Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Modest Proposal for an EcoRabbinate

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I recall that last year an environmentalist group destroyed a lot of paper and expended a great deal of computing power promoting the idea of lighting one fewer candle on Chanukah, or some similar idea.

Regrettably, not only is Chanukah tough on the environment, but the demands of the modern American rabbinate are hard on the environment as well. I have been thinking this through carefully, and I have come to realize that if rabbis were able to relax some of the elements of our jobs, we could do a lot to preserve our environment.

Here are some examples of ways in which rabbis could reduce their carbon footprint and global fingerprint, with only minor losses to their local shulprint:

1. Rabbis are called upon to deliver many classes in the evenings, after people return home from work. This requires a great deal of electrical power. Better for rabbis to stay home at night. Also, rabbis should schedule their weekday classes at times when fewer people can attend, to reduce the amount of driving which will take place as people come to the shiur.

2. Rabbis are expected to attend hospital bedsides and visit shivah homes, as well as participate in happy occasions. Much travel is involved in officiating at everything from a Vachnacht to a Hakamat Matzeivah (unveiling). Perhaps rabbis could just email out guides to special prayers for, and officiating at, religious events, and people could then run their events themselves.

3. Rabbis edit and refine their speeches in order to fit a compressed time frame – but think of the wind power we could generate if we were permitted to speak for thirty or forty minutes! (Of course, this benefit might be offset by the global warming caused by all of that hot air…)

4. Rabbis must be available every moment of every day, which requires great use of cell phones, Blackberrys, Treos, etc. This inevitably translates into a lot of charging time. Rabbis should make themselves available less, and thereby save electricity.

5. Since the days of the Talmud, rabbis have been expected to maintain a clean and orderly appearance, but today some congregants take that requirement to an extreme, catching every small spot and wrinkle. The result is great overuse of dry cleaning chemicals as well as a wasting of water. I would like to see this standard relaxed.

6. And, perhaps most important, rabbis need to recycle more. I propose that rabbis should be permitted - nay, encouraged! - to recycle speeches and divrei torah after allowing them a two-year composting period.

I recognize that not all congregations and congregants value eco-rabbinics as I do, but I trust that, in the interest of our planet, we will be able to find common ground and save the planet, and our synagogues, for generations to come.


  1. The parody here is appreciated, though I do think you might be on to something. Sure, a shiur that no one attends is a bad thing, but making a webinar available so that people don't have to drive might be a viable environmental option.

    Certainly, rabbis can't "phone in" ritual obligations, but simply printing a sermon double-sided might save a few trees, especially around the yamim noraim!

  2. I enjoyed the sarcasm.

    In the interest of "vnishmartem meod et nafshotehem", I would ignore the fussy, fastidious congregants and try to do as little dry cleaning as possible. Or get someone to invent machine washable suits.

    Actually, it's really Pesach that's the toughest on the environment. My garbage fills so high with non-compostables on that one.

  3. Shtetl-
    The one-side printing phenomenon really bothers me, in addition to the fact that so much of our printed material is entirely superfluous.
    On the other hand: Our shul has been sending out email versions of our flyers/schedules for a while, but people still want the print versions.

    Matzah comes in cardboard boxes; what else is there to Pesach?(only half-kidding)

  4. Our shul has a solar-powered ner tamid, and we have separate compost, recycle, and trash bins at every event, but we hadn't thought of these innovations.

    If you really want to reduce the shul's carbon footprint as a whole, consider only kashering pareve kitchens. ;)

  5. This was great. I would suggest for #6 that you not only recycle speechs, but take parts from different ones and make Mad Libs.

  6. This will make a great Purim spiel.

  7. solar powered Menorahs may help save Chanukah and the world at the same time!

  8. Tzipporah-
    How about working entirely with compostable utensils? No more fleishig and milchig altogether.
    Of course, that does making cooking a little tricky.

    That's a good idea for some week when I'm stuck for a derashah.

    Hmmm... I'm always looking for ideas for that.

    Those are already made of 100% recycled materials.

    Yes; the only problem, of course, is that it would not be a menorah.

  9. I'm glad to know I was so forward thinking the few years that I was shul rabbi! I refused to carry a cell phone. I also insisted on one day a week that I was unavailable, up in the mountains outside town for hitbodedut (also relevant to your 'vacationing badly' post). I walked miles on that day. I also bicycled to the shul many days, which meant my presence couldn't be urgently demanded anywhere.

    Result? I avoided high blood pressure and ulcers (till we moved East where I first met you). So I consumed fewer medical products. Some people on my board got the ulcers because I wasn't on a leash; but I stayed healthy and as close to sane as I've been. And I had a smaller eco-footprint.


  10. R' Mordechai-
    Did that influence your decision to make the rabbinate a "was" rather than an "is"?

  11. A very clever post. It does bring up important point, however. As community leaders, we could lead the way by making responsibile choices regarding Earth's resources.

  12. Rivster-
    True. I have a post in draft from a few weeks ago, with suggestions for shuls. One day I hope to go back to it and complete it. (I rarely work that hard on a post, but I want this one to be practical and implementable.)