Although several Jewish organizations are dedicated to environmentalism and many individual Jews are involved in the environmental movement, the author of the following piece articulates his opinion that Jews–and rabbis in particular–do not emphasize environmentalism nearly enough. Reprinted with permission of
As a boy of six I was walking to shul with my father one morning and I unthinkingly tore some leaves off the hedge we were passing. In disapproval my father told me the Hasidic tale (Sefer Hatoldot-Chabad Vol XIII) of how Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, as a young boy, carelessly ripped a leaf of a tree and was told by his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, that God had his intention for that leaf and he was not to damage it unnecessarily.
An almost identical story is told by Aryeh Levine about Rav Kook [a 20th-century Orthodox Zionist luminary]: “As we were walking I plucked some flower or plant. He trembled, and quietly told me that he always took great care not to pluck, unless it were for some benefit…” (Lachai Ro’i p. 15).
The Torah proscribes wanton destruction (Deuteronomy 20:19), even at a time of war. So writes Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona (Chinuch, 529), “This is the way of the devout and those who seek good deeds… they never destroy even a grain of mustard, and are upset at any destruction they see.”
Scriptural writings are full of natural imagery and are steeped in respect for nature, while biblical and later rabbinic law provide comprehensive legislation on issues such as conservation, animal welfare, species preservation, sanitation, and pollution.
The Torah orders the creation of green belts around cities (Numbers 35:4), and the laws against grafting diverse seeds and cross breeding animal species (Leviticus 19:19) can be understood in modern terms as concern for biodiversity (see Nachmanides on Leviticus 19:19 based on Jerusalem Talmud Kilayim 1:7).
Shabbat is a weekly rest for humans, animals, and the natural world (Horeb, Samson Raphael Hirsch). We are called upon in halakhah [Jewish law] to offers blessings for all manner of natural phenomena (rainbow, lightning, shooting stars, the first blossoms of a tree, etc.). A most dramatic ecological gesture is Shemita, the seventh year rest for the environment, when all fields lie fallow.