A Time for Counter-Cultural Revolution

Excerpts from an Interfaith Dialogue on Pope Francis's Encyclical, Laudato Si', July 30, 2015, Central Presbyterian Church, Summit, NJ

I. The Sabbath as Holiness in Time

One phrase [from Laudato Si'] that just leaped off the page at me was this, and I'll quote Pope Francis directly:

"It has become counter-cultural to chose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology -- of its costs, and its power to globalize and make us all the same."

This was to me a very powerful statement.   In the Jewish faith, the Sabbath gives us an opportunity to do exactly that which the Pope says is counter-cultural.   That's ultimately the challenge that the Pope is throwing down.   We have to be counter-cultural, and we have to be leaders in that counter-revolution. 

I want to turn to some words from a great Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was involved in the 2nd Vatican Council.   Dr. Heschel points out the very first thing that is declared holy (the Hebrew word is "Kadosh") in the Bible:  The Sabbath.   Here's what Heschel writes about the Sabbath:

"The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week, we live under the tyranny of things of space.  On the Sabbath, we try to become attuned to the holiness in time."

Much to my children's chagrin, one of the ways that we do this is by turning off our electronic devices.   For 25 hours, a traditional Jew disconnects -- no TV, no Internet, no phone -- and really disengages from the technology that the Pope is talking about.

This allows us to appreciate time.  Time is very different when you're not pulling your phone out of your pocket and checking for that next email or that news update.   And you appreciate the people in your life.  You appreciate the beauty of the earth and all that Nature has to offer.

I would encourage all of you to try it as a means of being a part of this 'counter-cultural revolution.'

II.  Modern Anthropocentrism 

A second [phrase from Chapters 3 and 4] is "the crisis and effects of modern anthropocentrism."   No question that we human beings put ourselves at the center of the Universe, and many of our religious narratives do the same.  So, rather than completely rejecting it, the question is: what responsibilities come with being in the center, being "the crown of creation?"

If we turn to Genesis Chapter I, Verse 28, we hear God's command to Adam, the first human being: 





"Replenish the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl in the air and over the cattle, and over all the Earth."

That's pretty clear, right?  The Bible is telling us we're in control.   But, with that comes responsibility. 

The Rabbinic tradition understood this from a very early point.   In the very early period of Rabbinic Judaism there emerged a literature called "Midrash."  The literal translation of that is "exegesis" -- adding a layer of meaning that's not necessarily there in context.   One of the Midrashim (that's the plural) based on this interaction describes a further conversation between God and Adam.  After giving Adam dominion over all the Earth, this is what God said:

"I made my beautiful world for your sake.  Take care not to hurt or destroy it.  For if you do, there is no one to fix it after you."

That's a 2,000 year old text!  And we would do well to remember it today.

III.  We Are All Connected 

I want to close with just one more teaching from the Jewish tradition.   When Pope Francis talks about "Integral Ecology" -- that's perhaps not something that the Rabbis would have phrased in that way some 2,000 years ago or 1,500 years ago or maybe even last week.  But, we have a saying in Rabbinic Judaism that was originally about our Jewish community, and I think it can be extrapolated to any group of people that considers themselves a community. 

In Hebrew it is "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh."  "All of Israel -- referring to all Jews -- are connected, are webbed, one to the other, or one with the other."   When we talk about a 'web of life,' or a 'circle of life' -- the interconnectedness of all living creatures -- it starts in the community.  It has to start with the people with whom you're closest -- whether that's your individual faith community or our Summit community -- and then slowly expand outward.  

And if we remember that we are all connected, then there's a chance that we'll start making some better decisions. 

Thank you for your time this evening.  

Rabbi Avi Friedman leads Congregation Ohr Shalom -- the Summit Jewish Community Center.  

Excerpts from Rabbi Avi Friedman's reflections on Pope Francis's encyclical, Laudato Si', presented in an Interfaith Dialogue on July 30, 2015, at Central Presbyterian Church, Summit, NJ. 

To view the video, click here