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Learn Talmud – Save the World?

Julian SinclairFilmed at Limmud Conference 2016

What should we do? How do we make a difference in our wondrous, fragile and interconnected world? How can we know what makes a difference when our acts reverberate far beyond our field of vision and span of life? Julian grapples with these questions, based on his ten years in the saving the world business (climate change activism, eco-city design and solar energy in Africa), twenty years being married and twenty five years studying Talmud - with the help of a Talmudic story and its journey to Beijing and back.

Julian has been studying Talmud with the same Chavruta for about as long as he has been married (20 years). From 1999-2003 he was campus rabbi at Cambridge University where he also taught in the Divinity School. On moving back to Israel he became a pioneering climate change activist. He has worked in Israel’s clean tech and renewable energy sector for the past seven years, and since 2011 has been in developing large solar energy projects in Africa.

So this year I went through I think my third mid-life crisis, maybe my fourth, who’s counting?

And I was up against, once again, one of those vexing questions of, what am I going to do when I grow up? And I’ve had I think it would be charitable to say, an eclectic career and in trying to think about what to do next you know I struggled to look back and see well what I have done and out of these varied activities are there certain common themes and common threads that I’ve been concerned with? And to my relief I found there were. I found that there are in fact three. The first one is, that over the past ten years I’ve consistently worked with people, with companies, with organisations who were addressing huge problems that arguably threaten the viable continuation of life and civilisation. I felt drawn to these critical vulnerabilities to the places where our beautiful, threatened, fragile, intricate and delicate world is vulnerable and to do my insignificant, tiny little bit to try and address and protect those vulnerabilities. The second thread is that for the last 25 years I’ve quite consistently been studying Talmud and in fact for the last 21 years of those with the same Talmud study partner, chavruta. And during that time I’ve been alternately exercised and engaged and inspired and frustrated and maddened by and madly in love with but always involved with this gargantuan mega-text which is the core of Judaism and Jewish learning. And it really is, on a good day at least, what gets me up in the morning and what keeps me up thinking late at night. And the third common thing is that for the last twenty years I have been consistently married and in fact consistently to the same woman as it happens and of course you know I’ve been a father to the same kids only somewhat more of them. So what this talk is about is about how those three strands interweave with one another and I think properly strengthen one another. You know in addition to working with technologies that can help us transition to a more sustainable world, I’ve also been trying to seek for the wisdom that can help us make those transitions also. You know, wisdom about the ways that we live and act towards the natural world which are implicated in the problems that we face. And I found it more than anywhere, here. This is Talmud tractate Ta’anit which is the tractate of the Babylonian Talmud which deals with more than any other one with how we interact with the natural world and its resources. What I’ve learned from here is the extraordinary insistence of this text on our interconnectedness with everything in the natural world. You know the Talmud presents a vision where our words, our deeds, our prayers, everything that we say and do is inextricably interconnected with all natural systems and phenomena. You know the idea that we are somehow connected to the weather is not a new one, it’s in here. Now of course the connection and the paths of influence are very very different from the way climate scientists tell us that we affect the weather, but the spiritual structures I believe which are described here actually help us to live in a world where that is the case and to make us constantly aware of that interconnection. Now climate change is at its root a problem about interconnection, one of the scary things about climate change is that perhaps and probably the energy that we burn in Hendon can actually in some way affect the livelihood of subsistence farmers in Bangladesh. It reveals our interconnectedness with everything and actually interestingly enough some of the things that we need to do to address it restore our lost interconnectedness with natural systems. Let me just give you one example of what I mean by that from the world I live and work in, the world of solar energy. You’re probably aware that solar energy is good because zero carbon emissions and helps climate change that way but there are actually other benefits which you might not have thought so much about, for example, I think solar energy makes us aware of our interconnectedness with and connection to the ultimate source of our energy in a way which nothing else can and does. Compared, for example, with getting our energy from fossil fuels, how does that work? Well, you dig a big hole in the ground you haul up oil and gas which is in fact billion years old fossilised sunlight, you cart it hundreds of miles across the country, you burn it in a power station, you send it hundreds more miles to your house, it comes into your house, you flick the light, now if you were trying to conceive a way of getting our energy which would maximise our unawareness of where the energy ultimately comes from you could not think of a better way of doing it. Compare on the other hand solar, you’ve got your solar panels on your house, you’ve got your sun up in the air, sunlight comes down hits solar panels – boom- turns into electrons, you turn on the light. It’s a beautiful and simple way of making us realise our interconnectedness and dependence on this amazing source of almost infinite shef, almost infinite flow which enables us to power life and everything that we do. The solution to this problem of interconnectedness comes from interconnectedness and that’s one of the things that I’ve learned from this book [the Talmud]. Now to learn about a story which brings together some of these themes in a way which expresses it much better than I could, I actually thought of this story a couple of weeks ago when I happened to be out shopping in Talpiot in Jerusalem buying dinner for my family, I bumped into my old friend Michael Kagan who some of you might know, and it turns out that Michael was off to China the next day and Michael was going to speak at a conference about educational technology in Beijing and he really wanted to learn with them this Talmudic story. Standing outside by the supermarket trollies he said, “can I just ask you a couple of things about this story?” so I said, “sure”, so before going into the supermarket I go over the story with him and together we came up with things that we never thought of before because that’s what happens when you study Talmud. So the story, the first part of it is very famous, the second part of it is less so, but you can’t understand it without looking at the whole together.

