For more background
You can watch a video to hear more about Rabbi Shapiro’s work with The Joseph Project here. (Note: There are numerous entities called the Joseph Project. We’re highlighting the one associated with ASU.) To learn more about the Arizona State University Global Futures Laboratory, look here. You can read Rabbi Shapiro’s paper, “Beit Atid: A Light Unto the Generations” here.
Rabbi Shapiro: We need to galvanize and activate a community around us. And we understand that it is local faith communities that are going to have to weather the storm—or the storms, perhaps—themselves, because they are going to have their own particular realities if they are urban or suburban or rural; if they’re in the desert or on the mountain or by the coast. So we want to create a shared space and curriculum through which religious leaders from a wide, wide range of wisdoms will produce and share knowledge with one another and train to lead their communities. And this is all rooted in the conviction that we can, and in fact, we must make a meaningful contribution to ensuring a livable planet and a future in which wellbeing is obtainable for all humankind.
Debra Rienstra: Welcome to Refugia, a podcast about renewal. Refugia are places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From out of these small sanctuaries, life re-emerges and the world is renewed. We’re exploring what it means for people of faith to be people of Refugia. How can we create safe places of flourishing—“micro-countercultures”—where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead?
I’m Debra Rienstra, professor of English at Calvin University. In this episode, I’m so pleased to be talking with Rabbi Dean Shapiro. He is a Reform rabbi who has served congregations in the United States and is now serving a congregation in Auckland, New Zealand. Rabbi Shapiro is a graduate of Harvard and Hebrew Union College. He was a Global Justice Fellow for Jewish World Service, and he is now an adjunct professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.
And he is the founder of The Joseph Project, an interfaith clergy training program, designed to help religious communities live and serve in a climate-changed world. I think you’ll especially appreciate Rabbi Shapiro’s vision of religious community at its best and his wisdom about how ritual and story bind us together and help us find meaning, especially in times of crisis. There are practical ideas in this episode, as well as some exegetical fun as we ponder the Joseph story from the Bible, and the Noah story, and a brief appearance by Miriam’s magic well.
Debra Rienstra: Rabbi Dean Shapiro. I’m so glad to have you here today. Thanks so much for being with us.
Rabbi Shapiro: Oh, it is my pleasure.
Debra Rienstra: So you and I were connected by our mutual friend, Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, and Kyle was a guest on the first season of Refugia Podcast, so I’m so glad that he put us in touch with each other and we’ve had some conversations. And Kyle was thinking that your work on The Joseph Project was this beautiful example of refugia work with direct application to faith congregations. And that’s the focus of our conversations this season. So I wondered if you’d be willing to tell us about The Joseph Project. Tell us a little bit about why you developed it and how it works.
Rabbi Shapiro: I would be very glad to. I appreciate Kyle making the introduction, and Debra, I so appreciate your inviting me onto your podcast. It’s really a deep honor to be part of this project and to tell you what we are doing with The Joseph Project. The Joseph Project is housed at Arizona State University, specifically in the College for the Global Future. And it is designed because we know what’s coming.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm.
Rabbi Shapiro: We know that in coming decades, we, the world, will experience drought and fire and flood and intense storms and all the human sufferings that will result from these—migration and hunger and thirst. We know these things will happen because they are already happening. Just in June 2022, 7.2 million people were displaced in Bangladesh because of flooding.
I am speaking to you from New Zealand here in Pacifica, the South Pacific. Sea level rise is already impacting the ways people live, their housing, their access to fresh water. We see in Australia, fire and flood glaciers are melting. We know this is happening and that it will only continue to happen. So what do we do about that?
Debra Rienstra: That is the question, yeah.
Rabbi Shapiro: So The Joseph Project really came to me step by step. And one of the first steps was: as I was blessing new babies, whether at brit milah, ritual circumcision, or a baby naming for a girl, I would celebrate this wonderful new life and possibility and family. And if it was 2015, and I thought 60 years into this child’s future, 70 years in Arizona, where I was working, we knew that that child would experience hardship and possibly worse because of drought. And I knew I couldn’t merely bless that baby and smile and hope that everything was going to be fine. That would’ve been derelict in my duty. So I took some time to think and craft that service so that it would both be celebratory, but that it would also hopefully frame and signal to the parents what a holy responsibility they had to raise up this child, and frankly, what a holy responsibility that child had as a human being and in particular an American in the 21st century.
Debra Rienstra: I love how you’re thinking in terms of ritual and the need to rethink what the function of ritual is. And I hope we’ll get back to that in a little bit.
Rabbi Shapiro: Absolutely. Because otherwise it’s an empty ritual. And if there’s anything worse than no ritual, I think it’s empty ritual.
