ESA presentation, August 2015

Text of Fred Scherlinder Dobb’s ESA Organized Oral is below; with better formatting, in Word, it’s at

And find the full set of PPT slides, to accompany the text, at

Related resources, from the author’s unpublished 2009 D.Min. Project Thesis, are at


OOS 56-10  Old-time religion and cutting-edge climate: Jewish and interfaith intersections with ecological science

   Fred Scherlinder Dobb, , Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Washington, DC, USA

Ecological Society of America, Summer 2015


Shalom y’all!  It’s an honor to be here with so many ecologists, and so many colleagues and friends in the religious environmental world.

The late Bishop of Stockholm, Krister Stendahl, coined a term around pluralism:  Sacred Envy.[i]  Without contravening core convictions, without converting, we should so delight in other groups’ contributions that we say, “I wish we had that – and, with attribution, how I can get us some?!”

As a Jew, I have Sacred Envy for the clarity of Islam’s five pillars, zakat/charity among them.  For Buddhism’s noble eightfold path.  For African American churches’ spiritual politics, as well as music.  Most of us non-Catholics now have Sacred Envy for Pope Francis, and the remarkable encyclical.  And, we faith leaders have Sacred Envy for you researchers, scientists, who generate truly new data sets, and ideas.  I sure do.

A confession:  call this “Confessions of a Reflective Practicioner.”  We in the faith-environment community – I speak for myself, but somewhat for Shantha and Dan and others – we are less producers of research than consumers, popularizers, and extenders of what folks like ESA members do.

We bring environmental perspective to the broader faith community, in gatherings devoted not to empiricism (or even anti-science, when ‘faith’ stands against ‘reason’).  Green faith leaders are those who enjoy and appreciate your data — who respect and fear your conclusions — who seek to apply them within the religious sector.  Thus our Sacred Envy for your efforts.

And I hope Sacred Envy goes both ways.  Faith communities are not just a key outlet for the work you do; they’re part of the solution.  Ask folks how old is the environmental movement:  some say 1970, Earth Day, just after Apollo showed our fragile blue marble in space (and after the Santa Barbara oil spill), helping get the Clean Air, Clean Water, and National Environmental Protection Acts.  Or 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – or 1949, Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac – or back a century, to John Muir; or further, to Thoreau and company.

All good answers.  But all modern, all American, all ‘secular’.  Where’s the ancient wisdom, the deep referents, the sense of the numinous and the eternal?  We on this panel submit:  try Psalms, over 2500 years ago, positing that humanity is not the sole purpose of creation (Psalm 104), nature has gaia-esque consciousness (Psalm 96), and nature’s worth goes far beyond utility to humans (Psalm 148).  Try the prophets of ancient Israel, the prophet Jesus, the prophet Muhammad.  Try Genesis (creation theology), Exodus (environmental justice), Leviticus (sabbatical and jubilee), and so on.  When doubt plagues us, when shallow lateral roots aren’t enough to sustain us, religion can be our taproot, reaching venerable depths.

And, the utilitarian angle:  Most Americans, and humans, are people ‘of faith.’  Folks who don’t read original ecological research do sit in our pews.  Religion has reach that science perhaps should, but often doesn’t.  With us and our imagery, ecologists expand their reach – speak the metaphorical language of many, the rich allusive language of religion (which, as metaphor at least, most here can genuinely do), and you make real inroads in communities where ecological science has yet barely penetrated.

We need each other – as Einstein famously said, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”[ii]  Symbiosis isn’t only found out in the field; it’s found between our fields.    We’re wrapping up an ESA day of faith-and-religion.  May this final presentation be not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning, of such symbiosis.


