Why Jewish Environmentalism
By Amy Hannes on March 9, 2011 in Featured, New York Ride, Rides
What is Jewish environmentalism?
Why Jewish environmentalism? Why not just environmentalism?
The Jewish environmental movement is part of a larger faith-based environmental movement, which has two key elements.
The first is that religions have something to say about the environment. For Jewish tradition, an environmental ethic grows out of the Torah, the Jewish calendar and festivals, and teachings by Jewish thinkers and philosophers throughout the ages. Jews from secular to orthodox may differ in how they relate to Judaism, but we can come together in recognizing our shared tradition and its contemporary relevance. From Native American tradition to Tibetan Buddhism, religious traditions, including Judaism, have had as a central concern the connection between humankind and planet Earth.
The second element is more practical. Many millions of people identify with different faiths. If each religious movement teaches its constituents about the importance of protecting the environment from its perspective, a huge number of people will potentially be mobilized to environmental activism. It’s a way of grass roots organizing
ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN JUDAISM
By: Alain Attar
Today ‘s ecological awareness and debates on wider global issues are in many cases a result of the detrimental side of industrialization and its effect on the environment.
The first obligation given to people to protect the environment is defined in the verse in
“And the Lord God took the man, and put him into theGarden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it.”
Adam ‘s responsibility towards the earth is illustrated in the following Midrash:
The Rabbis say that God took Adam to see all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: Look how pleasant my world is and look how good my creations are. Everything I created, I created for you. Set your mind not to spoil them and not to destroy my world.
Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks sums up the Midrash in the following way:
“Man is not only the master but also the guardian of Nature. This is perhaps the best short definition of the ecological imperative as Judaism understands it. A guardian is entrusted with property that does not belong to him. His task is to take charge of it and eventually return it to its owner intact.”
At the very same time God gives people the power to use and dominate His creations: “And God blessed them and said. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and
subdue it.”Devarim 20:19.
People are commanded to fill the earth, subdue it and dominate animal life. The word “subdue”(kivshua) in Hebrew can express opposite ideas. It can mean to conquer and to suppress, but it can also mean to preserve and to protect.
Let us examine the extent to which we are commanded to subdue the earth.
PROTECTING THE ECOSYSTEM
“When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by forcing an axe against them; for you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man that you should besiege it?” Devarim.
According to Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, the famous 19th century thinker, the Torah ‘s prohibition to destroy fruit trees extends to the protection of the whole ecosystem.
This prohibition of purposeless destruction of fruit trees around a besieged city is only to be taken as an example to general wastefulness. Under the concept of Bal Taschit, the
purposeless destruction of anything at all is forbidden, so that our text becomes the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which God has given them as masters of the world and its matter by capricious, passionate or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth. Only for wise use has God laid the world at our feet when He said to Man “subdue the world and have dominion over it”.
This is the wider meaning of Bal Taschit.
“The Torah speaks of the protection of the environment in wartime because it is the most destructive of all human activities”. – Eric Freudenstein, Ecology and the Jewish Tradition.
PROTECTING THE GREEN BELT
During World War 2, the British government passed wide-ranging laws to guarantee that, even when the heavily bombed cities were to be rebuilt, they were to be surrounded by natural farmland and park. These were known as “Green Belts” and remain in place today.
In Vayikra 25:32 and 34, regarding the cities that were given to the Levites it is written: “However, concerning the cities of the Levites, and the houses of the cities of their
possession, the Levites shall have a perpetual right of redemption.”
“But the fields of the open lands of their cities may not be sold; for it is an eternal heritage for them.”
Eric Freudenstein in his article Ecology and the Jewish Tradition, says that these cities weresurrounded by 1000 cubits (about 500 meters) of fields and vineyards and the Torah forbids the selling of the outer fields.
The Talmud in Arachin 33b, interprets the verse, not only to prohibit the transfer of a field from its original owner but it also forbids any transformation from its original status.
Just as a field cannot be sold, it may neither be altered.
AIR POLLUTION CONTROL
Mishnah Baba Batra, chap.2: “A fixed threshing floor must be kept fifty cubits from a town.”
The Gemara 24b explains as follows:
“Why is it kept fifty cubits away from a town? To prevent it doing damage.”
