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Friday, April 03, 2009

Environmentalists love Birkat HaChama

From the Wall Street Journal:
According to Talmudic calculations, every 28 years the sun is in the exact position it occupied at the time of Creation. As it happens, that moment falls on Wednesday, April 8, of this year, at sunrise -- just hours before Passover begins. There is a brief blessing for the occasion, too. It is called Birchat Hachamah, Hebrew for "blessing of the sun." But the sun is a hot topic these days, not least because of global warming, and this time around the blessing, in itself, is not enough: A whole environmental message is being attached to what was once a simple ceremony.

Thus Jews who wish to mark the occasion will find a variety of options, including a Manhattan rooftop service that supplements the blessing with yoga sun salutations and environmental speeches; a beachfront "mystical" service in Seattle; and an arts, music and "healing" festival in Safed, Israel.

One can also participate in a "Birkat Hahammah Art Contest" or sign on to a "Birkat Hahammah Covenant of Commitment" pledging to "hasten the day of environmental healing, social justice and sustainable living for all." The art contest and covenant (which has 73 signatories so far) are sponsored by 15 institutions, including the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Jewish National Fund, the Reform and Conservative movements' rabbinical associations -- and Arava Power, a kibbutz-founded company that says it is "bringing Solar Power in massive quantities to both Israel and Jordan."

The Hebrew blessing itself -- the English translation is "Blessed are You, King of the Universe, who makes the works of creation" -- is quite brief, its text the same as the blessing one is commanded to say upon seeing a natural wonder like lightning or the Grand Canyon. At its last scheduled recitation, back in 1981, Birchat Hachamah was virtually unheard of outside the Orthodox community.

But that was before global warming became a household word, before the advent of a Jewish movement that has spawned "environmental bike rides," Jewish environmental curricula, Jewish organic farms, Jewish community-supported agriculture groups and even free-range, organic kosher poultry.

All of this is "a little bemusing" to Rabbi J. David Bleich, a Yeshiva University Talmud professor whose scholarly tome "Bircas HaChammah" was published in 1981 and re-released this year by the Orthodox Jewish publishing company ArtScroll Mesorah. According to Rabbi Bleich, environmental concerns are "issues in and of themselves and are totally unrelated to the blessing of the sun." He sees the blessing as an occasion to acknowledge the wonder of God's creations, not a political statement. "I suppose you can connect anything," he says. "You can draw dots and lines; you don't have to be logical."