Friday, October 21, 2016

Sukkot & Rising Sea Levels / Sukkot 2016-5777

The festival of Sukkot has become a reminder of our deep and abiding connection with the earth. Indeed, our lives dependent upon and inextricably interwoven with our fragile environment. Water is an integral part of Sukkot, in particular, because Sukkot not only celebrates the harvest at the end of the growing season, but  occurs at the time of year when the winter rains begin in the Land of Israel; the winter rains will determine whether the coming year will bring the curse of famine-induced drought or the blessing of abundance. When the Second Temple stood, each night of Sukkot featured the Simchat Bet haSho’avah (water-drawing ceremony), a Jewish Mardi Gras-like event celebrating the imminent return of rain after the long, dry months of summer during which no rain falls in the Land of Israel. With the stirring words of Isaiah 12:3 in mind, With joy shall you draw water out of the weeks of salvation, each morning during Sukkot priests went to the Shiloah Pool (pictured at the right as it appears today)
, filled a golden flask with water and, greeted by the blasts of a shofar, they would bring it back to the Temple through the Water Gate and pour the water over the altar together with wine. The evening relighting of the menorah in the Temple courtyard inaugurated a torchlit parade accompanied by Levites playing flutes, harps, trumpets, and cymbals. People danced and sang. The Talmud records that “one who had never witnessed the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing had never seen true joy in their life.” (BT Sukkot 51b) 

When I think about water on Sukkot, I also have rain in mind: I hope it holds off until Sukkot is over so that we can enjoy more time — dry and comfortable — in our sukkah. (Warm weather helps, too.) Today, many areas on our planet have serious concerns related to rain, but another water-related problem is rising sea levels due to global climate change: Human activity has released heat-trapping gases into our atmosphere. As a direct result, our planet’s seas and oceans are warming and expanding (this is called thermal inversion) and glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting. Over the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level has risen four to eight inches and the rate of increase has accelerated dramatically over the past two decades—and continues to do so. Recent studies predict that sea levels will rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by the end of this century. The result would be calamitous, and not merely to picturesque tourist destinations like Venice and Amsterdam. it would be disastrous to people living on the margins — economically, socially, and geographically — throughout the world.

We are accustomed to war leading to refugees and displacement, but now global climate change is begetting its first refugees. The first Americans to suffer the sting are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and the United Houma Nation, two Native American tribes living on the Isle de Jean Charles in the Louisiana coastal wetlands. Since the 1950s, their 15,000 acres have shrunk 98% due to rising sea levels, a consequence of global warming and melting polar ice. Today, the people of the Isle de Jean Charles have barely a quarter-mile by half mile strip of land on which to live, not nearly enough land to support their lives fishing, hunting, trapping and farming. Resettlement of the residents of the Isle de Jean Charles will disrupt their lives, culture, and community, and be both logistically challenging and extremely expensive. 

The approximately 60 Biloxi-Chirimacha-Choctaw and United Houma Nation are not alone in facing the prospect of  watching their beloved home sink below rising sea levels. Around the world, it is estimated that between 50 and 200 million people could be displaced within the next 35 years. The complexity of moving people, keeping families and communities together, is staggering, and often involves populations that are the poorest among the poor. The Federal Government has already designated $48 million to resettle the people of the Isle de Jean Charles — a staggering cost.

Rising sea levels have implications for the quality and salinity of groundwater. This effects water available for drinking water and agriculture. Rising sea levels disturb the ecological balance and diminish biodiversity in estuaries, coastal rivers, and already low-lying areas including tidal wetlands (consider the species that will be effected) and flat river deltas (including but not limited to the Amazon, Ganges, Indus, Mississippi, Niger, Nile, and Yangtze rivers). As is already evident, rising sea levels will increase the damage brought about by storms, floods, hurricanes and tropical cyclones; the resulting warmer waters and increased humidity will engender more tropical cyclones. 

Water, so integral to the festival of Sukkot, is a life-sustaining blessing, but it can also be a life-threatening danger. Nature is a balancing act. Just as rain in the proper season and proper amount leads to a successful and nourishing harvest, so too oceans and seas at their proper levels sustain life for the plants and animals (including us) that inhabit the planet. Living outside in a sukkah reminds us of our intimate connection with the world around us. This includes the affect we are having on rising sea levels.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Open to the World / Sukkot 5777-2016

In a fascinating irony of synagogue architecture, stained-glass windows often plug the very openings our Sages tell us we need when we pray. In the Babylonian Talmud, R. Yochanan teaches: One should only pray in a house with windows, as it says, The windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:11). (BT Berakhot 34b) In accord with R. Yochanan’s teaching, synagogues have windows so that those who pray within its walls do not sequester themselves from the world beyond. Rather, our meditations, petitions, and aspirations should be mediated by the windows, which connect us with the world beyond and God who is manifest everywhere. Stained-glass windows, however magnificent, constrain our visual focus to the room in which we sit; although the light that animates its art come from without, we run the risk that, without windows, our focus stops at the walls.