I wear three hats, or kippot, here:  First, as reflective practicioner, at Adat Shalom, a nearby synagogue that’s done some good green work, starting with a 2002 EPA Energy Star award for a low-energy, reused-materials, solar-sited, low-impact design.  We’re exemplary in the double sense of “a good example,” but also, potentially, typical, since our efforts are replicable elsewhere:  a 43 kw solar array; an onsite organic garden for donating fresh food, intergenerational connection, and religious and environmental education; a range of eco-justice consciousness-raising initiatives; a native species pilot program with Interfaith Power & Light and the National Wildlife Federation, “Sacred Grounds”; and much more.  Adat Shalom is exemplary in the double sense: “a good example,” but also “typical”, since such efforts are replicable elsewhere.

Two, as interfaith environmental leader:  past chair of our regional Interfaith Power and Light; now on the board of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.  Refreshing what others have said.  IPL, now in almost every state, has great people on the ground (Greg in Ohio, and me in Maryland and Greater Washington, among many others); it has connections, which can help ecologists bring their message to new nearby communities; and it brings resources to faith communities who, inspired by your teaching, are ready to take the next step toward sustainability.  Get to know your local Interfaith Power and Light.

NPRE strengthens and coordinates the green work of leading religious bodies, with four main partners, who are literally here for you, inviting you to use us as you can:  Creation Justice Ministries (newly and so ably helmed by Shantha), of the Protestant National Council of Churches; the US Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Environmental Justice[iii] program, very busy lately, with Dan’s Catholic Climate Covenant as a central initiative; the Evangelical Environmental Network, of which Dorothy is a leader, uniting and strengthening green voices across the Evangelical spectrum; and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), doing the same in my community.

And that’s my third hat or kippah – I’m now COEJL’s chair.  Many in my world bring Jewish environmental expertise.  [Sadly I must invoke Neely Snyder, of Baltimore, a great Jewish environmental educator at the nearby Pearlstone Center, rear-ended by a truck on Monday; her funeral was during this session.  While showing various Jewish environmental groups, I dedicate this presentation to her & her family].  So:  when you want a biblical basis for biodiversity, a Talmudic take on tailpipe emissions, a rabbinic read on redlining and other environmental justice concerns, etc., we can help.

Again, then:  (a) we need the symbiosis of faith leaders and ecologists working together; (b) resources abound in religious traditions, in interfaith organizing, and in local congregational examples.  If you only take home those points, as we say at the Passover seder, “dayenu”, it would be enough.  (itself an eco-faith teaching — cultivating a sense of sufficiency — as Ben Zoma wrote 1900 years ago [Avot 4:1], “who is rich? – whoever is happy with what they have”).


Before we end on a collective note, four quick “Jewish and interfaith intersections with ecological science”:

One:  examples.  Adat Shalom’s green efforts, seen by hundreds of parishioners and scores of guests each week, have had demonstrable environmental impact, and show great promise in furthering ecological awareness, and encouraging green daily actions – oy, do I have stories!  We’ve also been leapfrogged, with our inspiration and blessing, by sister synagogue Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, in Evanston Illinois, who built the first-ever LEED Platinum house of worship (worth seeing!).  Meanwhile, judicatories, along with groups like Interfaith Power and Light and GreenFaith, nudge ever more mosques and temples, churches and other religious groups toward sustainability.  And last year’s American Academy of Religion’s annual conference was on climate change; its president Laurie Zoloth, cutting AAR’s carbon footprint by 14% with the biblical sabbatical or shmita, announced ‘no annual conference’ in the next shmita cycle, 2021.  The faith angle on ecology yields results.

Two:  apropos of this conference theme – looking back, in that same century since John Muir and company, atmospheric carbon has stratospherically increased, a hundred ppm or so.  Looking forward, trend lines are ominous, with an increasing rate of emissions, galloping losses of biodiversity, and more.  But other trend lines – rising consciousness, falling prices of renewable energy, organizing (including the religious environmental movement in just the past quarter century) – look good.  One biblical bit of wisdom on centuries:  Exodus 20 and 34 describe God as “abounding in lovingkindness,” yet stern enough to visit our iniquity upon our great grandchildren, “even to the third and fourth generation.”  With generations near 25 years, the fourth generation is a century hence – which, also roughly, is the lifespan of atmospheric carbon.  Our mistakes, our emissions, do hurt our descendants, a hundred years hence.  But where other leading sectors think in quarterly earnings cycles, or biennial election intervals, religion and ecology alike point us to that third and fourth generation, and beyond.  Between our teachings, there’s inspirational power to transform.

Three:  Rachel Carson again.  Tough wracked by cancer finishing Silent Spring, her final work was A Sense of Wonder.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, shortly before then, called for “Radical Amazement” as the authentic spiritual response to the gift of life, and the wonders of nature.  Heschel said, “Never…did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame.  I asked for wonder, and [God] gave it to me….  We will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.…”[iv]  Like Rabbi Heschel, Carson, the secular patron saint of our movement, understood that we must cultivate that sense of wonder, viewing the world through spiritual as well as scientific eyes.

Which brings us back to science & religion – which can coexist nicely, as with Judaism, which long made room in its cosmology for data.[v]  May all blind faith, similarly, come to the light of symbiosis.  The late physicist-theologian Ian Barbour[vi] names “four possible ways that apparent conflicts between the claims of contemporary sciences and contemporary religions can be handled… conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration.”  There’s conflict between fundamentalists who reject scientific fact in the name of belief, and militant secularists who eschew anything with a whiff of spirituality or religion; we must do better than that.  Independence is the norm, but in missing potential symbioses, we all lose out.  Dialogue is preferable; today’s ESA proceedings take us there.  Integration is the ultimate goal for us faith-and-ecology leaders – and we beseech, nay, pray, that ecologists will join these integral, integrative efforts.

Thank you.                                                           [ABSTRACT][vii]      [NOTES][viii]


PERMALINK, where the PPT Slides accompanying this paper can be found:

[i] Bishop Kirster Stendahl.  I heard this directly from him, at Brandeis Univ., circa 1992, recalling it as “sacred envy”.  The origins of his aphorism is outlined here:

[ii] Albert Einstein, “Science and Religion,” in Ideas and Opinions, 1954, pp. 41-49 (based on talks given in 1939-1941; see also


[iv] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 1951, pp. ________.  Heschel, who barely made it out of Nazi Europe and later marched with his friend Dr. King in Selma, was also famous for marrying the concept of Sabbath-keeping with themes of peace, justice, and ecology.

[v]  Judaism, instructively, “offers its own cosmology, yet usually makes room for data from the outside, i.e. for science.   We see this in biblical wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, Qohelet, etc)’s careful observation of the natural world; in rabbis who were agronomists and researchers as well as Talmudists; in astronomers and doctors who wrote the great medieval Jewish treatises; even in Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), whose neo-kabbalistic notion that ‘everything aspires to ascend’ intentionally invokes evolution.  [Reconstructionist Judaism’s founder Mordechai] Kaplan’s language, calling Judaism ‘the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people’, again endorses the Darwinian approach.  Since Judaism rarely rejects scientific evidence owing to dogmatic ‘belief’, we can reasonably hope that the urgent science around climate change will indeed drive major salutary changes in contemporary Jewish life and thought.”  (Fred Scherlinder Dobb, ___________, in CCAR Journal, Summer 2011, p. ___).  The Rav Kook passage is from Orot Hakodesh / Lights of Holiness I:220-21, and it gets more Darwinian as it continues:  “The doctrine of evolution that is presently gaining acceptance in the world has a greater affinity with the secret teachings of the Cabbalah than all other philosophies.  Evolution, which proceeds on a course of improvement, offers us the basis of optimism in the world.  How can we despair when we realize that everything evolves and improves?…  Evolution sheds light on all the ways of God.  All existence evolves and ascends … not a spark will be lost from the ensemble.  All will share in the climactic culmination.”

[vi]  Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francisco: Harper, 1990).

