Testimony before the NY State Senate Committee

Testimony before the NY State Environmental Conservation Committee

12 February 2019

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob, and while I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light – an organization dedicated to passing climate science-based legislation from a religious perspective, I come here first representing the initial wave of climate refugees in New York State. In 2012 on 29 October, Superstorm Sandy slammed my neighborhood in Oceanside, Long Island with a five-foot surge of water. My house had over $100,000 worth of damage, of which $18,000 was covered by flood insurance. I told my wife the day after the storm that we would move, and in November 2017, I moved from 25 miles east of Manhattan to 40 miles north.

My personal experience is framed in my religious perspective. I and my organization are non-partisan, representing about 15 different religious denominations from Suffolk County on Long Island to the city of Buffalo, with all points, rural, suburban, and urban in between. The message we bring is that climate change is a moral issue and the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) is a matter of personal and professional integrity.

Contrary to caricatures, most synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras have no issue accepting scientific facts, concepts, and conclusions. Climate change is real, climate change is manmade, and the only question is what is humanity going to do? To do nothing, to keep the status quo is evil in religious language. It is the path to more harm and danger to human life – deliberating allowing destruction is evil, a human, preventable evil.

The good news, to borrow the term from the Protestant Tradition, is that we have the knowledge base, the technology and the wherewithal to address climate change. Everything to address climate change is in some sort of readiness in New York State, from detailed plans for job creation to the equitable spread of resources, to energy infrastructure initiatives. The only thing we have lacked in the last few years is the political will.

Our religious traditions do not tolerate half-truths, because they have no integrity. To say that we are going to lose jobs in the fossil fuel industry is to deny that we are bringing entirely new energy industries into the state. To say that the CCPA will cause prices to rise is a half-truth as well. We already balk at paying for the damages of evermore powerful storms and violent temperature swings. Roads meant to last 20 years are lasting 15 years or less; we have yet to fix the most expensive damage from Sandy. Do you want to spend the taxpayers’ money solving the crisis or do you want to spend ever increasing sums patching roads, wires, sewers, channels, and buildings, which we see are already falling short of completion, just to maintain the status quo?

Whether you want to or not, you will be spending large sums of taxpayer funds on climate change in the coming years. The climate science and our real-world experience confirm this conclusion; no prophecy is necessary. Climate change is more than a technical issue, a reasonable issue, or a political issue; it is an unavoidable moral issue. The question from your religious constituents is: Are you going to spend state funds with integrity, namely the CCPA and its goals to address climate change, or are you going to squander the short twelve-year window we have to address climate change? We are the first generation to confront climate change and we are the last generation that can address climate change.

As I stated in the beginning, the CCPA is a matter of integrity, the integrity of the political will to act.

A Day after Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

Our tradition offers words of consolation, but we may not hear them until we can explain our pain. The wounds are raw and the deaths are fresh. At this time of aninut, the period before burial, we feel nothing and yet, we feel everything.

  • Jews have enjoyed three hundred years fear from fear of communal violence in a blessed land until yesterday.
  • We are proud to be Jews, but we thought we were seen as Americans first in this century.
  • And like all people of good will in the United States, we believed that reason and optimism would overcome hatred and paranoid delusion.

We were not wrong.

The murderer may be a random actor, but I cannot see this senseless massacre as an isolated moment. The Sikhs were gunned down in Wisconsin. The black church members were slaughtered in the basement of their church in Charleston, SC. All of them and all of us were easy targets for hatred. We were people who believed in the possibilities of humanity and in the hope that prayer, good deeds, and acts of compassion could heal a divided world. We met the world with open arms instead of loaded guns.

The murderers were wrong though. The Sikh Gurdwara re-opened as did the AME Church. People came from all walks of life to sit with the survivors and to stand with the mourners. You must understand – a gun can kill a human, but it cannot extinguish humanity.

