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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Water, water, everywhere?

So, it's official... we've run out of water. Not from the mains, thank God, but in the water butt and it's brought home to me a completely different level of awareness about an essential environmental matter - the distribution of water. The history of humanity is at least in one sense a history of water - civilisations rise when they can control water and use it for their purposes, particualrly for agriculture. Whenever consideration was ever made in history for a human settlement, the first consideration was whether or not there was access to a safe, healthy and regular supply of water. We take water utterly for granted. According to www.savetherain.info the average UK resident uses 150 litres of water a day, 30% of which is used on flushing toilets, about 20% of which is used for bathing or showering and about 14% of which is used in dishwashers (which, interestingly enough, are now more water-efficient than washing by hand).

We've run out of water for good reason. The sun has started to come out and we have more plants. Our rickety old white picket fence was taken down and replaced by a hedge that needs watering to help it grow. We've bought more plants and in order to keep Zafra away from the pond we've added to the garden large growing pots with more water-thirsty vegatables. I've noticed that all the plants had been looking a little weary but didn't realise it was just because I wasn't watering them enough - apparently in this sunlight and with this little rain (I geniunely don't remember the last time it rained properly in Bournemouth, even though we had moments of rain today), I should be watering the plants twice a day... and I was doing it once every two or three days! So with my new watering regime, with significantly more plants to water and with no rain to top up the water butt, it's easy to see why we ran out of water so quickly.

Indoor water usage statistics from the US
I'm aware that many people will water plants from the mains supply but I don't like to. If harvested properly, the average house could collect enough water to supply at least half of all their daily needs - not just watering plants, but showers, baths, washing up... the lot. So the first thing that I have to do is get more water butts. Then we have to get better about using our grey water. Grey water is water that has been used once but could be used again. For a long time, we've taken a large jug and filled it with shower water as the shower takes 10 seconds or so to heat up. Over a year, I can't imagine how much water that's saved us - it must be many thousands of litres. We're also careful with our black water - that's water that you don't want to use again. For example, in our house we follow the mantra of "If it's yellow, let it mellow - if it's brown, flush it down." We don't if guests are round - that might be weird for some people. But we do whenever possible. That's water-saving, at least from the mains.

Looking at www.waterfootprint.org really brings water usage into perspective. Most people are aware of the notion that everyone has a "carbon footprint" but now more people are considering an awareness of an individual "water footprint." What many people don't realise is that around 85% of our water usage comes from the consumption of agricultural products, particularly in feeding animals in preparation for turning them into meat - thankfully I've been a veggie for around a decade now.... one kilo of beef takes 15,500 litres of water. I'm also off the hook when it comes to coffee since I don't drink it - every cup of coffee takes 140 litres of water in production (tea, by the way (which I also don't drink) takes about 35 litres of water per cup). But then I run into trouble - a 125ml glass of wine takes 120 litres of water to create. One slice of bread takes 40 litres of water. One slice of bread! Not one loaf, but one single slice. We make our own bread at home and it only uses a tiny amount of water... here. But growing the flour takes a huge amount of water. I'm now slightly horrified to realise that every slice of bread takes 40 litres of water. But not as horrified as I might be to realise how much water is used to make the thing that I often put on bread - cheese! One kilo of cheese takes 5000 litres of water. I may not usually eat 1 kilo of cheese at a time, but I will eat a lot of cheese in time and will therefore be responsible for the usage of a lot of water. Rice is the same - every kilo of rice takes 3400 litres of water. It's not just food - every one sheet of A4 paper takes 10 litres of water to create and I use a lot of paper in my work.

Everything we do uses so much water and knowing all this really brings into perspective the need to be unbelievably careful with our water usage. So I'll have to take some steps...
Firstly, I really have to fix the dripping tap in the nursery. A dripping tap can waste 4 litres of water a day.
Secondly, we really should  reduce the amount of water used in every toilet flush - apparently a brick wrapped in a plastic bag does the trick (the plastic bag is essential otherwise the brick breaks down in the water and can damage the entire system).
Thirdly, I'm going to have to do more weeding. Weeds take water from the plants that we want to grow, meaning that more water is needed on the same bed. I never thought that being environmental would involve more weeding.
Fourthly, as I mentioned before, we're going to have to buy more water butts to catch all the water that falls on our roof. At the moment we have one water butt near the back, but there's definitely space for two or three more, including at least one at the front of the house.