[vii]   Abstract for this paper/presentation:

Background/Question/Methods: Moral exhortations toward sustainable actions abound.  So do data-driven suggested action-steps, informed by the latest ecological science.  By integrating scientific facts with spiritual and ethical angles, we have already seen benefits — and can anticipate further positive outcomes — for ecologists and people of faith alike.  These include opportunities to reach new audiences across a wide swath of society; ability to speak the metaphorical language of communities where ecological science has not yet made deep inroads; clear knowledge that inspires appropriate actions by people of faith who are moved by the message; and more.  Numerous religious-environmental groups have been doing just this, and early results are encouraging.  But reflective practitioners in faith communities could clearly do more if they had greater facility with and access to ecological science, just as ESA researchers and theoreticians could reach more people more effectively through further partnerships within the faith community.  As a historically “science-positive” faith, Jewish tradition shines instructive light on this fusing of scientific and religious perspectives.  This talk addresses how to effectively build these partnerships — at the national, regional, and local levels — based on specific and extensive experiences in Jewish communities, and also within larger interfaith circles.

Results/Conclusions: As a local case study, this session reflects experiences of a rabbi whose EPA-Energy-Star-Award synagogue ( has installed a 43kw solar array, taken environmental justice tours, become involved in interfaith advocacy efforts, started an onsite organic garden and native-species restoration area, and more — all of which have had measurable and demonstrable positive environmental impact, and have shown great promise in furthering congregants’ ecological awareness and their daily actions.  At the same time, drawing on the numerous faith communities with which he has worked while chairing the Maryland and Greater Washington chapter of Interfaith Power and Light (, which has worked with over 300 regional congregations), he can cite inspiring examples of people of faith choosing to educate themselves and others, to unify their voices, and to take meaningful action steps, around climate and other environmental concerns.  And nationally, as chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life ( and board member of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (, he can speak to the scores of denominations and literally thousands of communities exhibiting best practices, and demonstrating the utility of greater collaboration with ecological scientists.


[viii] Notes for editing purposes, and unused quotes:


Greg adds:  Examples, examples, examples!

Leanne:  share notes, visuals…  fast-pace, lots of info is good…

Peruse ESA to see what advocates have done – see advocacy section

Data/graph/chart is good, and gets focus – almost too much; stories important too.

See anthropologist approach:  examples cited are good summaries, illustrative of the field.

ESA has disproportionate # of atheists & liberal theol folks; also many double-affiliated.

Coordinate with Shantha & Dan around NRPE – Dorothy from Gordon too, from Evangelical perspective…   some repetition OK since not everyone will be there 1:30 to 5:00

Greg:  surveys say most ESA members agree that dimensions of justice are worth paying more attention to, and outreach to/with the religious community is important.

“Whether teaching about Jewish history, Jewish holidays, or eco-Judaism, we have a far better chance of engaging students in active learning that leads to changes in their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and skill levels if we attend to developing our students’ relationships to each other, to their teachers, to their curriculum, and to their learning environment. Common sense tells us that student engagement is an a priori condition for any educational experiences to be meaningful. And it is only by making our students’ educational experiences meaningful that we can hope to achieve our ultimate goal of enabling them to discover for themselves the value of Judaism in their lives.”   (Gabe Goldman, “Eco-Jewish Education – How to Make it Effective”, in Jewish Education News, Summer 2008)

“we are all familiar with the notion that to be better caretakers of the Earth, we need to adhere to the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Similarly, to be better caretakers of Judaism, a new three R mantra needs to be adopted: reconnect, relevance, and renewal. Reconnecting with our sacred environment and being filled with wonder and awe for all of Creation will bring relevance to our Judaism, and living this connection will be a source of renewal for the Jewish people.”   (Barbara Lerman-Golomb, “Experiential Environmental Education: A Natural Connection”, in Jewish Education News, Summer 2008)



PERMALINK, where the PPT Slides accompanying this paper can be found:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: