These days, religious environmentalism is nothing new. It's been five years since the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign and Evangelical Climate Initiative brought climate change into evangelical communities, and even longer since groups like Greenfaith began claiming that "God is green."
But fully twenty eight years ago, in April, 1981, a sermon on renewable energy was given by a very unlikely figure: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the charismatic Hasidic leader who even after his death in 1994 was believed by many of his followers to be the Messiah.
The occasion was a little-known Jewish prayer called Birkat HaChamah in Hebrew, and is translated as the Blessing of the Sun. Most Jews don't know about this prayer -- it's recited only one time every 28 years, when, according to the Talmud, the sun returns to the position it held when it was created. The prayer is next being said this Wednesday.
This call for energy independence resonated as much in 1981 as it does today; America was just emerging from the OPEC oil crunch of the late 1970s, and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80. But the Rebbe didn't stop there. He argued that the best course toward energy independence was not to exploit oil or gas reserves (though he did include them) but to learn from the Blessing of the Sun itself, and "to harness solar energy, the heat and warmth of the sun, to use it as a source to generate electricity."
To the average viewer, the whole scene is bizarre: a white-bearded rabbi speaking in (subtitled) Yiddish about solar energy, while the camera pans over dozens of similarly attired sages and disciples, who nod (and nod off) throughout the discourse, as if they were listening to a talk about the Ten Commandments rather than photovoltaic cells.
To those familiar with the late rabbi, however, it's somewhat less surprising. Before he became the leader of Judaism's most visible outreach group -- these are the same people who light 18-feet-high Hanukah menorahs in public places every December -- he was an electrical engineer and studied mathematics at the Sorbonne. While to outsiders he looks like the consummate Hasid -- a bit like Woody Allen in the sight-gag from Annie Hall -- the Rebbe was notable for his engagement with the secular world.
Indeed, the 1981 talk is not short on specifics. The Rebbe goes into great detail (surely to the befuddlement of his followers) about how solar energy can power the electrical grid, and argues that pursuing such policies should be "pursued with faith in God, ignoring any obstacles from people who may have personal gain from opposing it."
The Rebbe is similarly astute in his political thinking. "Once America is freed from its subservience, it can proceed with stronger influence, and there won't be the need for force," he said. "The mere knowledge of our independence will nullify the pressure." Naturally, much of this opposition to America's "subservience to small states that have oil in their lands" grows out of the Rebbe's support of Israel in its conflict with Arab nations.
But the Rebbe's emphasis on solar energy in particular is part of a longer tradition: the longstanding Jewish prohibition on waste -- bal tachshit in Hebrew -- which was extended by Talmudic rabbis to cover all kinds of environmentally harmful actions, from operating a leather tannery (the most polluting industry of its time) to throwing out food.
Those prohibitions, however, are usually favorites of the Birkenstock crowd, not ultra-right-wing religious leaders. What's remarkable here is how seamlessly the ultra-Orthodox rabbi weaves together energy independence, renewable energy sources, and "God's command to fully utilizes the resources He provides ... for the individual good and the common good." And how ahead of his time he was.
In 1981, few people paid attention. The Rebbe himself noted that "a small group of Jews, who don't make energy policy, who just get together and discuss the issue amongst themselves," would have little impact on the wider world. Yet the bearded Rebbe knew quite well that the Christian Right had just helped elect a president. "Words initially spoken in private," he said, "eventually reach a wider public, and eventually, Washington."
Twenty-eight years later, as Jews around the world again gather to bless the sun tomorrow, perhaps the message will be better heard. "It is plainly ungrateful," the Rebbe said, "not to recognize and thank God for bestowing this country with plentiful sources of energy, beginning with solar power."
Jay Michaelson is a columnist for the Forward newspaper, the Huffington Post, and Reality Sandwich magazine. A recent visiting professor at Boston University Law School, Jay's environmental writing includes the seminal 1998 article "Geoengineering: A Climate Change Manhattan Project," the first scholarly study of geoengineering approaches to climate change. Jay is also a religious activist and has written several books on the subject. Jay holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and is completing his Ph.D. in religious studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Learn even more about Jay here.