rabbin Soetendorp crRabbi Awraham Soetendorp
Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Community
Founding member of Green Cross Internationall, Earth Charter Commissioner
The Hague, Netherlands


Paving the way for our future development path: the recognition of togetherness

By: Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp and Sofia van Winden

 We live at a time that presents us with great challenges, but also with increasing determination to face these challenges. At last, we seem to acknowledge the fact that our ways of life particularly in the industrialized parts of the world – are not viable in the long run, and so we now increase our efforts to jointly define a sustainable way forward. In this article I would like to highlight some encouraging signs of our determination to articulate and implement a sustainable development approach that we have witnessed lately. But I would also like to convey my belief that the change that will be required is one that will go far deeper than rules and regulations can reach. Indeed, I would argue that the change required is a profound one in which we may need to reconsider the ways in which we perceive the world and our place in it – as well as the roles of our societal institutions and organizations. Professor Dominique Steiler has presented a new way in which we can look at corporations in our society, and I would like to add to this by sharing some of my experiences in raising a new perspective in a development context. In association with this, I would also like to express my conviction that the path we must take is ultimately a spiritual one, since that is the one path through which we can fully understand and internalize the interconnectedness of everything that is alive on this beautiful planet.

In September 2015, a big step towards sustainability on Earth was taken as we adopted Agenda 2030 as the guiding framework of our development aspirations. After years of hard work and consultations with an extraordinarily large number of people, we agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during a week of events that was marked by ample ceremony and great enthusiasm. This was followed by another encouraging sign of progress, in the shape of the climate change meeting that took place in Paris in December 2015. The resulting agreement of this meeting was perhaps not as ambitious as many would have wished, but nonetheless it indicated a dedication among those involved to make a real effort to address our global climate concerns. After years of negative verdicts about the outcomes of global climate summits, pointing at our inability to jointly agree on a common agenda, the tone in Paris was one of enthusiasm and determination. And so, these two events illustrate deeply felt wishes to come to terms with our pressing global concerns and to ensure that each one of us can live a life free from deprivation on a planet whose boundaries are respected.

After these encouraging events, we now face the task of turning words into action. We must make sure that we all – from the level of states to the level of each individual – make the adjustments that are necessary in order to facilitate sustainable ways of life. And here we encounter some critical questions. I would like to focus on one of them, namely the question of how profound a change that is required in order to accomplish all the ambitious goals that are articulated in Agenda 2030. Or, to phrase it somewhat differently: is there a possibility that we can accomplish the SDGs without considering the underlying values that guide us?

In my opinion, the required change goes far beyond rules and regulatory frameworks. Sustainable development, I would argue, requires an entirely different mode of seeing – a radical change in how we perceive the world and our role in it. If we fail to make such a change, and instead rely on rules, regulations and monitoring mechanisms to achieve the desired outcomes, I am afraid that the changes we will manage to accomplish will be far from enough. To illustrate this, let us briefly look at the aftermath of the financial crisis that rocked the world some years ago. The financial turbulence that emerged in 2008 generated close to unimaginable costs in financial bailouts and certainly also in individual suffering, and the calls for change of the banking sector – with practices that had gotten completely out of hand – were certainly many and loud. So, what came out of this momentum? Did these experiences and the subsequent calls for change generate any impact in terms of improved regulations and a higher level of control with regards to financial practices? And to follow that – did prospective regulations in any way manage to influence the irresponsible cultures and practices that contributed to the financial meltdown?

To these questions, the answer seems to be that there is still room for improvements. A Guardian article on May 27, 2014 refers, for example, to a speech given by the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde at a conference in London. Lagarde here noted that banks still resisted reform and continued to take excessive risks in order to secure bonuses, at the expense of public trust. Though some changes in behaviour were taking place, these were neither deep nor broad enough. "The bad news is that progress is too slow, and the finish line is still too far off. Some of this arises from the sheer complexity of the task at hand. Yet, we must acknowledge that it also stems from fierce industry pushback, and from the fatigue that is bound to set in at this point in a long race", she declared.1 Additional illustrations are provided by Joris Luyendijk, whose book “Swimming with Sharks” (a book resulting from numerous anonymous interviews with people working in London’s banking sector), which was published in 2015, reinforces the view that little has changed since the financial crisis.2 Luyendijk wrote regularly about his interviews and experiences on a blog for the Guardian, and it is interesting to read the article published online on June 19, 2013. Here Luyendijk notes that there was, until 2008, essentially a “denial over what finance had become”. This approach was made impossible by a series of bank failures and scandals, and a broad section of the political class now recognizes that change is needed. At the same time there is, he declares, a failure to recognize the necessity of a fundamental overhaul.3

These are of course only a very few examples of comments on the current state of matters in the banking sector. This is not to say that they describe the characteristics of every single person working in the sector, or that no attempts have been made to provide better regulatory frameworks and control mechanisms. Having said that, it does seem as if the forms of practice that contributed to the financial crisis are still very much present today. And from what Luyendijk writes the impression is also that the need for change at the core is not recognized to the extent that it should be. In her speech during the mentioned conference in 2014, Lagarde also noted that: "Just as we have a long way to go to reduce our carbon footprint, we have an even longer way to go to reduce our 'financial footprint'. Yet we must take those steps."4 The question is, though, how this is to be done given the fact that the momentum for change that was generated by the crisis has thus far produced so little in terms of improvements. What is going to make us do what is needed now?

With these examples, I would like to underscore that the answer is not to be found in more regulations. The change required is, instead, of a far more fundamental nature. When we are unwell, we cannot merely focus on mitigating symptoms; we must address the root cause to the problem. And so it is here; although predominant cultures and practices of the banking world may display characteristics that are regarded by most of us as rather extreme, I would all the same argue that problems encountered in the banking sector are rooted in core perceptions of the world that tend to be pursued in industrialized societies – namely values such as individual pursuit, material affluence and consumerism. If we thus address the banking sector as some sort of entity of its own in which things have gone haywire, and in this way dissociate ourselves from its cultures and practices, we are not likely to accomplish much. If we think that the problems of the banking sector can be regulated away, we are not likely to accomplish much either. I therefore argue that we must ask ourselves what practices such as those in the banking world say about us and our views on the world, and acknowledge the need for a revision of these views. In other words – we must consider what shifts in worldview that we need to facilitate in society at large in order to encourage the emergence and growth of a healthier system of practice.

This matter is slowly becoming recognized, as an increasing number of people have begun to ask themselves what values that they ultimately want as guiding principles in life – and whether those values are currently pursued by say our banks, our corporations and by our current growth-based economic system. A growing number of people in the industrialized world experience discrepancies between the values that they wish to uphold and the values of materialism and consumerism that are pursued by societies they live in, consequently they search for ways of life that are more attuned to their ideas of what creates meaning. The number of businesses that try to pursue a social agenda instead of merely seeking profit is also on the rise. The challenge we face now is how to ensure that such trends can pave the way for structural change; that ways of life that are based on values other than, for instance, materialism and consumerism will cease to form deviations of the norm in industrialized societies. They must become the norm.

Professor Steiler points at a very important contribution that can be made to such a shift, through the provision of a new approach to corporations in society; an approach in which corporations are indeed not merely regarded as profit-seeking enterprises guided by aggressive tactics and short time horizons but instead as significant contributors to the welfare of societies guided by considerations for the whole. I am personally engaged in another ambitious attempt to alter our core perspectives; a global initiative that seeks to facilitate a different value base for development cooperation. This initiative is the Earth Charter; an “ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society” that “seeks to inspire in all people a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the whole human family, the greater community of life, and future generations”5. The Earth Charter recognizes that major changes in how we think and live are urgently needed; underscores that we must fundamentally alter our ideas on development and what it is that we strive for in our development aspirations; and “encourages us to search for common ground in the midst of our diversity and to embrace a global ethic that is shared by an ever-growing number of people throughout the world.”6 It furthermore recognizes the interdependent and indivisible nature of the goals of ecological protection, eradication of poverty, equitable economic development, respect for human rights, democracy and peace, and by doing so it offers a novel, inclusive and integrated framework to guide us in our transition to a sustainable future.7

In 1992 I was a co-lead of the Global Forum for Spiritual and Parliamentary leaders, chairing sessions during which politicians and spiritual representatives met and exchanged ideas. I still remember how I, at the end of the conference, was approached by a prominent politician who encouraged me to “continue to make things difficult” for himself and his political colleagues. He urged me and my colleagues of the Forum to keep reminding them that their task was indeed to take measures to save the planet; measures which from a shorter perspective may contravene national self-interests but that were essential so as to preserve our community of life. I have certainly aspired to convey this message over the years, and one of my most rewarding experiences in this regard has been my engagement in the process that ultimately led to the signing of the Earth Charter in 2000. This engagement has provided me with immensely valuable experiences about the potential that lies in the dedication and togetherness of us human beings, and with that a sense of unwavering hope for the future.

