What is our responsibility to the environment as observant Jews?
Thanks for your question. Our responsibility to the environment does not vary based on whether we are observant Jews, non-observant Jews or non-Jews; we all have the same responsibility. This is because the way in which we interact with the environment is based on the directives given to Adam, who is the ancestor of us all.
Genesis 2:15 tells us, “And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to protect it.” This sounds like an obligation rather than a privilege but the very next verse says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely…’” so we see that the garden was actually intended for our use. (The verse after that excludes the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge so we also see that there are some restrictions.)
From these parameters, it is easy enough to derive that we are permitted to use the environment but not to abuse it. This is a lesson that we see reinforced through various mitzvos. For example, Leviticus 22:28 prohibits slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day. You’ll note that we are allowed to slaughter animals for food, we are even allowed to slaughter both the animal and its young, we’re just not allowed to do so on the same day. This is to sensitize us to the fact that, while we may destroy aspects of nature for our needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), doing so is still destructive and we must do so with restraint.
Along these lines, consider the story of Rabbi Yehuda, which we previously had occasion to discuss in a different context. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 85a) tells us that Rabbi Yehuda once saw a calf being led to the slaughter. The calf ran to him and sought shelter by sticking its head under the rabbi’s cloak. “What do you want from me?” he asked the calf. “This is why you were created!” Because of his lack of sympathy towards the calf’s plight, Rabbi Yehuda was afflicted for 13 years, until he demonstrated that he had mastered compassion for animals.
You will note that slaughtering the calf was a permitted act and Rabbi Yehuda isn’t criticized for allowing it to proceed, he was only punished for being insensitive about it. He rightly stated that this was the reason for the calf’s creation but he had become jaded to that reality, rather than recognizing the loss of the calf’s life as a solemn byproduct of man’s necessities. His story serves as a lesson to us.
For this reason, while we are allowed to hunt for food – and even for skins or fur if necessary – hunting for sport is strongly frowned upon. In his writings, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (d. 1793), known as the Noda b’Yehuda, criticized recreational hunting. He points out that our Biblical exemplars include plenty of shepherds but no hunters. The only hunters we see are Nimrod and Esau – hardly characters we consider role models! While it may not be explicitly prohibited, the Noda b’Yehuda concludes that hunting for sport is unseemly because it is an expression of wanton cruelty. (You know how I said above that we may use nature but not abuse it? According to the Noda b’Yehuda and others, hunting for sport would fall into the category of “abuse.”)
Probably the mitzvah most people would think of in response to your question is the one we call “bal tashchis” – “not to destroy.” Deuteronomy 20:19 prohibits cutting down fruit-bearing trees as part of a siege. This is part of a greater principle that we should not casually destroy useful things. Yes, burning down an orchard might dishearten the enemy but we have to look at the big picture. We need to recognize the value of what God has given us and not ruin it in our short-sightedness. But again, the principle of “use but not abuse” applies. Accordingly, one may cut down fruit trees for constructive purposes, such as for lumber or to benefit an overcrowded grove.
I think this nicely encapsulates our responsibility to the environment: use but don’t abuse. Eating animals? Go ahead, but don’t endanger a species. Fossil fuels? As necessary. Some people need an SUV and others don’t, so let’s not ban them but maybe we don’t need to take a Humvee to the corner store for a loaf of bread. Air conditioning? Yes, mankind survived for millennia without it but I’m afraid you’re going to have to pry this innovation from my cold (from air conditioning) dead hands. Keep in mind that it’s all about making a cost-benefit analysis, and our personal analyses may not all be identical.
Psalms 115:16 says, “The heavens belong to Hashem but He gave the Earth to mankind.” You might think that we can do whatever we like with a gift but sometimes there are strings attached. Consider that nothing belongs to a person more than his own body. We are obviously allowed to use our bodies, which definitely causes wear and tear, but we are simultaneously obligated to protect our bodies and not permitted to abuse them. If we are limited in how we use our own bodies, which only affects ourselves, I think it’s just common sense that we should exercise restraint in how we use our natural resources, which affects everyone, including future generations.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent