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Judaism and the Environment

Judaism and the Environment

Judaism has a balanced and reasoned approach to environmental issues that could be a source of pride to Jews and a source of inspiration to the non-Jewish world.

by

As a boy of six I was walking to shul with my father one morning and I unthinkingly tore some leaves off the hedge we were passing. In disapproval my father told me the Chassidic tale of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch. As a young boy he carelessly ripped a leaf of a tree and was told by his father that God had his intention for that leaf and he was not to damage it unnecessarily.

The Torah proscribes wanton destruction even at a time of war (Deut. 20:19). Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona writes, This is the way of the devout and those who seek good deeds… they never destroy even a grain of mustard, and are upset at any destruction they see, (Sefer haChinuch, 529).

Scriptural writings are full of natural imagery and are steeped in respect for nature, while biblical and later rabbinic law provide comprehensive legislation on issues such as conservation, animal welfare, species preservation, sanitation and pollution.

The Torah orders the creation of green belts around cities (Numbers 35:4), and the laws against grafting diverse seeds and cross breeding animal species (Leviticus 19:19) can be understood in modern terms as concern for biodiversity. Shabbat is a weekly rest for humans, animals and the natural world. We are called upon in Jewish law to offer blessings for all manner of natural phenomena (rainbow, lightning, shooting stars, the first blossoms of a tree, etc.). A most dramatic ecological gesture is Shemita, the seventh year rest for the environment, when all fields lie fallow. Maimonides declares that meditating on nature is one of the key ways a person can fulfil the commandment to love God with all your heart… (Mishne Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)

There are dozens of exhortation in rabbinic writings to learn self-improvement from natural phenomena and non-human life. Cruelty to animals is repeatedly prohibited in the Torah and the Talmud and later codes -- and is considered one of the seven Noahide Laws incumbent on all humankind. Hunting is seriously frowned upon in Judaism, while sensitivity to animals is a frequent motif in Talmudic and Chassidic literature.

Justice and fairness, especially towards those vulnerable, is a theme running through scripture. Every seven years all debt would be cancelled -- an interesting model for the issue of Third World debt in our era.

Two thousand years ago the Talmud (particularly Baba Batra chap.2) extensively covers the regulation against atmospheric, water and even noise pollution, and arising from Deuteronomy (23:12) issues of waste disposal.

We may therefore ask why Judaism, which comes with first-class environmental credentials, appears in many instances to be lagging behind in ecological consciousness.

At conferences and in rabbi's sermons environmental issues are rarely on the agenda. While most Jewish people I have spoken to understand the problem of Third World debt and appreciate the fundamentals of fair trading, there doesn't seem to be a clear, never mind vocal, Jewish response on the issue.

A moral consciousness based on Torah values would surely see merit in the argument for ethical investments, to ensure that monies are not invested in companies that use child labour, create environmental degradation or are socially irresponsible. After all, Justice, justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16:20).

While Judaism does not endorse animal 'rights' it comprehensively legislates for animal welfare. While we need to vigorously combat any efforts to ban shechita, ritual slaughtering of animals, we also need consider the moral legitimacy of intensive farming practices. If shechita, as the Rambam and other leading authorities insist, is legislated out of compassion to animals, doesn't that raise a question of battery-farmed chickens? And shouldn't that afford rabbis a clearer line on the undesirability of the fur trade in our fair climates, now that its cruel practices are public knowledge.

The basics of environmentalism are Torah law. Psalms declares, To the Lord belongs the Earth and all it contains (24:1). Yet it is not often that I am informed by a Jewish organisation of their environmental policy. So says a Midrash: 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 (Pirkei D'Rabbi Elazar, 34). Should this not make us conscious of undue waste of paper products and other natural resources that are being rapidly depleted?

As a rabbi I feel guilty for not doing more to present an authentically Jewish perspective on matters such as reforestation, recycling or globalisation. In a raft of 'Green' issues Judaism has a balanced and reasoned approach that could be a source of pride to Jews and a source of inspiration to the non-Jewish world. More importantly, it could lead to positive action.