Debra Rienstra: Sure.
Rabbi Shapiro: But then I started to do that—I wanted to do that for bar and bat mitzvah, the rite of passage for our 13-year-olds. Week after week, I would talk with our kids and, during their ceremonies, look into their eyes and hear what they hoped for their futures. But I knew that some of what they were hoping was actually unlikely to happen, but also, as the rabbi of a significant synagogue, I didn’t have enough time to do the substantial work—the overhaul of that ritual that was necessary because I was pulled in too many other directions. So I had a sabbatical coming up and I thought, “I’m gonna put my sabbatical into thinking about the impacts of environmental change and degradation on Judaism and specifically my synagogue. How do I stay ahead of the curve, as it were?” But there was nothing out there.
Debra Rienstra: Oh. So I was going to ask about that too. The sense of—did you feel like you were the only one worried about this?
Rabbi Shapiro: Uh, no, I know that there are plenty of clergy who are worried and who are active about it, but they are working on what we call mitigation. How do we change policy—corporate policy, government policy? How do we spare ourselves the worst impacts? But I was thinking: it’s already here, and in the lives of my families, we are already feeling the impact.
So what could I do? And there was a lecture here and a weekend there, but nothing substantial. So I thought I’ve gotta create this. And as it happens, one of my bar mitzvah students at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Arizona was a professor at ASU, Arizona State University—and in fact, the director of the School for Innovation and Society, Professor David Gustin.
And I told him about this concept, and he loved it and he thought it was necessary and exactly the kind of thing that his school would do. So he connected me with Professor Sasha Barab, a professor in that school and of learning technology, and we started to create what, what this could be.
And although I had never thought of it this way in, in a very distinct way The Joseph Project is refugia for clergy to pause, to ponder, to learn, to create and co-create, and then return and lead their communities.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. I love how the way you’ve designed this clergy training program is meant to be a refugia space for the clergy so that they can go back and make their congregations refugia spaces as well.
Rabbi Shapiro: Exactly so.
Debra Rienstra: So what is the stated mission of The Joseph Project? And then how is it structured?
Rabbi Shapiro: So our goal is to train clergy of all faith traditions to steward their communities through the challenges of climate change and loss. And I choose “steward” in particular because we are leaders, but we are not the sole leaders. We need to galvanize and activate a community around us. And we understand that it is local faith communities that are going to have to weather the storm, or the storms perhaps, themselves, because they are going to have their own particular realities if they are urban or suburban or rural, if they’re in the desert or on the mountain or by the coast. So one blanket policy from a denomination is not going to be helpful, even if such a thing were to exist.
So we want to create a shared space and curriculum through which religious leaders from a wide, wide range of wisdoms will produce and share knowledge with one another and train to lead their communities. And this is all rooted in the conviction that we can, and in fact we must, make a meaningful contribution to ensuring a livable planet and a future in which wellbeing is obtainable for all humankind.
Debra Rienstra: That’s such a powerful statement. I really appreciate that.
Rabbi Shapiro: It is lofty. And we are in the time when we’ve got to swing for the fences.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Rabbi Shapiro: Right? Because nothing else will save us.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. Yeah. Tell us about the first course, which is called “Rising Waters.” What is that like? Has it started?
Rabbi Shapiro: We have started building it. We are building it. It’s our pilot course and is about the concept of flooding and its inverse drought. And that is applied both environmentally and personally. So we are gathering lectures from scholars specifically on the Noah story: how are we to read this and understand this in a time of intensifying storm and rising sea levels?
This thing that had been, from the far-off past, cautionary tale, is now something that people are living today. So how do we understand that? How are we to understand God’s role in it and humanity’s role in it?
We also are building the unit about clergy responses. So whenever I hear about a storm, you know—Houston flooding, New Orleans, all over the place, I think, “Wow. If I were the rabbi there, what would I preach 36 hours later after I have a hundred families underwater? What would I have to say?” And of course, waiting for the last minute is too late, and it’s not a plan.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Rabbi Shapiro: So what have clergy already been preaching? And how can I begin to prepare for that? There’s also a space for clergy to go within and to say, how am I feeling flooded and overwhelmed and how can I process that and craft something better for myself?
Debra Rienstra: Hmm.
Rabbi Shapiro: Another unit asks communities to gain local knowledge, right? What’s your watershed? Where do you get your water? Who are the boards that make decisions over environmental processes? They’re not all made at the state capital or at the federal government. Who are these folks? What’s your climate reality? What’s your natural environment? If you live in a city, you may not know. You may not know the cycle of the plants where you live. So asking people to get more involved with that.
