Green Jews

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

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
Canfei Nesharim.

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).

Biblical Environmentalism

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.

Rabbinic Literature

Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2) declares that meditating on nature is one of the key ways a person can fulfil the commandment to “love God with all your heart…”

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?

As a rabbi I feel guilty for not doing more to present an authentically Jewish perspective on matters such as reforestation, recycling or globalisation. In a raft of “Green” issues Judaism has a balanced and reasoned approach that could be a source of pride to Jews and a source of inspiration to the non-Jewish world. More importantly, it could lead to positive action, and “action is the principle thing” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:17).

I think part of the reason is that in the minds of many people environmentalism has been hijacked by “eco-fascists” such as Earth First! vigilantes who absurdly endanger human life in furthering natural life (Joni Seager, Earth Follies). Animal welfare is discredited in the eyes of many Jews for its hostility to shehita, denying basic human rights even as it champions those of animals. But these objections, while correct in my view, don’t de-legitimize the fundamental morality of environmental responsibility and compassion toward animals.

Rabbis can raise the issue in sermons, communal organizations could adopt environmentally friendly policies, Jewish charities can invest ethically, and individual Jews can buy with a social and ecological conscience. These things, among others, would make a difference.

Judaism, with its rich heritage and history of respect for nature and non-human life, is in a perfect position to articulate a better-adjusted and more balanced environmental ethic. It would be in keeping with our tradition to do so. We would be tuning a blind eye to our own values if we choose to say, “not mine problem.”

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