Having now watched both nights of Democratic Party debates, I am left thinking some Very Big Things, and just thinking of them simultaneously alarms and intrigues me:
1. Climate change seems to be the most important issue, at least to my thinking. Even as we fight over diminishing resources -- and the political and economic control of those resources -- all of the other issues, like gun control, states' rights, civil rights, economic disparity and homelessness seem far less pressing.
The specter of a rapidly warming planet should be scaring the crap out of every single one of us. And so it has been amazing to consider the lengths to which we distract ourselves from this reality in our homes, our personal and professional lives, our practice of any (or no) religion, and the way we conduct commerce.
2. While I continue to pursue as simple a life as I can here at home -- and last-night's Shabbat gathering was as simple and sweet and uncomplicated as any I've participated in, in a very long time -- the fact is that many of my fellow Jews are pursuing lives that are seemingly as complicated as possible. We follow dietary rules that compel us to buy food that has traveled across the country. We observe holy days that compel us to buy ritual objects made and transported from halfway around the globe. Our professionals travel often, to professional conferences and, if they’re able, back and forth between North America and Israel regularly. We live in Jewish bubbles of our own making, ensconced in comfortable suburbs that lie beyond the reach of public transit and equip our kids with the best things life can offer — both educationally and materially, and all at considerable cost, because life in those bubbles simultaneously requires and justifies that we do so.
In my efforts to build some small semblance of a career as a Jewish professional, I have toured as a visiting artist and educator. While my travel is exclusively for work — my partner and I do not travel for vacations much farther weekend drive to the coast, simply because national or global travel is unaffordable for us — I still shudder at the carbon footprint of my choices. I wonder every day if my choices make sense anymore, in a world that is rapidly burning up. Friends and family tell me not to fret so much — even with all the recent air travel, my carbon footprint before my career change seldom, if ever, required automobile use (I rode to and from work daily by bicycle) and so my current choices still reflect an overall lifetime carbon footprint that’s considerably lower than most.
But this feels like a false paradigm to me, a legal fiction designed to allow me to do this holy work, an attempt to avoid the zero-sum game that climate change represents for the human species.
To calm my distress about the Very Big Things I’ve been wrestling with, I’ve spent my evening reading a number of online articles by Jews from across the spectrum of observance. All but the most radical of them suggest that we ought to be cautious about things like a Green New Deal, or any radical moves away from fossil fuel dependence and meat-based diets — after all, some argue, aren’t we each supposed to live a life based on Torah?
Well, sure. Okay. Torah is thousands of years old. It has provided guidance for our people for ages, and inspires me today.
But the earth is older than Torah by several million or billion years. The earth is older than Judaism. The earth is older than the human species.
And so, doesn’t it make sense that at some point, Judaism may actually become irrelevant? After all, if the earth really has been heated up beyond reversal, then humanity will one day be irrelevant — and nonexistent — as well.
Should we be turning to our tradition for insight on how to deal with the impermanence of things? Of life? Of the human species in its entirety? And can Torah properly prepare us for not only the end of the human species, but the end of our individual lives? What can we glean from Torah to help us come to terms with the death denial of our modern culture, the denial that urges us to distract ourselves with mass consumerism? Can Torah help us come to terms with the reality of human species extinction, which will surely come about as the earth adapts to a warming climate?
I want to figure this out. Because the truth is we’re all going to die someday, and pretending we won’t will only hurt each of us, and all of us, deeply and profoundly. Coming to terms with our eventual demise can only be healthy for all of us, and perhaps will give us insight on how to be better for the planet in the process.
Tomorrow will be a good day for a bicycle ride.