And then also, how do we prepare ourselves to deal with disaster, right? What can my community do now to anticipate the reality that there will be a “hundred year flood” coming up? Well, do I need to change my landscaping? Do I need to build in a step? Do I need to set aside sandbags? How can I make connections with local disaster relief agencies? How can I support them so that we can start doing that work now, anticipating what we know is going to come and being— as churches, synagogues, mosques, spiritual centers— important nodes in the fabric of a healthy or sustaining society?
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So I love the idea of clergypeople being at this kind of nexus of big, meaning-making stories, and then just the most practical, most specific science and logistics and community-building. I think that’s a really powerful vision. Tell us why you chose the title ‘Joseph Project.’
Rabbi Shapiro: Well, Joseph has always been my guy. Ever since I was a boy, the character Joseph from the book of Genesis was always important to me. And I wrote my rabbinic thesis about him. And then, as I was thinking about this project, it struck me that we are very similar to that moment in Joseph’s story when he hears Pharaoh’s dream. And Pharaoh, you know, has the dream of seven fat cows and seven sickly cows, and seven healthy ears of corn and seven scorched ears of corn, and the scorched and the ragged devour the good and the healthy. And Joseph understands this to mean that they are in a period of good time, of bumper crop and harvest, but that it will end. Time is running out and now’s the time to plan.
And it struck me that we are in that zone. I cannot tell you if we are in year one or year five or six. For some people, like the folks of Bangladesh, they are already crossed over into the second set of seven years, but we have this warning, right? Scientists are telling us with clarity. And so we can either heed it or ignore it.
And so it strikes me that we are all being called upon to be like Joseph, to prepare now for what we know will come.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, lovely. And I’ve also been thinking about the Joseph story in light of your work and thinking too, that Joseph did not really choose this vocation for his life. He was sold into slavery. He did not seek this. But he found himself in this place and he accepted that role. And through that, God was able to bless and protect people.
So this idea of being in a place we’d rather not be, but nevertheless, taking on the challenges that are placed before us—I think that’s a really powerful example, too, of godly life.
Rabbi Shapiro: Absolutely. One of the things I love about Joseph is that to me, he is Tanakh, Hebrew Scripture’s, emblematic, postmodern figure.
Debra Rienstra: Oh, say more about that.
Rabbi Shapiro: And that is because he inhabits so many roles and identities through his life. He’s son and brother, then slave, then overseer, then prisoner, then ruler. He’s up and down and sideways—literally up and down— and he’s able to transform and adapt. And that’s a hallmark of postmodernity: our shifting identities. And he instructs us because he never holds onto one. When it’s time to be a slave, he’s a slave. When he’s elevated, he is elevated. And he lets the one go— in his story, the emblem of the transformation is a piece of clothing that’s taken off of him. All right, his persona changes. And he becomes that new thing.
Debra Rienstra: Oh, lovely. Mm. Even when as Joseph—for a long time in those Genesis chapters, Joseph does not know the end game. He trusts God. He does not know how this is all going to be used for good, and yet he trusts God and does what he’s called to do. And that too is maybe part of the story that we have to connect with in these days of so much uncertainty.
Rabbi Shapiro: That’s right. To live with the uncertainty.
Debra Rienstra: Mm.
Rabbi Shapiro: I don’t know how it’s going to wind up. The real question is: what can I do to tip it the right way? And how can I live in such a way that I’ll be satisfied with my performance, with my choices, with my life, regardless of the outcome?
Debra Rienstra: Mm. Yeah. So let’s talk about the shape of religious community. You sent me this beautiful paper you wrote called “Beit Atid: A Light Unto the Generations.” And in that paper, you use this beautiful phrase, “beit atid” or “batei atid” in the plural. Describe what that means to be “batei atid” and how that fits into a Jewish conception of religious community.
Rabbi Shapiro: Terrific. So, a classic Jewish understanding. This is something that every literate Jew knows that our synagogues are tripartite. They are Beit Filat, Beit Knesset, Beit Midrash. “Beit,” or like “bayit” is house. So a house or place of “tefilah,” of prayer, a house or place of gathering. So, in Israel, the “knesset” is the gathering place, their parliament, and Beit Midrash, a house of study. And a synagogue is meant to do all of these three things. And these are terms that go back to the early Second Temple Period, about 200 BCE. They are talmudic as well. So these are indeed ancient understandings. But I’m proposing that we add a fourth leg to that stool, if you will. And that is that we also think about ourselves as “batei atid”: houses of the future, places to contemplate what’s coming next.
