By Julia Reinhard Lupton
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, commemorates the creation of the world. When the shofar, a special trumpet made from the horn of a ram, pierces the air with its tremulous, triumphant shouts, the congregation responds with ha-yom harat olam, "Today is the world's birthday."
No birthday party is complete without sweets: apples and honey, plus a special round challah, a braided egg bread enriched with raisins or chocolate chips. Sephardic households add sesame seeds dipped in sugar as well as dates, beets and pumpkin.
Readings during the High Holy Days include the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, in which a reluctant prophet is swallowed up and then regurgitated by an ultimately peaceful whale at home in a tempest-tossed sea. The High Holy Days begin to reach their end with the seven-day Festival of Sukkot, in which Jews gather in temporary structures made out of natural materials and are open to the sky.
Rosh Hashanah always coincides with the start of another academic year at UC Irvine. What can I take from the High Holy Days into my research and teaching?
This year, the answer is easy. I am excited to participate in WUICAN, Wildland-Urban Interface Climate Action Network, a three-campus, multi-disciplinary project housed at UCI under the leadership of Steven Allison, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
I will work with Kelly Brown, the director of communications and media relations for the School of Humanities, to build a Climate Communications Brigade. Our corps of climate-action humanists, including undergraduate interns and graduate student researchers, will bring the power of storytelling and the insights of history, literature, culture and art to problems that can’t be solved by science alone. James Nisbet, associate professor of art history and director of the Environmental Humanities Research Center, will work with local educators to craft new climate curricula.
As part of WUICAN, Kelly and I are also organizing an Interfaith Climate Exchange. Local religious leaders, including Rabbi Cantor Marcia Tilchin of the Orange County Jewish Collaborative, Rev. Sadie Cullumber of Harbor Christian and UCI’s own SueJeanne Koh and James Kyung Lee, will share insights from their traditions and communities with project scientists.
Stewardship in Judaism (tikkun olam), Christianity and Islam (khalifa) enjoins human beings to care for creation. Other traditions go further. Ahimsa is the Hindu and Jain idea of doing no harm, and indigenous practices of animism approach all creatures and indeed the cosmos itself as ensouled beings worthy of communion and respect. These and other world wisdom traditions present renewable resources for education, conservation and resilience in times of distress.
Sound carries. Rabbi Nachman of Breslev (1772-1810), writing about the shofar, commented that sound “travels great distances from place to place, so that two places that are remote from one another are bound and connected” (Likute Etzot). Sometimes soft and broken and sometimes long and loud, the blasts of the shofar echo across the globe, joining Jews to each other wherever we pray.
Transcending languages as well as distances, the shofar trumpets the universal strains of the Torah and signals Judaism’s affinities with other faiths and philosophies.
This fall, as I listen to the shofar and eat Rosh Hashanah “birthday cake,” I will ready myself for a year of renewal and connection. I am eager to learn from scientists, faith leaders, humanists and artists about the challenges facing our planet, in the hopes that this suffering world we share might celebrate many birthdays to come.
Julia Reinhard Lupton is Distinguished Professor of English and Interim Director of the UC Humanities Research Institute. A former director of Jewish Studies at UCI, she is a member of the Religious Studies and Jewish Studies steering committees.
To learn more about the Center for Jewish Studies, visit the website here.
Ball Drop (Sunset). Hannah Lupton Reinhard, 2020. Oil and swarovski crystals on canvas. Collection of Green Family Art Foundation.