On Judaism and the Environment

With Tu Bishvat arriving, it’s a good time to consider the words of Rabbi Philip Bentley and Rutgers University biology Professor David Ehrenfeld in their essay “Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship” that described Judaism asone of the first great environmental religions.”

Or as wrote Rabbi Norman Lamm, long president of Yeshiva University, in his chapter “Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in his book Faith and Doubt, Judaism “possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded.”

Bentley and Ehrenfeld cite passages in the Bible “that stress God as creator and owner, and humankind caretaker or steward of the earth. ‘And…God…put him into the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it,’” as stated in Genesis 2:25  And Leviticus 25:23: “The land shall not be sold for ever; for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.’

They are “many other Biblical texts can be construed as being relevant to the idea of stewardship,” they write.

They say: “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.”

“First among these rules is the commandment of bal tashhit.

The Bible declares 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,” they relate, “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.”

Lamm emphasized how the prohibition in Deuteronomy on cutting down an enemy’s fruit trees was “expanded.” He quotes Maimonides: “And not only trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothing, wrecks that which is built up, stops fountains, or wastes food in a destructive manner, transgresses the commandment of bal tashhit.”

“It is also the Sabbath alone,” say Bentley and Ehrenfeld, “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.”

A problem regarding an understanding of the linkage between Judaism and the environment involves a dubious translation of a passage in Genesis—1:26, 28—which relates that 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.”

The issue: although dominion has been the common English translation of the Hebrew word yirdu—it is a poor translation, say some scholars.

Among the critics of this translation are Bentley and Ehrenfeld who speak in “Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship” of the “inadequacy” of the translation.

They cite 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.”

They write of the “superficial nature of the interpretation and its lack of context. There is no evidence, that we are aware of, 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 teaching and to the whole spirit” of Jewish law.

As Rabbi Lamm wrote: “This is the 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.”

Lamm said: “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.”

U.S. environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin says: “You look at the Bible, Jewish tradition—we have a tremendous environmental ethic. It is part of the covenant with the creator to take proper care of the creation. There is a tradition of caretaking that includes Noah and the ark protecting God’s creatures. Reverence, respect, indebtedness are imbedded in Jewish tradition. We only borrow from nature, and when we secure something for our survival from God’s creation, we express that indebtedness in blessings.”

Years ago I interviewed Josef Tamir who as a member of the Knesset from 1965 to 1985  worked for the establishment of a Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Tamir told me a problem he faced in his environmental advocacy—he also founded the Council for a Beautiful Israel and the Life and the Environment organizations—resulted from so many Jews over the centuries being cut off from their roots in nature.

Tamir came to Israel from the Ukraine in 1924. He spoke about Jews not being welcome, for instance, in parks in the Ukraine. Indeed, widely in the Diaspora, he said, “Jews were disconnected from the environment, the environment belonged to the non-Jews. Jews could deal with their kitchens, their homes, but not with the common places. They were not welcome…So they became estranged from nature.”

As to green energy, Israel has led the world in solar thermal with now more than 80 percent of homes having solar panels that heat water. Israel, too, is at the cutting edge of generating electricity from sunlight, including at the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Located near the center are the graves of David and Paula Ben-Gurion and a few miles from it is their humble home at Kibbutz Sde Boker. A plaque at it presents Ben-Gurion’s1955 declaration: “In the Negev the creative ingenuity and pioneering vitality of Israel will be tested. Scientists must develop…applied solar energy [and] wind-power for producing energy.”

As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said on its website, in a section titled “Innovative Israel”—“Since its founding, Israel understood the potential of generating power from plentiful sunshine. Its new technologies promise an even brighter future for the entire world.”

The heading of its review of the work and advances in solar energy in Israel: “A solar-powered ‘light unto the nations.’”

Ellen Bernstein’s book Ecology & the Jewish Spirit, Where Nature & the Sacred Meet,  begins with her explaining how she “began to study Jewish texts and found…that Judaism was rich in spirit and wisdom concerning humanity’s relationship with nature.” She discovered how the “creation story” and Jewish law and other elements of Judaism “all reflected a reverence for land and a viable practice of stewardship.”

Wrote Bernstein, then a biology teacher and now a rabbi: “Judaism supported the values “that Creation is sacred and humanity has the awesome and wonderful responsibility to guard and preserve it.”

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for more than 50 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up with Karl Grossman,” (, the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and author of seven books.
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