Debra Rienstra: What a powerful idea. I wish that every religious community would start to think of themselves as “batei atid,” houses of the future. That seems to me to blend beautifully with the idea of refugia. So go on, tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that.
Rabbi Shapiro: What I mean is that a local faith community needs to invest some time and resources and shift its identity to think about: how do we move into the future healthfully? What do we need to do to be ready for what’s to come? That is, first of all, understanding what’s to come and being realistic about it, but also to incubate language, practice, use of space, structure, landscaping, to highlight or develop certain relationships to teach the things that this community will need to survive, and perhaps to thrive. To respond to local community needs and to be a place where visioning and training and transforming in a spirit of experimentation is not just paid lip service to, but is understood to be central, to be necessary, to the workings of the community. I also think that we need to admit we’re broken, as a society and as a culture, and that we can’t keep doing it this way, so that healthy community becomes not a nice-to-have, but a must-have. So we must be future-forward, “batei atid,” and have a spirit of experimentation.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And realize how much we’ll depend each other, I think, in the future—that community is not a luxury, but it’s going to be a survival need.
Rabbi Shapiro: It’s not a luxury. Amen to that.
Debra Rienstra: So give us some examples. You have some wonderful examples in that paper. What are some examples of very practical ways that religious communities can help their members and their larger communities adapt? Prepare for the future?
Rabbi Shapiro: Well, I think that the solutions are local, but some of the things, from a really basic one: many synagogues, I suppose churches too, have walking groups or hiking groups. So what if, instead of just going through the neighborhood, which is a plenty good thing, they also went into the local forest, went a little bit further afield? And what if instead of gathering and walking, they also paused to recognize: “Oh, this is the month and the season we’re in, so we’re going to look for buds or for dead branches or for this kind of wildlife.” That’s what we should expect of the natural world now and bring that to consciousness.
What if they took a moment before or after to read a poem about their local flora and fauna and environment, to heighten that sense of language? What might that do for the group? I also think of the physical space. So at my synagogue in Arizona, we had lots of water fountains on the inside of our building, but as the heat continues to rise—and it’s already very, very high— maybe we need water spigots on the outside for passersby to be able to get a cold drink at any hour of the day or night. And how can churches, synagogues, temples, look at their landscaping so that they use water appropriately and maybe even produce some food? Could you put in an apple tree? I don’t know. And now maybe that apple tree wouldn’t generate enough to feed anybody, but maybe it would be delightful to the kids, while they’re waiting to get picked up, to be able to grab an apple. And maybe they would say, “Hey mom, could we plant an apple tree?” Or maybe a member of the community or someone just passing by would say, “Why don’t I do the same?”
And so we might be seeding these ideas that expand. Moving away from just a lawn or grass that does not recharge the aquifer into deeper grasses, taller plants that allow water to soak in—our religious spaces are public spaces, social spaces, that can signal possibilities to others.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. I loved your idea, too, about some structural changes within religious communities, especially the one about putting someone on every committee whose job is to speak for the future generations. What an enormously radical idea. And yet it shouldn’t be, but it is. Have you seen anybody try that? Or what are you thinking when it comes to that idea?
Rabbi Shapiro: Well, I heard about this from a city council in Japan that was trying to make a decision, I believe, about a waterway. Whether—I don’t remember if it was a sewer or piping to bring in new water. And they said, “Oh, well we can tax ourselves this much, and we think it’ll last for the next 25 years. Or we can tax ourselves a little bit more, and it will last for the next 50 years.” Forgive me, I don’t remember the details.
And they said, “Well, what would our grandchildren want us to do?” They said, “Let’s not tax ourselves for the city. Let’s tax ourselves for our grandchildren.” Do you want your grandchildren to have enough water? Of course the answer is yes.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Rabbi Shapiro: And so I was applying that idea to our religious communities.
Debra Rienstra: And you also have a section about rituals, and you mentioned that a little bit before, but give us maybe some more examples of how you have been rethinking ritual acts and ritual processes and themes, thinking about the “beit atid,” the community for the future.
Rabbi Shapiro: I love ritual. I find that as a practitioner of ritual, it engages all of me—the mind, the heart, the spirit, the creativity, my connection with other human beings. And I have seen how transformative rituals can be in the lives of human beings through the life cycle, and also through our holidays in particular.
So I spoke a little bit about baby namings, but I also think about funerals. The Jewish rituals surrounding death are psychologically sound. They help us to transform, to metabolize our grief, to understand it. And I think that’s really powerful now, as we begin to enter a time of decay and of shrinking. To start to think about death as not a failure and not all bad, and certainly not something to celebrate, but a new reality.
