“The earth is the Lord’s, and all that it holds”, writes the author of Psalm 24, while the author of Psalm 115 writes, “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth He has given to the children of Adam.” To whom does the earth–the reachable universe–really belong? For whose benefit does it exist?–Ours? All living creatures’? God’s? Its own? The Jewish tradition addresses this universal question and its practical implications.
Biblical views of the natural world, on which later Jewish traditions draw, are diverse. They begin with radical amazement at the very existence of a universe that is vast and infinitely varied and yet in many ways orderly. The chaotic forces are understood to be as much a part of nature as the regular, predictable patterns. To the extent that the forces of nature can be harnessed, it is the job of humanity to be the stewards of the world, and to act on behalf of its rightful Owner. (This is the answer to our opening conundrum.) Furthermore, we human beings owe a debt of gratitude for the world we inhabit, which provides us with sustenance and with pleasures. Consuming the products of divine creation, then, is an occasion for us to acknowledge the Creator.
In our role as tenders and tillers of the fecund world and consumers of its vegetation and of some of its other inhabitants (roles assigned to humanity in the first chapters of Genesis), people are called upon to exercise reverential care for natural resources. This is an extension–a surprising one, perhaps–of wider ethical principles: some prophetic traditions speak of society-wide moral decadence bringing on environmental disaster.
In its legal culture as well as its ethical literature, Judaism takes note of the need to care for the natural environment. Jewish law forbids the wanton destruction of natural resources, taking its cue from a biblical prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in the course of laying siege to a city in warfare. The biblical law of a sabbatical year every seventh year, during which all land lies fallow, may also be an embodiment of an insight about environmental sustainability.
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