Friday, 14 March 2008

Earthcare in Judaism

photo: Wadi Qelt, Israel by Don Schwager

Jewish teaching is not confined to the written Torah. It is also inherent in the oral law (Mishah and Talmud) and practice (halakha, often translated as "Jewish Law," literally means "the path" or "the way of walking”). Gabe Goldman of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute explains Jewish earthcare in his essay The pillars of Jewish environmental awareness:*

Thousands of years before the word “environmentalism” was coined, Jewish tradition paid attention to taking care of the earth and treating animals with compassion… before the first landfill appeared, the Torah was teaching Jews not to waste anything… imagery fills our prayers….

1. the Oneness of God … [in] the Shema: Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One [and] the first of the Ten Commandments… Judaism tells us that this Oneness is evident in the inter-connectedness of the natural world. Science describes the interconnectedness as “ecology.”

2. God tells us he is the owner of the world: “The Land shall not be sold for eternity; for the land is mine and you are but strangers journeying with Me.” (Leviticus (25:23) … Adam in the Garden of Eden to “work and protect” (avdah u-shomrah) it. We are [its] caretakers… We have a right to use any of its resources… tempered by our responsibility to protect these resources for use by all future generations.

3. God created the universe with purpose. Nothing was created by “accident”… The traditional Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (10:7) - Even though you may think them superfluous in this world, creatures such as flies, bugs and gnats have their allotted task in the scheme of creation, as it says, ‘And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31). [See also the Book of Job 39-41]

“4. Earth Stewardship is a sacred duty [mitzvot]… the responsibility of [each] individual… When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, ‘See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of my works. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Think of this and do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.’ Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13)

5. Bal Tashchit – [waste not] … When in your war against a city you have to besiege it for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (bal tashchit) its fruit trees. . . You may eat of them but you must not destroy the fruit trees: Deuteronomy (20:19-20). Later Jewish thinkers explained that bal tashchit applies to every person all of the time… against using more of something than is necessary, using something in a way it is not intended to be used and using something of greater value when something of lesser value could be used. [over-consumption]

6. Tzaar Ba’alei Hayyim … [do not] cause animals any unnecessary physical or emotional pain. So important is this prohibition that it appears in several places throughout the Torah, one such being Deuteronomy (5:14) - If, on your way, you happen upon a bird’s nest in a tree or on the ground, with baby birds or eggs in it, do not take the mother with her young. Drive away the mother and take only the young. This way you will live a long life.

7. Shabbat and Sabbatical Years -- Land rest and renewal are concepts that appear in the Torah… [In Exodus 13 the Lord demands a weekly Sabbath in memory of the liberation of the people from slavery. Leviticus 25 proclaims a Sabbatical year (Sh’mitah ) in every seven, and a Jubilee year after seven times seven, when the holy land, prisoners and slaves are freed, and the commons restored.]

** 8. Tikkun olam: "repairing the world" or "perfecting the world" – [earthcare goes beyond the law.] Tikkun olam in the Mishnah and daily prayer Aleinu surpasses actions required by the law. In Orthodox belief, acts that bring nearer the Kingdom of God, l'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai, "perfecting the world under God's sovereignty." Among liberal Jews, tikkun olam means social justice; Jews should act for a fair and equal society with the same zeal as they once followed traditional law.


* We have abridged Goldman’s Pillars of Jewish Environmental Awareness, combining his numbers 4 and 8 (see his full original text), and adding ** Tikkun olam from Wikipedia. Our interpolations are in square brackets. -- Ed.Note

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern adds further reflections in his Environment and the Noah Story in Virtual Talmud 15 Oct 2007:

In Judaism we tend to think that God’s promise to Noah after the flood means that the world will never be destroyed. But all God says is that “He” will never destroy the world through rain. “We” on the other hand are a whole other story. As of now, our behavior of excess and rampant consumption has once again threatened the existence of the world...The Jewish version of conspicuous consumption is the law of “bal tashchit.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) The word tashchit has two meanings: waste and destroy. This duality of meaning highlights the challenge of “having too much.” When we have too much we end up wasting and thereby destroying what we have. So much of the damage to the environment is done merely through personal access. Everyday each of us waste food, water, and electricity and in the process we end up destroying the things we most love and cherish the most. Asking people to make the most of what they have is not only environmentally sound, but also makes for a happier and more meaningful life.

See also COEJL Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life; JCPA Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Big Green Jewish Website UK, Liberal Judaism on the environment.

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