So at a Jewish funeral, we have the ritual of “kriah,” of tearing a ribbon. And it is a sign—an outward sign—of our inner broken heart, of the fact that the fabric of life is torn. And so there have been moments of crisis where I have used that in the congregation and torn a ribbon to show that we are ending one phase and moving to another. I am also thinking of a terrible crisis that happened in my community in Arizona, where a family of five died under horrible circumstances by gunfire. And there was no way for us to express our grief, including for the three children. But in Jewish practice, when we visit a grave, we don’t bring flowers, we bring a stone and we place it on the headstone.
So for the memorial services for this family, we passed out glass beads, and there was a container at the front of the sanctuary. And at the end of each service, folks were invited to come up and take their bead and place it in the container. And the glass beads—I didn’t plan this, but they became like tears, and the container became a collector of our tears. But as more and more tears were added, glass beads were added, they actually spilled over the container and started falling, and we heard the plunk, plunk, plunk that were our collective tears.
And it was so incredibly moving that at future ceremonies, such as Yizkor, our Jewish services of remembrance, we added that ritual, and we always had the glass beads for whomever anyone was memorializing. Now that is a transformation of a Jewish ritual, but it became so poignant for us who were living it.
Debra Rienstra: I think all of us in religious communities are seeking from our own resources on how to deal with loss and lament, not only for individuals, but for a way of life, for expectations of the future. And I’m noticing in your work and your paper and the way you talk about The Joseph Project: you have accepted that it’s too late to hold onto our current ways of living. Yes, we have to do mitigation, but you’re focused more on adaptation. And I wanted to ask you, when did you reach that conviction, and how did you get there?
Rabbi Shapiro: So I am very deeply impacted by Reverend Michael Dowd, both as a thinker and a friend, and his understanding that we have passed into overshoot, to cite his favorite author, that this is not sustainable. And although I have to acknowledge that this is my fear, rather than my knowledge, when I read the IPCC Sixth Assessment, when I read the reports from NOAA and other government and intergovernmental agencies, the science is clear.
And I can ignore it, but at my peril. And I saw the drought in Arizona. They were explicit about it. So that awareness, to me, is undebatable. But frankly, I would also pose the question to myself, even if not, right? Even if the science is somehow wrong, or even if there is some technology that could save us, even if it won’t be as bad as we fear at our worst moments, I think the more important question is always: how do we choose to live?
And I think back to Genesis 1, where we are told that human beings are created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. So what does that mean? Well, there are many, many interpretations, of course, but one is that we, human beings, are conscious creatures, able to make choices as God does. And so if that is my central power, what distinguishes me as a human being from so many other living creatures, then I must use that choice.
And I ask myself, what’s the loss, what’s the harm in behaving “ke’ilu”— that’s Hebrew for ‘as if’? As if we were running out of resources? Well then how do I choose to live? So how might I eat if I understood that every bite I took now is one less bite that my grandchildren will be able to eat someday? I’d stop sooner. Of course I would. Now I understand that that’s an oversimplification, for sure, for sure. But we also must know that our consumption is not neutral. It is taken from future generations. It robs them of options and of resources. So I have to think about that. And it helps me to live in a better way.
We have been living too big, too bold, too loud, too sweet, too bright, too fast. All these—we know it’s not healthy, because our society is not the way any of us wants it to be. So we’ve got to slow down and get modest and in sync with the seasons and keep our wants in check, understand the difference between need and want and understand that what I do has impact beyond my ability to understand.
And so even if the worst doesn’t come true, frankly, I will have lived better because that “tzimtzum,” that self-contraction.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So, I too have kind of come to the conviction through reading, and through the facts, and so you come through this place of despair, but then the more I’ve been in this space of learning and thinking and talking with people like you and so many others, the more it’s a matter, for me, of living into a vision of what I want the world to be and what I think God wants the world to be: beautiful, interdependent, not characterized by injustice and greed and destructiveness. But I have this shalom vision in a much more practical way than I ever have before.
And so that’s really what draws me on, too, is this sense of: the world we have right now is not the world I even want. So I don’t want to keep things the way they are. I want to use this opportunity to move into a better vision.
Rabbi Shapiro: Absolutely. We have an extraordinary failure of imagination. To think that this is all we can have? Even if we could forget the gunfire, even if we could forget the racial animosity, right? Our culture is not robust, right? The food we’re eating isn’t delicious. We don’t enjoy our time.
And all of this is a piece—I’m not suggesting we can peel one away from the other. So to me, that’s a failure of imagination of what’s possible. And to just share one little nugget of that: I was living in Arizona when they were discussing a ban on plastic bags at the grocery store. And the legislature didn’t want localities to have the rights—“but people need bags! You’ve got to carry your stuff home in a bag!” Well, here in New Zealand, there are no plastic bags. The government made a decision and you know what? Everyone just carries their own reusable bags.