I think part of the reason is that in the minds of many people environmentalism has been hijacked by 'eco-fascists' such as Earth First! vigilantes who absurdly endanger human life in furthering natural life (Joni Seager, Earth Follies). Animal welfare is discredited in the eyes of many Jews for its hostility to shechita, denying basic human rights even as it champions those of animals. But these objections, while correct in my view, don't delegitimise the fundamental morality of environmental responsibility and compassion towards animals respectively.

Rabbi's can raise the issue in sermons, communal organisation could adopt environmentally friendly policies, Jewish charities can invest ethically and individual Jews can buy with a social and ecological conscience. These things, among others, would make a difference.

Judaism, with its rich heritage and history of respect for nature and non-human life, is in a perfect position to articulate a better-adjusted and more balanced environmental ethic. It would be in keeping with our tradition to do so. We would be tuning a blind eye to our own values if we choose to say 'not my problem'.

This article is published as part of a Tu b'Shvat Learning Campaign, coordinated by Canfei Nesharim ( on the wings of eagles ).

Published: January 24, 2004


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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Richard Schwartz, January 15, 2012 2:51 AM

Vegetarianism is the ideal Jewish diet

Kol hakavod/kudos to Rabbi Ives for bringing up these important issues. As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I want to point out that Jews can right away apply the teachings he mentions by adopting plant-based diets, because they are most consistent with Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and help hungry people.

(6) ilan benyes, January 7, 2011 8:49 PM

Finally a jewish perspective on the environment

Thank you Rabi, I´m an environmentalist myself, I´m fed up of hearing the same sermons over end over while we, as human beings are destroying the creation of god. So far I have not heard any rabi talking about the importance of fair trade, corporate social responsability, environmental protection and so on. Ilan Benyes writing from venezuela

(5) David S. Levine, January 24, 2005 12:00 AM

The Environment--A REAL Balanced Approach

Thr article by Rabbi Ives is thought provoking and, as a matter of fact, I have thought about these issues for some time.

First of all the film on the Aisch.com site shows a picture of a junk yard as a bad example of how the earth should look. Actually, a junk yard is an example of used articles getting ready for the eventual recycling environmentalists speak and write of as the moral thing to do. Before an old car is made into new metal it must be stored somewhere and a junk yard is the correct and only place, it seems to me.

Rabbi Ives mentions that kindness to animals and concern for their well being need not turn into arguments against shecita. But the fact remains that those who are at the forefront of making them are doing exactly that. The go out of their way to do so! Indeed, I remember well how, a few decades ago, the anti nuclear power crowd held a large rally in New York City on Yom Kippur. They seem not to care that reducing the use of nuclear power makes the world more dependent on Arab oil and that rally's date made exactly that point without explicitly saying to. (What was even more outragous was that Democrat politicians of Jewish origin e.g. Bella Abzug, spoke at it). Rabbi Ives might want to explore why environmentalists are so unconcerned with Jewish sensitivities while they are so concerned with animal sensitivities.

(4) Jack Lauber, February 11, 2004 12:00 AM

A good summary of Judaism.e environmental concerns

Another Jewish environmental perspective-

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN NEW YORK AND ISRAEL. APPLES AND ORANGES?
Bs Jack D. Lauber PE,DE, presented at the New York State Assembly’s
TuBishvat festival, Israel Environment program, Albany NY.
February,1988

New York has made much progress in cleaning our air and waters.
However, many environmental problems remain to be solved; especially
the disposal of wastes and the control of toxic substances in our
environment.

Ecology and the environment appear to be new 20th century issues;
however concern for man's environment is as ancient as the bible
itself. Deuteronomy contains prohibitions against the destruction of trees; and also refers to the proper disposal of sewage and wastes
So as not to pollute the land or waters. Ironically. The Hebrew word
for hell, Gehenom, was derived from the phrase Gay Ben Hinnom" the
valley of the son of Hinnom, an ancient area outside of Jerusalem
which housed the smoldering town garbage dumb. The Talmud also
contains environmental concepts built around the principle of "Bal
Tashchit . "Do not destroy." The disposal of wastes, and the ashes
from the holy temple offerings in ancient Jerusalem were subject to
rabbinate ordinance. The Talmud: regulated air pollution, such as
the prohibitions against threshing floors, furnaces or tanneries
within the city limits of Jerusalem.

