Judaism


Our Scriptures start at the very beginning of the universe with God, and only then with the creation of the world (Gen. 1). There is from the very beginning of time an intimate connection between God and the world, and this connection continues throughout time.

From the moment when God creates humanity (Gen. 1:26), we are created to protect the earth. But it is in the story of Noah that we perhaps truly learn about our role in protecting nature. In the story, God brings a flood upon the Earth but only after every single species of animal is kept safe inside the Ark. There seems to be an awareness of natural destruction and yet the story seems to be telling us that as soon as we become aware of impending destruction, it is our Divine duty to protect all living things.

Noah is described as walking "with God" (Gen. 6:9) whereas Abraham is described as walking "before God" (Gen. 17:1). Perhaps in this context we could suggest that both men are righteous, but when it comes to impending disaster, their response is different. Noah's response is to hoard, yet he does nothing to help those left behind - there is no record of him trying to convince the people that a Flood was coming (as obvious as it may be from his giant ark!). On the other hand, when Abraham hears of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he barters with God (Gen. 18). Noah gathers and stores, Abraham gets emotionally involved, and does all he can to stop the disaster.

Jewish approaches to the environment generally take the form closer to Abraham. We know that the Earth will always remain however much we damage it. What is at stake today is the future shape of the human race. And in Judaism, the commandment to protect human life supersedes any other.


Theology


The Torah (the Five Books of Moses) opens with a clear statement about God's relationship to the Earth - "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth..." The formation of the Earth is a matter of Divine concern, and therefore the preservation of that Earth must also be a matter of Divine concern.

From the very earliest Biblical literature, the Earth and everything on it therefore become a tool for guiding our praise to God Who created them all - "How great are Your works, Eternal God; in wisdom You have made them all, the earth is full of Your possessions." "The Earth and its fullness belong to the Eternal God, the world and those who dwell in it."

The relationship between God and the land is continuous and longer lasting than any relationship we may have with it. Thus in Leviticus God informs us that no land can be sold forever “for the land is Mine - you are but strangers resident with Me." Later Rabbinic commentaries continued this theme - "God acquired possession of the world and apportioned it to humanity but God always remains the Ruler of the world."

From the very beginning of the creation of humanity, the connection with the land, and with God, is profound. Thus, the Rabbis ask "Why was the first human being called Adam? Rabbi Yehudah says: By virtue of the earth (adamah) from which Adam was taken." Just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, human beings are commanded to rest the land every seven years.

God is therefore Creator of this world, and created human beings in the firm understanding that they are never permanent residents on the Earth - we continue to live on Earth only by the grace of God.

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Biodiversity


The protection of all animal species is most apparent in the Bible in the story of Noah. God is about to flood the Earth and commands Noah to build an ark and take with him "every living thing that is with you - birds, cattle and every wild beast as well." Noah is given an allotted time to gather together all the animals, we can assume because of the enormity of the task. Although many people believe that Noah took on two of every animal, that was only the unclean animals, whereas of the clean ones, he took seven. This led the Rabbis to provide a fascinating commentary on the fact that Noah sends out the raven, one of the unclean animals:

The raven said to Noah "Great is your hatred for me! You withhold [scouts] from species of which there are seven, but send from a species of which there are two! If the power of heat or cold overwhelms me, would not the world be lacking a species?"

In this story, the raven complains to Noah because his actions are not in keeping with someone who wishes to preserve species... if the raven died during his mission, then the raven species would die out! So, over a thousand years ago when this passage was written down, there was a firm understanding of the need to protect all forms of biodiversity.

In fact, we see this throughout Rabbinic texts, not just for prominent creatures such as the raven, but even smaller creatures as well as dangerous creatures:

Even those creatures you deem redundant in this world, like flies, bugs, and gnats, nevertheless have their allotted task in the scheme of creation, as it says: And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good (Gen. 1: 31). Rabbi Aha bar Chanina explained thus: Even those creatures deemed by you superfluous in the world, like serpents and scorpions, still have their definite place in the scheme of creation.

This can all be summed up by one powerful phrase from Rabbi Judah in the name of Rav - "Of all that the Holy Blessed One created in God's world, not one thing did God create in vain."

The Torah asks us to protect biodiversity in a number of ways, the two most prominent both bearing some similarity with each other. The first, found in three places in the Torah, commands us not to seethe a kid in its own mother's milk. While there may have been some anthropological overtones to this which we cannot fully understand today, it may also be in order to protect the particular herd from extinction. A similar commandment requires anyone taking eggs from a nest to not take the mother bird with the young at the same time. Through these commandments, we see that the preservation of biodiversity is not just a matter of entire species, but also smaller groups within species, even to particular groups of animals.

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Destruction and Extinction


The core Jewish text when contemplating destruction of the natural world is the following:

When you besiege a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

Judaism has always held a very pragmatic approach towards the environmental impact of human beings - we cannot live on this earth without having a negative environmental impact, yet there is no need to be wasteful at the same time. Chopping down a tree is sad but occasionally necessary, but chopping down a fruit-bearing tree is unnecessary. It is not just Torah that holds this opinion - later Rabbinic literature tells us that those who chop beneficial trees will never be blessed in their work and that the lights of the world suffer because of the destroyers of beneficial trees.

The prohibition against needless waste is known in Judaism as ba’al tashchit, and is an essential part of Jewish faith. Yet it is always balanced with pragmatism, and so Maimonides, the eminent 12th century Spanish author, wrote:

It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a (besieged) city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither, as it is said: "You must not destroy its trees” (Deut. 20:19). Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-bearing tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if its value for other purposes is greater (than that of the fruit it produces). The Torah forbids only wanton destruction."

Pragmatism or not, one earlier commentary demonstrates that there is a profound ecological and spiritual impact when a fruit-bearing tree is chopped down, when is explains that "when a fruit-bearing tree is chopped down a voice is heard from one end of the world to the other, but it is not audible to the human ear." The spiritual dimension must never be forgotten. R. Aryeh Levine recalled how Rav Kook took care to never pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly since "there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force telling it Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner, hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song (in praise of the Creator)."

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch describes God’s intense loathing of needless destruction, believing that God tells us that "if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human but an animal and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me!"

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Pollution and Waste


Many Jewish texts on pollution revolve around the human impact of our waste, such as the following:

A certain man was removing stones from his ground on to public ground when a pious man found him doing so and said to him, "Fool, why do you remove stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?" The man laughed at him. Some days later he had to sell his field, and when he was walking on that public ground he stumbled over those stones. He then said, 'How well did that pious man say to me, "Why do you remove stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?”'

This awareness that our waste does not just disappear, but always remains with us, is deeply ingrained and is based in the Torah's commandment to bury our own faecal waste, and not just leave it around the camp.

Pollution in Judaism extends not just to solid waste, but even air quality, so that threshing floors, cemeteries and tanneries must be kept a good distance from a town, or away from neighbour's fields, with a tannery only to the east of a town (since the east wind is gentle and will not carry the fumes into the town).

Aware of the difficulty of choosing the town in which we find differing air quality, Maimonides writes the following:

The quality of urban air compared to the air in the deserts and forests is like thick and turbulent water compared to pure and light water. And this is because in the cities with their tall buildings and narrow roads, the pollution that comes from their residents, their waste, their corpses, and offal from their cattle, and the stench of their adulterated food, make their entire air malodorous, turbulent, reeking and thick and the winds become accordingly so, although no one is aware of it. And since there is no way out, because we grow up in cities and become used to them, we can at least choose a city with an open horizon…And if you have no choice, and you cannot move out of the city, try at least to live in a suburb created to the northeast. Let the house be tall and the court be wide enough to permit the northern wind and the sun come through, because the sun things out the pollution of the air, and makes it light and pure.

A healthy home is essential in Judaism, so it is no surprise to learn that it is forbidden to live in a city that does not have greenery.

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Overpopulation


The first commandment to humanity is to "go forth and multiply," which was taken by Rabbinic commentators generally to mean that one should have at least one baby boy and one baby girl. In modern Judaism, especially since so many Jews were slaughtered in the Shoah, many Jewish families have taken upon themselves the need to replenish the Jewish population.

Some commentators suggest that the Biblical character of Onan is punished by God for wasting his seed, which he spills on the ground instead of impregnating his sister-in-law. Such commentators therefore suggest that Judaism is opposed to birth control because it would be a similar offence. However, the sin of Onan is much more likely to be that he does not fulfil his obligation of Levirate marriage, wherein one marries one’s sister-in-law if her husband died, and gives her a child if her former husband did not. But because of the former understanding of this text, and because of the perceived need to replenish the number of Jews in the world, many Jews shun birth control and continue to have large families.

Perhaps the prophet Isaiah is aware of a possible environmental concern with unabated family growth and overpopulation when he says "Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, till there is room for no one but you to dwell in the land."

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Spirituality


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that "there are three starting points of contemplation about God... [and] the first is the way of sensing the presence of God in the world, in things….intimated in the Biblical passage... "Lift up your eyes on high and see, Who created these? (Isaiah 40:26)."

Jewish spirituality has an intricate connection with the world around us, particularly through blessings. Jews traditionally recite blessings before many actions, and certainly before and/or after partaking of something in this world, whether or not it's eating food, seeing trees in bloom, hearing thunder or seeing a meteor. The traditional Jewish blessing structure involves three key players – God, humanity, and the world. By saying a blessing which ties these three together, we make a powerful statement about our spirituality. So strong is the urge to say blessings that Rabbi Chanina bar Papa says that "to enjoy anything in this world without a blessing is like robbing the Holy Blessed One."

The eighteenth century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav took this urge to enjoy nature in the context of prayer in a new level when he prayed the following:

Master of the Universe,
Grant me the ability to be alone;
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things – and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field, all grasses, trees and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source.

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Our Responsibility


"There are three aspects of nature that command our attention: its power, its beauty, and its grandeur. Accordingly, there are three ways in which we may relate ourselves to the world – we may exploit it, we may enjoy it, we may accept it in awe." The first way, becoming ever more prevalent in our society, is clearly unsustainable, and the least preferable. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the twentieth century's greatest thinkers, suggests that we need to reframe our learning from learning "in order to use” to learning "in order to revere,” and that "indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin." He suggests that we need to rediscover our sense of “radical amazement” in which we face "the great thing and unsearchable, the wondrous things without number." So one prominent Jewish responsibility is to reframe our mindset so that we never take this miraculous world for granted, which relates to the importance of blessings as mentioned above.

A passage from the Mishnah, written about 200 C.E., highlights the importance of a healthy mindset:

Rabbi Jacob says, "If someone is studying as he walks along the road and interrupts his study and exclaims: 'How lovely is that tree! How lovely is this field!' Scripture considers that he had harmed his own soul.

At first, this might seem quite negative towards the environment - why should one not stop studying and enjoy the wonders of the world around us? The point of the text is to berate someone whose praise of the world is an interruption of their study. Our praise of the world around us should be a continuation of our study, and it is this mindset that we need to create in ourselves.

In terms of active responsibilities, though, the Torah describes how God tells the first human to "fill the world and have dominion over it." Unfortunately, this verse is often used to suggest that we should subdue the earth according to our whims, and exploit it according to our every need. However, this is clearly not the case, especially when viewed in context of God’s second commandment regarding the earth - that we have "to till it and to tend it." In commenting on Gen 1:28, Robert Gordis writes

To claim that (this verse) provides 'justification' for the exploitation of the environment, leading to the poisoning of the environment, the pollution of the atmosphere, the poisoning of the water, and the spoliation of natural resources is... a complete distortion of the truth. On the contrary, the Hebrew Bible and Jewish interpreters prohibit such exploitation. Judaism goes much further and insists that humans have an obligation not only to conserve the world of nature but to enhance it because the human is the 'co-partner of God in the work of creation.'

The Stewardship model, as it is often known, is not without problems, though, partly because of its arrogance and partly because of the abuses of that stewardship which the human race has continued to show. The other model - Deep Ecology - suggests that we are part of a web of life, one species interconnected with many others. Rabbi Charles Middleburgh suggests a median position:

Stewardship is anthropocentric... yet... the Deep Ecology model, which certainly shoots a hole through our arrogance, is not enough, for it can all too easily lead to apathy. What is needed is a balance, a combination of both: a sense that we are a mere speck in the cosmos, certainly, but also a profound awareness of both our destructive potential and the requirement of environmental responsibility and restraint.

One of the most moving Jewish environmental texts relates to our environmental responsibility not just for ourselves, but also for future generations:

In the hour when the Holy Blessed One created the first human being, God took the person before all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to the person: "See my works, how fine and excellent they are!" Now all that I have created, for you have I created it. Think upon this, and do not corrupt and desolate My world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.

Being such an ancient religion, Judaism has a tendency to think very long-term. Certainly, the Torah describes many generations of families, and an increased awareness of our actions not just on ourselves, but on generations that come after us, is essential. Thus we read:

One day Choni was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, 'How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?' The man replied, 'Seventy years.' So he asked him, ‘Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?’ to which the man replied, ‘I found ready-grown carob trees in the world, so just as my ancestors planted these for me, I too plant these for my children.’

Yet sometimes focussing on future generations is not enough to empower us to act in the here and now, so we need to also consider the consequences of our actions to those around us:

Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai taught: This may be compared to the case of men on a ship, one of whom took a borer and began boring beneath his own seat. His fellow travellers said to him: "What are you doing?" He replied, "What does it matter to you - am I not boring under my own seat?" They said, "[It matters to us] because the water will come up and flood the ship for us all."

One might also suggest that this passage continues the Jewish responsibility of rebuke. The Torah tells us "you shall surely rebuke your neighbour and not bear sin because of him." Nobody likes to rebuke someone else for their actions, especially nowadays, because it carries a connotation of arrogance. Yet when we see someone doing something wrong, the Torah tells us that we have a responsibility to point it out. The difficulty in terms of the environment is that most of us are not completely environmentally responsible, so rebuking others for their behaviour often ends up being a form of catharsis and displacement of guilt rather than a constructive endeavour.

It is easy to get discouraged when facing global environmental crisis, yet a prominent Jewish responsibility is to not be overawed by the immensity of the task ahead – as Rabbi Tarphon used to say, "It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it." This brings to mind the midrash of Nachshon ben Aminadav when the Israelites were trapped at the Sea of Reeds. Moses prayed for help and God essentially replied "Enough prayer - take some action!" Moses was unsure of what to do. So Nachshon ben Aminadav, head of the tribe of Judah, stepped into the sea. When nothing happened, he continued walking until the water was at his waist. Still nothing. So he kept walking until the water came up to his nostrils. Only then did the Sea part, and could the Israelites walk through. Small, empowered steps by each and every one of us – that is our Jewish responsibility. We need to lead where others are nervous to follow. We need to get our feet muddy in order to clear a path.

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Conclusion


There is so much in the volumes of Jewish texts on the environment that this introduction only skates on the surface of this fascinating topic. That said, though, there are a few basic aspects of Jewish thought on the environment that can be gleaned from all this.

Unfortunately, gone are the days when we can proclaim that "the continual existence of the species in the world - of which not one has become extinct and lost, from lice eggs to buffalo horns, since the day they were created - it is all by God's word and desire concerning this." Animal species are wiped out all the time, at a rate now not seen on our planet for millions of years. In Judaism, we may be just one part of a web of life, but we clearly have the ability to affect more species than any other. With this awareness of our own power comes an awesome, Divine responsibility given to us at the very beginning of our scriptures.

Our responsibility to act is based on a responsibility to change our mindset - to learn that we belong to the land and that we are simply guests on it, to learn that our power should not lead us to arrogance nor the size of the task to apathy. Our responsibility is to celebrate this world as an expression of God's glory, and not as a tool for our pleasure and exploitation.

In Judaism, we use rituals to help us celebrate the Earth, such as the festival of Tu BiSh'vat - the New Year for Trees - and blessings for when we enjoy nature, and it is in ritual that we find the truest expression of our inner thoughts. And we do so because God created the earth - it is a gift from God which we cherish and dare not ruin.