1. Without going into a lengthy autobiography, what brought you to making Judaism so central to your life?
I did not grow up in a religious family. My early Jewish education consisted of the standard Talmud Torah classes a few times a week until my bar mitzvah.
Attending Queens College for two years as a pre-engineering student was a turning point in my life. Through my liberal arts courses, background reading, initially to refute some of the radical ideas that I was hearing, books such as The Grapes of Wrath, and films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I began to see the injustices in the world and became imbued with the idea that I should be involved in struggling against these injustices. During this time, my involvement with Judaism diminished and practically disappeared, as, from my limited and generally unaware perspective, I saw it concerned primarily with ritual and not involved with the societal causes of the day.
The next major change in my outlook and practices was related to my marriage to Loretta Susskind in 1960. She came from a more religious family and background than I did, and she was interested in introducing Jewish rituals into our family life. She presented some books to me on the Sabbath, on the mikvah, and other Jewish concerns. I started to read these books, perhaps reluctantly at first, and then with increasing interest. I read "A Treasury of Jewish Thought" and was thrilled to find that there were brilliant Jewish thinkers who wrote eloquently about Jewish values. I discovered the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and relished his radical analysis of Judaism and his criticism of 'religious behaviorism". Reading a book about the writings of Martin Buber reinforced my emerging belief that it was really the distortion of religion that I was so much against. I concluded that, to some extent, my religion had been "stolen", since so many observant Jews seemed to be locked into ritual, without seeing or applying the deeper values that could be related to challenging the status quo. I found that all my social ideals were included within Judaism, and that Judaism provides a structure for leading a meaningful and involved spiritual life. I also read Jewish history and was amazed to learn how the Jewish people maintained their beliefs and practices in spite of severe persecutions in many lands and times. I became convinced that Jews had a mission to work for tikkun olam, a healed and improved world. I determined to learn more and to try to relate what I was learning about Judaism to the causes of the time.
2. What is your denominational history? How were you raised? What denominational affiliation do you currently hold? How important is denominationalism to you personally and to Judaism as a whole?
As indicated above, I am a bal teshuvah, a returnee to Judaism. I have primarily been involved with Orthodox synagogues. While I have found many wonderful people and some very deep commitment in these synagogues, I have often been disturbed by the lack of concern for universal issues. I have often felt a need to go beyond my immediate synagogue group, through my articles, talks, books, and letters to editors to express my societal concerns.
I see positive aspects in each denomination and would love to see all Jews having the commitment to tradition and learning of many Orthodox Jews, the social justice emphasis of other denominations, and the desire to experiment within proper limits of the Jewish renewal movement. I wish that there weren't denominational splits within Judaism today. I like to consider myself a "Committed " Jew, committed to the ideas that Judaism must live and flourish, that Judaism has important messages for the world today, and to the importance of improving my Jewish knowledge so that I can play a more effective role in helping carry out the Jewish mission.
3. Judaism rests on three major categories: God, Torah, and Israel. How do you currently understand these terms?
GOD I see God as the designer and creator of the world, who wants human beings to be partners and co-workers in the task of tikkun olam (the repair and improvement of the world) and who is very disappointed at how people have misused their potentialities to make a better world.
When God created the world, God was able to say, "It is very good". Everything was in harmony as planned, the waters were clean, the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?
What must God think when the rain provided to nourish our crops often becomes acid rain due to the many chemicals poured into the air by our industries? when the ozone layer provided to separate the heavens from the earth is being depleted at such a rapid rate? when rapidly increasing numbers of the many species of plants and animals that was created are becoming extinct in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats, before we are even been able to catalog them? when the fertile soil that was provided is rapidly being depleted and eroded? when the climatic conditions that was designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?
As Rabbi Heschel pointed out, God is in search of righteous individuals, people who will live a holy life and work to carry out God's ideals. We were not created as angels and we have the capacity to sin and, as is easily seen, to make a mess of the world. But we also have the capacity to show kindness, and compassion, and sensitivity, to share and work cooperatively toward tikkun olam.. Today, as never before, it is essential that we do a kiddush HaShem, a sanctification of God's Name, by working together, as partners and co-workers with God, in applying our highest values in rejecting the greed, hedonism, and selfishness that permeates so much of life today.
TORAH The Torah is our blueprint for the actions that are needed for tikkun olam. As indicated eloquently by Rabbi Heschel, the Torah can be a great challenge:
There are no words more bold than "Thou shalt be holy!" no command more basic than "Thou shalt love!" no insight so fundamental as "In the beginning, God," no word so life-enhancing as "Thou shalt rest!" no truth more compelling than "Let my people go!" no consolation more comforting than "I am with you in your distress," no vision more hopeful than "They shall beat their swords into plowshares," and no summons more demanding than "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue!"