The Earth Charter initiative stems from the 1987 report “Our Common Future” by the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission), which called for a “new charter” to guide our transition to sustainable development.8 Subsequent discussions on an Earth Charter continued during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and we very much hoped that it would be accepted at the conference. Unfortunately that did not happen; the proposed Earth Charter was withdrawn. But that did not stop the process; the idea of the Earth Charter persisted. This time saw the emergence of two important groups, namely the Earth Council under the leadership of Maurice Strong (Secretary-General of the Rio Summit) and the Green Cross International under the leadership of Michal Gorbachev. Gorbachev had spoken at the conference of the earlier mentioned Global Forum in 1990, and in his address he had called for a Green Cross; a protective body that safeguards nature. Through their respective organizations, Strong and Gorbachev brought forth the Earth Charter as a civil society initiative together with some dedicated people in the Netherlands. In 1995, a number of Earth Charter sessions were conducted in the Peace Palace in The Hague. I have very fond memories of these, as they illustrated so well the marvellous things that can happen when people with good intentions come together for a common cause. There were certainly differences in opinions, and given the engagement and passion felt by all those involved these differences generated intense discussions – to say the least! Nonetheless these meetings were very easy to chair, due to the goodwill of all those involved. In a way, the sessions very much resembled the dynamics of a relationship. People who love each other sometimes find it hard to listen to each other, and at times, they shout at each other. But in the end the challenges bring them closer together – and so it certainly was for all of us.

I was also given the privilege of assisting people in their attempts to find common ground when their passion and convictions denied them space for compromise and agreement. In the end, we always managed to find the space required, during these sessions as well as in subsequent discussions. I recall very well the profoundly different points of departure that participants brought into the process. We had those who regarded the Earth Charter primarily from a ‘legal’ perspective. We had those who viewed ecology as a new form of spirituality. We had indigenous groups who felt uncomfortable with the language used as they were not able to relate to it. As for the latter, there was one occasion in which a representative of an indigenous group claimed that they were misunderstood by other participants, who failed to understand the real meaning of a tribe. But we managed to find each other, as I suggested that we try to go back to the time before our characters and codes were shaped – for me personally, the child I was before I became a Rabbi – so as to find the factors that unite us in our humanity and our joint concerns with the welfare of the Earth. This way, we managed to find our way through the complications of language and move forward. This formed yet another beautiful illustration of the remarkable ability of people to cooperate, compromise and make concessions for the sake of the greater good when they trust each other and do not regard each other as antagonists.

After a process of extensive global consultations, the Earth Charter was launched in 2000. During the five subsequent years it was endorsed by more than 2000 organizations, global institutions such as UNESCO and IUCN (the World Conservation Union), and thousands of individuals. The charter is now “…increasingly recognized as a global consensus statement on the meaning of sustainability, the challenge and vision of sustainable development, and the principles by which sustainable development is to be achieved. It is used as a basis for peace negotiations, as a reference document in the development of global standards and codes of ethics, as resource for governance and legislative processes, as a community development tool, as an educational framework for sustainable development, and in many other contexts. The Charter was also an important influence on the Plan of Implementation for the UNESCO Decade for Education on Sustainable Development”.9

My engagement with the commission that jointly formulated the Earth Charter, and later with the Earth Charter initiative itself, is also concerned with the question of how we can establish a new foundation for our actions that is rooted in a worldview of interconnectedness – which is essentially a view that spiritual traditions have sought to communicate over centuries. For this reason, the Earth Charter initiative established a Task Force on Religion, Spirituality and Ethics, in which we try to articulate the idea of interconnectedness and integration from a spiritual perspective. This is, I believe, something that corresponds very well with a rising number of people searching for a meaning in life that goes beyond material welfare and status. In my opinion, the link between spirituality and sustainable development is absolutely crucial and what we as spiritual representatives must do at this time is to offer our assistance and guidance in contemplations of sustainability. The apparent connections between spirituality and development have been aptly articulated by Steven Rockefeller, former chair of the Earth Charter International Drafting Committee, in an interview in December 2015. Rockefeller declared that:

