The House is On Fire, 27 April 2019, Simon Eder

At a meeting of the college faculty, an angel suddenly appears and tells the head of the philosophy department, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings that you choose: wisdom, beauty or £10million.” Immediately the professor chooses wisdom. There is a flash of lightning, and the professor appears transformed, but he just sits there staring at the table. One of his colleagues whispers, “say something.” The professor then says, “I should have taken the money!”

Decisions are of course what shape us and the world around us. I was struck this week by the bold decision of Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old climate change activist, to the dismay of some, to give up school last August and start a groundswell movement for climate change. Her address to the Houses of Parliament this week reminded us with a prophetic warning that environmental concern is the supreme issue of the day. Our future has been sold – she declared and time is running out.

It was not only her clarion call but also who she is that stuck me. She has selective mutism which means that she speaks when she needs to – and therefore makes her appeal that “now is one of those moments” all the stronger. She also has Asperger syndrome which she evidently uses to her advantage seeing everything in black or white. As she said at a Ted Talk in Stockholm at the end of last year –

“I think that in many ways, we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all and yet they just carry on like before.”[1]

It is in embracing her difference that she has found her life calling and it is not only her message but the importance of neurodiversity in our workplaces, in our schools and society that needs to be heeded. The hagaddah which we read just a week ago is a manifesto for inclusiveness – “Halach ma Anya” we read “Let all who are hungry come and eat”. Tackling climate change, healing the planet must involve us all for there to be any hope.

Facing the enormity of the challenge before us where so often the natural inclination may well be to hibernate within our comfort zones, Greta is the embodiment of that famous Talmudic dictum – “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”[2]

It is also what she said which struck a particular cord because her wake up call, unknowingly, touched on a central argument in Rabbinic literature and goes to the very heart of what the purpose of creation might be.

Her words “our house is on fire” calls to mind a powerful midrash taking as its starting point Abram’s leaving home:

“God said to Abram: Go forth from your native land . . . ” (Gen. 12:1) . . . Rabbi Isaac said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a birah doleket A palace in flames. ‘Is it possible that this palace lacks a caretaker?’ he wondered. The owner of the palace looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’Similarly, because our ancestor Abraham said, ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a caretaker?’ the Blessed Holy One looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Sovereign of the Universe.’[3]

For Abram, as indeed for us – the message from this passage is clear. We survey our world – it is the most sublime work of art! I happened to turn on the Television the other night and saw the end of the BBC1 documentary – Earth From Space which presented our planet as an ever changing series of colours! We are awed by the majesty of a sunset, the crashing of waves against a pebbled shore, the intrinsic complexity of a beehive – the world is a magnificent house – a palace.

And yet – our palace is on fire. Robert Macfarlane writing in the New Scientist a few years ago records the need for a Desecration Phrasebook in which to gather terms that describe a heavily harnessed or drastically deranged nature. Such a glossary as he contends “would need to record details of the topographies of toxicity and dereliction that we have made, the phenomena of pollution, corruption and extinction we have caused.”[4]

The palace is in flames for other reasons too – the injustice, the battlefields of bloodshed and even our sanctuaries of worship. The last few months have seen the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, the mosque attack in Christchurch and of course just this past week the devastation in the Colombo Churches. As Greta says “Our house is on fire”. Is the Burning of Notre Dame a cruel metaphor for our age?[5]

We may well ask today as Abram did in the midrash – where is the owner of the palace? How can God allow the profanation of His planet? Did He build this house only to abandon it?

The theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel whose most ambitious scholarly work was his three-volume study of Rabbinic Judaism – Heavenly Torah. There he demonstrates his great insight that the world of Rabbinic Judaism can be divided into two schools – that of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael which centre on fundamental differences as to the nature of revelation. He goes on to show that these disagreements constitute a basic and ongoing polarity within Judaism between immanence and transcendence, mysticism and rationalism, neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism.

Heschel’s theology is ultimately Akivan, responding to a God who is in search of man because he is in need of man. And yet as he maintains God may be approached only through an encounter in which man considers his dependence on the absolutely transcendent God as expressed by Ishmael. Each pole needs the other to correct itself. Only together do they embrace the full reality of the encounter with the divine – a gate to God that always swings on two hinges.

So too in this midrash – following Abram’s questioning and expression of doubt, he hears God’s affirming presence and is indeed brushed by the infinite. And yet this is also an owner who needs humanity to extinguish the flames. God is in search of man, as a partner, a co-creator in the ongoing work of creation.

Heschel never wrote about the environment – it was hardly on the global agenda prior to his passing in 1972. And yet he surely sensed there was something amiss with the way we were living in the modern world. Already in 1951 he wrote that our war with nature had come to resemble a defeat: “We have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us”[6]

His divine pathos certainly flies in the face of Maimonides’s philosophical concept of an absolutely transcendent God who is independent of humanity. And yet it is his emphasis of independency, of partnership, that is perhaps the best route to grounding a Jewish environmental ethic.

How do we extinguish the fire?
Heschel’s assertion in 1955 that “humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation”[7] is certainly pertinent. Wonder and awe, the developing of a continual sense of surprise at the mystery of creation. I also think of Greta and the argument, persuasion, collaboration and outright chutzpah. On a more practical level it is also about making those tiny individual choices that lead to right action and collectively have the potential to accelerate change.

In order to extinguish the fire, we also need to cultivate “the voice that speaks to the highest in us”. As Ben Okri the celebrated poet has put it: “We need the voice that speaks to our joys, our childhoods, and to the Gordian knots of our private and national condition. A voice that speaks to our doubts, our fears and to all the unsuspected dimensions that make us both human and beings touched by the whispering of the stars.”[8]

[1] Greta Thunberg, (12 December 2018). School strike for climate – save the world by changing the rules. TEDxStockholm. Stockholm: TED

[2] Ethics of the Fathers 2:21

[3] Genesis Rabbah 39:1

[4] Robert Macfarlane, New Scientist, Desecration Phrasebook: A litany for the Anthropocene, 15 December 2015

[5] Jennifer Wright, Bazaar, Notre Dame is A Cruel Metaphor For Our World Right Now, 25 April 2019

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Shabbat, p. 27

[7] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, p.46

[8] Ben Okri, A Time For New Dreams, p.3