Ancient Jewish tradition stressed the maintenance of the biosphere
over three and a half thousand years ago. However, during the
centuries of dispersion in the Diaspora, we Jews somehow lost that
tradition; divorced from the land, and struggling in a hostile
environment in urban ghettos, we forgot about our religious
environmental traditions. Unfortunately that environmental neglect and apathy still exists today, here and in Israel.

In it's more than 40 years of existence, Israel has emphasized
growth, not protection of the environment. New towns, and industries
have been built, sometimes without proper environmental controls;
even some of Israel’s fine hospitals, are gross polluters, having
operated polluting waste incinerators, or improperly burying
hazardous medical wastes in the lands of Israel. Like New York
State, the disposal of solid, hazardous, and hospital wastes are
serious problems in Israel. Inadequate solid and hazardous waste disposal facilities are now a major problem in Israel. Improper waste landfills are ruining the land, and polluting groundwater, and are creating toxic time bombs for future generations. Once beautiful streams are now heavily polluted. Open burning at garbage dumps, banned in New York two decades ago, poisons Israel’s air with toxic substances.

While many Israelis tend to not know about, or to shrug off the
unseen potential dangers of air pollution and toxic substances in
their air, they are acutely aware that their water supply is scarce
and vulnerable. Israel’s water- management programs are very well
developed. However the shortage of water and the often irreversible
pollution of its sources are sti11 a threat, especially from leaking; improper waste landfills, similar to our problems here in New York.

Unfortunately, some apathetic Americans and Israelis believe that
environmental protection is a luxury that can be afforded later;
this may also be indicative of our lost traditions to preserve our
environment. We are faced with an environmental paradox: if we use
it, we can abuse it, and once we abuse our environment we may never
be able to reuse it, this is certainly true in the case of polluting
precious groundwater from leaching solid waste landfills.
In spite of environmental ignorance and apathy in Israel, there is a
dedicated core of environmental professionals in the Israel
government and academia, that are trying to overcome these serious
environmental problems. At a recent Israel ecological conference in
Jerusalem, a leading Israeli environmental scientist, dramatically
led a discussion of a new environmental ethic, borne from our Judaic roots; a new 1lth commandment "Thou shall not pollute.”
A famous philosopher once said that wisdom is not knowing what lies
ahead, but rather, What comes next. What can we do to help Israel
protect and to preserve her environment? We can first begin by
educating ourselves about these problems.

For years our US. Committee for the Israel Environment has been
providing technical assistance to many Israelis environmental
scientists and engineers. Our videotape "Israel’s Other Enemies"
produced at the State University here in Albany, several years ago
explains these efforts. You will see many serious environmental
problems, similar to those that we face here in New York.
We have recently joined with the Society for the Protection of
Nature in Israel to expand our efforts to preserve Israel’s
environment. Years ago, our committee also sponsored a bilateral New
York State/Israel environmental program, which has not yet
materialized. We need to do much more, and are now trying to obtain
a special American emergency response computer program for Israel,
to prevent "Bhopal" type hazardous chemical spill disasters. This is
a major need to protect Israel from the disasters chemical accidents
and toxic terrorism. However, we have not had much success in these
efforts: there is still too much apathy.

We must now strongly set forward a new, cnvironmenta1 ethic based
on our religious heritage ; that environmental concerns are not
luxuries, but important , health related matters to be dealt with
now. Neither New York, nor Israel can wait while her air, land and
waters become increasingly more polluted; nor can we wait while
solid and hazardous waste toxic time bombs tick away in the ground.
The time has come to renew the ancient Jewish environmental ethic
that we celebrate today during this ancient festival of the trees.
We must promote and live under a new 11th commandment, "Thou shall
not pollute our environment."

(3) Anonymous, February 4, 2004 12:00 AM

very nice

don't you think we should be focusing more on bein adam lechavero and bien adam lemakom then the enviorment especially these days when we are being saddened alomost everyday with what is going on in Eretz Yisroel. I think we need look back on our actions on more a bein adam lechavero and see why we don't merit Hashems protection like we should. (this is not a criticism just a suggestion on what we need to focus on other aspects of daily life) thank you

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