If I'm honest, part of me would really like to live off the water grid. I'd like to really be responsible for my own water. I don't think it's practical right now but that doesn't mean that I can't work towards that. I think that I've become so dependent on water being provided without question that I haven't cared enough about harvesting the rain that pours on our property. In other words, because I live a life of relative luxury (relative in global terms) I haven't cared about basic steps for sustianable living. Maybe once I'm really dependent on rain water, the prayer that we add in the Amidah, the central prayer in our service, for rain to fall at the right time, will really resonate more strongly.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Jewish Response to the Death of a Mass Murderer

How do I respond to the death of Osama Bin Laden? Not being an expert on the workings of Al Qaida, I obviously cannot know how significant his death is in the terrorist movement that has been responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide. Is Al Qaida a Hydra that gets stronger every time a head is removed? Or is it a movement whose rapid growth based around one man’s ideology will be matched by its rapid demise as he dies? Of course, the Hydra was killed even though it grew stronger and, of course, even if Al Qaida dies it doesn’t mean the end to terrorism, but the point is that few of us can know what effect this world-changing death will have. So instead of pontificating about the effects on the movement, we can at least discuss how we react to the death of a terrorist from a Jewish perspective.

In the US, news of his death was greeted with cheering in the streets of New York and Washington, two cities profoundly affected by bin Laden. But I have always found such actions distasteful. When terrorist attacks occur and individuals in the Middle East celebrate, I find it similarly distasteful and I do so because the Bible specifically tells us (Proverbs 24:17) “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.” When the Bible celebrates military victory, it’s in the context of an exposition on God’s greatness in the victory. It doesn’t focus on the victory itself. Thus Midrash tells us that when the ministering angels start celebrating as the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds, God rebukes them saying, “The works of My hands are drowning in the Sea, and you would utter song in My presence!” (Talmud: Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b). So strong is the dislike of celebrating the death of our enemies that it is said that we do not sing full Hallel on the last day of Pesach in order to not celebrate the death of the Egyptians. And, of course, at the Seder when we dip our finger in the wine to count the plagues, we never lick the finger for fear that we might derive any pleasure from the suffering of others, even our enemies.

So it would seem, as many an author has already provided online, that Judaism absolutely condemns the celebration of the death of others, even of wicked enemies. But, as always, it’s not that simple because the Bible also says, “When the righteous prosper the city exults; when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy” (Proverbs 11:10). Our quotation about the ministering angels from above is challenged by some Rabbis in Talmud – Megillah 10b has Rabbi Elazar saying that “God does not rejoice but causes others to rejoice” while Sanhedrin 39b puts these words in the mouth of Rabbi Yose bar Chanina. In fact, the Biblical quotation that accompanies this statement is quite convincing, so it could be said that while God does not rejoice, we do have permission to do so.

How do we hold together all these texts? How can we reconcile us being told not to rejoice when our enemy stumbles (Proverbs 24) with it being pointed out that when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy (Proverbs 11)? How do we hold texts in which God rebukes the angels for celebrating the death of the wicked with texts that says that while God does not rejoice, God can cause others to rejoice (Talmud: Megillah and Sanhedrin)? My answer is that Proverbs 11 is talking about what comes naturally to us. When a very close friend of mine was murdered nearly a decade ago, the most helpful question someone asked me at the time was when I was in America – a student rabbi called Nathan asked if I was upset that Britain didn’t have the death penalty. It made me realise how much rage was inside me because I knew the answer at the time was yes. The instinctive reaction to the death of loved ones by most people is vengeance. Proverbs 11 doesn’t tell us that there should be shouts of joy when the wicked die, just that there are – this is the normal state of affairs. So the people who gathered in crowds in the US this week to cheer the death of bin Laden were just doing what came naturally. They were expressing an aspect of grief that is real. But just because that’s what’s natural doesn’t mean that’s what we should be doing, hence the need for the Proverbs 24

 text. We hold these together by understanding that they’re talking about the same situation and comparing the normative and the ideal response.

