Sunday, June 19, 2011

Judaism and Ecology

Rabbi Dovid Sears
Published in a slightly different form in the Jewish Press, 2003

"Environmentalism" has become an ideologically charged term in American life, associated with the political agenda of the Left. Certain positions on the Leftist agenda are in conflict with the Seven Laws of Noah, the fundamental Torah precepts that apply to all humanity. This in combination with the Left's general antipathy toward religion, Orthodox Judaism in particular, has caused the Orthodox community to lean toward the Right. Moreover, some radical environmentalists have made their cause the basis of yet another "secular religion," defining their beliefs in stark contrast to the most basic premises of Judaism and monotheism. However, the current political climate should not preclude the possibility of our honestly evaluating the case for greater environmental responsibility. Let's put the problem of "guilt by association" aside for a moment, and take an unprejudiced look at what Judaism has to say about our duties toward the world around us.

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 50b) tells the story of a villager who used to clear away stones from his courtyard and cast them into the street outside. One day a pious man came along and asked him, "Why are you throwing stones from a place that doesn't belong to you to a place that does?" The villager laughed at him, for this was the opposite of what he took to be the case. Not long afterward, the man was forced to sell his property due to financial difficulties. When he came to that street, he tripped on one of the stones he had formerly cast and fell to the ground. "That pious man knew what he was talking about!" he cried.

If this were just a "wisdom tale," it would be enough to open our eyes. But it is more than a wisdom tale. Citing this Gemara, Rav Yosef Chaim of Bagdad, best known as the Ben Ish Chai, rules that even if the law of the land permits one who builds a house to leave debris in the public domain, he must refrain from doing so for any significant length of time. The Torah demands a greater degree of responsibility for the consequences of our actions. As a popular advertisement used to say: "We have to obey a Higher Authority!"

Other examples of environmental concern in Judaism include the laws of bal tashchis, neither to destroy wantonly, nor waste resources unnecessarily; the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees, or the forest surrounding an enemy city in wartime; the law of covering excrement; etc. The prohibition of bal tashchis represents a halachic principle that extends to a wide range of cases.

The great 19th century thinker Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch sees this Torah mandate as reaching beyond the letter of the law to underscore a fundamental axiom in religious life. Echoing the passion of the ancient prophets, he declares:

"This … is the first law that is opposed to your presumption against things: regard things as God's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing! Do not be avaricious! Be wisely economical with all the means that God grants you, and transform them into as large a sum of fulfillment of duty as possible" (Horeb, Vol. II, chap. 56, sec. 402, p. 282, Dayan I. Grunfeld, trans.).

We are not the true owners of the things of this world. "God owns the world and all that it contains…" (Psalms 24:1).

The ethical ramifications of the latter verse are eloquently expressed by the Kabbalists. In the words of 16th century mystic, Rav Moshe Cordovero of Safed:

"One's compassion should extend to all creatures, and he should not disparage or destroy them, for divine wisdom extends to all creation: 'silent' things [such as dust and stones], plants, animals, and humans. For this reason our sages warned us not to treat food disrespectfully. Just as divine wisdom despises nothing since everything proceeds from it, as the verse states, 'You have made them all with wisdom' (Psalms 104:24) so should a person show compassion to all of God's works" (Tomer Devorah, chap. 3).

From this point of view, it may be said that the principles of ecology permeate the entire Torah, above and beyond concerns of individual liberty. The Torah instructs us to strive to be in touch with the whole and not remain in one's egoistic corner of the universe, for all elements in the intricate tapestry of creation are connected. As Isaiah (5:8) declares: "Woe unto you who have caused house to encroach house, and make field approach field until there is no more open space; are you the only ones in the midst of the land?" That is, one who has little regard for the reality of others and of world around him but remains submerged in an uncaring morass of self, fails to grasp the very essence of the spiritual life.

The mark of a true chassid, a spiritually refined person, is to be sensitive to other humans, indeed to all creatures; and the mark of a true chacham, a sage in the fullest sense, is to grasp the "larger picture" in all of life's circumstances, and not just to focus on one detail of immediate concern to himself. This is ecology on the grand scale: a spiritual and moral ecology for which the Torah is the ultimate guidebook.

Upon reflection it is clear that active concern for our natural environment is a legitimate "Jewish issue." In view of current environmental threats, including growing shortages of water and other resources, destruction of habitats, and the effects of global climate change, it is also a matter of common sense. This is true, regardless of any other movement, secular or religious, that may wish to impress environmental responsibility into the service of its own ideological ends.

This essay is based on the following sources: Ben Ish Chai: Halachos I, Ki Seitzei, 15; Berachos 52b; Kiddushin 32a; Bava Kamma 91b; Bava Basra, Perek "Lo Yachpor," passim.; Shabbos 67b; Sefer Chassidim, 667; Ramban on Deut. 22:6; Sefer HaChinnuch, 545, 529; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchos Shemiras Guf VaNefesh U'Bal Tashchis, pp. 1772-1774 (Kehot ed.); et al. Deut. 20:19-20; Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos, Neg. Mitzvah 57; Mishneh Torah, Shoftim: Hilchos Melachim 6:10. Deut. 23:10-14; Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos, Pos. Mitzvah 192, 193.

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