Green Jews

Jews need to put environmental issues higher on their agenda, the author argues.

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There are dozens of exhortations in rabbinic writings to learn self-improvement from natural phenomena and non-human life. Cruelty to animals is repeatedly prohibited in the Torah and the Talmud and later codes--and notably is considered one of the seven Noahide Laws incumbent on all humankind.

Hunting is seriously frowned upon--more likely banned--in Judaism, while sensitivity to animals is a frequent motif in Talmudic and Hasidic literature. One notable example: Rebbe [Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi], the great codifier of the Mishnah, had his 13-year illness attributed to a single act of minor insensitivity toward a goat. (Talmud, Baba Metzia 85a)

Justice and fairness, especially toward those vulnerable, is a theme running through scripture. Every seven years all debt would be cancelled--an interesting model for the issue of Third World debt in our era.

Two thousand years ago the Talmud (particularly Baba Batra, Chapter 2) extensively covers the regulation against atmospheric, water, and even noise pollution, and arising from Deuteronomy (23:12), issues of waste disposal.

Jewish Environmentalism Today

We may therefore ask why Judaism, which comes with first-class environmental credentials, appears in many instances to be lagging behind in ecological consciousness.

At conferences and in rabbis' sermons, environmental issues are rarely on the agenda. While most Jewish people I have spoken to understand the problem of Third World debt and appreciate the fundamentals of fair trading, there doesn't seem to be a clear, never mind vocal, Jewish response on the issue.

A moral consciousness based on Torah values would surely see merit in the argument for ethical investments, to ensure that monies are not invested in companies that use child labour, create environmental degradation, or are socially irresponsible. After all, "Justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Today's Issues

While Judaism does not endorse animal "rights," it comprehensively legislates for animal welfare. While we need to vigorously combat any efforts to ban shehita [kosher slaughtering methods], we also need consider the moral legitimacy of intensive farming practices. If shehita, as the Rambam [Maimonides] and other leading authorities insist, is legislated out of compassion to animals, doesn't that raise a question of battery-farmed chickens? And shouldn't that afford rabbis a clearer line on the undesirability of the fur trade in our fair climates, now that its cruel practices are public knowledge?

The basics of environmentalism are Torah law. Psalms declares (24:1), "To The Lord belongs the Earth and all it contains." Yet it is not often that I am informed by a Jewish organization of their environmental policy.

So says a Midrash: "When a fruit-bearing tree is chopped down, a voice is heard from one end of the world to the other but it is not audible" (Pirkei D'Rabbi Elazar, 34). Should this not make us conscious of undue waste of paper products and other natural resources that are being rapidly depleted?

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Rabbi Yossi Ives is the director of 3W Coaching, Inside Coaching (a successful consultancy and training practice), and of M-Power (a life skills training organization). He is a prison chaplain and the Rabbi of Richmond Synagogue, both in London.