Karl Grossman

Judaism and the Pope’s Encyclical on the Environment

“Critics say the pope should stick to religion,” reported the anchor on WCBS “all-news” radio in New York last week about the reaction of some Republican candidates for U.S. president to the encyclical on the environment just issued by Pope Francis.

In fact, the encyclical is rooted in religion with many of its 183 pages devoted to—and this is nice news for Jews—“principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition which can render our commitment to the environment more coherent,” as the pope wrote. Through the centuries, most popes have not exactly given much credit to the teachings of Judaism.

Francis addressed in the encyclical the linkage between Judaism and the environment as has Jewish scholarship in this area.

The press has described the encyclical as being about climate change, and it is. But it’s more extensive—dealing with the environmental crisis of our time and its causes.

Titled on “Encyclical Letter…On Care For Our Common Home,” it’s a significant contribution to understanding the environmental crossroads which we’re at.

A key problem in comprehending the approach of Judaism on the environment, which continued to Christianity, has involved a dubious translation of one word. It’s in the passage in Genesis relating how God said: “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air.”

Although dominion has been the common English translation of the Hebrew word yirdu, it’s a poor translation, Jewish scholars have said.

Rutgers University Professor of Biology David Ehrenfeld and Rabbi Philip J. Bentley wrote about the “inadequacy” of the translation in their essay “Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship.” They note the words of Rashi: “’The Hebrew [yirdu] connotes both ‘dominion’ (derived from radah) and ‘descent’ (derived from yarad); when man is worthy, he has dominion over the animal kingdom, when he is not, he descends below their level and the animals rule over him.’ Here is the whole dimension of meaning which cannot be conveyed by an English translation.”

Further, they cite a lack of context. They speak of “no evidence…that these verses of Genesis were ever interpreted by the rabbis as a license for environmental exploitation.” They say “such an interpretation runs contrary to their teachings and to the whole spirit” of Jewish law and cite numerous passages in the Bible “that stress God as creator and owner, and humankind caretaker or steward of the earth.”

“There are, in Judaism, a number of specific rules—together constituting a kind of ‘Steward’s Manual’—setting forth humanity’s particular responsibilities for its behavior toward natural resources, animals, and other parts of nature,” they continue. “First among these rules is the commandment of bal tashhit” They note the Bible stating that “when thou shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shall not destroy” the fruit trees. “From this source is derived the notion of bal tashhit (do not destroy), an ancient and sweeping series of Jewish environmental regulations that embrace not only the limited case in question but have been rabbinically extended to a great range of transgressions including the cutting off of water supplies to trees, the over-grazing of the countryside, the unjustified killing of animals or feeding them harmful foods, the hunting of animals for sport, species extinction and destruction of cultivated plant varieties, pollution of air and water, over-consumption of anything, and the waste of mineral and other resources.”

“It is also the Sabbath alone,” they write, “that can reconcile the Jewish attitude towards nature.” It’s a time that “we create nothing, we destroy nothing, and we enjoy the bounty of the earth. In this way the Sabbath becomes a celebration of our tenancy and stewardship in the world.”

Then there is the Sabbatical year—as we have this year on the Jewish calendar—in which Jews are to have land lie fallow to restore itself. And every 50 years, the Jubilee, when in ancient Jewish tradition land is to revert to its original owners without compensation, underlining God’s declaration in Leviticus that the land is the Lord’s, people are just its stewards. “Judaism,” they conclude, “was one of the first great environmental religions.”

Rabbi Norman Lamm, longtime president of Yeshiva University, in his book Faith and Doubt, in a chapter “Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology,” writes about the Genesis “passage that, it is asserted, is the sanction for the excesses of science and technology, the new ecological villains.” It’s been “proclaimed” as “the source of man’s insensitivity and brutality to the subhuman world” and “equated with the right to foul the air.”

He says: “It does not take much scholarship to recognize the emptiness of this charge against the Bible, particularly as it is interpreted in the Jewish tradition.”  Judaism on many levels, concludes Lamm, “possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded.”

The pope in a chapter of his encyclical on “The Gospel of Creation” writes: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth, has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.”

“The biblical texts are to be read in their context,” emphasizes the pope.

He speaks of Genesis telling “us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world. ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for substinence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”

He cites the admonition in a Psalm of David that “the earth is the Lord’s” and “to him belongs ‘the earth with all that is within it’….Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership,” he writes. And he cites the words of Leviticus: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with me.”

The pope goes on about the Bible “respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature” in “the Law of the Sabbath. On the seventh day, God rested from all his work. He commanded Israel to set aside each seventh day as a day of rest, a Sabbath. Similarly, every seven years, a sabbatical year was set aside for Israel, a complete rest for the land when sowing was forbidden and one reaped only what was necessary to live on and to feed one’s household. Finally, after seven weeks of years, which is to say forty-nine years, the Jubilee was celebrated…”

The pope at the start of his encyclical writes, “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.”

“The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges,” he writes. “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem, indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”

“Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeking the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”

He addresses pollution produced by “dangerous waste…Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

“These problems,” he continues, “are closely linked to a throwaway culture….We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.”

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades, this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.”

“The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system,” he goes on. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political…It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

He says: “There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” And “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.”

“The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.”

“Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster,” he writes. “Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.”

This Jesuit from Argentina “who has witnessed the decimation of the Amazon rain forests seems destined to remake the papacy into a modern and relevant institution,” the Long Island newspaper Newsday editorialized.

And in doing so, he is, remarkably, acknowledging his faith’s environmental underpinnings in Judaism.

He is calling for an “ecological conversion,” an environmental variant of, as we Jews say, tikkun olam, repairing the world.


About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.
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