This is a transcript of the Dialogue Podcast, Episode 2: Acting Sustainably, an interview with Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb.
00:02 Hila Ratzabi: Welcome to the Dialogue podcast of the Jewish Reconstructionist communities. I’m Hila Ratzabi, Editorial Associate at Ritualwell. These podcasts are part of a broader series exploring relevant topics through a Reconstructionist lens. This month, we’re hosting discussions with leaders on the cutting edge of the Jewish community in general, and Reconstructionist communities specifically. Today, my guest is Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, rabbi of the Reconstructionist congregation, Adat Shalom, in Bethesda Maryland, and Chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Thank you for joining me today Rabbi Fred.
00:39 Fred Dobb: Delighted to be with you.
00:41 HR: For a long time you’ve been involved in environmental activism and advocacy. You were instrumental in the process of creating a green building for your congregational home. I’d like to talk a little about when environmentalism became central to your life and also, when you began to see the connections between environmentalism and Judaism.
01:01 FD: Great questions. I hope everyone sees the connections between environmentalism and Judaism. But I admit, it wasn’t always clear to me, and certainly not for many of the folks I work with. I grew up in the Reform movement, including the summer camp system. (Overlapping background, incidentally, with Rabbi Isaac, and the birth of Camp JRF came from some common sources.) And that was really in my middle school and high school years, where I made a clear connection between Judaism and tikkun olam, writ large.
01:33 FD: And it was the middle of college when I had started out with a lot of peace and anti-nuclear and human rights activism, along with Hillel. And when I was 20, the focus really switched, for some random background reasons, into “Let’s not worry about the possible catastrophic use of nuclear weapons, let’s look at the clear, and present, continual pollution that is nuclear and chemical and carbon, etcetera.” So by that time, this was 1990, it was confirmed as, in my own understanding, the defining issue of this generation and future generations. But I never abated on my Jewish sensibility. And from then on, much of my life has been about drawing the most explicit connections possible between the power of Judaism for renewal, as well as the wisdom of its ancient teachings, in combination with the urgent needs of the climate and the planet.
02:35 HR: How do you view Jewish Environmentalism specifically through a Reconstructionist lens, if you do?
02:40 FD: I certainly do. First, it’s a approach to the text, loving the tradition, but not taking it literally. Kaplan would have been alliterative — of taking the tradition lovingly, but not literally. As in “the past gets a vote, but not a veto.” And that very much informs this. So that the specifics of halacha, of Jewish law, for example, the mitzvah or commandment of “ba’al taashchit,” thou shalt not waste. The aggadah, the ideational background in our tradition, is beautiful on ba’al tashchit: [it] calls it a defining principle that separates the wicked from the righteous.
03:19 FD: But the halachic, or legal development, of the idea, begins to put a dollar figure on how much a tree could produce in the future if you don’t cut it down, versus how much its products are worth when you do cut it down. And while that kind of quantifying is important, it has its limits, because you cannot possibly quantify the value of a healthy forest to the human soul or to the biosphere. So, that’s just one example of where the textual approach of Reconstructionism, walking that line of not forsaking the tradition at all, but also not being bound to the same conclusions our ancestors reached, is very helpful environmentally.
04:00 FD: It’s also a body of work we can draw on. Kaplan himself, along with Eugene Kohn and Ira Eisenstein, in the introduction to the Sabbath Prayerbook that was published in 1945, has a beautiful passage in that introduction that prefigures what environmentalists know as the Gaia Hypothesis, which is really a ’70s, ’80s idea, that the earth is a living organism. And he makes the analogy in 1945 in the first Recon siddur that essentially, all of us are like cells in a giant organism. All interdependent and each one autonomous, but the organism as a whole has its own consciousness, beyond that of each individual cell. And that consciousness is God. So, Kaplan makes a 1940’s analogy that is very similar to what atmospheric chemists come to realize only 25 years later, that we each are independent, but we are also so interdependent as to render the entire biosphere akin to something like an organism.
05:07 FD: So that idea of “we’re independent, but only so much, and that we’re actually part of something bigger” is a particularly valuable teaching from Reconstructionist tradition that jibes beautifully with environmental thought.
05:20 HR: That actually leads me into another question. I think all major religions right now can agree that climate change is the number one moral crisis of our time. We saw this in the Pope’s recent encyclical. Many progressive parts of religions can talk about this as “climate change is an affront to God’s creation.” And so, I’m curious about the relationship between religious and secular responses to climate change. So I have a three part question. Do you think a religiously motivated response to climate change is necessary? How does this approach dovetail with secular responses to climate change? And can one be inspired to take action to protect the earth outside of a sacred framework.
06:06 FD: Yes, second. I may need future prompts, but let me first add there’s the question of the overlap between the faiths. You’re absolutely right to note that this is the runaway consensus issue of the religious environmental sector and it’s worth knowing there is such a sector. I’m actually the chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of which the Reconstructionist Movement is a leading signatory and involved member of the Coalition, and interestingly it’s a project of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs whose outgoing executive director is also a Reconstructionist rabbi, Steve Gutow. So we’re everywhere.
06:46 FD: But through COEJL, C-O-E-J-L.org, the Jewish community is in constant leadership-level conversation with our allies in the Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical environmental worlds, always comparing notes, always working on policy together and co-sponsoring many activities. By the time some listeners hear this, I will have already put on to the COEJL website a resource that actually links the papal encyclical Laudato Si, which is about climate change, but also about integral ecology, the big picture, and intersperse that with quotes from Jewish tradition, almost as if, pardon the analogy, the Pope is the Mishnah and I am providing the Gemara, the commentary on it from the last 2,000 years of Jewish thought.
07:36 FD: So we’re very much in it together and in other settings like the Interfaith Power and Light movement, we’re in it with our Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and Sikh and Zoroastrian and Unitarian, and you name it, allies. It’s a very rich field across religions.
07:55 FD: Then across the religious/secular divide, I tend to think of it as the question: What do religions, either individually or collectively, bring to the environmental discourse that isn’t there already? And there are just a few things. One is the centrality of people in the equation. It’s very easy for an effete environmentalism to be carried away with protecting the wilderness, as if wilderness were independent from people. Religious teaching, of course, we’re created in the divine image uniquely and people need to be honored, and that includes those who will be dislocated from their jobs, even though the job is in the coal or oil or whatnot area. We need to have religious radical compassion for those individuals and we need to acknowledge people — all the more so for campesinos, for natives living in areas that are potentially affected by environmental projects, pro or con.
08:54 FD: Another area is the idea of Sabbath-keeping. We have this radical, beautiful notion that we need limits to production and consumption because that’s not where it’s at. Not only is the loop of production and consumption causing so much pollution and so much waste that it’s not sustainable, but we find that it’s the Sabbath day when you are halachically forbidden from work, but in our practice, in our communities, it’s the day we’re with each other. It’s the day we look forward to because we don’t schlep around, because it’s not about buying stuff or making stuff or investing. It’s about singing and praying and eating and writing poetry and being in love, and time with friends and family. And the sacred and holy is also the sustainable. Those are some quick examples of where there’s a unique religious voice that needs to be heard in the larger environmental movement picture. And what was the last one again?
09:56 HR: Can one be inspired to take action to protect the earth outside of a sacred framework?
10:04 FD: For sure. Religion at its best provides a uniquely rich way to reach a destination that you might just as easily get to a different way. So, there are certainly differences for Muslims or Christians or Jews in how we get there through a different body of text, but we all arrive there in dialogue with the sacred. I think there’s an extra power for those who are believers in lining up the wisdom with something ancient and holy. So, Rachel Carson was a prophet of environmentalism who passed away in 1964 and she helped beget the modern environmental movement. Some would date it a century earlier to folks like John Muir. We date it 3,000 years back to Moses and Miriam, to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, and there’s an enduring power that comes that way.
11:01 FD: But for those who regard John Muir and Rachel Carson as prophets, you can get there just in the 19th and 20th centuries. Maybe that’s all we need, but I certainly find it enriching to be able to have that longitudinal perspective and to say if the ancients already were able to be wise enough to accept limits to growth, limits to production and consumption in the name of holy sustainability, then we can overcome whatever partisan gridlock is preventing us from getting there today.
11:33 HR: In some ways I feel that the message about the reality of climate change has finally reached the masses, but I wonder also as a rabbi and a religious leader how you use your platform to continue to spread that message to make it a priority to respond to. And so, how do you get that message across about really how dire the situation is at this point in history while at the same time motivating people to stay hopeful and to stay focused on taking action in response?