If the requirement to pray in a room with windows enlarges our perspective, how much more so living in a sukkah, whose flimsy walls and open roof are open to the world. Indeed, one is outside when one sits inside the sukkah. And if the protective walls of the synagogue are an illusion that the world is contained with the facade of the synagogue, the sukkah exposed that illusion. Rabbi Alan Lew z”l wrote:

[A sukkah] exposes the idea of a house as an illusion. The idea of a house is the it gives us security shelter, haven from the storm. But no house can really offer us this. No building of wood and stone can ever afford us protection from the disorder that is always lurking all around us. No shell we put between us and the world can ever really keep us security from it. And we know this… In a sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security, we let go of this need. The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another. (This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, pp. 266-7

All this talk about architectural forms is, of course, a metaphor and prescription for how we are to be in the world. Recently, I learned of a 98-year-old Mennonite minister who epitomizes R. Yochanan’s teaching with grace and compassion galore. Chester Wenger and his beloved wife, Sara Jane, raised eight children. When their son, Philip, came to them to tell him he was gay, Chester Wenger heard him with respect and regarded him with love, despite the teachings of his church. And when Philip, at age 35, was excommunicated by a church leader who neither sought to speak with Philip or even inform his parents, Wenger did not reject his church. When the state of Pennsylvania, in which he lives, legalized same-sex marriage in July 2014, Philip and his long time partner Steven immediately applied for a marriage license and subsequently asked Chester to officiate at their wedding and sign their marriage license. As a result of officiating at his son’s wedding, the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite church “retired” Wenger’s clerical credentials. In other words, they withdrew his ordination. Yet Wenger still did not reject his church. Rather, he seeks to help them pry open some very old windows long painted shut.

In an open letter to the Mennonite Church, which has been read more than 278,000 times although the Mennonite Church has a total membership of ~100,000, Wenger expresses compassion for his community as well as unwavering support for his son and all those who have been marginalized. He writes:

The world we live in is no longer the idyllic Eden. It is a broken, complex, messy, violent and yet wonderful world. God’s mercy-filled grace infuses our broken world with a goodness that keeps surprising us with joy—and healing. God’s grace also calls us to faithfully love God and neighbor above all else.

Wenger calls upon his church community to learn the lesson we Jews learn from living for a week each autumn in our sukkot: To be open to the world. To open our minds and our hearts. To transcend the assumptions and bigotries that inform our thinking. To attend to the pain and experience of “our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children.” Most of all, Chester Wenger asks his fellow-Mennonites to fling open the doors and windows of their worlds and breath in the air of love, respect, and acceptance. He writes:

We know from Deuteronomy that eunuchs were a sexual minority, loathed and considered unacceptable for admission to the “assembly of the Lord” and yet in Isaiah 56 the Lord says: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’…  I will give them a name better than sons and daughters….for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples … ”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his podcast Revisionist History, recently interviewed Chester Wenger. Gladwell framed Wenger’s outlook, words, and actions as “generosity orthodoxy,” an approach that cherishes tradition while remaining open to the world, and is marked most of all by grace and love. Brian D. McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy, writing from a Christian perspective—but in a universal tone—tells us:

We must never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God, when thinking about God, when imagining God, whether in prose or in poetry. A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, or controlling orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn't take itself too seriously. It is humble. It doesn't claim too much. It admits it walks with a limp.

As I consider the loving and challenging balance Wenger has achieved, I am, like everyone, still digesting the ongoing revelations concerning one of the presidential contenders, his boasts about sexually assaulting women, the accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior that woman have leveled against him, and the crass responses of those (including the candidate) who dismiss his remarks as mere “locker room talk” and discount the painful testimony of his victims. This is anything but “generous orthodoxy.” This is the old-fashioned orthodoxy of white male supremacy, privilege, and entitlement—a decidedly ungenerous attitude toward everyone and everything.

There is far too much ungenerous orthodox in the Jewish world today, as well. I needn’t cite examples; you know what I’m talking about. (But isn’t it interesting that women and homosexuals stand out prominently?) It’s not challenging to point a finger at others; it’s much more difficult to look within. Each of us has corners of ungenerous orthodoxy. Sukkot is a fine time to let cleansing rays of sunshine fill those corners, reveal them for what they are, and then take responsibility for them. We, the children of Israel, the offspring of Jacob, have walked with a limp since that famous wrestling match with the angel. But can we admit that we do? Do we have the humility to know the truth? 

May the open walls and roof of our sukkot open minds and hearts.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman