Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 4 December 2004 / 21 Kislev 5765

The Environment

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Liron in L. A.

Dear Rabbi,

Doesnt the verse "...Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it; have dominion over...every living thing...." (Genesis 1:28) seem to teach disrespect and egocentric insensitivity to the environment. What is Judaisms attitude to environmental issues?

Dear Liron,

The idea you suggest was promoted by Arnold Toynbee whose superficial reading of the Torah and ignorance of other traditional Jewish sources brought him to the erroneous conclusion that the Bible is the cause of human exploitation of nature. This group even advocated pagan deification of nature in an attempt to teach mankind to respect the environment.

This alleged license to dominate and subdue the earth is qualified in the very next chapter of the Torah as a mandate to guard and protect the world: "And G-d took man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it" (Genesis 2:15). The Torah attitude is not to conquer the world by raping and destroying its resources, but rather to both permit and require: cultivation with concern, progress with restraint, growth with conservation and technology with preservation.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch describes the magnitude of this mandate in no uncertain terms: "Do not destroy anything! is the first and most general call of G-d, which comes to you....If you regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving G-d Who created have no right to the things around you....If you use them unwisely, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property....With this call He represents the greatest and the smallest against you and grants the greatest and the smallest a right against your presumptuousness" (Horeb, London: Soncino Press, 1962, ch. 56, #397).

The Jewish Scriptures, so full of references to nature and its sublime grandeur, inspire respect and appreciation for the environment. In fact, Maimonides declares that meditating on nature is a main way to fulfill the commandment to "love G-d with all your heart" (Mishne Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:2). Both of these ideas are behind the Jewish practice to pronounce blessings over natural phenomena such as a rainbow, lightning, shooting stars, the first blossoms of a tree, and many more. In addition, Jewish law provides comprehensive legislation on issues such as preservation, conservation, animal welfare, species preservation, sanitation and pollution.

The number of sources that deal with environmental issues is vast, but here are a few:

Preservation: The Torahs emphasis on preservation of the environment is perhaps most apparent in its emphatic opposition to waste. In Sefer HaChinuch, Rabbi Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona writes, "This is the way of pious and elevated people...they will not waste even a mustard seed, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage they see, and if they are able to save, they will save anything from destruction with all of their power...Every person is obligated to master his inclinations and conquer his desires" (Sefer HaChinuch 529).

Conservation: Shabbat is a weekly rest for people, animals and the natural world. This weekly rest culminates in shemita, when all fields lie fallow for an entire year, bringing rest and rejuvenation to the earth. The Torah also orders the preservation of green belts around cities: "You shall measure from outside the city two thousand cubits on the eastern side, two thousand cubits on the southern side, two thousand cubits on the western side, and two thousand cubits on the northern side, with the city in the middle; this shall be your cities' open spaces" (Numbers 35:5).

Animal Welfare and Species Preservation: There are many commandments regarding animal welfare, such as feeding animals before the owner eats, preserving their health, alleviating their work load and more. In addition, Nachmanides suggests that prohibitions such as mixing species (kilayim), slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day, taking the mother bird together with the eggs and castration are to ensure the preservation of all species (Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:6). In fact, these laws against grafting diverse seeds and cross-breeding animal species can be understood as the Biblical model for bio-diversity.

Sanitation and Pollution: We find that the Sages prohibited burning wood from olive trees and grape vines on the altar. According to one opinion, this was to avoid air pollution since these woods burn with a great deal of smoke. Jerusalem had special legislation to protect its unique environment: all garbage was removed from the city and no kilns or tanneries were allowed to operate within its borders. In this way pestilence and pollution were kept out of the city to preserve the quality of life (Baba Kama 82b).

Judaisms attitude toward protecting nature is not just for tangible results in the present; the Torah also teaches to plan preservation strategies for the future. The Talmud relates that Choni HaMe'agel was walking on the road. He saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man, "How long until this tree will produce fruit?" He answered that it will take seventy years. Choni asked him, "Are you sure that you'll still be around in seventy years?" The man replied, "Just as my fathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children."

Well conclude with a Midrash that beautifully summarizes the Torah approach to environmental issues: "When the Holy One Blessed Be He created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: "See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are; and I created all of it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world because if you spoil it, there will be no one after you to repair it" (Kohelet Rabba 7:13).

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