Freudenstein adds that these Talmudic regulations prohibited the establishment of a permanent threshing floor within proximity to the city for fear that the wind would carry the chaff and the dust particles would jeopardize the health of the city dwellers.
“You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall go out to it; And you shall have a spade among your weapons; and it shall be, when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover that which comes of you.” Deuteronomy, 23:13-14
Verse 13 spells out the responsibility of the community to build a sewage disposal for the needs of its people in order to safeguard a healthy environment. Rambam, the medieval Spanish doctor and philosopher, declares that You shall have a place also outside the camp, is a positive commandment, a Mitzvat Aseh. This is a matter for city authorities to ensure they include provisions for sewage systems in planning a town ‘s infrastructure.
Verse 14, however, highlights the individual ‘s responsibility to extend care to the environment even when outside their boundary. The commandment “And you shall have a spade among your weapons….when you will ease yourself outside” symbolizes our duty to be sensitive and care for the environment beyond our own boundaries.
SAFETY AND DISPOSAL OF HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCES
“When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there. ” Devarim 22:8
This verse illustrates the Torah ‘s concern for public and private safety.
The Talmud extends this warning to other dangerous situations. The Gemara in Bava Kama states that “Morality is measured by how one disposes of broken glass and other dangerous objects. The highest degree of morality would lead one to bury them so deep that they would not harm anyone.”
Similarly, the Mishnah, referring to the uncovered pit, mentioned in Exodus 21:33,34. stipulates that this refers to anything, which is left in the public domain and which might cause harm to others.
CUTTING DOWN TREES – BAL TASCHIT (DO NOT DESTROY)
Rambam writes in his Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Melachim 6:10
Whoever (deliberately) breaks a vessel, or tears a garment, or destroys a building, or shuts up a water supply or disposes of food in a destructive manner violates the commandof Bal Tashchit.
This does not apply however, if something is destroyed for a constructive purpose. For example, where a fruit tree is diseased, or causes damage to other trees, or the value of its wood for fuel exceeds the value of its fruit, it may be cut down. This is the opinion of Rabina (Bava Kama 91b-92a). However, Rav, states that in the case of trees with which Eretz Yisrael is blessed, the amount of fruit produced by the tree against the value of its wood should be lower:
However, even where wood is needed for construction purposes, it is preferable not to use the wood of fruit-bearing trees. For this reason, the wood used in the construction of the Tabernacle was not from fruit-bearing trees (Midrash Shemot Rabbah).
OUR OBLIGATION TO FUTURE GENERATIONS
Many hundreds of years ago there lived a wise and holy man called Choni. One day Choni was journeying on the road and saw an old man planting a carob tree:
“How long will it take for this carob tree to produce fruit?” asked Choni.
“Oh, it will be about seventy years until fruit grows from this tree”, answered the old man.
“Seventy years?” exclaimed Choni. “Are you sure that you will be living to be able to enjoy the fruit of this tree?”
“No,” replied the old man, “I found carob trees in the world. Just as my forefathers planted them for me, so too, am I planting this carob tree for my children”. Talmud, Taanit 23a.
This story highlights our duty to plant for the next generation so that the benefits from nature, which we gained in our lifetime, can be enjoyed by the following generation.
If we are ever mindful of this and of our role as guardians of Nature, we will certainly be fulfilling our duties and responsibilities of L ‘OVDAH ULSHOMRAH.
Jewish Views on the Environment
Jewish tradition teaches us to care for our planet in order to preserve that which God has created. Psalm 24 notes, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," a dramatic assertion of God's ownership of the land. It follows, then, that any act that damages our earth is an offense against the property of God. The Jewish concept of bal tashchit, "do not destroy," forbids needless destruction.
Judaism emphasizes our need to preserve our natural resources and generate new ones for future generations. The Talmud tells the story of the sage Choni, who was walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked, "How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?" "Seventy years," the man replied. Choni then asked, "Are you so healthy that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?" The man answered, "I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children." In fact, tradition values this concept so much that the rabbis teach that if a man is planting a tree and the messiah appears, he should finish planting the tree before going to greet him (Avot d'Rebbe Natan 31b).
We are encouraged l'vadah ul'shamrah, "to till and to tend," to become the Earth's stewards. In Isaiah 41:17-18, God promises, "I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places and fountains in the midst of valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water and the dry land springs of water." In other words, we were given our planet as a loan from God, and we should work to preserve it.
