Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Crowning Trees with Torah

by Susan Weinberg

Rabbi Davis began our session with a niggun and a question. Camping or glamping? Which do you prefer? We seemed to split into two camps. There were those who spoke quite eloquently of camping as a profound experience involving communing with nature. Those of us in the other decidedly less profound “camp” all alluded to the fact that yes, we had once camped in our youth, but now preferred a bed, preferably accompanied by a bathroom.  I must confess, I don’t remember the communing part of my camping days. Rather I remember rubbing pots with soap so they were easier to clean after using them over a campfire. There was no communing in sight. True confession is that I camped when I was younger because it was less expensive and I couldn’t afford the alternative back then. 

Our discussion of camping and its associated communing with nature was the segue to a discussion of Torah versus Teva (nature) (see handout Torah vs Teva)  Rabbi Shimon spoke of someone who interrupts his study by noticing the beauty of nature as committing a mortal sin. In Deuteronomy 16:21 we are told that we should not plant an idolatrous tree near the Altar of God. The Etz Chayim asserts that even though God created nature, nature is not the same thing as God as it is not moral. It may be admired, but not worshipped. 

By now I was feeling uncomfortable with this conversation. Yes, I get the idolatry part, but even as a non-camper, nature feels like an important way that we appreciate the beauty of the world and the amazing logic that underlies it. 

I knew by now that another perspective was coming when the rabbi told us to turn the page. Two rabbis bridged the more severe world of Rabbi Shimon on behalf of nature. Rabbi Yanklowitz spoke on behalf of admiration of nature but urged us not to let ourselves be distracted from the spiritual world by the external world. Still closer to synthesis, Rabbi Greenberg argued that both God and his creation, nature, should each receive their due in their own time.  

We then arrived at Jeremy Bernstein, author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment. Bernstein acknowledges the alienation between Judaism and nature with Torah viewing nature as a competitor of sorts. He speaks on behalf of a synthesis, viewing the beauty of the world as an expansion of study and argues for the interconnectedness of ruchani (spirit) and gashmi (material).

Ironically, the example he offers involves our friend Rabbi Shimon as he gathered with fellow rabbis under trees and exclaimed, “How beautiful is the shade with which these trees protect us. Let us crown them with the words of Torah!”

The synthesis was driven home by a beautiful prayer by Rebbe Nachman set to music by Naomi Shemer in the Song of the Grasses. (listen to song)

The second part of our session was led by Melissa Rappaport Schifman, author of Building a Sustainable Home as she engaged us in the considerations in doing exactly that. She spoke from her own experience in creating a home that was more sustainable than the alternatives.

 “Who lives or works in a building?” she asked noting that we spend the vast majority of our time in a building.  So, what is a sustainable home? She showed us a variety of homes from a yurt to a tiny home to homes complete with solar panels and chickens. Ultimately a sustainable home is more sustainable than the alternatives.  Schifman focuses on LEED certification for existing buildings. LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. 

Her framework revolves around health, wealth and soul and she sought to present it from the standpoint of a homeowner considering the journey with the value of hindsight. Health included the considerations of clean water, clean air and a clean house. And by clean house, she didn’t mean tidy, but rather the chemicals that you bring into your home.  Notwithstanding the campers in our midst, we spend 90% of our time indoors and our homes have become tighter envelopes, filled with toxins, cleaning supplies and cooking oils. 

By wealth she meant energy, water efficiency and durability. You know those tags on new appliances that tell us how energy efficient they are.  

When she speaks of soul she is talking about our survival on this planet. To survive we need clean air, water and food. That means materials (local, recycled and sustainable), landscape (limiting lawn size, managing storm water and plants for bees and butterflies) and location.

A couple of areas that she emphasized were to filter water, noting that $300 of bottled water can be replaced with less than $1/year of filtered water.  She also emphasized electrifying everything to avoid using fossil fuels, noting key appliances of heaters, water heaters, dryers and stoves.  As we move away from coal, we often find that natural gas is more efficient, but it contributes to carbon monoxide poisoning and creates the problem of methane gas which contributes to global warming.

Melissa shared a kit of items that can help get us started in managing our footprint. Included in them was the low flow faucet aerator which minimizes unnecessary water usage and a seed package for bee and butterfly friendly plants. 

Our homes are our biggest carbon footprint, but we can now create a net zero energy home, turning our footprint into a restorative force.  Several members of the lab suggested solutions they have found to work towards that objective. Metro Blooms is a Minneapolis organization that offers ideas and even funding to help in building rain gardens.  Community Solar is an alternative way those without a good location for solar panels, can still participate in solar energy, investing and getting a credit in exchange. Melissa spoke in favor of the belief that we can each make a difference and the collective force of those efforts can in fact make a significant difference in our world.

Some additional links:

BuildWithRise.com-"turn any home improvement project into a sustainable one"
GreenHomeGuide.com - USGBC's resource
rim.org - RockyMountain Institute
EWG.org- database of cleaning supplies, cosmetics, tap water, sunscreens, produce
RichardsWater.com - Water Filtration