One certainly does not need to be a member of an organized religion to be passionate about ending poverty and promoting justice. However, religious leaders from the ancient Hebrew prophets to Jesus of Nazareth to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh have viewed social and economic justice as involving fundamental ethical values, beginning with respect for the equal dignity of all persons—values that organized religion should be concerned to advance and protect. From the perspective of a relational spirituality that emphasizes the quality of our relationships with each other as human beings and with nature at large, all these issues are legitimate religious concerns. The organized religions serve society best when they cooperate in providing clear and strong moral leadership regarding human rights, environmental protection, and peace, as well as interpersonal morality. 10

Undoubtedly, spiritual leaders and representatives have an enormously important role to play as the path towards towards a sustainable, just and compassionate world is established. We must engage in an open discussion on the ethical framework that we seek to promote. We must address passages in our scriptures that are difficult, and emphasize that the key lies in our interpretation and understanding of them. When strong and violent words are used in our scriptures, these are to be understood as expressions of strong and difficult emotions that human beings struggle with; they are certainly not to be regarded as a green card to use violence. We must be self-critical, and able to see the blessing of spirituality as reaching beyond the boundaries of any religion. And we must make sure to reiterate the fact that regardless how we choose to relate to the world, humanity and the Earth are one in being. It is one body, and if there is an illness in one part of the body this is reflected in all other parts. Consequently, any solutions we seek to apply must take the whole into account. And the same certainly goes for happiness, wellbeing and harmony – it spreads through the system. Many of us have, at some point in life, enjoyed say a musical performance that fills us with awe and wonder, and indeed with humility and gratitude of the fantastic things that we, as human beings, are able to create in conditions of togetherness and harmony. During a recent trip to India I attended a large spiritual gathering, which provided me with a strong reminder of this. I enjoyed some music and dance performances conducted by people from a large variety of countries, and these performances – these expressions of talent, happiness and joy by so many people from so many different countries – conveyed the most extraordinary experience of beauty, goodness and sense of unity of humanity; in short, of transcendence. In our togetherness, we can create the most miraculous things. In our togetherness, we find our healing. Thus, togetherness must form the basis upon which we define our development path.

1 Angela Monaghan, the Guardian (Guardianonline), May 27, 2014: IMF Chief says banks haven’t changed since financial crisis
2 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Swimming-Sharks-Journey-World-Bankers/dp/1783350644
3 Our banks are not merely out of control. They're beyond control. Article by Joris Luyendijk published on his banking blog for the Guardian, Wednesday 19 June 2013 20.35 BST
4 Angela Monaghan, the Guardian (Guardianonline), May 27, 2014: IMF Chief says banks haven’t changed since financial crisis
5 http://earthcharter.org/discover/what-is-the-earth-charter/
6 http://earthcharter.org/discover/what-is-the-earth-charter/
7 http://earthcharter.org/discover/what-is-the-earth-charter/
8 http://earthcharter.org/discover/history-of-the-earth-charter/
9 http://earthcharter.org/discover/history-of-the-earth-charter/
10 Steven Rockefeller, "The Earth Charter at 15: A Spiritual Lens on Sustainability," interview by Allen White, Great Transition Initiative, December 2015


Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp's professional experience

Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp is an award-winning human rights advocate, lecturer, writer, environmental activist and champion of civil society worldwide who is active in a wide variety of progressive, humanitarian, and interfaith organizations and initiatives. Born in 1943 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Rabbi Soetendorp was saved from the Nazis by a righteous couple and survived as a "hidden child." He went on to receive his ordination from Leo Baeck College of London in 1967 and was instrumental in the reestablishment of Jewish communities in the Netherlands. Rabbi Soetendorp was extremely active in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, serving as the Dutch chair of the Solidarity Committee for Jews in the Soviet Union and was a member of the World Council for Soviet Jewry. He is the rabbi emeritus of congregation Beth Jehuda in The Hague and former president of the European region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Soetendorp is a founding member of Green Cross International and founder and chair of the Day of Respect Foundation, as well as the Hope for Children Fund which promotes universal education for children. He serves as an Earth Charter commissioner and a Millennium Development Ambassador. Rabbi Soetendorp is a founding member of the Islam and the West dialogue group, formerly C100, of the World Economic Forum.

Among others, he has received the Peacebuilders Award from The Alliance for International Conflict Prevention and Resolution in 2005, the "Peace Through Dialogue" Interfaith Gold Medallion from the International Council of Christian and Jews in 2007, and most recently the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award from the Interfaith Center of New York, early in 2008. In 1994, he was honored by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands with the Royal Distinction as an Officer of the House of Orange.




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