Among the many issues facing our planet, climate change poses a huge challenge to resource development and even daily habits. Addressing climate changerequires us to learn how to live within the ecological limits of the earth so that we will not compromise the ecological or economic security of those who come after us.
The Torah commands, "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20), and thus, our energy policy must also be equitable and just - and the countries most responsible for climate change should be those most responsible for finding a solution to the problem. Judaism also underscores the moral imperative of protecting the poor and vulnerable: "When one loves righteousness and justice, the earth is full of the loving-kindness of the Eternal" (Psalms 33:5). Indeed, poor nations are likely to bear the brunt of the negative impacts associated with climate change.
Because our sacred texts teach that humankind has an obligation to improve the world for future generations, Jewish tradition encourages families and communities to reduce their waste and make smart consumer choices, investing in companies that do not pollute and supporting behaviors and policies that encourage conservation.
As one of the most important natural resources to humanity's survival, water has a special place in Jewish tradition, playing a role in nearly every major story in the bible. Isaac's wife was chosen for him at a well; the baby Moses was saved after floating down a river; the Israelites were freed when the red sea parted; Miriam will forever be remembering by her gift of water to the Jewish people in the desert. Our clean, fresh water supplies and mineral resources are being exhausted by industrial and population growth, and it is vital that we lead in conservation while developing natural resources. Jewish tradition has long advocated that local and national governments take appropriate measures to remove or ameliorate the growing threats of environmental pollution and to afford protection to the environment.
The principle of pikuach nefesh, saving human lives above all else, is our greatest moral obligation. We are taught, "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16), and to "choose life, that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:20). It follows, then, that Jewish values command us to preserve the earth and its varied life for our sake and for generations to come. It is our obligation to preserve human life by educating ourselves about the dangers of environmental health risks and working to prevent them for the sake of all humanity.
As heirs to a tradition of stewardship that goes back to Genesis and teaches us to be partners in the ongoing work of creation, we cannot accept the escalating destruction of our environment and its effect on human health and livelihood. It is our sacred duty to alleviate environmental degradation and the human suffering it causes instead of despoiling our air, land, and water.
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
10 Teachings on Judaism and the Environment Rabbi Lawrence Troster 04/06/2011 Huffpost
1. God created the universe.This is the most fundamental concept of Judaism. Its implications are that only God has absolute ownership over Creation (Gen. 1-2, Psalm 24:1, I Chron. 29:10-16). Thus, Judaism’s worldview is theocentric not anthropocentric. The environmental implications are that humans must realize that they do not have unrestricted freedom to misuse Creation, as it does not belong to them. Everything we own, everything we use ultimately belongs to God. Even our own selves belong to God. As a prayer in the High Holiday liturgy proclaims, “The soul is Yours and the body is your handiwork.” As we are “sojourners with You, mere transients like our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow...” (I Chronicles 29:15), we must always consider our use of Creation with a view to the larger good in both time (responsibility to future generations) and space (others on this world). We must also think beyond our own species to that of all Creation.
2. God’s Creation is good.In Genesis 1:31, when God found all of Creation to be “very good,” this means several things.
First of all it means that Creation is sufficient, structured and ordered (the rabbis called it
Seder Bereishit, the Order of Creation). It is also harmonious. It exists to serve God (Psalm 148). This order reflects God’s wisdom (Psalm 104:24), which is beyond human understanding (Psalm 92:6-7, Job 38-39). All of God’s creations are consequently part of the Order of Creation and all are subject to its nature (Psalm 148). Humans are also part of the Order, which can be said to be a community of worshipers.
3. Human beings are created in the image of God.Human beings have a special place and role in the Order of Creation. Of all God’s creations, only human beings have the power to disrupt Creation. This power, which gives them a kind of control over Creation, comes from special characteristics that no other creature posseses (Psalm 8). This idea is expressed in the concept that humans were created in the image of God (tzelem Elohim). In its original sense, tzelem Elohim means that humans were put on the earth to act as God’s agents and to actualize God’s presence in Creation.