Debra Rienstra: They figure out how to cope! Miraculous!
Rabbi Shapiro: We just create new systems and we do it. And three weeks later, nobody misses a plastic bag. Now, plastic bag is not environment, right— it is pollution. And so I’m not suggesting that that’s the solution for all of it, but for me, it’s an indication that we’ve lost the ability to imagine something better collectively.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Rabbi Shapiro: And well, that may one of the greatest losses of all.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. So speaking of imagining, The Joseph Project is based on this confidence in the influence of clergy to help people imagine and to help people make positive contributions. And I admit I’m kind of skeptical of the depth of influence of clergy these days. At least in the Christian spaces where I live, it seems to me many Christian communities are really actually best at conflict and bitter in-fighting.
And there’s so many clergy people right now who are just exhausted because they feel that all their work has been in vain. They’re either ignored or they’re harassed by people who listen to other authorities. So what do we do when religious community is just bad community? How can we build capacities so that we actually are communities of refugia—locations of healing and shelter?
Rabbi Shapiro: Well first I can say amen to that. I have seen and experienced all of it.
Debra Rienstra: It’s not just the evangelical Christians, huh?
Rabbi Shapiro: No, no, I think it’s universal and it’s part of this hyper-commercialization of human culture that has shifted not only the focus on deeper values, but also the ways we relate to ourselves. And we are in a moment, certainly in the United States, of, I will just say, deep distrust of expertise. And so, well, I can watch YouTube and I can do it myself, so why do I need the pastor who went to seminary for five years? I’ll just read it and save myself. And of course it’s a tension because individuals, regular folk, do have a lot of wisdom and knowledge. But we’ve lost that respect for expertise in a lot of ways.
But I’m going to share that I’ve seen the opposite, too. So I preached a High Holy Day—a Jewish New Year—sermon, a cycle of sermons, about the environment, and one of them on New Year’s Day itself, when, as we read the creation story, I gave seven solutions for seven days, or seven actions for seven days. And one of them was on semi-vegetarianism.
You want to keep eating meat? Great, fine. But what if on Shabbat you went vegetarian, or what if you went vegetarian on lunch? Or what if, instead of eating a big piece of meat, you had a salad with some meat on it, right? Some of these options and—great. When I, uh, left the synagogue, several people came up to me and said, “That sermon you preached, I’ve been eating different ever since then.”
Debra Rienstra: Oh, it worked!
Rabbi Shapiro: It worked! That’s right. Right? I don’t preach or plan a service for the people that aren’t in the sanctuary, hoping that it’ll be big enough, good enough for other people to join us. I preach for the people that are here. And if it works, others are welcome to come to us. I also think that we need to admit we’re broken, as a society and as a culture, and that we can’t keep doing it this way. So that healthy community becomes not a nice-to-have but a must-have So we must be future-forward, betei atid, . And have a spirit of experimentation.
Debra Rienstra: I want to talk a little bit about story, because one of the things I most admire about The Joseph Project and about your work in general is your focus on the power of story, and in particular, scriptural stories. So I love the way that you emphasize how religious communities are united by their stories and that we are keepers of story.
So I’m interested in what will happen with The Joseph Project in the sense of reconsidering some of these beloved stories and asking what they can say anew in these particular crisis times. So I wonder if you and I, right here and now, could do a little tag-team, realtime Midrash, and a few stories from the Hebrew Bible. Realtime tag-team Midrash is probably not a thing, but we could try it.
Rabbi Shapiro: It is now!
Debra Rienstra: So we’ve talked a little bit about Joseph, so let’s think a little more about Noah. You’re planning this course about Noah, the Noah story, or at least that’s the central story of the course. So what are you thinking about that flood story and how we might be reading it differently now? What sort of comes up for you in this particular time of climate crisis and literal flooding in many places?
Rabbi Shapiro: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think it’s really appropriate to start with Noah because Noah’s ark is the teva. That word ‘teva’ is the same word that is the basket that Moses is put on as he is set adrift into the Nile. And in many ways, I think of stories as the ark. That is to say they are the container, and what’s inside is not living biology, but is wisdom.
So the story contains the wisdom and keeps it safe through troubled waters and allows it, like a message in a bottle, to arrive at a shore where it will be needed. So, as I think about the story of Noah, I always go to that passage in Genesis 7 that I think is overlooked, but that to me, just rips my heart.
