Jewish Environmentalism

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

“And G‑d blessed them; and G‑d said unto them: 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, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) This passage from the very first chapter of the Bible encapsulates G‑d’s sense of the relationship of humankind with the environment.

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, the 19th century champion of German Orthodoxy, in his work “The Nineteen Letters” expands on this relationship. “...he (humankind) is to be the administrator of the earth, and it is his task to attend to everything on it and further it in accordance with G‑d’s Will. It is only from G‑d, the source of all power, that he has received the right to appropriate the world for his own use; and with this privilege comes also the duty to take only what the Giver has permitted and to use it according to His Will.”

In the Kabbalistic tradition we are taught that G‑d through the “breaking of the vessels” creates the physical world. Essentially G‑d “condensed” aspects of Himself in such a manner as to create a physical reality. Tikun Olam, the rectification of the physical world means, in light of Kabbalah, that humankind plays a dynamic role, an essential and fundamental role in bringing the world to its true purpose i.e., the furthering of the creation process. The human being must see in his/her every encounter an opportunity to draw out the G‑dliness of the inanimate or the animate in concert with G‑d’s directives. thereby repairing the broken vessels.

This human role of completing the creation begun by G‑d is clearly demonstrated in the Midrash Tanhuma’s account of the encounter of Rabbi Akiva with the Roman General Turnisrufus. The Midrash tells us that when the General asked the Rabbi whose creation is superior, G‑d’s or man’s, Rabbi Akiva anticipated the purpose of the question. The General desired to challenge the Jewish rite of circumcision. Rabbi Akiva responded that man’s creation is superior in that it completes the creation of G‑d. To Jews even the human body, considered as perfect in the Greco‑Roman tradition, is born imperfect so that the Jew can fulfill the Mitzvah of participation in the act of creation through circumcision.

All of the above helps define Jewish environmentalism. The world is created to provide for the needs of humankind and humankind is to care for the needs of the world. Human beings are not an overgrown ameba. We are unique, separate and distinct from the rest of creation as we are created in “the image of G‑d.” Yet we depend upon the physical world for our very survival and are obliged to shepherd it. Additionally, we are invited to join with G‑d in the unfolding process of creation itself through our interaction with the world about us by drawing out its G‑dly essence.

Taken to heart this approach necessarily creates within the human being a love for his/her surroundings and a responsibility for them not only because the world sustains the human being but because it presents the unique opportunity, the human being’s highest “calling”, to join in partnership with G‑d in the ever unfolding creation process.

As to the particulars of our interaction we need but turn to the Torah and Codes. The prohibition of wanton destruction, of wasting resources unnecessarily, the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees that surround our enemy’s city during war time, the removal of stumbling blocks in the public way, the Sabbatical year when we are required to leave our fields fallow, the requirement to leave our oxen unmuzzled so that they may graze whilst working, the obligation to feed our domestic animals before we feed ourselves, and so many many more Biblical rules are all part of Jewish environmentalism.

The other day I had the pleasure to watch but one chapter of an eleven part series entitled “Planet Earth” developed by BBC and The Discovery Channel. A major production receiving the accolades of people from all walks of life, its purpose is to introduce us to the magnificence of life on our spherical spaceship, planet Earth. This chapter entitled “Deep Ocean” explored the vastness of the seas. The cinematography was spectacular. Considering the utter emptiness of the ocean bed, in contrast, we were treated to the profusion of life that lives near the fissures in the ocean bed from which heated water filled with nutrients pours forth from the inner core of the planet. The array of color, the unusual shapes of plants and creatures alike was breathtaking. It was truly an uplifting spiritual experience to gaze upon the wonder of G‑d’s creation far from the ocean’s surface previously unseen by humankind.

It was noted that each fissure has its own peculiar life forms found nowhere else. The fissures do not continue to release water forever. When the nutrient enriched water ceases to flow all the life forms surrounding the fissure die resulting in the extinction of many species. Fissures are constantly beginning to emit water while other fissures cease emitting this essential elixir of life miles below the surface. Life dies and species become extinct ‑ life is renewed including life forms that take their first bow on the stage of life.

Creation then is an ongoing process even in the deepest depths of the seas; a natural process of life of death of renewal of life in new forms. And G‑d in his infinite wisdom places humankind in the very center of this ever unfolding process empowering the human being to join in the creative process and requiring that he/she ever care for and nurture that which has been created. The challenge of Jewish environmentalism is compelling and provides for a purposeful and a spiritually invigorating life for humankind.

Of course this is but an introduction to this subject. Read the Torah, examine the traditional commentaries, to broaden your understanding of Jewish environmentalism and how naturally it compliments life on the third planet from the sun, our home ‑ Earth.