Recent years have been replete with extreme climate events, raising questions about our responsibility to preserve God’s world. Certain examples should especially command our attention: enormous fires in the western US and in Canada, Brazil, Australia, various regions of Europe, and even in Siberia; unusually powerful storms and floods; tangible warming and frequent extreme heat. The past month of July, for instance, was the hottest on record since measurements began over a hundred years ago. Changes in temperature are not new. Still, the overwhelming majority of scientists from the relevant fields agree that the extreme events we are experiencing are related to human action. They predict that these events will take place at an ever-increasing frequency and severity. Based on updated scientific predictions, within a generation or two, the climate will alter irrevocably.
The oceans, a principal source of life not just for the animals dwelling therein but even for our planet in general, are especially threatened. Water levels are rising, species of fish requiring low temperatures are becoming extinct, coral reefs are disappearing, and the ocean’s ability to sustain life on land is being harmed. Rainforests are also seriously threatened: according to a recent study, human action has harmed or entirely destroyed two-thirds of the world’s rainforests. The destruction is wrought primarily by clearing extensive forest areas to make way for agricultural crops, whether by means of logging or deliberate burning. The importance of the rainforests for life on earth is enormous: They cover some 7% of the earth’s land surface but are responsible for generating 28% of the oxygen, in addition to containing an unfathomable richness of life.
[T]he overwhelming majority of scientists from the relevant fields agree that the extreme events we are experiencing are related to human action. They predict that these events will take place at an ever-increasing frequency and severity. Based on updated scientific predictions, within a generation or two, the climate will alter irrevocably
Plastic, a material found in almost every industrial product, threatens the ecological fabric in numerous ways. Plastic doesn’t degrade easily, but instead piles up and pollutes several parts of our planet. In recent years, “plastic islands” have accumulated in the Pacific Ocean, and conservative estimates put their size at 700,000 square kilometers (more than thirty times the size of the State of Israel). Plastic pollution and global warming are not the only problems for the oceans. The acidity of water is increasing, and overfishing has led to people finding more microplastic in the sea than fish.
The two most worrying trends in humankind’s relationship with its environment are thus the warming of the planet and the creation of waste. There are also other problems, such as the extinction of species of animals, the collapse of pollinating bee colonies throughout the world, and expanding desertification. All these present a real threat to continued life in God’s world.
What is our position, as members of a Torah society, towards ecological crises? The struggle over environmental issues is usually identified with groups distant from our own. This has certainly been true of the past, when problems seemed localized and related more to issues of immediate quality of life (such as quality of air and local waters) than life on the planet itself—but it remains true even today, when the damage under discussion is global and possibly intergenerational. Yet, the question remains firmly outside our study halls and our Torah conversation. Why is this the case? Why are we not discussing our obligation toward the environment from the Torah, the moral, and the religious perspectives, in times when this issue is relevant both for us and for future generations?
Perhaps, under these circumstances, it would be right to limit our meat consumption to Shabbos and holidays? A rabbinic decision to refrain from meat consumption on weekdays can mark a true religious awakening in the direction of concern for the environment
It is important to note that environmental matters are related to our personal habits and can certainly fall under halachic rubrics. For instance, a halachic-ecological issue that should interest us has to do with the production, distribution, and consumption of beef. The beef cultivation industry is seemingly the most polluting of all modern industries, including the enormous clearing of forests to raise crops to feed cows, water wastage on an unprecedented scale, and the emission of greenhouse gases (from cows) on a scale far beyond that of every vehicle on earth. In addition, this industry is characterized by ongoing, inherent animal suffering, at the stages of raising and moving the animals. Perhaps, under these circumstances, it would be right to limit our meat consumption to Shabbos and holidays? A rabbinic decision to refrain from meat consumption on weekdays can mark a true religious awakening in the direction of concern for the environment.
One response to the question of our ignoring environmental issues is the relative size of Torah society. On a global scale, Charedi society is tiny, as are the Orthodox Jewish populations of Israel and the world, rendering any such halachic decisions insignificant in terms of a direct effect on the climate. But the focus of this article is the moral question rather than the impact we can make. Is it justified to act egotistically towards creation, leaving future generations with less than what we received from previous ones? Those who are not occupied with the building and development of society are considered disqualified for testimony in court. A proper society, the Sages teach, cannot trust a person who is indifferent to his environment. And what of those who are impartial to the existence of the world in the future? Our Jewish duty requires us to form a position on the matter, no matter what its influence.