“The flood continued forty days on the earth, and the waters increased and raised the ark so it rose above the earth. The water swelled and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark drifted upon the waters.” And I’m going to move forward just a little bit: “And all flesh that stirred on earth perished: birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth and all humankind. In all whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land died.”
Now it is easy to just move past that. But to pause and imagine it? To feel it as if we could? To imagine the family who sees the water rising on their street and gets out of their mud hut and climbs up onto the roof, but the water keeps rising, and perhaps they have a baby that they hold up higher, and maybe there’s a tree and they try to climb the tree, but the water keeps going, so they put the baby on the highest branch possible, knowing that they will die, but perhaps the baby will be saved, but we know what will happen to that baby. To read these lines and know that a story like that, both for human beings and other animals as well, that hundreds of thousands of those are woven into those words—to me, the ink on that page is like blood crying out and screaming, and I think we have to acknowledge it.
Debra Rienstra: It’s a terrifying story.
Rabbi Shapiro: Yes.
Debra Rienstra: You know, I think we so often, at least in Christian circles too, take the story as evidence of God’s provision and God’s plan, God’s providence, and that’s all true, but there’s also this terrifying backdrop. And that’s relevant to refugia because refugia are places that survive in the midst of crisis.
And the ark is kind of this emblematic refugia. I’ve talked about this to some extent with Fred Bahnson, who was on this podcast before, who’s really working on that image and thinking about ‘arking’ in the way that conservationists now are talking, actually using the term ‘arking’ species. One of the things that strikes me about the Noah story is that Noah is given this task of preserving the creatures so that God provides for this narrow survival remnant, not only of humans, but of creatures. And that position Noah finds himself in, and Noah’s family too, as caretakers of the creatures, that seems to me a piece of that story that we can look at today and say, you know, “How must we do this? How must we create stories that are arks, but also literal arks for other creatures, not just us?”
Rabbi Shapiro: Absolutely. Like the pest-free islands here in New Zealand and truly all over the place.
Debra Rienstra: Mm.
Rabbi Shapiro: I wanna share a classical Midrash that I think is really important, right? God instructs Noah to make the ark out of gopher wood. And as a boy, I thought that was related to the animal, right? All the animals, including the gophers.
Debra Rienstra: Well, you’ve got to save them!
Rabbi Shapiro: You have to save them, yes! But actually, it’s the Hebrew word ‘gofer.’ It’s a kind of tree. And so the rabbis ask, “Why gopher wood?” And whether this is factual or not doesn’t really matter, they say, because a gopher tree takes a hundred years to grow. And God didn’t have Noah merely chop down the trees. He planted them, and they grew for a hundred years. All the while, the neighbors were saying, “What are you doing? It’s stupid!” And Noah was saying, “No, no, here’s what’s coming.”
Debra Rienstra: Oh, wow.
Rabbi Shapiro: The building of the ark—that moment is retained, I think, in the common understanding. “Noah, why are you building an ark? It’s not going to rain. And then—first drop. But this idea that we’ve got to tell people— we have to share this story, not just of what’s coming, but of how to prepare as well. And you focused on God, and I think that that is absolutely true, but it’s important to say that the rabbis of the Jewish tradition fault Noah for merely accepting God’s pronouncement, right?
God says to Noah, “I’ve decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them. I’m about to destroy them with the earth.” And Noah’s response is…
Debra Rienstra: “Okay.”
Rabbi Shapiro: No, he doesn’t push back. And the rabbis compare him to Abraham, who argues with God over Sodom as does Moses on Sinai as well. And we laud the arguing back and saying, “That’s not just. Where is your mercy?” And I think that that’s a powerful understanding.
So perhaps we can use Noah as a mixed example, right? Notify others, motivate them, invite them to join you. After all, God says, “Build an ark”. God does not say only one ark. What would’ve happened if Noah had told each of his three sons and each of his three daughters-in-law that they should build an ark each so that there would’ve been seven arks, and they could have saved more people, or at least the babies? And I understand the context of the story is that God wants all else to be destroyed, but what if we said, “No, we are better than you think we are. We are worthy.” Very different message.
Debra Rienstra: They would’ve needed a lot more gopher wood.
Rabbi Shapiro: That’s right. Maybe they could have used some other kind as well, or planted more seeds.
Debra Rienstra: Awesome. We won’t do the whole Exodus that would take forever and be fabulous. But you mentioned Midrash on Miriam and her well. Tell us about that.
Rabbi Shapiro: So, the Israelites are traveling through the wilderness after the revelation of Sinai. And we have the stories of the bitter water and they are hungry. We have to ask, “How did they sustain themselves as they go?” And in the book of numbers, we are told that Miriam dies, and then the next line is that people were without water.