In terms of our Talmudic texts, I always hesitate when we try to know the mind of God. Is God a God of mercy or of vengeance? The question is relevant since we are asked to walk in God’s ways (Deut. 10:12) – if God is merciful, so too should we be merciful, but if God is vengeful, so too should we be vengeful. Bringing our Proverbs texts in here is helpful for me – we can incite God’s name in vengeance if we wish since God also exacts vengeance but I believe that ultimately God wants us to be merciful and to not celebrate the death of the wicked. So I won’t condemn the cheering because I understand it as an expression of pain. I would hope that people might eventually move beyond it, so that they can see that even murderers are people too - twisted hateful people - but people nonetheless. They may not deserve our sympathy in the slightest because we also learn that whoever destroys a life is as though they have destroyed the entire world (Talmud: Sanhedrin 37a) but every person, even a murderer, is part of God’s creation. Ultimately, when such a person dies, how we respond says much about ourselves, whether we are in pain and, if so, how we express that pain.  

At the end of the day, I would have liked to have seen bin Laden stand trial, to have had his ideology publicly torn apart, to have had his hatred exposed. I would have liked to have seen a man who elavated himself to the point where he ordered the deaths of others, even those who served him, humbled in the dock and shown to have been just a twisted soul, although I appreciate the tremendous risk that would have involved. I would have liked the world to have really seen how a normal young boy became a mass murderer and would have liked the world to have really understood the consequences of that for all of us. Is the world a better place without him? Probably. Is that reason to celebrate? No, but I understand and feel sorry for those for whom that is the instinctual reaction.

Just in case we forget that he was once like all of us before turning to evil.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Clearing Out the Chametz, Even Now

Sometimes we know the right thing to do but we don’t let ourselves express it for fear that, if we do, we have to change our behaviour. This is why I’ve been quiet on this blog for a couple of weeks – because I know that the more I type, the more I have to change.

Not long ago, we celebrated the festival of Pesach during which Jews are not allowed to eat or even own any chametz – leavened goods. Usually people think of chametz as being bread, pasta, cakes and so on – traditional foods that we avoid on Pesach. And certainly Pesach is a time for assessing what really goes into our mouths and what we need, as opposed to what we want, to eat. This year, as with previous years, my weight has dramatically dropped since Pesach – I’ve lost nearly 6 lbs in two weeks – because I’ve realised that I was just eating and eating and eating. Pesach this year has really made me stop and think about what I’m doing to my body and how I was physically puffing up like the chametz that I stopped eating.

For most people the prohibition against chametz stops at consumption but it’s actually much more. We’re not allowed to have chametz in our homes, we shouldn’t see it on our property and this brings out an entirely differing perspective of chametz. Chametz can be not just that which we imbibe but that which we own. And it’s not too much of a stretch to then go from chametz being the puffed-up food that we own to chametz being anything puffed-up that we own. What I mean is what is often called “stuff.” We’re surrounded by “stuff” – we fill up our houses with stuff. Some people have so much stuff that they need separate storage areas to hold onto it – they actually pay people to hold onto their stuff for them! I’m not that bad but I am pretty bad. I like trinkets, I like to hold onto things that help me remember days gone by, or people, places and events. Really, though, most of it is just chametz – I could take a photo that would take up much less storage space that would still serve the same purpose.

I’m beginning to think that the focus on chametz, and perhaps the true purpose of Pesach, is about reminding us about what it is to have a simple life. Yes, when the Israelites leave Egypt they load up their wagons with Egypt’s riches and, yes, I’m aware that the nomadic desert existence can easily be romanticised by someone living in 21st century England, but surely there’s a message relevant for today’s consumer society in the idea that the Israelites can live in the wilderness on manna for forty years. There must be a place of balance between nomadism and consumerism and I think that’s where I want to be.

Most Jews focus on chametz for one week every year but I’m trying to consider it more as a personal ethic for every day. I’m wondering if the combination of bal tashchit (not wasting) and the abstention from chametz (in the sense of anything that is puffed-up) can become key parts of the external expression of my internal struggle. But they can’t be the only parts because otherwise I would abstain from buying or engaging in anything for fear that it was wasteful or just triviality. There needs to be something that balances bal tashchit and chametz from an ethical perspective, more than from a peer-pressure-you-have-to-live-like-everyone-else perspective. So now my internal search is for what that element will be. Once I understand my core ethical/religious principles, only then can I really assess how different my actions are from my principles and only then can I change how I’m living.