Rabbi I Have a Problem

Should we invite guest speakers if they have to fly over?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi tackle issues in contemporary Jewish life


Question: Our community has often invited rabbis and scholars from abroad to speak to us — but in view of the environmental challenge, is it wrong to encourage people to fly and should we instead be using video links?

Rabbi Brawer: The travelling rabbi or Jewish scholar is not a new phenomenon. Judaism has a long tradition of itinerant preachers, called maggidim, who travelled far and wide to offer words of Torah and wisdom to Jewish communities. The maggidim of old travelled by horse and buggy, if not on foot, leaving a negligible carbon footprint. Their contemporary counterparts, however, can clock up significant air mileage and this raises a valid ethical question. 

We all have a responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint, whenever possible. This means to look at viable alternatives to the way we consume and the way we travel. It is not practicable to live off the grid, but it is feasible to make wise and responsible choices.

When it comes to flying in out-of-town lecturers, one must make a cost-benefit analysis. If there was nothing to be gained by having scholars visit our communities, the choice would be simple. However, there are real advantages to facilitating a scholar’s physical presence as opposed to relying on video conferencing. Having a lecturer in the same room not only benefits the audience, it also stimulates the lecturer. 

I have taught in both settings and find the quality of my teaching is significantly improved when I stand before a live audience. Additionally, the small, impromptu conversations that arise before and after the lecture allow for personal questions unlikely to be raised in a video conference. Having a respected intellectual spend time in a community can expand its horizons as well as those of its guest. 

We all have a responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint

There is another perspective worth bearing in mind. Sometimes in the rush to invite celebrated out-of-town speakers, we overlook home talent. There is a rabbinic quip that states “One cannot be a prophet in one’s own hometown”. That this adage is borrowed from the Christian Gospels  (Luke 4:24 and Mark 6:4) demonstrates just how universally true this observation is.  

So rather than placing a moratorium on international visiting scholars, we should work harder at nurturing local talent. The added advantage is that while international scholars are soon flying off to their next speaking gig, local talent remains embedded in the local community. That is, until they become famous enough to fly around the world as international speakers.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University


Rabbi Romain:  There is no doubt it is great to bring over leading teachers from Israel, America and other countries, who are inspirational or enlightening, and whom one might not otherwise encounter.

And yet we are also living at a time when we know that airplane are among the highest pollutants of the world’s atmosphere and that cutting out unnecessary travel is one of the best ways of undoing the damage that we have already done.

Yes, we can do carbon offsets and that may salve our conscience to some extent, but rather than making up for doing wrong, it is better not to do wrong in the first place. A good parallel might be the rabbinic statement that “he who says ‘I will sin, and then repent at Yom Kippur’, will not find atonement”. 

Surely the same should apply to airplane travel: do not do it where you can avoid it. Holidays can be taken here, be it in the wonderful Lake District, beautiful Welsh valleys, stunning Scottish highlands or great Cornish coastline. Business visits can be curtailed by having competent representatives abroad, who are trained to sell, buy or negotiate on behalf of UK companies. We may regret not having the freedom to fly we have taken for granted until now, but limiting our movement abroad is not just a matter of being especially conscientious, but a dire necessity.

We cannot unknow the fact that rainforests are decreasing

We cannot un-know the fact that rainforests are decreasing, that ice-caps are melting, that sea-levels are rising and so many other dangerous changes that will affect the world’s sustainability in a short time. We cannot claim ignorance about climate change, just as smokers cannot say they are not aware of the health risks. It follows, therefore, that we do have to curtail travel unless it is essential. It usually is not.

This has to apply also to Jewish teachers from overseas. What is more, it comes at relatively little sacrifice, given the rapid development of technology that can allow video-links of high quality that enable us to not only see and hear them, but interact with them in Q&A sessions. It is not as intimate as their physical presence, but the contact and learning can still happen very effectively. And when we get to the stage of  “Beam me up Moshe” and find non-polluting ways of travel, it will be even better.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email with details

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