ISRAEL I currently see Israel from several points of view:
1) As Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a modern Jewish author, has pointed out, the word Israel means "God wrestler", or one who wrestles with God. and, he mentions that wrestling has elements of fighting and also making love. Hence, as b'nei Israel (descendants of Israel (originally the patriarch, Jacob)), we are to lovingly struggle with the Torah and the Jewish tradition, not to blindly accept it, and to try to find messages that will lead to personal fulfillment as well as universal solutions to current societal problems.
2) Israel is the nation where Jewish values should be most effectively put into practice in showing how Jews can be a "light unto the nations" in working for tikkun olam., and in striving for an ideal God-centered society. In this regard, I have been disturbed by recent battles between secular and religious Jews in Israel, the apparent greater emphasis on western, especially American, materialistic values, as indicated, for example, by the rapid proliferation of McDonald's throughout Israel, and the apparent stall and possible retreat in the peace process.
3) I currently have 2 daughters, their husbands, and 7 grandchildren living in Israel, and one son who visits them periodically. My wife and I generally visit them twice a year, usually for about three weeks at a time. During my visits, I have become active in promoting vegetarianism through talks to many groups and visits with rabbis and other key Israeli leaders and activists. I have started a "Campaign for a Vegetarian-conscious Israel by 2000", with the goal of making Israelis aware of how animal-based diets and modern intensive livestock agriculture lead to conditions that are inconsistent with basic Jewish values. I have found that Israel is a wonderful place to be involved in causes such as vegetarianism, since it is a relatively small country, most people live in or relatively near its two major cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and because the Jewish values that can be used for support are so strong.
4. What do you believe is the central challenge facing contemporary Judaism?
The central challenge facing contemporary Judaism is to revitalize Judaism while helping to save the world so that Judaism and other religions can continue to be practiced. These goals can be accomplished by teaching and applying Jewish values related to protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people, pursuing justice, seeking and pursuing peace, and, in general, working for a more compassionate, sharing, and humane society. Unfortunately, many Jews are unaware of Judaism's splendid values and teachings and the powerful role that Judaism can play in helping to address current societal and global crises.
5. How are you addressing this central challenge?
I have been trying to play some role in the revitalization of Judaism and the solution of current global threats through
a. my three books: Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival ;
b. articles, talks, and letters to editors on current global threats, suggested responses, and Jewish connections;
c. my work on the internet and using email, including my 80 articles and other items related to Judaism and vegetarianism and related issues on the internet;
d. my campaign for a "Vegetarian-conscious Israel by 2000", in which I have spoken to many groups in Israel and have met with several rabbis and other key Israeli leaders;
e. my mathematics courses at the College of Staten Island, especially "Mathematics and the Environment", a course that I created and have been teaching for over 20 years, in which I try to relate basic mathematics to some of the key issues of today.
6. Given that this interview is being used as an introduction to you and your work, what three things do you want people to know about you?
1) I believe that the world is threatened as perhaps never before in terms of air and water pollution, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, the depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of plant and animal species, increasing use of toxic chemicals, and widespread hunger. Judaism can and must play an important role in the solution of these problems. I hope that my book, Judaism and Global Survival, which relates Jewish values to the issues of today, will contribute to this effort
2) I believe that vegetarianism is a global imperative today because of the many negative ecological and economic effects of animal-centered diets and modern intensive livestock agriculture. A shift toward vegetarianism is also a Jewish imperative, since it is the diet most consistent with basic Jewish values related to taking care of our health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving resources, sharing with hungry people, and seeking and pursuing peace; hence Jews should be in the forefront of efforts to move the world's people toward vegetarian diets. As indicated above, I have written a book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, I frequently write articles and speak to groups about vegetarianism and related issues, and I have started a campaign for a "Vegetarian-conscious Israel by 2000".
3) As a bal teshuvah, I have much to learn about Judaism, especially its universal messages of peace, justice, and compassion. I look forward to increasing involvement in the learning process and the application of that learning to current societal issues.
7. While your interests are wide, it is often true that teachers have an essential message they wish to impart. Is that true of you? And, if it is, what is your core teaching?
My essential message is that the world is threatened today as never before, that few people recognize the threats, that perhaps the prime reason for current problems is that the values and actions of the world are contrary to basic Jewish values, and that therefore Jews must be actively involved in fulfilling our historic roles, to be a light unto the nations, to be God's witnesses, and to be co-workers with God in applying Jewish values in working for tikkun olam. A shift toward vegetarian diets is an important part of our response.
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