Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

The EPA, Trump, and Torah law

The Environmental Protection Agency probably needs to change its name to the Environmental Lack of Protection Agency.

In Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first few months in office, the EPA has made a number of moves designed to dismantle the department’s effectiveness. It has proposed a budget that will make it unworkable in many vital areas. It has eliminated a number of sites on its web pages that offered detailed climate data and scientific information about greenhouse gases and other dangers.

Last week, the EPA moved to purge nearly all the members of its current Board of Scientific Counselors by mid-August. It also shut down any meetings planned for the summer by BOSC subcommittees.

This is not a total surprise. Aside from the fact that Pruitt, while serving as attorney general of Oklahoma, sued the EPA 14 times, the man who appointed him apparently believes that climate change is a hoax. Since 2011, President Donald Trump has tweeted as much as 115 times, according to a survey by Vox contributor Dylan Matthews. Trump and his spokespeople, meanwhile, steadfastly refuse to say whether he still believes that. The question was raised again late last month, when Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord.

Sadly, the American public seems to be as unconcerned as is the administration.

Judaism, on the other hand, insists we must keep protect the world around us. The earth is not ours, after all; it belongs to God.

Sad to say, that humankind has such an ambivalence toward its relationship to the environment is indicative of the ambivalence we have toward God and His role as Creator. As much as many people pay lip service to that, they do not really buy the package. The texts, however, do not allow for such ambivalence.

Thus, while it is true that Psalms 115:16 says, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but He has given the earth to the children of men,” that does not mean “the children of men” can do with it as they please. As Psalm 24:1 states: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it.”

The earth belongs to God. The job of humankind is to care for the earth on behalf of the Landlord. It is that simple.

Say that, however, and you get many who will quote Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Having dominion, they insist, means being in control and making all the decisions.

Not so. According to the commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, “The ignorant have compared man’s rule over the earth with God’s rule over the heavens. This is not right, for God rules over everything. The meaning of ‘he has given the earth to the children of men’ is that man is God’s ‘pakeed’ over the earth and must do everything according to God’s word [because ‘pakeed,’ meaning steward, is a specific term, referring to a commission for a specific task. That task is found in Gen 2:15]: ‘And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to till it and tend it.’”

In fact, the Torah makes clear in several ways that humankind does not have absolute power over the environment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the notion that even the land is entitled to a “Shabbat” of rest. Thus, the Torah tells us in Leviticus 25:1-19: “And the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Shabbat to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; but in the seventh year shall be a Shabbat of rest to the land…; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard…. Therefore you shall do my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them; and you shall dwell in the land in safety. And the land shall yield its fruit, and you shall eat your fill, and dwell in it in safety.”

Then there is Deuteronomy 20:19. “You shall not destroy the fruit-bearing trees of the enemy, for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?”

This simple statement led to a halachic principle often cited here, the principle known as “bal tashchit,” or prohibition against wanton destruction. Thus, the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 67b teaches us, “He who covers an oil lamp or uncovers a naphtha [lamp] infringes the prohibition of wanton destruction,” because such actions would speed up the burning of those fuels in the lamp. Because it is forbidden to burn fossil fuels with abandon, for example, it is a violation of Jewish law to drive above maximum speed limits, because the faster we go, the faster we burn the car’s fuel.

Maimonides, the Rambam, addresses the question of removing trees for esthetic purposes. Says he, based on this simple verse, “The Torah forbids … uprooting without any purpose, for that is wanton destruction.” (See his Responsa, No. 54.)

A 14th century rabbi, Aharon Halevy of Barcelona, wrote of “the way of the pious and those of good deeds” in his Sefer Ha-Chinuch. “They love peace, rejoice in that which is of benefit to people and brings them to Torah; not even a grain of mustard do they destroy, and are grieved by any destruction they may see.”

The Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12, 66d) offers another interesting take on Torah law: “It is forbidden to live in a town in which there is no garden or greenery.”

Neither Trump nor his EPA administrator need to take Torah law seriously. We do, however. We are, after all, God’s kingdom of priests, “and the earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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