Jewish Teachings on Nature and the Environment

Is nature valued for itself or because it is necessary for the survival of humanity?

Ancient Jewish sources, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis, portray the world as created and structured in an orderly and deliberate fashion by a benevolent God. We are not told that God wanted to create a universe for some purpose; the Creation appears to have been purely an act of divine grace.

Later traditions, dating from the most ancient to the most contemporary, have debated the purpose of that Creation and the nature of the place of human beings in it. The human race is warned in the early chapters of Genesis to avoid immoral behavior, which would pollute nature. Is nature valued for itself, though, or because it is necessary for the survival of humanity?

Other biblical traditions propose a variety of answers to that question. Isaiah insists that the world was created in order to be inhabited. Both he and Jeremiah warn of environmental disaster if the Israelites’ moral corruption continues to pollute the land in which they live. These traditions, and others like them, point toward a human-centered view of the universe.

In the concluding chapters of Job, the Lord’s speeches from the whirlwind present a different view. In the first speech, God reminds Job of the forces of nature he cannot dominate, and also lists seven kinds of animals beyond human control  —  lions, mountain goats, deer, wild oxen and asses, ostriches, eagles. The second speech depicts large, repulsive creatures of no benefit to humankind  —  Behemoth and Leviathan. This is a clear indication that humans are not the center and purpose of the universe. Whatever the divine purpose behind Creation, human beings are not its master.

Deuteronomy includes a prohibition against destroying fruit trees while laying siege to a city in war. The rabbinic tradition of biblical interpretation, focusing on the spirit of the law, extends it far beyond the letter of its application. This ban, known in post-biblical Hebrew as bal tashhit, becomes the basis for outlawing the wanton and wasteful destruction of natural and manufactured resources of all sorts.

Rabbinic law also innovated environmental legislation of other sorts.  Civic concerns alone, without wider ecological considerations, were sufficient, to make the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud promulgate laws requiring safe waste disposal, the location of what today would be called industrial zones at a distance from settled areas, and the provision of open spaces at the periphery of towns.

Environmental considerations may also underlie the institution of a sabbatical year. The Torah, as understood by the Jewish tradition, requires that every seventh year, Jews farming in the Land of Israel let their land lie fallow and that debts (incurred in biblical times by farmers when crops were insufficient) be forgiven. After seven sabbatical cycles, a Jubilee year is to be observed, during which all non-urban landholdings revert to their original owners or their heirs. These laws provide a mechanism for leveling differences of wealth in society: in addition, they seem to embody a legal principle that the earth is owned not by its human occupants but by its Creator. In the words of Leviticus 25:23, which provide a motivating clause for the preceding sabbatical and jubilee laws: “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”

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