Humans as Co-creators: Co-owners as Well?

A Talmudic legal parable illustrates that, although they may have improved the natural world, humans do not own it. We may transcend nature, but we are also part of it.

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Vis-à-vis Nature, Humans Are Trustees

Let us now project this specific case onto the cosmic scene. God is the Owner, man the artisan, and the raw material is all the wealth of this world: nature, life, culture, society, intellect, family. Man was charged with applying to them his yetzirah-creative talents. He was commissioned to improve the world, build it up, transform it, “subdue” it. If he does so, he is “paid” for his labors. But man never has title over his own creations; he has no mastery over the world. Despite his investment of labor and talent, the world, even as perfected by him, belongs to the original Owner.

No matter how extensive and ingenious man’s scientific and technological achievements in the transformation, conquest, and improvement of nature, he cannot displace the rightful Owner who provided the material in the first place. And not only does man not have proprietorship over raw nature, but he is not even the absolute master of his own creations, the results of his magnificent yetzirah. He may not undo what he himself did, for once having done it, it belongs to the Owner and not to the artisan. Man must never entertain the notion that because he labored over his creations, he has the right to destroy them, to repeal his creativity. He remains a paid trustee over his very own products and must guard them and watch over them with the greatest care.

Man the yetzirah-creator, according to the teaching of halakhic Judaism, is responsible to God the beri’ah-Creator not only for the raw material of the natural world into which he was placed, but is responsible as well for protecting and enhancing the civilization which he himself created. “Subdue it” is not only not an invitation to ecological irresponsibility; it is a charge to assume additional moral responsibility, not only for the natural world as such, but even for the manmade culture and civilization which we found when we were born into this world.

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Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Ph.D., served more than a quarter of a century as President of Yeshiva University and of its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith.