Jewish Environmental Ethics
A little more than thirty-five years ago, I served as a rabbi in India. When
one went to India at that time, of course, one went to Nepal. So I took a week
off and went to Katmandu. It was an absolute paradise. From this ancient, beautiful
city, one could see the Himalayas covered in snow against pure blue skies. Running
through the city was a pristine river called the Bagmati. It is a holy river,
where people bathed. The waters were so limpid and pure, you could drink them.
The city was small and you could take a bicycle and ride eight or ten kilometers
out to the surrounding, even smaller townships. These were ancient townships
with gorgeous temples such as Badgaon. I thought then that if there is a Gan
Eden Alei Adamot, —a garden of Eden on earth—this would be it.
If I wished to live in a land outside of Israel, it would be Katmandu. I was
offered very attractive jobs there. At that time, very few Europeans were in
this part of the world.
A little over a month ago, my wife and I were invited to an international conference
in Katmandu on conservation. It was planned by two organizations, the World
Wildlife Fund, which is a massive well-known global organization, and the Alliance
of Religions for Conservation (ARC), which consisted of representatives of twelve
major religions, each trying to demonstrate that his respective religion had
a clear interest in conservation and ecology. It was not the sort of conference
in which participants tried to persuade one another of the higher ethical principles
inherent in their respective religions. Instead, we were united in our goal
of dealing with the challenges and dangers to the planet that we all inhabit.
The earth is, at least so far, the only home we have. I am reminded of the
midrash about a ship in which many people were sailing. When one
of the passengers started to drill a hole underneath his seat, the others began
to protest: “What are you doing? You’re making a hole in
the bottom of the ship.” He replied, “Well, it’s only under
my seat.” And so when I came to Katmandu, I came back to a completely
different place. You couldn’t see the sky. It was overcast, darkened by
dirty, smelly clouds. The Bagmati was a cesspool and very much smaller that
I had known it to be previously. It had shrunk to a size smaller than the Jordan
and it reeked. When you walked through the streets, you could smell the kerosene
being used for cheap fuels in cars. My wife bought a pashmima—
which is apparently what one has to get when one goes to this part of the world—and
it smelled of paraffin. It had to be rinsed out. You couldn’t see the
mountains at all. You didn’t realize that you were in the valley of Katmandu,
surrounded by the highest and the most beautiful mountains in the world. You
had to go out of the valley and climb another thousand meters or so in order
to be able to see the actual mountains.
The city is now a huge, sprawling metropolis of over two and one-half million
souls. Over a quarter of the population of Nepal is now concentrated in this
urban sprawl. Those little townships ten miles away that I used to visit by
bicycle are all a part of the same city. They are linked up with no boundaries
to demarcate borders. The roads are rutted. People walk around with cloth masks
around their faces. If there was an ideal venue for an international conference
to discuss conservation and ecology, this was it. Katmandu is now an example
of how you can ruin the house in which you live, the garden you’re meant
to be enjoying.
It is very clear to me that this is an issue that we as Orthodox Jews have
to relate to. I do not know what the situation is here in the United States,
but in Israel the conservationists, the Greenpeace people, are seen as political
leftists, anti-religious people who have created an alternative religion. Theirs
is not a theocentric faith, but a geocentric one; it might be called geotheism,
Earth as god, a god dictating to us how we must live. Orthodox Jews are not
involved in this enterprise, for they identify these movements with non-religious,
even anti-religious, elements and automatically reject them, ascribing to them
no value whatsoever. They recognize that “Ladonai ha-arets u-melo’ah”
(Ps. 24:1) but stress its counterpoint: “Ha-arets natan li-venai adam.”
(Ps. 115:16; see BT Berakhot 35a) In other words, humanity
is the pinnacle of creation and the world is there for us to use and even exploit.
The materials that are available to us are for our own pleasure and benefit.
If one is a religious person, one could even say that the earth is given to
humanity to serve its higher spiritual needs. Because of this perspective, the
idea that we have to be concerned about the only home that we have is a notion
that doesn’t seem to have penetrated the Orthodox community.
Nevertheless, some segments of the community are beginning to involve themselves
in these issues. I’d like to talk not on the practical level, as does
Dr. Schwartz1, but on the theoretical, ideological
level. He mentioned, albeit parenthetically, kile-ahar yad, a very
important concept. He spoke of “stewardship.” I see the first chapter
of Genesis, the story of creation, as a very deep and penetrating message to
all Jews, particularly all Orthodox Jews. The picture of Gan Eden (paradise)
that Genesis presents us with is a picture of an ideal ecological state of affairs.
Scripture mentions fresh air, pure water, rivers going out in different directions;
gefilte fish available to whoever wanted to take it! This was an ecologically
balanced framework. In many ways this is the Torah’s ideal vision. One
did not have to labor in order to obtain what one wanted. One picked one’s
fruit, one ate it, the animals lived harmoniously with the few human beings
that were to be found there. Man is placed in a framework of ecological harmony
and balance, in which all his needs are readily met. It appears that everything
is there to serve him: the trees to feed him; the leaves to clothe him. But
this can lead him to the foolish notion that he is actually the owner, the lord
of the manor, the person who’s in charge, the person who has dominion
over the entire world in which he finds himself. To offset this possible misunderstanding
of man’s position within the framework in which he’s been placed,
God tells him that there’s something—one tree, one fruit—that
he’s not to partake of. The midrashim offer various suggestions
as to what it is: wheat, olives, vine. But its identity doesn’t matter;
the point is that something was unavailable for man’s personal use. This
limitation was meant to teach that man is not the master. Somebody—Something—else
is the master;man is a only a steward. His mandate is “le-`ovdah
u le-shomrah” (Gen. 2:15), to tend the Garden and to preserve
it, to look after it and to keep it. He is a “gardener,” neither
the owner, nor the master. He has no dominion.
Adam sinned when he thought that he could take over everything for himself.
When he used that which had been forbidden to him, he denied his stewardship
and expressed his sense of absolute dominion over the whole of his realm. That
was the reason that he had to expelled. Upon his expulsion, the whole ecological
balance was subverted and a new imbalance arose: qots ve-dardar (Gen.
3:18), weeds and thorns were to grow. One now has to labor hard in order
to get one’s food. It becomes very, very evident that man is no longer
master, no longer in absolute control, and that one has to live in accord with
certain rules and regulations that have been given by the One who is above man.
By keeping to them, one will be able to survive at a certain minimal level.
The biblical text describes how this continued for a number of generations but
that people again became egotistical. They began to think, “Yes, well,
we really are masters. We can take things over.” The concept of property,
of ownership, of personal responsibility, doesn’t really exist in a totally
hedonistic and egotistical ideology. One takes whatever one can get. Kol
de-alim gevar: Whoever is stronger will take and own things. Nature is no
longer something one has to preserve. One can modify it. One can change it.
One can do genetic engineering. The Torah tells us that “vatimallei
ha-arets hamas’” (The earth was filled with hamas. Gen.
6:11). Rashi explains “hamas” as the loss of
the concept of duty regarding another’s ownership rights. One takes what
one can, gets what one can, owns what one can. It doesn’t matter how one
gets it; it all must be possessed. “Ki hishhit kol basar et darko al
ha-arets”. (“All flesh had corrupted their way upon the
earth.” Gen. 6:12). Rashi says that they started kil’ayim, improper
cross-fertilization of certain species. In other words, they began to
change the laws of nature—possibly through genetic engineering. They thought,
“It’s all in our hands. We can do with it as we wish.” In
their view, homer be-yad ha-yotser, anu yotserim”: We are the people
who are in charge. We can alter things. We can change things according to our
own vision and our own path. But the Torah tells us that there ensued
what in modern terms is called an eco-disaster: a flood. As soon as these basic
values were done away with, were abolished, ceased to be a part of the mandate
that man was meant to keep, a disaster fell upon mankind. These messages, which
might sound like drush, are not. They are very basic to Judaism and they
reverberate throughout the whole of the halakhah.
Let us consider just one simple example, shemittah, the sabbatical
year. This year is a shemittah year, and it has
much to teach us. It functions on three levels. First is the strictly
agricultural level. It is impossible to exploit the earth without pause. The
soil cannot generate crops year after year without losing its nutrients. You
have to let the earth, the soil, rest – “az tirtseh
ha-arets et shabbetotehah”. (“Then shall the land be paid
her sabbaths”. Lev. 26:34). We know that in the medieval
era, the feudal system divided parcels of land into three fields, one of which
would be left fallow at any given time. This made for a double shemittah, as
it were. It similarly appears that fields in the Land of Israel in rabbinic
times were similarly left fallow once every three years, and not merely in the
seventh, as reported in Yerushalmi Shevi`it. The earth had to gather
its strength, had to re-charge its batteries in order to be able to produce
crops and to remain fertile.
The second level, beyond the agricultural, is the sociological. What distinguishes
the classes of society from one another is wealth and possessions. In a rural,
agricultural society, wealth equals property. People thought that they owned
their own fields. They were more powerful because they had authority and control
over the earth. But every seventh year, there was an equalization, a quasi-socialist
whittling away of the classes. It was a sort of mystical, almost Marxist solution in
which everybody had equal right to take from the land and there was no absolute
ownership on the part of any one person. This was reinforced by the annulment
of debts at the same time, so that what makes a person poor-—his debt
to someone else—-is suddenly cancelled. Likewise, slaves are freed. These
sociological implications of shemittah are clear and understandable.
Of course, the most important but also the simplest lesson this teaches is
that we do not own the lands we think we own. We work it. We’re its stewards.
We’re its guardians. We use it for six years and we come to think of it
as our own land. We have absolute rights over it. We can do with what we want
with it. But the seventh year teaches us that this is not so. Suddenly the land
becomes no longer ours. Anybody can come and take from it as much as he wishes,
(subject only to some limitations). Hence the concept that the land on which
we live, Erets yisrael, is a place given to us le-ovdah
u-le-shomrah, to work and preserve. We are guardians over it, not masters
over it. This is very clearly implied in the halakhot of shevi`it.
Bal tashhit, the prohibition of wasting resources, is one of
the basic mandates of the conservationists. Yet bal tashhit teaches
us something else: One does not have the right to destroy things that are in
Similarly, there is a prohibition against harming oneself bodily: ve-nishmartem
me`od le-nafshoteikhem (Deut. 4: 15). So, too, you cannot take something
that belongs to you and randomly destroy it. From the point of view of the laws
of ownership, hilkhot kinyanim, I can take anything I own and destroy
it, throw it away. Why not? It is mine. Yet from the point of view of bal
tashhit, I may not do so. It is not permitted because what we think is ours,
is not ours. We are all tenants. We must be aware of that and we must think
also of the future.
We all know the very famous story of Honi Ha-Magel, who saw an old man planting
a carob tree said to him, “How long does it take until you get carobs?”
“Seventy years,” the old man replied, “but I came to the world
and I found carob trees that were planted by my grandparents. I am planting
trees for my grandchildren.” So we dare not think only of ourselves and
of our immediate benefit. We must think ahead precisely because there is a mandate
of horashah, of bequeathing: a person must transmit what
he has received to coming generations. Because it is not yours, you do not have
the right to decline to pass it on to the next generation. In Erets
Yisrael we fight to keep every meter of land. We de-stone the hills.
We have hitnahaluyot and, at the same time, we’re planning
a transnational highway, which is going to have a dire ecological effect upon
the whole country. The whole of our coastal plain is becoming an urban sprawl
at the expense of agricultural land. If it continues this way, Haifa, with its
industrial complexes, oil refineries, qiryat ha-peladah, may become,
Heaven forbid, something like Katmandu is now. One won’t be able to see
the skies and one won’t be able to see Mount Carmel. Even now, it’s
not particularly pleasant to walk around the docks. If you blow your nose, your
handkerchief - or whatever you use - will become grey.
You have been introduced to a number of directions of a practical nature,
of how to face some of these challenges. The challenges are enormous and cannot
be dealt with by a single individual or even a single government. They can only
be dealt with at the global levels. The problems are even more complex than
I have suggested here. As I said, Orthodoxy in Israel has not yet involved itself
in these issues, nor has it even come to realize that these are problems it
must face or should face.
One of the great challenges of the present world is population growth. Dr.
Schwartz mentioned the problem of food, i.e. how much food has to be produced
in order to feed the global population. The population is growing exponentially.
When I was in India, there were four hundred million people there. Now there
are over a billion. It has not been a long time, only a generation and a half.
China then had less than one billion and now it has more than two billion. These
countries are not large areas as a percentage of the globe. Population control
may be one of the answers, but Jewish religious people don’t like to talk
about that issue because it’s problematic. It doesn’t really pertain
to us because we’re a small nation that recently lost an enormous portion
of its membership. And yet this is another reason why we push these issues aside
and we blind ourselves to what’s going on around us. We must find solutions,
but before we search for solutions we have to realize that there exist problems
and there exist challenges. They are probably the most important challenges
that are facing the global community, and we are part of that community. We
cannot make a hole in the boat beneath our own seats and claim it affects only
us. The time has come—indeed the time came long ago—when Orthodox
Jewry, or Modern Orthodox Jewry, or Jewry in general needs to wake up to the
need to confront these issues.
These are issues that are of a basic Jewish religious spiritual nature. The
message from our classic texts is clear. I cannot say that the answers are simple,
but the warnings are blatant. If we develop sensitivity to these challenges,
and if we collectively seek solutions within our communities and our congregations,
we will surely find those solutions.
Daniel Sperber is Professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University. He is the author
of numerous books, including the six volume work, Minhagei Yisrael. He
is a recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize.