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The first two chapters of Genesis contain teachings with profound relevance for ourselves and our world today. After creating Adam and Eve, G-d blesses them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” What does it mean for humans to subdue the earth and have dominion over other creatures?
One of the central precepts of Rabbinic Judaism is that the Written Torah must be understood within the context of the 2,300 year-old rabbinic tradition (including the Midrash and other works) that interprets it. While on the surface the words of this verse appear to give people license to degrade and subdue the earth, the Oral tradition makes clear that a wholly different message is being conveyed.
Environmental Responsibility in Jewish Texts
The Midrash teaches, “Rabbi Chanina said, ‘if he [the human being] merits it then [G-d says] have dominion, while if he does not merit, then [G-d says] he will be taken down.’ This teaching links human dominion of creation to humanity’s righteousness: if humanity merits through its righteousness, then it shall rule over nature. But if it does not merit because it does not act in an upright fashion, then humanity itself will descend and not be granted rulership over nature.
Another Midrash makes clear that part of human righteousness involves being stewards of the earth. The Midrash says that G-d showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” Acting righteously thus involves treating the world with utmost respect; for this the human will merit dominion of creation.
Rabbi David Sears writes that the blessing to dominate “comprises a form of stewardship for which humanity is answerable to G-d. Both Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources state that it is forbidden to kill any creature unnecessarily, or to engage in wanton destruction of the Earth’s resources… The divine mandate for man to dominate the natural world is a sacred trust, not a carte blanche for destructiveness.”
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