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Do Not Destroy

On Earth Day, looking back on the history of Jewish thought about our responsibility to care for the environment

Philip J. Bentley
April 20, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
The Heavens are The Eternal’s but the earth was given to humanity
—Psalms 115:16

As Earth Day approaches this weekend, it’s a perfect time to ask what Jewish tradition says about humanity’s relationship with the environment. We often see environmental issues discussed in terms of science and politics, but what about the ethics involved? Jewish tradition, going back to biblical times, has a great deal to say about that in both law and principle. It is very similar to the way this subject is treated in both of our sister faiths, Christianity and Islam, and yet particular to Judaism.

In this literature the term for the global environment is Creation. The basic issue for Jews is what humanity’s responsibility to Creation requires of us. A verse in Genesis (2:15) summarizes that: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” So, God put humanity in charge of Creation, not as owners, but as caretakers. The term for this idea is stewardship. Creation was designed to enable us to live in it, but we do not own it. We are responsible for it. This notion is widely accepted today—some 80% of religiously affiliated Americans believe they are responsible for stewardship over God’s creation—but it has been part of Jewish theology since the beginning, and still applies to how we think about everything from pollution to fossil fuels.

I found a sermon written by Rabbi Aharon Berechiah of Modena for Rosh Hashanah in 1610 that puts this very well: “Of all that is found in the world, nothing is exempt from being judged on Rosh Hashanah. And all of them on account of the actions of humanity, for all of them were created only for the sake of humanity, and all of them are sustained by humanity’s strength and life.”

It is said that there is no free lunch. This applies to stewardship. Whatever we take from Creation will cost something. As Pirkei Avot explains about Rabbi Akiva:

He used to say: Everything is given against a pledge, and a net is spread out over all the living; the store is open and the storekeeper allows credit, but the ledger is open and the hand writes, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow; but the collectors go round regularly every day and exact dues from man, either with his consent or without his consent, and they have that on which they [can] rely [in their claims], seeing that the judgment is a righteous judgment, and everything is prepared for the banquet.
—Pirkei Avot 3:20

We find this concept taught again and again in rabbinic sources. Here is a comment from 11th-century Spain by Jonah Ibn Janah of Saragossa (quoted in The Living Talmud, edited by J. Goldin):

A man is held responsible for everything he receives from the world, and his children are responsible, too … The fact is nothing belongs to him, everything is the Lord’s and whatever he received he received only on credit and the Lord will exact payment for it.

Then, there is the 19th-century German founder of Orthodox Judaism, Samson Raphael Hirsch:

“Do not destroy anything” is the first and most general call of God, which comes to you, man, when you realize yourself as master of the earth. … I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against my world …

Of course, everything we use from nature has a cost. In terms of energy sources, that is just as true of green alternatives as it is of fossil fuels. The question is which choices are least destructive and least costly or wasteful. This is expressed in a body of Jewish law called bal tashchit (the prohibition of destruction). This legal concept is based on a rule of warfare from Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?
—Deuteronomy 20:19

Even in warfare, the principle of “do not destroy” is the law.

This legal principle is basic to Jewish law, including the most Orthodox Jews. In fact, I have observed that this is an area on which Jews of every kind from secular to Chabad and Breslover agree. In a statement made in 1981, the Lubavitcher Rebbe declared solar power the way into the future. He noted the problems that are caused by dependence on oil and cites the dangers associated with nuclear power. Then he wrote this:

The Blessing of the Sun reminds us: Many countries, the U.S. included, have already begun—albeit in a very small way, on a small scale—to harness solar energy, the heat and warmth of the sun, to use it as a source to generate energy, to power factories, and so forth.

Many objections to environmental protection come from concern with their effect on businesses and manufacturers. Jewish law addresses this. As in any lawsuit, the judge must decide on what harm has been done, who is responsible, and what is the best way to resolve the problem.

Consider this hypothetical case based on actual cases from centuries ago, which I wrote about in a book called Ecology & the Jewish Spirit: A town depends for its prosperity on a tannery. Tanneries produce noxious fumes and everyone lived upwind of the factory. However, the town’s economy did well and now people only find a place for new housing downwind of the factory. The result is that people in those houses are subject to constant foul odors and some even get sick.

This is called an external cost case, one that involves uncompensated injury based on social or environmental effects of doing business. What would a Jewish court say? It might first seek mediation or arbitration to seek a resolution to the dispute, but Jewish law (Halacha) will probably call for the injured parties to receive compensation. The tannery will be allowed to continue operations, since the welfare of the town relies on it. This would be done on a case-by-case basis. Both sides have a stake in the outcome and both are considered. But would the operators of a tannery be allowed to start operations given the likely harm? We might glean the answer from the fact that, if a woman’s husband changes from another occupation to work at a tannery, she can sue him for divorce.

Another important area of environmental law is zoning. The need to keep people from harming each other is a primary function of the law in any system. The need for public communal assets is also universal.

The Levitical cities described in the Torah represent a planned use of land designed to benefit everyone in those towns. S.R. Hirsch (commenting on Numbers 35:2, as quoted in “Ecology and the Jewish Tradition” by Eric G. Freudenthal) shows us how this was done:

The cities which were to be given to the Levites were to be surrounded by a “green belt” which extended 2,000 cubits in every direction of which the inner 1,000 cubits were called migrash ha-ir. This “common,” the immediate surrounding of the city was an open space reserved for the animals, moveable possessions and for the other amenities of the lives of the citizens, e.g. public laundries. The outer 1,000 cubits (according to Maimonides, 2,000 cubits) were fields and vineyards. The whole domain of a city consisted therefore of 1) inner city, 2) common, and 3) fields. … “For it is a possession for them for all time.” Because it was given to them as their possession for all time, therefore, at no particular contemporary time has anyone the right to make any alteration to it. No present moment has the sole disposition to it, all future times have equal claim to it, and in the same condition that it has been received from the past is it to be handed on to the future.

There are a great many statutes that are designed to protect the public from private activities in Jewish law. These are found throughout, from the Talmud to the latest teshuvot (rabbinic legal decisions). Here is an example from Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, The Mishneh Torah (as translated in The Code of Maimonides. Book Twelve: The Book of Acquisition):

He who constructs on his property a threshing floor or a privy or does work which raises dust and particles of earth and the like must, in order that these do no harm to his neighbor, do so at a distance where the particles of earth or the smell of the privy, or the dust will not reach his neighbor. Even if it is the wind that helps carry the particles of earth or the tow or the chaff, and the like to his neighbor while he is doing his work, he is obligated nevertheless to leave distance enough to prevent these from reaching and causing damage to his neighbor even by means of an ordinary wind, because all of these instances are similar to doing damage with one’s arrows.

Currently, in addition to concerns about pollution, there is the matter of global climate change. Does rabbinic tradition say anything about that? In a midrash written in ancient times, we find a warning, made to Adam, that indicates it is conceivable for humanity to spoil Creation:

When the Holy One blessed be He created Adam the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and He said to him: “See My creations, how beautiful and exemplary they are. Everything I created, I created for you. Make certain that you do not ruin and destroy My world, as if you destroy it, there will be no one to mend it after you.”
—Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

Without question, Jewish tradition calls for human responsibility for the state of the environment. It also calls for the protection of the quality of human life, including the marketplace. When considering all of this, it becomes necessary to seek solutions to the problems imposed by protecting the environment.

Currently there is the question of moving beyond dependence on fossil fuels for energy needs. Fossil fuels are not only a factor in climate change but their extraction, burning, and waste disposal have been poisoning land, water, and air for a long time. Jewish tradition strongly asserts the importance of human health, so there are many reasons in our tradition for transforming our system of supplying energy.

As we mark another Earth Day this weekend, how quickly progress is made depends on the good of the economy, but to make progress is essential. The transition, currently ongoing, from fossil fuels to renewables is supported by thousands of years of Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Philip J. Bentley is the published author of several papers and articles on Jewish environmental laws and ethics.