities. In community, human beings live in deep relationship with each other and the land. Lives, work, and resources are shared. Healthy communities exist on a human scale. The kibbutz of days gone by is one such example.

I believe that synagogue can be such a community. Within modern metropolises, synagogue is the place where people come together across divisions of age and income. At synagogue, we support each other in our personal growth and need. We give and receive help at synagogue. We articulate shared values and solutions. We come of age and mark our own milestones in synagogue – and in so doing, learn about the universal arc of the human experience. It is where we inspire our children to think critically, and our adults to continue learning. It is where we share our sacred stories and the wisdom embedded within them. It is where we sing together, weaving our breath and soul together.

So, too, must we combine our individual voices to make systemic change, advocating on behalf of the Earth. We are mighty together.

MAKOM – SACRED EARTH

Judaism reminds us to rejoice in the good earth that surrounds us. Indeed, “m’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo,” said the prophet Isaiah – “The whole world is filled with God’s glory” (6:3). Each and every bit of it, from mountain to mitochondria, is magnificent. Who can but delight at an octopus or a chameleon changing colors? Who doesn’t grin when they bite into a perfectly sweet strawberry? Whose heart doesn’t flutter when they hear the wolf’s cry? Whose love doesn’t deepen beneath a full moon?

Our tradition embraces the concept of a wonderful, precious world. The earth and all its inhabitants are understood to be God’s creation, and therefore both “good” and “very good.”

Therefore, let us treat Creation as holy and worthy of respect, not a resource to be consumed. Our calendar brings us into sync with Earth’s seasons and cycles. So do encounters with nature. What if we took a walk each Shabbat – perhaps through the desert, perhaps in a park – and made a point of noticing, really noticing, the natural world? See how the parts of a tree are connected, know when the saguaro blossoms, hear the coyote’s cry, feel a rock’s roughness, stand in the rain. Leave the camera at home and experience the here and the now. Perhaps then we’d see God’s glory in the world, and understand that we are the very ones to protect it. There is no one but us.

SHABBAT

Shabbat is a love letter to the world. Although we are be productive throughout the week, we are also wise to refrain from creating. We take one day out of seven to cease from work and consumerism, and the destruction that inevitably flow from these. We ground ourselves in the higher principles of relationship, rest, joy, and community. On Shabbat, we rest and we give the Earth a chance to rest.

Imagine a world where all people ceased from production and consumption 1/7th of the time, and paused to remember who they truly are.

Shabbat teaches me to reduce my expectations and simplify my life. It trains me to live with less stimulation. A truly unplugged Shabbat is, very likely, a taste of the world to come.

GRATITUDE

Judaism is a spiritual practice that inculcates a sense of gratitude. From modeh ani upon waking, to a hundred blessings a day that acknowledge the miraculous to which we’ve become inured, Judaism brings us into awareness of the bounty of existence. In this way, predictions of difficulty are balanced by gratitude for what is. That’s energizing.

BAAL TASCHIT – DO NOT WASTE

From the injunction not to destroy an enemy’s fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), the rabbis derived the principle of not wasting anything. That extends to all things – not a life, not piece of paper. Each is an element of God’s creation, worthy of respect, not to be misused. When our grandmothers darned socks, they weren’t being thrifty – they were enacting the principle of baal taschit!

Our culture is marked by wastefulness. We’re sold new furniture before the old has worn out; we buy new clothes because the style has changed. We eat untold empty calories. If we made our choices thinking instead of their impact seven generations into the future, mindful of sea turtles and landfills and energy spent on transportation, we would likely make different choices – planning our routes with gasoline in mind, eschewing packaging and promotions, eating more basically. Baal taschit teaches us not only to save money, but resources. It brings us into harmony with what we have.

As we face an uncertain future, we’ll enhance our quality of life by learning to do more with less.

M’CHAYEI HAMETIM – LIFE & DEATH

Judaism teaches us to rejoice in life. So, too, we learn to understand that death is natural and necessary. “Mchaiyei hametim,” the traditional G’vurot prayer calls God. In ages past, we’ve understood that phrase to describe God as the One who enacts resurrection. But that description for God also teaches that life comes from death – whether the mushrooms that grow on a fallen log, the human birth made possible because a space has opened for it, the new civilization replacing one that’s faded, or a star born from the atoms of collapsed predecessors. New life is only possible because death occurs.

I worry about the future on a planet that, scientists and thinkers tell us, cannot sustain for much longer human life as it is currently lived. But I embrace Judaism, the communal way of life of the Jewish people and the wisdom it carries – a Judaism that honors both the “What Is” of sound science and “What Could Be” of our renowned hopefulness.

Through these and many other approaches, Jews can help the world walk a different, healthier path. And we can prepare ourselves to live meaningful lives in the world of tomorrow.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Temple Emanuel of Tempe) 

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