Pillars of Jewish Environmental Awareness

Found In: Preserving Creation

Dr. Gabe Goldman | Article

Thousands of years before the word "environmentalism" was coined, Jewish tradition paid attention to taking care of the earth and treating animals with compassion. Thousands of years before the first landfill appeared, the Torah was teaching Jews not to waste anything. Earth care has always been important in Judaism, partly because nature is so integral to Jewish life. Nature imagery fills our prayers and enhances many of our holiday celebrations. Our rabbis of old recognized that they could better understand the Creator by observing creation. To this end, they spent many hours in the outdoors – watching the sun rise and set, noting the phases of the moon, delighting in the changing of the seasons.

The pillars of Jewish environmental awareness are rooted in Judaism’s cosmological beliefs (beliefs about how the world was created) and expressed as halacha (Jewish law) in the Torah and Talmud, our "written" and "oral" traditions. There are eight fundamental beliefs that govern Jewish environmental awareness. These are:  

1. The Belief in the Oneness of God

The most basic belief of Judaism is the belief in one God. This belief is made the central prayer of the Jewish worship service, the Shema: Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. The first of the Ten Commandments tells us that there is only one true God and that we are not to worship false gods. So, too, Judaism tells us that this Oneness is evident in the inter-connectedness of the natural world. Science describes the interconnectedness as "ecology."

2. God is the "Owner" of the World

Judaism views God as the rightful owner of the world. Leviticus (25:23) states this explicitly, "The Land shall not be sold for eternity; for the land is mine and you are but strangers journeying with Me." We are also the caretakers of this world, a responsibility assigned to all humans the moment God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to "work and protect" (avdah u-shomrah) it. We have a right to use any of its resources but this right is tempered by our responsibility to protect these resources for use by all future generations.

3. God Created the World with Intent and Purpose

Jewish tradition tells us that God created the universe with purpose. Nothing was created by "accident"or without a reason. A traditional Jewish story makes this point beautifully. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (10:7) – "Even though you may think them superfluous in this world, creatures such as flies, bugs and gnats have their allotted task in the scheme of creation, as it says, 'And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good.'" (Genesis 1:31).

4. Earth Stewardship the Responsibility of the Individual

Like most of the Torah’s commandments, taking care of the earth is made the responsibility of the individual. Earth stewardship is not made the responsibility of political parties, environmental movements or religious organizations. According to a traditional Jewish story, this point was made dramatically clear by God to the first man and woman. Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13) – "When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, 'See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of my works. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Think of this and do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.'"

5. Ba'al Tashchit – Prohibitions against Waste

Called ba'al tashchit in Hebrew, this commandment is the basis of the prohibition against wasting or destroying anything needlessly. The prohibition is found in Deuteronomy (20:19-20), When in your war against a city you have to besiege it for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (ba'al tashchit) its fruit trees ... You may eat of them but you must not destroy the fruit trees. Later Jewish thinkers explained that ba'al tashchit applies to every person all of the time, encompassing the prohibitions against using more of something than is necessary, using something in a way it is not intended to be used and using something of greater value when something of lesser value could be used.

6. Tzaar Ba'alei Hayyim – Prohibition against Causing Animals Unnecessary Pain

Called tzaar ba'alei hayyim in Hebrew, this prohibition tells us not to cause animals any unnecessary physical or emotional pain. So important is this prohibition that it appears in several places throughout the Torah, one such being Deuteronomy (22:6-7) – "If, on your way, you happen upon a bird’s nest in a tree or on the ground, with baby birds or eggs in it, do not take the mother with her young. Drive away the mother and take only the young. This way you will live a long life."

7. Shabbat and Sabbatical Years – Land Rest and Renewal

Land rest and renewal are concepts that appear in the Torah in conjunction with instructions on how to care of the Land of Israel. The earth is to rest once a week on Shabbat and every seventh year, called the Sh’mitah or Sabbatical year. The instructions regarding the Sabbatical year are found in Leviticus (25:3-4) – "Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the field. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyards."

8. Earth Stewardship is a Personal Commitment

Observing the mitzvot of earth stewardship is a personal commitment. It is not a commitment that depends on a grass-roots party or a supportive political system. Like almost all of the mitzvot in the Torah, it is the responsibility of the individual to perform regardless of what others are doing. Ultimately, Jewish tradition believes that the individual who performs the mitzvot with joy will have a positive effect on those who do not. Ultimately this is the lesson we learn from Abraham's role in bringing monotheism to the world.