So the ancient rabbis connected these two, and they imagined that Miriam had a magic well, a plentiful well, that followed the people wherever they were, so that they always had access to water, that when she died, it dried up. That’s the Midrash of Miriam’s well.
Debra Rienstra: And I love the idea that Miriam is the water protector, because that corresponds to American indigenous peoples, who often will have women be the water protectors.
I’ve been thinking about Exodus as a story of wilderness preparation and thinking about it from the point of view of the Israelites coming out of slavery, and being bewildered in the wilderness, not knowing what’s next, having to live with a certain amount of deprivation, and yet having to trust in God’s provision and look to each other to form community in ways they hadn’t been able to before or didn’t have the capacities to before.
So as this time of letting go, but also this time of preparation for what’s coming next, and a preparation that’s a long way off, and they don’t have exact knowledge of what it’s going to be. They have a promise, and they have to live in that in-between space. And it so feels right now like we’re living in this kind of in-between space where, as religious people, we have to look to God and trust and do with less and consider this a time of preparation.
So is that a way of thinking about it that would resonate with you? Or is there something you’d add to that or take away from that?
Rabbi Shapiro: Well, I think it is absolutely very true, and I love your use of the term ‘bewildered’ there. That is really powerful to me. And you are reminding me of the famous line from the Talmud Pirkei Avot that you are not obligated to finish the task, nor can you desist from beginning.
Debra Rienstra: That’s hard.
Rabbi Shapiro: You don’t have to complete it, but you can’t abandon it either.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Even when the task is living in a kind of wilderness, both literally and more likely figuratively. In your paper, you remark that the Jewish people are experienced in pivoting. And it seems to me that that’s a way of saying Jewish people know all about being people of refugia. Of course, this is a big generalization. But what would you suggest might be some hard-won wisdom that you would like to communicate to Christian communities that we really ought to learn from our Jewish siblings?
Rabbi Shapiro: Well, I appreciate the question very much. I don’t know that I am in any place to communicate or share wisdom with Christian communities. But you’ve asked, so I’ll do my best. And the first thing I will do though, is challenge the idea that we’re siblings. Frankly, I think that we are cousins, which is to say that we are descended from a shared ancestor. I really don’t like the term Judeo-Christian. I think it’s a way to legitimize Christian belief in practice by making it appear more universal and more ancient, and by whitewashing over the real differences between the two.
So excepting that, I would say that all of us need to really be aware of hegemony. I see how often those in dominant culture control the terms of the debate and the means of discourse, and how stultifying that is for others. And instead, we’ve got to do some research on our own before we burden the other. And we’ve got to ask other people if we can even ask them, to have their permission, and then go to them and ask open-ended questions and to listen deeply.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Rabbi Shapiro: But I also think that Judaism teaches us to celebrate, right? We toast l’chaim, to life. Even in the most dismal times, we find a way to raise a glass, to put a kid or a bride and groom on a chair and hoist them up. Even in the camps of the Shoah and in the Holocaust, they would celebrate as best as they could. And I think that is a powerful balance to the need to lament as well.
I also see in Judaism an engagement with deep time. With thinking about centuries and even millennia, with remembering across generations and planning across generations, praying and telling the story over and over again, and ritualizing the story. To me, all of these practices hold great wisdom.
Debra Rienstra: That’s a really good word. Thank you. Really appreciate that. So speaking of weddings, what is this I hear about your previous life in the movie business? Something about My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Were you involved in that film?
Rabbi Shapiro: Yeah. So I worked in the movie business for about 12 years before rabbinical school, 10 of which I did international sale and marketing of feature films. And one of the films I handled, so the sales outside North America, of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and then supporting the distributors in each country to market the film as successfully as they could.
Debra Rienstra: Oh well, well done you; it’s a classic. All right. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about yet that seems important to you?
Rabbi Shapiro: I continue to think about the need for us to transform our relationship with nature from one of use and exploitation to one of wonder and awe and connection. And I think that that is a religious task, because as we speak about God, we are talking about that which is greater than us as individuals, as humanity— that which is the force and majesty of the cosmos itself.
And so that’s a religious task, and I think we, as human beings, need wildness. We’ve become so tame. So I hope we can all find ways to connect with wilderness and to bring wilderness into our prayer spaces, into our liturgy, into our ritual, into our consciousness. I think that would be powerful in fact, transformative.
Debra Rienstra: Rabbi Shapiro, I’m so grateful for your wisdom that you shared with us today, for your generosity, and spending some time in this conversation. Thank you so much for being with me.
Rabbi Shapiro: Absolutely, Debra. I’ve so enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for including me in this wonderful podcast.