‘Rabbi Yochanan said: All his days the saintly Choni was bothered by the verse, “the song of a sense when G-d brought the exiles out of Zion, we were like dreamers.” How could people sleep away 70 years in a dream Choni wondered? One day Choni was walking along and saw a man planting a carob tree, how long till that carob tree bears fruit? He said, “70 years” came the reply, “are you sure that you’ll be around in another 70 years?” enquired Choni, the man answered him, “I came into a world that had carob trees in it just as my ancestors planted it for me so I’ll plant it for my children.” So up to here this is without a doubt the most famous Jewish environmental story there is. There’s no Tu B’Shvat seder, no clarion court or environmental action that does not refer to this story in my knowledge and it’s easy to see why, because the carob trees planters replied to Choni, it’s a powerful statement of environmental responsibility across the generations, “tree planting binds together the past and the future”. You know the man feels that he has to repay his gratitude to his forebears by paying forward deeds of compassion to his descendants yet to come. You know the comparison cries out to be made, just as we came into a world blessed with a myriad of species of butterflies and polar bears and abundant natural resources and a stable climate, so to we should act to bequeath these blessings to our grandchildren. You know, could we wake up in seventy years and be at peace with the world whose seeds we’re planting now, that’s the measure of the success or failure of the actions that we take today. It’s a powerful message and it’s an important message but its only the beginning of what this story is about. Because the story goes on. Choni sat down and ate his sandwich after which he dosed off and a shard of rock rose to cover him from view and Choni proceeded to sleep for 70 years. When he woke up he saw the man picking carobs from his tree, Choni answered, “are you the one who planted that tree?” “No, I’m his grandson” the man replied, “oh, it seems like I must have been asleep for seventy years”, Choni said. He noticed that meanwhile, his donkey had produced many donkeys, as donkeys tend to do. So he went to his home and he asked, “is Choni’s son still alive?” And they said, “no, but his grandson is” and Choni said, “guess what? I’m Choni” but they didn’t believe him. Then he went to the study house and overheard one of the rabbis saying, “these sayings are as lustrous as they were in the days of Choni the circles drawer”. So Choni was pretty pleased to hear that and he said, “Hey, you know what? I am Choni” and they didn’t believe him. And then every question the rabbis asked, Choni was able to answer. But he said, “I’m Choni”, but they still didn’t believe him so Choni felt very bad, he became distraught and prayed for deliverance and he died. And Rava said this is what people mean when they say, “either friendship or death”, “o chavruta o metuta” in the haunting Hebrew. Now we can say a lot about this story, but let me just say two things about the end, in the world of 70 years hence, it’s not the carob tree teaches Choni about responsibility for what lives after you, he meets his descendants, he hears his educational legacies recited with reverence in the house of study, through each of these Choni learns the universal truth, that the most important investments that we make come to fruition beyond the span of an ordinary human life. The Talmud does not apparently recognise a separate category of objects in the world that are “environmental”, polar bears, butterflies, red woods, carob trees and so on, with unique rules covering their treatment, rather it teaches a truth about long term sustainability that resonates across these three core fields of natural world, family and Torah. Which happen to be those three threads that I identified at the beginning. Our actions now bear fruit long into the future, even after we’re no longer here. Second, I just want to say something about this last line, “o chavruta or metuta”, literally, “or chavruta or death.” Now we know what chavruta is, right? This is Limmud, right? Chevruta means learning Jewish text together with a partner. So Rava seems to be commenting here just on the last part of the story, what happens in the Beit Midrash, saying in effect, if you’ve got no one to study with and you are locked out of the companionship of the Torah students, then you may as well be dead. Which is a fairly extreme way of saying, “you should come to the chavruta project tomorrow morning. 9:15. But I actually want to understand Rava’s comment differently, because the word “chavruta” I think really means connection, it comes from the Hebrew word, “chibur”. In this light I want to translate in Rava’s remark – either connection or death. It’s like for those who know it the famous epigraph of E.M Forster’s novel Howard’s End, “only connect”. I understood thus, Rava is not merely glossing the last part of the story but he is commenting on the whole story saying, Choni’s tragic and painful inability to re-establish connectedness with the life processes of the world around him is a sort of a death sentence, read in this way, Rava’s statement is almost a biological truism, either an organism is connected to some supporting eco-system or it cannot survive. So Michael came back from Beijing and I asked him how it was and he said, “it was amazing”, he said, “the Chinese were blown away by this story” he said. “They came up to me afterwards and said we need this wisdom, we need this re-orientation to know how we can deal with the pestilential pollution which is overwhelming our cities, how we can deal with the selfishness and the now-ism and you know, the short sightedness which is overwhelming our eco-systems and threatening our children’s future and we need this wisdom that you have. And it’s also making it go back to our wisdom”, they said, “because we have this wisdom in Confucianism but we never thought of looking for it before.” And it made me think two things, it made me think something about the nature of interconnectedness and it made me think something about what really matters and what’s really lasting in the things that we do. As far as the interconnectedness goes, interconnectedness can perhaps damage people half the way across the world. But interconnectedness can also mean that I am standing outside the supermarket in Talpiot studying a piece of Talmud with my friend and two days later its being repeated in Beijing to a bunch of Chinese educators who are possibly going to repeat it to their students for generations to come. You never know, I mean I ask myself, “is it my solar work or is it studying this which is going to make the difference?” You never know, because it’s going to take 70 years to tell what really makes the difference. But I do believe you know, that if we invest today in protecting the natural world, and if we are blessed to raise families and if we are able to learn and teach and transmission what we can of this, of the Talmud of the Torah and of the Jewish tradition, then we will, I believe, affect the world and change the world beyond us, beyond our life times in ways which we can’t possibly imagine. Thank you very much for listening.

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