Historians have proven in European history that when Jews were persecuted, the country was already in or headed into great turmoil. The community of Jews was like a canary in a coal mine, a harbinger of great suffering to come. However, the persecutions in Europe were all, either state sponsored or church sponsored. History has no example of the great patchwork of ethnic and religious communities that make up the United States. Are the Sikhs, the African-American Christians, or the Jews the canary or all of us canaries? No, they are not and no, we are not. Our murdered brothers and sisters are victims and, as our tradition states, they are martyrs for their beliefs. We mourn with their families, friends, and congregation.

The massacre in Pittsburgh was directed at all American Jews. I hear that message, acknowledge it and hold my loved ones ever closer. The pain is personal, tapping into a history of martyrdom that I know far too well. I have known Jew-hatred, intimately. I have witnessed the hatred of the other through my eyes and my ears. Some people fear the world, and no law or principle will sway them from their hatred.

Please remember the great deeds our country has accomplished though. This nation has allowed the Jews to flourish as no other country in history has. The United States has offered the same opportunity to many, many other communities, which has made us as Jews doubly proud. We must pledge not be silenced by the hatred and the violence until it has been diminished and dismissed from the public ways and public discourses of this great nation.

In the coming days we will comfort our people and we will pray. Even more, we encourage our resolve to continue the fight for dignity and respect for all peoples who live within these borders. We must not respond to this tragedy with silence.

To our friends and well-wishers, please join with us as we pray, sit with us as we mourn, and when these first days have passed, join with us and let us together return grace to this nation. Nothing could give us greater solace.

End of the Holocaust Generation

I officiated at a funeral on Friday that I realized afterwards may be a consequential moment. The deceased was in her 90s and she was a Holocaust survivor. She was a very young child when Hitler came to power. The significance is that this may be my last funeral a Holocaust survivor, as most of them have passed.

I have buried a number of aged survivors over the years and always, the funeral and internment were unique points of sacredness. These funerals have been more complex than most, with unusual layers of meaning that have been shared but will not be spoken, and with more layers of meaning that have never been spoken and will be left unsaid, even though we, the next generation, know the content. God: mentioning God at a such a funeral is a minefield of accusation, futility, anger, regret and in rare moments, reconciliation. Yet, they requested a rabbi to officiate.

Holocaust humor is an extreme form of gallows humor, which often circles around the subject of God and God’s apparent impotence to save the Jews. While gallows humor seems to transcend generations, Holocaust humor appears to be quite specific to the immediate generation. I have had this bit of Holocaust humor sitting in my files for years, waiting for an appropriate context. The piece was left unused because the humor is biting and quite frankly, the opposite of what most people consider to be humor. Even more, placing the piece between paragraphs of context before and paragraphs of explanation after diminished the stark power of this humor.

The Holocaust generation is almost gone though, and this piece, with its contradiction and condemnation, should be preserved.

“A Jew dies. He ascends to the heavens and meets God. Standing before the Throne of Glory, the Jew tells God a Holocaust joke, but God does not laugh. When he realizes that God is not laughing, the Jew shrugs and says, “I guess you had to be there.”

My younger colleagues will never know the privilege of officiating at a funeral for Holocaust survivors. It is a privilege I never wanted and one for which a person could never prepare. Their presence in my rabbinate has been a blessing.

 

Adelphi invocation

We begin this commemoration with a small admission of truth. Every human being in this amphitheater has known failure, has known defeat and experienced moments of humiliation. The truth is that no one achieves even the slightest measure of success without slogging through the morass of insecurity, uncertainty, panic, and self-doubt. This is how human beings are built; this is how great human beings are built.

The joy of this moment was years in the making. The academic success each of you celebrates is all-the-more sweet when you reflect just how hard you had to strive, how far you had to traverse, how much you had to sacrifice. You are surrounded by family and friends who stood by you, encouraged and helped you, and even got out of your way when you hit your stride.

