Judaism and the Environment 101

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”

– Rabbi Hillel, Mishneh Avot, first century CE

Like all peoples and faith communities, the Jewish people has had an evolving relationship with the physical world. Because we have traveled through time and place for more than thirty centuries, ours is a rich and diverse tradition.

Right now we’re at an interesting moment in history. There is, on the one hand, a growing awareness of the need to manage our planet’s resources more carefully, and an intuition that as well as acting as individuals and as citizens, we also have the resources of Judaism and the Jewish people to draw upon. On the other hand, our postmodern perspective is a different one than a biblical one, and in its contemporary form, the conversation between Judaism and environmentalism is young – all sorts of issues, open questions and problems abound.

Consider first:

  • The beginnings of a Jewish environmental ethic emerge out of Bereishit, – Genesis – through the two creation stories, which set up models of our relationship as human beings with the rest of creation, and which obligate us to tend and to protect the world.
  • Our agricultural roots, celebrated on holidays and in sacred texts, are intended to connect us to the land.
  • The cycles of the Jewish year are grounded in the natural world and our connection to it
  • Shabbat – stopping and resting on the Sabbath – teaches that there are higher values than production and consumption. Resting on Shabbat – one day in seven – lies at the heart of a healthy relationship with oneself, one’s friends and one’s family.
  • The biblical concept of shmitta – having the land rest on its seventh year – provides an equivalent model of rest for the land itself.
  • The biblical concept of peah – leaving the corner of the field unharvested for the poor to pick themselves – connects ecological issues with the need for people to live free of hunger, and with their basic needs met.
  • Protecting G!d’s creation is a theme throughout subsequent Jewish philosophy, literature, liturgy and law. Scholars and rabbis from Maimonides to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav and from Rav Kook to Abraham Joshua Heschel have taught and written about this relationship.
  • Our liturgy is rich in natural imagery, from blessings that give us a framework for awareness and appreciation for the wonders and sanctity of creation to the image of the Torah itself as a tree of life.

But consider also:

  • Jewish environmentalists see bal tashchit – the prohibition on wanton destruction – as providing a halachic basis for a prohibition of contemporary behaviors which are destructive to the environment. But – like many legal issues, Jewish or otherwise – bal tashchit can be interpreted in different ways. Is it a strong enough foundation? What does it really mean?
  • The Biblical basis for Jewish environmentalism is human-centered in many ways, and to that extent conflicts in some respects with the perspective of some radical contemporary environmentalists.
  • The Jewish community worldwide, and especially in the US, is relatively economically successful. That means that, per person, we’re using a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources – more cars, larger houses and so on. How do we balance an awareness of the finitude of some of the earth’s resources with our own (enjoyable, habitual) patterns of consumption?
  • Environmentalists argue that people should have fewer children. Statistically, most US Jews outside of ultra-orthodox communities do have fewer children – but many believe that that is, for the future of the Jewish people, unhealthy, and that we need to have more. Is there a way to square the environmental argument for smaller families with a Jewish desire to respond to the losses our people has suffered in the last hundred years?
  • Many Jewish teachings about land are focused not on land in general but on eretz yisrael – the land of Israel – in particular. What does that mean when half the world’s Jews don’t live in Israel? And how do we respond to environmental depradation in Israel itself? And how does a country built around aliyah – inward immigration – now deal with being so crowded that there are strong environmental arguments for limiting growth in many ways?
  • Jewish tradition clearly permits the eating of meat (even though Jewish vegetarians argue that that is not the Biblical ideal). But we also know that eating meat is environmentally destructive in many ways…

To learn more about what Judaism teaches us about environmentalism, and how you can become involved in activism, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) is a wonderful resource. And check out some of the projects all over the world being organized by the beneficiaries of the Cross-USA Jewish Environmental Bike Ride.

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Chai – assists the Israeli animal protection community in their efforts to improve the condition and treatment of Israel’s animals

COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) – engages Jewish institutions and individuals in bringing the moral passion of Jewish tradition and social action to environmental stewardship in order to preserve the integrity of creation, advance social justice, protect future generations, and strengthen the Jewish community

Teva Learning Center – a Jewish environmental education center for day schools, hebrew school and synagogue groups

EcoJew – a site for environmental activism in the Jewish community of California with resources that can help all of us

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies – a regional center for environmental leadership on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel.


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