Remarks by Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner at ‘Coming Together in Faith on Climate’ at the Washington National Cathedral

For Immediate Release
September 25, 2015

Contact: Graham Roth, West End Strategy Team; (o) 202-776-7700, (c) 202-765-8576


Remarks by Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner at ‘Coming Together in Faith on Climate’ at the Washington National Cathedral


WASHINGTON – This morning, as Pope Francis prepared to address the United Nations, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, delivered the following remarks at “Coming Together in Faith on Climate,” an interfaith gathering at the Washington National Cathedral:  


Zeh Hayom Asah Adonai – Nagila Venismicha Bo!
This is day God has given us; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Many of us went to sleep last night, still stirred by the words of Pope Francis, reinforced by the additional teachings of faith leaders from across the spiritual spectrum that filled this cathedral with passion, commitment and hope, amplified by live streaming, Facebook and Twitter.

Now who would have imagined we would wake to news that China has finally committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through an ambitious cap and trade program?

Every day that God gives us is a gift, but thank you God, for giving us some news we can celebrate!

In his address to Congress and in the words of Laudato Si, the pope has not only challenged all of us to confront the catastrophic climate crisis, he has also modeled for us the critical role the faith community must play to avert ecological and social disaster.  Our role is threefold: We must make the spiritual argument, we must do the political work and we must inspire our people to act.

Let us begin with the spiritual argument. As faith leaders, we are uniquely positioned to call our society and our nation to task, to live up to our own ancient and enduring cherished values.

As a Jew, the spiritual argument to confront the crisis of our climate couldn't have been clearer as I sat in services the day before yesterday. As the world witnessed the pope being welcomed to our country by the President and thousands of people of faith, the Jewish people were gathered in synagogues across the world to conclude the High Holy Days – the 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  For thousands of years, the Jewish people have celebrated the New Year on Rosh Hashanah by rejoicing in God’s creation and then spending days reflecting on our transgressions, seeking atonement on Yom Kippur.  What a metaphor for the crisis humanity faces at this fragile moment.

If we really truly rejoice in the splendor of God’s creation; if we mean it when we say The Earth is God’s and fullness thereof; if we truly believe we have been enjoined to be stewards of the earth – then atone we must.

For human activity has led to a warming of our planet, a rising of the seas, a poisoning of our soil, seas and air.

Human greed has depleted our resources, led us to catastrophic consumption, and threatens to displace scores of humanity in the face of violent storms, and barren fields.

So yes, if we wish to celebrate the gift God gave us – the gift of existence, of living, and breathing, of seeing and tasting – then we must acknowledge the responsibility that human existence carries in the face of the climate crisis of our age. Atone we must for the sin of HASH-CHATA – laying waste to earths abundance.

Indeed, the liturgy of Yom Kippur is all plural. We repeat over and over “Al Cheit Shechatanu Lifanecha.”  For the sin we have committed against you… Our transgression against creation; our sin against the most vulnerable who will suffer the most can only be atoned when in an expression of achdut – oneness – we collectively say Al Chet Shechatanu Lifanecha. We have sinned before you God and we will atone. We will repair and we will heal the world which we have laid waste.

As faith leaders we know that redemption is possible. Our job is to echo the voices of the ancient prophets in making the spiritual argument, in calling out the moral imperative.

But sounding the moral alarm is not enough. We have work to do. And we have politics to do. For as Pope Francis reminded Congress yesterday:

“You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

Let us hear the pope’s charge, and do some politics. Let us think globally and act locally, but let us also think locally and act globally.

On a local level, we know our institutions can be a beacon of sustainability. There are so many examples. Temple Emanuel of Kensington, with a leading edge renovation, models energy efficiency and conservation in its design, and is working to become carbon neutral. Congregations across the United States work with their members to reduce the carbon foot print of the their homes, in addition to a range of congregational projects like community gardens, composting, solar energy and many more strategies to act locally.  It must become a norm of religious life in the United States and across the world to model environmental sustainability in our own homes and institutions; to live out God’s call to till and to tend, to steward Creation.

But in our local communities and congregations, we also have enormous (if untapped) political power. Millions of people of faith in our congregations and institutions have the power to challenge local governments and municipalities to become sustainable communities.

We also have the capacity to become a political force that might transform our nation, and the globe. The president has placed an enormous stake in the ground with the rules limiting carbon emissions. These rules are being challenged in court and they are being implemented in 50 states. Imagine the pressure we could put on 50 state governments if millions of our members, state by state, demanded that the rules be fully implemented?

We can also leverage our political power to act globally.  The Green Climate Fund was established in 2010, within the framework of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, in order to aid developing nations and mitigate the impact of climate change.  The goal is to raise $100 billion by 2020, with $10.5 billion pledged so far. President Obama has pledged $3 billion to the Fund, but we must pressure Congress to heed the pope’s call and make good on that pledge. Imagine scores of representatives and senators hearing from our millions and millions of members on the moral imperative to support the Fund.

In fact, given the news of this very day – that China has committed to a program of cap and trade – imagine if our congregants, parishioners and people of all faiths joined in pressuring Congress to finally pass real legislation to meaningfully reduce our nation’s emission of greenhouse gasses. China’s commitment removes the core argument against passing such limits – as well as cap and trade – the notion that we wouldn't be able to compete economically.  Indeed, on the eve of the pope’s visit, members of the United States Senate introduced a bill to reduce our emissions even beyond the targets set by the Obama administration.  Theirs is an audacious goal, and it is upon us – people of faith – to build the political will and the spiritual conviction so that such a vision can be realized!

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “The hour calls for Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”

And so, our final task is to inspire. For our spiritual argument will be ignored and we our political work will fail if we don't act boldly to energize our followers to act with courage.  Pope Francis has given us an exemplary model of religious leadership – and we must follow him. In our preaching and in our teaching, hundreds of thousands of clergy and lay leaders must raise up the call to action to challenge minds and stir hearts.

As I sat in synagogue on Yom Kippur, I was inspired to action by the liturgical words I encountered of Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, informed by John Donne, and inspired by the Shema prayer – that central Jewish doctrine that says Adonai Echad, the God is One.

I close by sharing it with you.

You are the One who unites all things,
Who links life to life in a sacred chain.
The forests anchored in the soil
Breathe air into our lungs.
Our faces are reflected in the creatures of earth;
We carry the sea within us.
Our fate is connected to rivers and deserts,
Our family a many-branched Tree of Life.
All beings intertwine in You;
All are encompassed in “Adonai Echad.”
Thus no man is an island;
No soul exists apart.
To say echad is to know this truth:
To see the world whole, humankind undivided.
Precious and holy are these words we speak;
Adonai Echad – We proclaim You One.

So let us close by joining hands and saying these words together, let's repeat them three times:

Adonai Echad
Adonai Echad
Adonai Echad



The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 2,000 Reform rabbis. Visit for more.