May the Divine Reality, called upon by many names:

The Great Spirit,

The Father in Heaven,

The Holy One Blessed Be He,

Allah,

Buddha,

The Dao,

One All Pervading Spirit,

and Brahmah,

Lead us from ignorance to Knowledge
and from darkness to light;
Move us from the fear of failure to the celebration of life.
To our Adelphi Graduates from all of the faculty and administration who have gathered here for your commencement:
May the ideals you have come to believe become the truths you live.
May kindness, justice and mercy be your friends.
And with your new knowledge and your new degrees, may you bring blessing to this world.

Amen.

 

My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

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TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

God for the rest of us #2

When I encounter a politician making a statement that includes God, there is a jolt of discomfort. The worst visceral reaction is when the politician declares with all the passion of an entranced believer, “God bless America!” My wincing is not a matter of patriotism or of affirming my citizenship but a matter of God belief. “God bless America” is a statement explicitly announcing to the audience that God is a self-conscious deity who intervenes in human history and takes action for those God favors. The cringe is the experience of absurdity, of a clash between reality as I understand it and a God belief that I do not accept.

If just the absurdity of a God belief I do not hold and reality as I understand it was the only issue, my complaint would be a minor affair. However, when a politician declares “God bless America!”, my denial of that statement leaves me open to a much graver accusation, an indictment that I am a poor citizen, lacking pride and respect for my country. “God bless America” is not just about God, but about me, and you, and you too.

The logic works like this: because I do not believe in the all-conscious God who intervenes (I call this God “The Parent God”), I may not believe in my country either. In reality patriotism and God belief are not connected, one does not inform the other. However, some promote that God and country go hand-in-hand. For the politician seeking a thunderous applause of affirmation, the accusation is subtle and pernicious – clap or you are a bad citizen.

Hence, the finch of absurdity and the desire to avoid all politicians on the campaign trail.

God for the Rest of Us #1

Many of us are seeking a God we can believe in without discarding all of the amazing knowledge that we use in this unprecedented age of human advancement. Evolution is a fact and the Big Bang Theory is a fact. Computers, quantum physics and genocide are all facts of life. With all of this information and the rush of new ideas and concepts that we rely upon daily, what is a God for the rest of us?

#1 God of the Bible

Torah presents God as the Parent God, intervening in history, granting favor to the obedient, and lending a miracle or two to His children, the Israelites. This God has to present principles by which people can live without resorting to violence and mayhem first. This God sets down laws that are derived from the principles. He rewards good behavior and he punishes bad behavior. Like any parent, God of the Torah loses his patience with His children quite a number of times.

In the middle part of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Hosea presents the image of God as the husband and Israel as His unfaithful, whoring wife. The prophet preaches that the relationship between God and Israel is not father and child but instead, husband and wife. This is not an equal relationship though because women were still property in significant ways and the husband was the final authority. Song of Songs softens the “authority and property” model with the erotic love poetry of two lovers. Rabbi Akiba, in his argument on why Song of Songs should be in the Bible, suggests we read Song of Songs as God the groom and Israel the bride.

The Book of Esther, in which God makes no appearance, presents the greatest challenge to those who want to believe in God. God is not in the story and He is not even in the wings. Through their own courage and tenacity, Esther and Mordechai save themselves. The Silent God, the God who does not answer, will haunt every person who finds themselves in harm’s way throughout the millennia. They will pray for rescue and salvation, and there will be no divine intervention.

The God who answers this dilemma of silence in the Book of Job offers no comfort. “You know not what I do. Even if you did know, you could never understand,” explains God in the whirlwind in a long piece of poetic prose in the last chapters.

The Bible gives us four major images: God the parent, God the husband, God the Silent and God who cannot be known. Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims embrace God the Parent and at times, God the husband. Atheists point to God the Silent and God who cannot be known and respond, “What’s the point then?”

If you are not Orthodox or Atheist, the search for a God for the rest of us must continue to look elsewhere.