This also has ethical implications which stem from the fact that human beings have certain intrinsic dignities: infinite value, equality and uniqueness. It also means that human beings possess God-like capacities: power, consciousness, relationship, will, freedom and life. Human beings are supposed to exercise their power, consciousness and free will to be wise stewards of Creation. They should help to maintain the Order of Creation even while they are allowed to use it for their own benefit within certain limits
established by God (Genesis 2:14). This balance applies to both human society as well to the natural world. Since the time of the expulsion from Garden of Eden, Creation has tended to be out of balance because of the human impulse toward inequality resulting from the misuse of its powers for selfish ends. The earth is morally sensitive to human misdeeds (Genesis 4, Leviticus 18:27-30).
4. Humanity should view their place in Creation with love and awe.It may be said that there are two books of God’s revelation to humanity: The Torah and Creation itself. The book of Creation can help us to perceive ourselves as “living breathing beings connected to the rhythms of the earth, the biogeochemical cycles, the grand and complex diversity of ecological systems.” (Mitchell Thomashow, Ecological Identity) This knowledge is gained both through an understanding of Creation through scientific knowledge. In Judaism, this can be understood as the fulfillment of the commandments to love and to fear God (Deuteronomy 6:5,13).
Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204) interpreted these commandments in the following way:
“When a person observes God’s works and God’s great and marvelous creatures, and they see from them God’s wisdom that is without estimate or end, immediately they will love God, praise God and long with a great desire to know God’s Great Name ...
And when a person thinks about these things they draw back and are afraid and realizes that they are small, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of God who is perfect in knowledge” (Mishneh Torah, Sepher Madah, Hikhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:1-2).
Thus, when we study Creation with all the tools of modern science, we are filled with love and a sense of connection to a greater order of things. We feel a sense of wonder but also a sense of awe and humility as we perceive how small we are in the universe as well as within the history of evolution. Love and humility should then invoke in us a sense of reverence for Creation and modesty in our desire to use it. We should, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, see the world as God-centered, not
human-centered. By putting God at the center of life, we see the sacred in everything and the natural world becomes a source of wonder and not only a resource for our use and abuse.
5. The Sabbath and prayer help us to achieve this state of mind.The Sabbath is a way to begin to engender this sense of love and humility before Creation. It is also is a way to living a sustainable life. For one day out of seven, we limit our use of resources. We walk to attend synagogue and drive only when walking is not possible. We do not cook and we do not shop. We can use the day for relaxation, contemplation and to ask ourselves: What is the real purpose of human life? Are we here on earth only to get and to spend? As Rabbi Schorsch has written: “To rest is to acknowledge our limitations. Willful inactivity is a statement of subservience to a power greater than our own” (To Till and to Tend, page 20).
Prayer also helps us to recognize that everything we are, everything we have and everything we use ultimately comes from God (Babylonian Talmud, Brakhot 35a). When we say a blessing, we create a moment or holiness, a sacred pause. Prayer also creates an awareness of the sacred by taking us out of ourselves and our artificial
environments and allowing us to truly encounter natural phenomenon. Prayer creates a loss of control which allows us to “see the world in the mirror of the holy.” (Heschel) We are then able to see the world as an object of divine concern and we can then place ourselves beyond self and more deeply within Creation.
6. The Torah prohibits the wasteful consumption of anything.In Judaism, the halakhah (Jewish law) prohibits wasteful consumption. When we waste resources we are violating the mitzvah (commandment) of Bal Tashhit (“Do not destroy”). It is based on Deuteronomy 20:19-20:
“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of 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 no 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.”
This law was expanded in later Jewish legal sources to include the prohibition of the wanton destruction of household goods, clothes, buildings, springs, food or the wasteful consumption of anything (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8, 10; Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, 279-80). The underlying idea of this law is the recognition that everything we own belongs to God. When we consume in a wasteful manner, we damage Creation and violate our mandate to use Creation only for our legitimate benefit. Modesty in consumption is a value that Jews have held for centuries. For example one is not supposed to be excessive in eating and drinking or in the kind of clothes that one wears (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Discernment, chapter 5). Jews are obligated to consider carefully our real needs whenever we purchase anything. We are obligated when we have a simchah (a celebration) to consider whether we need to have elaborate meals and wasteful decorations. We are obligated to consider our energy use and the sources from which it comes.
7. The Torah gives an obligation to save human life.The Jewish tradition mandates an obligation to save and preserve life (called in Jewish legal sources: pikuach nefesh) based on an interpretation of Leviticus 18:5, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord (See Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a).” Jewish law forbids us from knowingly harming ourselves (Leviticus 19:28). There are also numerous sources mandated the proper disposal of waste is properly and that noxious products from industrial production must be kept far from human habitation (see for example, Deuteronomy 23:13-15, Mishnah Baba Batra 2:9) In the Jewish tradition, the public good overrides individual desires.
While there are many useful and even lifesaving technologies that come from modern chemicals and materials, we have an obligation to be cautious in their use. Pikuach nefesh
demands that we consider the impact of our use of chemicals and other materials, not only in the short term but also in the long term. For the Jewish tradition, the
Precautionary Principle can be seen as a modern form of the warning not to tamper too much with the boundaries of Creation.
8. The Torah prohibits the extinction of species and causing undo pain to non-human creatures.Our ancestors could not have anticipated the loss of biodiversity that the modern world has produced; from their perspective, there was no natural extinction rate of species.
God, they believed, had created all species at one time and there could be no new creatures. Only humans could cause extinction and bring about the loss of one of the members of the Creation choir. In the Torah there is a law that says:
“If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).
Ramban (Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, 1194-1270) in his commentary to the Torah wrote:
“This also is an explanatory commandment of the prohibition you shall not kill it [the mother] and its young both in one day (Leviticus 22:28). The reason for both [commandments] is that we should not have a cruel heart and not be compassionate, or it may be that Scripture does not permit us to destroy a species altogether, although it permits slaughter [for food] within that group. Now the person who kills the mother and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly, [it is regarded] as though they have destroyed that species.”
It is evident from the first chapter of Genesis and other Biblical texts (Psalm 104, 148 and Job 38-41) that God takes care of, and takes pleasure in, the variety of life that makes up Creation. And although we might regard a species as unimportant or bothersome to human beings, God does not regard them so. The rabbis understood that we do not know God’s purpose for every creature and that we should not regard any of them as superfluous. “Our Rabbis said: Even those things that you may regard as completely superfluous to Creation — such as fleas, gnats and flies — even they were included in Creation; and God’s purpose is carried through everything — even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, a frog” (Breishit Rabbah 10:7). In environmental terms, every species has an inherent value beyond its instrumental or useful value to human beings. Related to this idea is the concept of Tzar Baalei Chayyim, the prohibition of hurting animals without good purpose (based on Deuteronomy 22:6, 22:10, 25:4, Numbers 22:32, Exodus 20:8-10, Leviticus 22:27-8). These concepts bring to our relationships with the non-human world limits and controls over our power and greed.
9. Environmental Justice is a Jewish value.The Torah has numerous laws which attempt to redress the power and economic imbalances in human society and Creation. Examples are the Sabbatical year (Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:2-5, Deuteronomy 15:1-4) and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-24) There is a whole program in the Torah for creating a balanced distribution of resources across society (Exodus 22:24-26, Leviticus 25:36-37, Deuteronomy 23:20-1,
24:6,10-13,17). This is an expression of the concept of Tzedek, which means righteousness, justice and equity. It is the value, which tries to correct the imbalances, which humans create in society and in the natural world. In the modern world, globalization has strived to achieve the free movement of people, information, money, goods and services, but it can also create major disruptions in local cultures and environments. While globalization has created great wealth for millions of people, many millions more have been bypassed by its benefits and has had in some cases a negative impact upon the environment and human rights. The Jewish concept of Tzedek demands that we create a worldwide economy that is sustainable and that is equitable in the distribution of wealth and resources.
10. Tikkun Olam: The perfection/fixing of the world is in our hands.There is a midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Bible) which Jewish environmentalists are fond of quoting:
“When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it’” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)
In the Jewish liturgy there is a prayer called Aleinu in which we ask that the world be soon perfected under the sovereignty of God (l’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai). Tikkun olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world, has become a major theme in modern Jewish social justice theology. It is usually expressed as an activity that must be done by humans in partnership with God. It is an important concept in light of the task ahead in environmentalism. In our ignorance and our greed, we have damaged the world and silenced many of the voices of the choir of Creation. Now we must fix it.
There is no one else to repair it but us.
A version of this was originally published at GreenFaith.org.
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