Contemporary Environmental Concerns

The Jewish intellectual and spiritual tradition offers uniquely Jewish views of the nature of nature and the role of human beings in the natural world. In practice, however, is there anything Jewish about the way consciousness and regard for the integrity and sustainability of our environment are put into practice by individual Jews and their communities or by the Jewish people?

Jewish thought and traditional rabbinic law do offer us not only general principles (such as the prohibition against wasteful destruction of resources that may be useful to others) but also policy guidelines on specific issues. Those guidelines, while not unique to Judaism, may be said to embody a particular Jewish view (even if not “the Jewish view,” always a specious notion) on many issues of current environmental concern. They do not add up to a comprehensive set of rules or even a broad manifesto, but one must keep in mind that for many centuries, Jewish authorities have rarely borne responsibility for public policy decisions of the sort that have the greatest environmental impact.

One set of policy issues raises these questions: Shall we limit our intervention in the natural world? Is every technology worthy of implementation? Here, the Book of Leviticus offers a model for considering the question as it applies to the problem of biological experimentation. It teaches us, “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different species; you shall not sew your field with two kinds of seed.” (Leviticus 19:19). The goal of these laws–holiness–may seem ethereal and recondite, but one message is clear and accessible: species have integrity, and not every blurring of distinctions between them is acceptable.

oil spillAnother set of ecological issues surrounds land use and the creation of environmentally healthy urban communities. Here, too, the Torah provides a model for urban planning. The cities of the Levites, the tribe without its own contiguous agricultural region, are surrounded by a ring of fields that are what we would call “green space.” Those fields around the Levitical cities become in Jewish law a protected zone of non-development.

Policy arguments from a Jewish perspective may be made in favor of many other environmental concerns, too, such preserving biodiversity and fostering sustainable development.

Putting into practice the ecological awareness fostered by Jewish teachings depends first of all on education and is thus the mandate of schools and homes. Environmental education in some Jewish schools is integrated with the study of relevant Jewish texts and even with experiences of worship and celebration.

For parents, the challenge of raising environmentally conscious Jewish children can elicit a Jewish response. Environmental concerns can be addressed in the observance of Shabbat, a day when we refrain from tampering with nature and turn our attention from exploitation to appreciation. Some observances, such as the Israeli tradition of bonfires on the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, present a challenge to Jewish families trying to balance continuity and tradition with environmental sensitivity.

For individual Jews and Jewish organizations alike, “going green” in a public way can be another avenue in which they endeavor to apply their Jewish commitments to the way they conduct their everyday affairs.

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