Judaism and Ecology [1]

As spring struggles to assert itself in Alberta I am reminded of the charming blessing ordained by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, to be recited upon viewing the seasonal blossoming of the trees:
Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe, who has left his world lacking in nothing, and has created in it goodly creatures and fine trees to give pleasure to humans.
Nature exists, according to this b'racha, "to give pleasure to humans." On the surface, this would seem to be a fairly innocuous and inoffensive perception. However it takes on a more problematic dimension for me when viewed in the light of a recent conversation I had.

One of my students at the University of Calgary approached me some weeks ago visibly concerned over a passage in the Torah.

In the original Hebrew, she asked me, what is the force of the divine order issued to the first man and women in Genesis 1:28, "...replenish the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps on the earth."

Are the King James-ish "subdue" and "have dominion" stronger than the intention of the original text?

Though I anticipated the reasons for her discomfort, I had little consolation to offer on that particular point. Indeed, the Hebrew roots are considerably more uncompromising than the English, carrying connotations of military conquest and subjugation, even (at least in modern Hebrew) tyranny.

This passage has not been very popular with environmentalists, who have frequently blamed our current environmental plight on such scriptural passages which they feel arrogantly relegate nature to a role of a plaything to be exploited for the fulfilment of human need or greed.

I recognized that my student, in this instance, was seeking a way of deflecting some of the blame. Restricting myself to the immediate question, I was unable to supply one.

A Different Reality

It could be argued that biblical monotheism saw itself consciously opposed to any theology that overly glorified Nature. The essence of pagan religion was usually in the way that it deified natural forces. The vilified cults of Ba'al, Ashtoret and their companions were probably more in tune with the rhythms of nature; by contrast the Israelite deity was a God of history and morality, who occupied a place above the natural processes.

Having said this, I cannot help but feel that I failed to give my student a sufficiently rounded picture of what is, after all, a complex issue.

Central to any assessment is the recognition that, however wise and relevant our ancient sources are, at times they reflect a reality that is fundamentally different from our own. Here too we should take care not to lose our historical perspective.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
Our forefathers were an agricultural folk. So if we do accept as a fact that Judaism is consistent in placing human interests above the natural world and in urging the exploitation of nature for human convenience, this should by no means necessitate a negligent attitude towards either the environment or natural resources. The desire to keep the world clean and fruitful is justified by the most selfish of interests: you cannot exploit what is no longer around.

More importantly, even if one should have wished to ruin the ecological balance, pre-industrial technology simply did not have the means to produce such destruction. Until the present century not even the most perverted of intentions would have succeeded in destroying the ozone layer, saturating our food with harmful chemicals or polluting the Alaskan coastline. The kinds of issues that we associate with environmentalist policies were quite unimaginable two hundred years ago.

Nevertheless without a great deal of ideological fanfare, Jewish tradition has generally approached these questions with characteristic practicality, often impelled by a hard-headed self-interest.

A Practical Approach

To take a well-known example, Deuteronomy 20:19 orders the conquering Israelite armies, when besieging Canaanite cities, not to needlessly destroy the fruit trees from which they will later have to eat. Out of this practical advice the Talmudic Rabbis elaborated the prohibition of bal tash-hit which extends the ban on wastefulness to include other foodstuffs, clothing, fuel and water, or any other useful resource.

This utilitarian approach to environmental care was particularly pronounced in the area of "urban planning." For instance, the Torah orders that the cities of the Levites be surrounded by park areas as well as agricultural lands.

The medieval Spanish Sefer Ha-Hinnuch asserts that the biblical provisions for Levitical cities are to be regarded as a divinely sanctioned ideal. Accordingly the Mishnah insisted that recreational parkland is essential for the "quality of life," and laid down as law that areas that had been designated for parks could not be utilized neither for residential construction or cultivation. Rashi observes that the aesthetic quality of a city demands the allotment of open recreational areas.

The ancient Rabbis were well aware that in order to make life livable for the citizens of a town, restrictions must be placed upon the types of industries that are allowed to be set up there. Some of the clauses in Mishnah Baba Batra have a distinctly modern ring to them:

A permanent threshing floor must be distanced at least fifty cubits from a town (to prevent damage from the chaff in the air).... Carcasses, graves and tanneries must be distanced from the town at least fifty cubits (because of their foul and unhealthy smells). A tannery can only be set up to the east of a town (since in Israel the wind blows almost exclusively from the west)...

Causing Harm

Talmudic literature over the generations has dealt in great detail with such actual problems as air pollution, often in the form of harm caused by smoke drifting from one person's property into his neighbour's. It has done this in general without much theologizing, but as an extension of the basic laws of damages--nobody has the right to cause unnecessary harm or discomfort to his neighbour's person or property.

There are, of course, instances where acts do not necessarily bother specific contemporary individuals, but are judged to threaten the long-term health of the environment or resource supplies. I am not aware of such issues being raised in rabbinic literature (probably because they did not exist before recent times), though I am confident that the Rabbis would have dealt with them by extending the above principles to include long-range as well as immediate damage.

In general, Jewish tradition seems quite aware of our dependence on our natural environment, and has set down concrete measures for ensuring its physical continuity as well as its quality. All this was done in the consciousness that God did indeed create in his world "goodly creatures and fine trees to give pleasure to humans."

Let's go out and appreciate the creation, and ensure that it will continue to be around to give us pleasure.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

First Publication: JS, May 26 1989.