12:08 FD: That’s the right question. There’s this old saw that clergy’s role — that was originally generated a century ago, and the context of the press — is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” So in moments of our comfort, we need to be afflicted as it were so that pressed into action, because precisely the comfort of our upper middle class modern American lifestyles is not sustainable. But in the moments of brokenness, which ironically occur anytime that we face the guilt over what we’re doing with our daily lifestyle, then we are afflicted and the message has to be of comfort.
12:51 FD: And so, it’s a tough cycle to break around sort of titrating the environmental message so that it is just doom saying enough to prod into action, but also comforting and hopeful enough even if the science is in fact dire to allow us to move on it. As a congregational Reconstructionist rabbi, there’s a number of ways that I try to do this, and I think that many of our colleagues do this and we’re all always learning from each other, so I hope this is helpful.
13:27 FD: It is a conscious titration. I often withhold something that I might want to share environmentally because I’m already easily pigeonholed as “green rabbi”, and for instance, Shemita, the current sabbatical year, which a whole group of Jewish environmentalists have seized on, is a particularly brilliant set of ancient teachings that really combine social, spiritual and communal sustainability. It’s become the punchline of a joke, right? “Oh, Rabbi Fred said Shemita again. How many times will he say it today?” And that’s something that we have to watch.
14:02 FD: The best way to watch that is not to never speak about it, it’s to be wise in when one speaks about it and to back it up with tons of action: to actually walk the talk. I rode my bicycle six and a half miles to get to the synagogue today, and I try to do that as often as my schedule allows. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a start. The synagogue has solar panels on its roof which are seen by all the visitors, and we make a point of how accessible that is as a way to reduce our carbon footprint. My own home has them, too, and those are further examples of where there’s actual action that is appropriate modeling, it both makes a difference and it has a multiplier effect for those who see it.
14:49 FD: We’re doing great initiatives with our grounds in partnership with Interfaith Power & Light and the National Wildlife Federation growing a pilot program called Sacred Grounds, to put in native species that also absorb water runoff and it meets a whole bunch of goals at once. It beautifies, it provides habitat, it prevents the needless application of pesticides, herbicides and watering and it’s a haven for biodiversity.
15:20 FD: So we make something like that a demonstration site, we make people aware that this is a commitment that the synagogue stands for, and then it’s not preaching, it’s doing. Although to be fair to Pope Francis who cites St. Francis so much in this beautiful new encyclical, St. Francis has a famous quote that I wish there was someone in the Jewish tradition who had it, but I’m happy to quote from outside. He said, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words,” and I very much believe that about the environmental gospel.
15:56 HR: That’s really beautiful. And I think you anticipated this other question that I had which was sort of how do you manage the difference between your own personal practices of being environmentally conscious, like you said, sort of riding your bike to work, and then the choices of the congregation and what you hope to impress upon the congregation in terms of actions that they can take. But it sounds like there is a seamless connection between your personal choices and that which is happening in the congregation.
16:29 FD: There’s a connection, but it’s not seamless. Well, maybe there is between myself and the practices that the congregation are doing, but there is a notable seam between even what I as a somewhat dire environmentalist articulate as the need and what even I am actually doing. So humility and self-awareness is another very important piece of it. I mentioned that I ride my bike. I try not to trumpet it, but when it comes up, I note that I ride my bike at best a third of the time, which means two thirds of the time, I’m driving.
17:08 FD: And so, mazel tov. I’m only 67% condemning third world peoples to rising shorelines and new vectors for infectious disease, and I’m only two thirds as much denying the verdant future to my own great grandchildren. So, by acknowledging the imperfections of any one approach and by maintaining humility about what we do and aren’t yet doing, I think that’s a very important piece of it. So, I’m not there yet and we’re not there yet.
17:40 HR: This also leads me to another question, and this is just something that I personally struggle with is, how much more I could be doing and I feel that people can be so complacent. You’re listening to a sermon or you’re in a Shabbat service and you’re sort of in this environment and it’s easy to just think about these things and then note I’m recycling or I’m composting and these are the things that I do and just sort of congratulate yourself for that.
18:05 HR: But it feels like so small in comparison to how much our lifestyles are so incredibly comfortable and when it comes to consumption, just how vast our impact is and how much more we could be doing. And we don’t know how much we have to do to really make that difference, but there’s always more. And so, I just wonder to what extent, personally, for yourself, but also in getting that message to other people, to really inspire people to make even more difficult and drastic changes to ones lifestyle to try to make a bit more of a difference.