Another potential response is that the environmental issue is relatively new, arising from technologies that were developed only recently. The Torah study hall lacks a tradition in dealing with such issues, and moreover, does not occupy itself with matters outside the realm of traditional halacha. Furthermore, the damage that is being done is far from our perceived senses. We are not aware of damage caused by our disposable dishes, whose final destination from our perspective is the local garbage collector. But lack of awareness cannot be a long-term excuse, and it seems that on a more general level, we lack a sense of responsibility for the environment. “Beware,” said God to Adam, “that you should not destroy and ruin my world” (Kohelet Rabbah 7)—yet it seems that we generally leave the matter to God Himself: He presented us with a beautiful world, and we rely on Him to do the same for our children.
Added to this, we are suspicious of the motivations of left-wing environmental activists, whose ideology is informed by a biocentric worldview tinged by a materialistic (or mechanistic) understanding of the world. This is not how we see things, and we often prefer to entirely isolate ourselves from the issue rather than engage ideologies that are both foreign from and dangerous to our religious convictions.
“Beware,” said God to Adam, “that you should not destroy and ruin my world” (Kohelet Rabbah 7)—yet it seems that we generally leave the matter to God Himself: He presented us with a beautiful world, and we rely on Him to do the same for our children
Whatever the reasons, I believe that they are insufficient to exempt us from involvement in the great issue of the environment and the future of the world. We need to clarify our position irrespective of its impact, and who knows—perhaps an argued and well-articulated Torah outlook can make a significant contribution to a large range of societies, religious and others, in the environmentalist field. My hope is that this article will be part of a great Torah discussion, based on the Bible and Agaddah, halacha and Kaballah, Chassidus and Mussar.
These words are written at a time when “the seventh year,” the year of shemittah, has already begun (at the end of 2021). A simple reading of the sources (Parashos Mishpatim, Behar, Reeh, Vayelech) demonstrates that the Mitzvah of shemittah has a dual purpose both spiritual and social and that both aspects have ecological significance. The Torah speaks of desisting from working the land for Hashem, much like Shabbos, and of the social benefit this brings in giving the poor free access to the produce of agriculture. Moreover, the requirement to let the land rest from the intense work of nurturing crops bespeaks a Torah commitment to respecting the land itself, rather than just extracting from it. It is an appropriate time to launch this discussion.
Progress and Its Price
For two centuries, scientific development has lengthened life expectancy and improved quality of life with new medicines, significantly shortened travel times with vehicles once considered imaginary, multiplied the capacity of the land to produce food, and with all the other wonders of modern life. This progress, largely welcome, also has significant costs affecting both human society and the planet we inhabit—the latter being the discussion of the present article.
There is a point at which the planet will not be able to sufficiently replenish itself for our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy what we enjoy. Technological progress without restraint means living at the expense of the unborn. This is neither halachically acceptable nor morally permissible
What is the cost of humanity’s extractive invasion of nature? One cost is to our self-image. Having conquered technological peaks that were hitherto science-fiction at best, we now see ourselves as being capable of virtually anything. Society sees neither technological nor (given the great benefits) moral limits to its progress, and therefore no limits to how much human beings ought to manipulate nature. But we should always remember that we do not own the earth. God does. He made the world a certain way. Harm to the creation consists in destroying the capacities with which it is endowed by God. There is a point at which the planet will not be able to sufficiently replenish itself for our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy what we enjoy. Technological progress without restraint means living at the expense of the unborn. This is neither halachically acceptable nor morally permissible.
In recent years, there has been increasing use of the term “ecological footprint,” meant to express the balance of human use of natural resources against the capacity of various ecological systems to renew themselves. One can fish a certain number of fish in a particular lake, for instance, without leading to the collapse of the lake’s fish population. In other words, even if we wish to exploit some system (and we do), we need to be smart enough to know how much this system can bear. If not, we will harm our own egoistic interests. Endless greed is not possible.
Recognition of this point alone could ostensibly suffice to preserve the planet and save us from ourselves. But in practice, we use natural resources endlessly. According to Global Footprint Network, humanity exhausted its resources for 2021 by the end of July. The continued use of these is effectively at the expense of future generations. This is a fundamental point for discussion. We live better lives than ever at the expense of our children and grandchildren. Is this moral? For too long, the question wasn’t even asked, but recent events have forced us to face it squarely.
