Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can You Believe It?


It's hard for me to believe...But, according to a Gallup poll published this past spring, only 53% of Americans believe that the planet is being affected by global warming.  And, similarly, 48% of Americans think that public concern for the future health and safety of the environment is grossly exaggerated.

No doubt my personal bias is shining through here.  But it is astonishing to me that basically one of out every two Americans thinks that global warming is a bunch of baloney!

God knows that I am not a green saint.  I could recycle more.  And I could cut down on the amount of waste that me and my family produce.  (Every time I change my new baby's diapers, I feel totally conflicted.)  But I proudly drive a hybrid car, because it's one small, but tangible way that I can help the world, by using less gas/producing less air pollution.

What about the one half of our population that doesn't believe that global warming is real?  What will it take for them to buy into the idea; and, more importantly: what will it take to get them to start doing a few little things to help the planet heal? 

Believe it or not, this is precisely the same question that this week's Torah portion, Parshat Noach, asks as well.

The debate over the subject arises because of the Torah's curious choice of wording regarding the circumstances that led to Noah actually boarding the Ark that he had built at God's command.

Genesis 7:7 notes that: "Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons' wives, went into the ark mipnei the waters of the Flood."

The Hebrew word mipnei can be translated either as: 'before' OR 'because of.'

The conflicting translations carry very different meanings.

If we translate mipnei as 'before' than Noah is akin to the Al Gore's of the world.  Like Gore, Noah was a visionary: he took God at God's word, understood the threat that was facing the planet (in the form of the coming Flood), and acted to do something about it - before the disaster arrived full on.

The problem is...that Noah is looked down upon by our rabbis of the last 2000 years.  He is not seen as a tremendous role model or saint.  Instead he's seen as a reluctant partner of God's.  Thus our great commentator Rashi writes that "Noah had little faith - he only half-believed that the flood would actually come, and so he did not enter the Ark until the waters were before him.

Rashi translates that pesky word mipnei in the causative sense.  Noah got on the boat because the waters were actively rolling in his direction.  He waited until the last possible minute, because he didn't believe that the disaster would come.

This not-so-generous assessment of Noah's character is representative of the one half of our country who deny that our world is broken right now...and who won't act until our weather really acts up, or until we see a melting Alaskan glacier float past Moonlight Beach.

Of course: it is not very Jewish to think like this.  The stature of Rashi aside, we're not supposed to denigrate Noah in those terms, and it's not very respectful for me/us to look down on our fellow Americans who aren't moved to go green now either.

In that spirit, I want to share with you this beautiful Hasidic commentary:

"Heaven forbid that we say that Noah, who was a righteous and perfect person, had any doubts about his faith [or about God].  Noah believed in those who lacked faith - he was certain that they would change [which would have prevented the Flood], and that was why he didn't [get on the Ark sooner] and that was why he didn't think that the flood would come at all."

This is an incredible teaching: that faith isn't just about believing in God, or about believing in the impending crisis facing our planet.  It's also about believing in our neighbors: in their potential to change the way they live - that they might join in our efforts to make this world a better place.

Sure, there is a part of me that is depressed by that Gallup poll.  But I will also work harder to see the poll as an invitation: for me to seek out a renewed sense of faith and trust in the people that surround me.  Even when the data suggests otherwise, I have hope in our shared capacity to change.  To work together.  To heal our world.  To insure that humanity will never be faced with an impending Flood.  Again.


There are so many resources that are available to help us on our quest to heal the environment (Jewish and non-Jewish).  Here's a brief selection - for you to use on your own, or to share with anyone you know who might be a little skeptical about the dangers facing our planet.
  • The Evidence for Global Warming, as presented on Al Gore's website.  The site also offers a simple list of easy suggestions that we can all pursue to begin doing our part to help.  (I'm a big fan of the idea behind Meatless Mondays!)
  • Climate Change resources from the Federal Government can be accessed here.  Resources from the United Nations can be found here.
  • COEJL (Council on the Environment and Jewish Life) is the Jewish community's leading environmental-advocacy organization.
  • The Reform Movement has a long history of green leadership.  Here is a URJ resolution on the subject from 1991.  More recently, the CCAR (Reform rabbis) passed this resolution in 2005.  And you can click here for an array of resources from our movement's Religious Action Center (RAC) in Washington.
And, finally, just to inspire you...I wanted to mention the amazing ad campaign that the Alliance for Climate Protection did a few years ago, emphasizing how important it is for Americans of all different backgrounds to come together on behalf of our environment.  Enjoy these three brief commercials:

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rabbi Brown,

    I reluctantly have to take issue with your contribution to what I consider a biased and one-sided discussion regarding very complicated environmental, climatic, and, dare I say, political issues. While in principle encouraging your congregation to be cognizant of the impact each of us could be having on our local environment, and likewiase encouraging us to take steps to preserve the Earth's resources, is a commendable theme for a commentary, either on your blog or during services at the Temple, I am disappointed that you deem it appropriate to share significantly biased sources of information as guides to your congregants. Unfortunately, I don't think even including a government web site absolves you of presenting significantly biased sources of information.

    I know the point of your discussion is not to begin a debate of the truth of anthropogenic global warming, but you clearly write from the perspective that the evidence is declarative truth. It might be informative for you to review some of the alternative views linked at pages such as or I am not suggesting that these sources are not also biased, just that there are thoughtful, alternative analyses out there.

    Though not an environmental or climatology scientist, I am a professional scientist and trained in scientific method. There is a big difference between correlation and causality. I don't know even if the world is actually warming. Humans have a very narrow temporal perspective on such things, since we no longer live for 100s of years as did men and women in the days of the prophets. What I do know as fact is that the Earth's climate changes. It has changed in the past and will change in the future. Moreover, this change heretofor has had nothing to do with humans. Moreover, the climate at the time of Moses appears to have been at least as warm, if not warmer, as it is today. I don't think anyone would argue that the warmth of that time was due to the Egyptian's over-dependance on coal-fired electrical generation!

    My point is that to recommend that people take care to reduce waste, consume less, and be aware of their effect on the environment is something perfectly suitable for a sermon. To add politically charged suggestions that we should do this because "We are destroying the Earth" is at best ill-advised and at worst really inappropriate for this forum. I note that you thought it amusing to link some advertorials on your blog. Odd that you didn't link this even more hard-hitting PSA: I suppose killing children who don't believe in global warming wasn't what you had in mind with your post.

    With all due respect,