18:45 FD: So you’re absolutely right. There’s always more that we can and should do and that tradition even compels us to do. And it’s also equally true that every time that we remind people of that, defenses go up and it can be counter productive, ironically, to deliver that message. So I come back to the image of titration, of finding the sweet spot where the two curves maximize each other. It’s not in my best sermon, but it may be my best sermon title. I gave a High Holy Day sermon a number of years ago called “The Cassandra/Pollyanna Dialectic.”
19:18 FD: Taking these two archetypes of Cassandra — “the sky is falling,” and Pollyanna — “everything is gonna be great,” and we have moments where we err on one side or the other and ironically, I tend to lean toward Pollyanna in almost every area with the one exception of climate science, because I study these numbers and they’re so depressing. But we need a little bit of both. And then there’s the added notion of faith, and faith is closely connected to hope, and those are words that good, rational Reconstructionist sometimes struggle with. And if we mean it as faith as in an interventionist God who will rescue us from the mess we’ve created from ourselves, we’re totally off base. But if we mean faith in the unseen, faith in the possibility of renewal, the kind of faith that Isaiah Chapter 40, Shabbat Nachamu, after Tisha B’Av, there is the possibility even in our lowest moments.
20:21 FD: Historically that would be 540 BCE when we’re languishing in Babylonian exile and the last people who remember the Temple are dying off and in that moment when it seems that all is lost and the Jewish future is about to just snuff out of existence, the geopolitics changes. Persia defeats Babylon and we’re told to go home. So that soaring poetry of Second Isaiah, which I had the pleasure of studying with the late Tikvah Frymer-Kensky as an elective at RRC so many years ago, and the greatest hits of which are woven into Lecha Dodi. It’s part of our Friday night weekly tradition to sing these words of that moment of the possibility of hope and rebirth.
21:05 FD: So, even though atmospheric carbon is growing by three parts per million per year and the rate of growth is increasing and even though we’re told by scientists we need to bring it way down to below what it is now, somewhere around 350 parts per million to reach sustainability, you can look at those facts and say, “We’ll never get there” or you can have faith and hope to sustain us to do the hard work to get as close as possible to sustainability. We will never forgive ourselves retroactively for the steps we could have taken, but didn’t.
21:42 HR: When you’re talking about what it is that we have faith in and not necessarily saying God is just gonna save us and what can we have faith in, I wonder if faith in people, faith in ourselves, faith in community and others that we will actually have the strength and the stamina to actually do something and to continue to endure through this.
22:06 FD: Absolutely, and that comes back to your early question about what’s uniquely Reconstructionist about this. I love the Reconstructionist emphasis that sacred text never ended and that we can look at and should look at modern text with the same loving eye as the ancient ones. So two 20th century texts that are canonical, but we haven’t raised to the level of a haftarah yet, and I think we need to. One is Anne Frank’s famous diary from hiding against the Nazis in the Netherlands in the early ’40s, and that famous passage of, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.”
22:49 FD: For someone who is soon to be tortured and murdered, and has her life upended, to be able to say that, is one of the most remarkable affirmations of that positive outlook and it’s exactly what we need. And similarly, when you say “have hope in people rather than in Hashem,” that’s exactly what Shaul Tchernichovsky, one of the early Hebrew pioneers wrote somewhere around 1910, 1915, the kind of early Hebrew national renaissance, this famous poem, “Sachaki, Sachaki”. “Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest. Laugh and I repeat anew, that I still believe in people as I still believe in you.”
23:28 FD: (That’s the Debbie Friedman English singable translation.) But, “ki gam a’amin gam ba-adam, gam be-ruach, ruach bo.” “Yes, I still believe in humanity and in the spirit that lies within humanity.” And that is the belief that we can change. That we can have that moral awakening and reckoning that will help us make the small sacrifices that are needed to get things sustainable.
23:56 HR: Amen, thank you. I’ll just close with a little bit more of a question that we are gonna be asking across these interviews about Reconstructionist Judaism described as being on the cutting edge, do you agree with this assertion? And if so, how would you define the cutting… [chuckle] Doing part of that cutting edge, how would you define that?
24:22 FD: On a good day, the Reconstructionist movement and its allied institutions and its leaders and laity are in fact on the cutting edge. It would be ironic of us to say that we are always on the cutting edge, that would make us sound chosen.
24:41 FD: And I often joke that there’s a crazy feedback loop of, “we are so hyper-ethical and awesome that we are the first, and in some cases, still only people to take out chosenness so that must mean we are better,” and we need to avoid that. Humility needs to be a thoroughgoing piece of the conversation, so I want to embrace that Reconstructionism and Reconstructionist Jews are at the cutting edge, but we are only at the cutting edge when we earn it. And we earn it when we put our good ideas into practice, when we actually put the solar panels on the roofs, when we actually tear up grass and put in native species, when we actually bike to synagogue and when we don’t, we don’t earn it.
25:27 FD: We are on the cutting edge when we actually address the critical needs of the 21st century which is for authenticity and inclusion, and I think our communities have a lot to teach about walking that line of being thickly and seriously Jewish, while also being willing to question the traditional Jewish assumptions about who is a good Jew or what is a Jewish family, such that we can truly throw our doors open as we famously have and are continuing to expand to transgender folks, Jews of color, Jews with disabilities.
26:08 FD: Even intermarriages are still controversial enough within and beyond the movement to say that scenario we need to work on, just as we have done so much to lead the way to inclusion of LGBT folks, inclusion of folks whose Judaism manifests in more cultural rather than religious directions. We are known for that, we’ve been pushing the boundaries, we need to keep pushing those boundaries. We are at the cutting edge when we show the power of community in an era when people who it doesn’t resonate the way it did for Kaplan.
26:41 FD: Millennial identity doesn’t assume that you are part of something bigger than you, but smaller than humanity, and that that you must plug into that, which was really a core teaching of an earlier generation of Reconstructionists. But we still acknowledge the power of community and we still have a unique way to approach that fine line of universal and particular, how we can take special pride and connection in a Jewish layer of the unpeeling onion, if you will, but to recognize that the outer sphere which is all of humanity or all of creation is also part of the Jewish conversation. Those are just a handful of ways that I think, again, on a good day we are at the cutting edge and we need to keep earning it every day going forward.
27:31 HR: That’s a really great message. And just before we close do you have any other projects or specific initiatives that you want it to bring attention to before we finish?
27:42 FD: Adatshalom.net or COEJL.org will show a lot of those, on the synagogue and on the environmental side. I guess I’ll close with the classic-now Adat Shalom punchline, “Shemita.” The idea that we should live a seven year cycle that plans ahead for downtimes, that gets us out of the rat race and that honors the fullness of people and community in all kinds of micro, local, sustainable ways. So, we are ending the seventh year of that traditional cycle, which means we are entering the next six years in which we have to make things better, so that the seventh year can be a little bit truer to what Moshe, Miriam, u-venay Yisrael, the ancients, had in mind when they wrote Leviticus 25 and 26 and Deuteronomy 15 and these other places where the Sabbatical cycle is invoked.
28:44 FD: So, I would love to see our communities take seriously “what does long range planning look like,” not in the way just that non-profits should always do long range planning, but long range planning around sustainability, long range planning around community, long range planning around living lightly on the earth and making room for our brothers and sisters irrespective of race, creed, color or location, or even for that matter, species.
29:13 FD: And those are some beautiful teachings that we’ve only just began to think about and as we lose the focus on the Sabbatical or Shemita year, I hope that we keep that in mind every year, that we are living toward the Shemita the same way that on a Tuesday we should be thinking toward Shabbat and having Shabbat color the rest of the week. And in the same way that even when we are in our secular incarnation we should have our Jewish, our synagogue, our Reconstructionist identity carry with us, and how does that affect the workplace, how does that affect what we do on the soccer field with our kids, how does that affect how we invest and consume and purchase and vote and donate and volunteer. Those are the questions that we should be asking every minute.
30:02 HR: Thank you so much. That was really inspiring. I really appreciate your participating in this conversation today, Rabbi Fred.
30:09 FD: Well, I’m honored and I’m thrilled that as a movement we’re asking these questions, and I hope to be available to all of our fellow folk going forward, and it’s a dialogue, so look forward to hearing what others have to say too.
30:22 HR: That is exactly what I was just gonna say. We invite our listeners to explore our other podcasts and essays that are at www.jewishrecon.org/dialogue/cutting-edge-judaism and to please join us in this conversation by commenting on essays on the website. Follow us on Twitter @RRCcommunity, like our Facebook page, “RRC – Reconstructionist Rabbinical College,” and we’ll see you next time.