Burning questions

Burning questions

Rabbi Lawrence Troster reflects on papal environmental letter

Pope Francis and the encyclical is a turning point in efforts to preserve the environment.
Pope Francis and the encyclical is a turning point in efforts to preserve the environment.
Rabbi Lawrence Troster
Rabbi Lawrence Troster

On Sunday, Rabbi Lawrence Troster of Teaneck will march through downtown Rome to Vatican City.

The march is being organized to support Pope Francis’ call for action on the environment embodied in the papal letter, or encyclical, he released last week, called Laudato Si (“Blessed Be”). An international interfaith coalition, Our Voices, whose goal is “bringing faith to the climate talks,” is organizing the march. Among the coalition’s members are the American interfaith group GreenFaith, where Rabbi Troster is scholar-in-residence.

This is a period of increased activity for Rabbi Troster and the broader Jewish environmental movement, jumpstarted by the papal letter that Rabbi Troster called “amazing” and leading up to global talks on a new treaty to fight global warming scheduled for November in Paris.

These next few months, Rabbi Troster said, will see the environmental issues taking a higher profile on the Jewish communal agenda, as it becomes a priority for the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and a group he is organizing of rabbis and cantors called Shomrei Breishit. He hopes it will surface in high holiday sermons, and in interfaith actions during Sukkot.

Making environmental issues a higher priority is of course what motivated Pope Francis to issue his encyclical.

“In my thirty years of being involved in this on both a Jewish and interfaith basis, this is one of the best statements on a religious perspective on the environment that I’ve ever read,” Rabbi Troster said.

The encyclical is official Catholic doctrine, but it was written not just for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “It’s unprecedented. He addressed the encyclical to everybody in the world,” Rabbi Troster said. “He” — the pope — “wants to create an international interfaith dialogue on the state of the world and the state of humanity.”

Parts of the 106-page document have special resonance for Jews.

“Almost all the texts he brings from the Hebrew Bible are the ones that Jewish environmentalists have been citing for forty years,” Rabbi Troster said. “He relies heavily on the first two chapters of Genesis. He talks specifically about the Jewish concept of Sabbath. He brings in some of the material from the law codes of Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy used in Jewish environmental writing.”

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Jews also will find a familiar voice behind two passages where Pope Francis seems to draw on the teachings of 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. In his famous work “I and Thou,” Professor Buber differentiated between treating people as objects and as subjects. Pope Francis uses Professor Buber’s language of “Thou” — the obsolete second-person pronoun once reserved for more personal, less formal relationships — to describe the ideal relationship of encounter and engagement.

“The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object,” Pope Francis writes.

“One of the interesting things in the encyclical is how close the pope comes to saying that we have to view all of life in that way,” not only human beings, Rabbi Troster said.

Rabbi Troster said that a clue to how personally Pope Francis takes this environmental teaching can be found in the introduction, in which he talks about the importance of Saint Francis of Assisi — the 12th century Italian, a younger contemporary of Maimonides, whose name the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose to assume when he was elected pope in 2013.

“He mentions that St. Francis has become the patron saint of Christian environmentalists,” Rabbi Troster said. “St. Francis showed a deep connection with the natural world and also with the poor. He links the degradation of the natural ecology, what we would call the natural environment, to the degradation of human ecology, human society.

“He addresses how environmental degradation affects the most vulnerable. The people who benefited the least from environmental degradation” — residents of poor countries, which have added far less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than rich countries, foremost among them the United States — “are suffering the most from the results,” because they are more vulnerable to famine, sea level rise, and other effects of climate change, and less able to afford investments in remediation.

The encyclical cover
The encyclical cover

“He talks of how consumerism has created a throwaway society. Not only throwing away products, but also throwing away people. People have been displaced by the way the modern economy works, and very little has been done for them.”

Rabbi Troster believes that the encyclical will be one of the most important catalysts this year to move action on climate change forward.

“Catholicism is the largest religious group in the world,” he said. “And there just isn’t anybody in any other faiths who is the equivalent of the pope. We haven’t had a hierarchal structure in the Jewish tradition for a thousand years.”

In another sign that he seeks a global influence, the pope quoted the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

“No encyclical has done this before. The schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches goes back a thousand years,” Rabbi Troster said. “The pope is coming to the United States in September. He will be speaking to the U.S. Congress. He will be speaking at the U.N. He has a moral voice. Other faith leaders are lining up behind him.

“He’s not trying to dominate the discussion. He wants to help get this conversation going because he feels that previous efforts have not been adequate. There is a whole section on the weakness of the response to the environmental crisis.

“It’s been on the Jewish agenda for more than twenty years, but there’s so much more we can be doing in our communities and in our advocacy.

“This year, Saint Francis’s day” — every Catholic saint has a day — “is on Hoshanah Rabbah, right at the end of Sukkot. There will probably be a lot of interfaith actions surrounding that.

Hoshanah Rabbah is easily overlooked, being a holiday with few restrictions, few rituals, and fewer menu items. But its theme of God judging the world and deciding the rainfall for the new year fits nicely with an environmental message.

It falls this year on Sunday, October 4. That’s less than two months before global climate talks open in Paris. Those talks are “supposed to be the end of this process to create a new treaty to replace Kyoto. While no one in the environmental movement expects Paris to be the end all and be all, it will be utilized as a major event to push people for action in climate change.

“The stage after that will be the 2016 elections. It’s critical people raise their voices on this and don’t take simplistic answers like ‘I’m not a scientist.’ I don’t care if a person is a Democrat or a Republican, they all have to be held accountable in the next Congress. Something has to be done to minimize climate change. We can’t stay where we are. Things are changing for the worse.”

What about those who argued that the pope and other religious leaders should stick to prayers and not involve themselves in the politics of minimizing climate change?

“They don’t understand the nature of papal encyclicals,” Rabbi Troster replied. About 125 years ago, Pope Leo XIII wrote one about worker rights and support for union rights. “It was one of the major impetus for the Catholic social justice movement.

“People who say that are trying to narrowly define what religion and faith are about. ‘Just go to church or synagogue and say your prayers.’ That’s not how faith works. Faith and religion are about how to be engaged in the world.”

Last fall, Rabbi Troster started Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth. (The Hebrew name means “guardians of creation.) It is a partnership between GreenFaith and the Green Zionist Alliance, which has renamed itself Aytzim. Rabbi Troster explained Shomrei Breishit’s goal: “To give a specifically Jewish, religious voice to climate change and environmental justice.” The group has been supported by the Kaplen Foundation in Tenafly and has attracted support from clergy from all denominations, including the Orthodox.

Among the local rabbis who have joined are Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge; Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly; Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah; Barry Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia; and Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

“We want to push rabbis to take action and speak up,” Rabbi Troster said.

The impetus for all this, Rabbi Troster’s work, the papal encyclical, and the Paris climate talks later this year is that “we’re at a very critical stage. If all of the fossil fuel reserves that are presently owned by the oil and mining companies were to be burnt, that would be the end of human civilization.”

Scientists at Stanford have estimated that burning all the earth’s fossil fuel eventually would raise average global temperatures by 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and that “such temperatures would eliminate grain production in almost all agricultural regions in the world.” Instead, environmentalists hope to limit the amount of fossil fuel burned, thereby limiting the rise to 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Even then, climate change is happening,” Rabbi Troster said. “The question at this point is how bad is it going to get? We’re not going to switch off from fossil fuels in a day. If we don’t have a worldwide plan to do so as quickly as possible, if the world temperature goes up 7 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s a catastrophe. It means New York City is gone, most of the coastal cities are gone, food supplies are threatened by droughts and flooding. Already carbon dioxide is acidifying the ocean, killing off the plankton and krill that are the base of the food chain. This all spells disaster for human civilization.

“One of reasons I got into this work thirty years ago was I thought, what kind of world would my children’s children live in? Now I have grandchildren, and I wonder, what kind of world will they live in when they’re my age? What kind of world are we giving to future generations?”

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