Our Common Home: The Pope’s Encyclical in the Jewish Community

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

So… Who is in the box?  Who’s home falls in the Center City travel box when our special guest, the Pope, visits Philadelphia this fall? Me, too.  Although still not complete, this week’s transportation and security update began to feed my hunger for a better understanding about how my family will function, how emergencies will be addressed, and of course, how we are going to get the Jewish community to synagogue.  As complicated as the Pope’s visit will be from a logistical perspective, I am intrigued about how we in the Jewish community, might find meaning in this historical moment.

Of course, the Pope is certainly not our leader.  The Jewish people’s history with the Catholic Church is at times painful, even tragic.  And there are many beliefs and values that we hold dear, that come into direct conflict with Catholic teachings.  Indeed I have personally stood on the opposite side from the Church, when protesting policies that violate gay rights, accessible divorce, or a woman’s right to choose.  Sometimes, an encounter with another religion solidifies my beliefs in my own faith.

Other times, inter-religious encounter helps me discover shared values.  What interests me about the visit of this Pope is that it serves as a reminder of the values we might share in common, and of the lessons we might learn from one another.  Pope Francis in particular, has modeled a strong tradition of dialogue with Jewish leaders.  No one knows such work better than the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, whose Gateway to Religious Communities participants are here tonight as they endeavor to further understand different faiths.  Welcome.

Already this summer, the Pope has inspired the world, including the Jewish community, to refocus on the threat of climate change to our planet.  Here is a profound religious value that our faiths share.  Torah teaches that we are stewards of the earth.  A Midrash–an ancient Jewish legend on the story of creation, tells the tale of God charging Adam and Eve with responsibility for the earth.  God says: “This is it.  One try.  Protect the earth.  Ruin this one?  There won’t be another.”  The Jewish community and especially the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has advocated for environmental justice for generations, and in our own day, encourages us to support the Green Climate Fund, which helps nations most at risk, to advocate for natural resource stewardship, and to find opportunities to raise our voices as the world prepares for the negotiations in Paris at the end of the year.

The Pope’s encyclical speaks to the Jewish community and has sparked a conversation among people of many backgrounds, across the globe.  Every couple of years, the Pope establishes an encyclical, a letter that is highly authoritative for Catholics.  What is different about this summer’s encyclical is that Pope Francis addressed it not only to the Church, but to the world.  The statement on climate change and its impact on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the world, is not something that Catholics can address alone; it is a worldwide problem that demands a worldwide response and understanding that: “This is it.  One try.  Protect the earth.  Ruin this one?  There won’t be another.”

The Pope’s universal effort here inspired several of you when I crowd-sourced this sermon topic this week.  One of you said: the encyclical is  “good for the Jews” because it is good for all of humanity, all living things, and good for our planet itself.  A Catholic friend of mine responded that our take-away should be:  that we are all one.  And another congregant who responded, related her Jewish spirituality to the encyclical when she wrote: An offense to the earth, which he calls our common home, is an offense to humanity and also an offense to God, or the spirit that unites humanity, all creatures, the natural world and the entire universe. To believe, as Jews, in that one-ness calls us to heal the earth in order to heal ourselves.

So what are they responding to?  What does it say?  In the encyclical, Pope Francis teaches that humanity’s relationship with God, with each other and with the earth, is broken.  He presents a theology of integrated ecology, focusing on climate change and water, and teaching biblical text to help us personalize our inattentiveness and our own responsibility.  He expresses concern over our misuse of technology, the way we fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge, and the way we allow that to stop us from connecting with each other and with the earth.  The Pope insists that the way we treat each other is a sign of how we treat the earth, and the way we treat the earth is a sign of how we treat each other.  He sees the common good and the common legacy we have to future generations. Most important to the Pope: when tackling environmental degradation, we need more serious international efforts that address our planet’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens.  And the Pope teaches that to understand the harm we have created, and how we might move forward, demands the kind of contemplation that the Sabbath provides.

The Pope’s points are familiar to us; the very same messages are rooted in Torah and in Jewish spirituality.  We just heard from this week’s Torah portion: Ha-aretz v’chol asher bah– the earth and all that is on it, belongs to God.  Rabbi Yonotan Neril, of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, (COEJL), writes: “Beyond the physical causes, the widespread degradation of the natural world indicates that our way of life is out of balance. Thus the environmental crisis also reflects a spiritual crisis. Human-caused disruptions to the natural world emerge from the inner imbalance within billions of human beings. The change required of us to correct this is, to a significant degree, of a spiritual nature.”

How do we pursue such change, of a spiritual nature?  Consider the new Rosh Hashanah prayerbook, which includes this text, written by Henry David Thoreau:

The morning wind forever blows,

the poem of creation is uninterrupted;

but few are the ears

that hear it.

One way to respond to the Pope’s encyclical and to our own Torah, is to help our ears hear the uninterrupted poem of creation.  Many of us learn that Shabbat is a time of rest.  Yet, on Shabbat, our highest purpose is not rest.  It’s holiness.  Holiness demands effort.  On Shabbat, we focus, that we might — as our Shabbat kiddush says– that we might witness creation.  And on Shabbat we work to open our ears.  This Shabbat, may we be among the few who can hear the uninterrupted poem of creation.

(delivered on Shabbat, August 7, 2015)