Man’s Relationship with the Environment
The contrast between nature and culture is a central theme of Western thought in general and environmental discourse in particular. The tension between the undisturbed state of nature, given by God, and the state after human intervention designed to subdue it to our needs, is already present in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers. In modern times, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment-era French philosopher, who made this contrast the basis of his teaching. Rousseau, who saw nature as idyllic and human civilization as fundamentally harmful, proposed for instance that education should bring the student closer to the natural world and away from the flawed domain of adults and their institutions. The adult world, according to Rousseau, is a place of corruption.
In recent years, the dichotomous nature of the distinction has declined somewhat, with “ecological balance” becoming a more popular concept. Instead of contrasting nature to culture, environmental activists prefer to speak of the place of humanity within the ecological system and the required balance to maintain proper function
These romantic ideas, despite their great naïveté, established spiritual and social movements whose influence remains great even today. Rousseau’s political theory is based on a contrast between nature and civilization, with a clear preference for the former. This position deeply informed the beginnings of today’s ecological discourse, framing the question as a zero-sum game: all human progress means harm to nature and vice versa. “Tree-huggers” were often accused (sometimes justifiably so) of preferring trees to people. The nature-civilization contrast assumes a state in which humankind stands across from the world, asking whether to intervene and change it or to leave it be. In recent years, the dichotomous nature of the distinction has declined somewhat, with “ecological balance” becoming a more popular concept. Instead of contrasting nature to culture, environmental activists prefer to speak of the place of humanity within the ecological system and the required balance to maintain proper function. This change in discourse stresses that eradicating nature will also eradicate civilization—or at least seriously harm it—and is expressed by today’s preference of the word “conservation” over the term “preservation.”
These two words define two fundamental approaches among environmentalists. The preservation approach (of John Miur) seeks to preserve nature as is, uninterrupted or worked, defending it against encroachment by human civilization. The conservation approach (of Gifford Pinchot), by contrast, allows more room for human exploitation of nature, seeking to ensure the correct use of nature rather than protect it against any use whatsoever. These different views embody different attitudes towards the central ideal of modern progress. Those who seek to preserve nature fear progress, while those who seek to conserve nature and manage its resources recognize the value of human technological advancement (and even propose enlisting it in the aid of conserving nature) and narrow their demands to a requirement that we humans wisely manage our natural resources.
Eilon Schwartz, one of Israel’s first environmentalists and founder of the Heschel Center for Sustainability, distinguishes between three different environmental paradigms: natural conservation, environmental science, and cultural ecology. The first paradigm seeks to preserve nature undisturbed and unexploited. The second approaches the matter scientifically and seeks to properly manage the consumption of natural resources relative to their capacity for renewal, without recourse to romantic or sacred attitudes toward nature. The third is a synthesis of the first two. Like the first, it seeks to preserve an undisturbed nature, while like the second, it provides humanity with room for needs and wants, examining ecological issues through the prism of moral obligation.
The brief study offered below seeks to examine the story of Bereishis in the light of this road map. I will seek to examine the Torah’s attitude to human progress and its potential harm, and the tension that exists or does not exist between nature and civilization. We will examine whether man’s duty is to preserve nature while using it or protect it against any change.
“Be Fruitful and Multiply”: The Basis for Responsibility Towards Nature
There are ecological aspects in Bereishit that can be missed on a superficial reading of the parashah. My reading below relies, almost entirely, on the words of the central commentaries to the text. It is rooted in the understanding that the creation of man by God in His image and likeness primarily means appointing humankind as His representative in the world. In other words, until Adam was created, God controlled the world He created directly. Humankind was created and was assigned the dominion God had previously exercised alone, as it says in Tehillim: “You made him ruler of the works of your hand, all that is under his feet.”
Our representation of the Divine image is best expressed in humanity’s own creative capacities. The blessing “be fruitful and multiply” refers to a central aspect of human life, and not to something marginal
The human ability to rule the world derives from his similarity to God. The main commentaries on the concept of humanity’s Divine image address different aspects of “image” and “likeness,” focusing on wisdom, the ability to choose, and the ability to rule the world. God’s instruction to rule over the earth and its creatures expresses these capabilities, which include the human capacity to exploit nature for human purposes. But the commandment of conquest and dominion follows from an earlier instruction of “be fruitful and multiply.” The plain meaning of the text refers to another, additional aspect: the ability to create, and especially to procreate. Adam himself creates “in his image and likeness.” Even man creates in God’s image.
Our representation of the Divine image is best expressed in humanity’s own creative capacities. The blessing “be fruitful and multiply” refers to a central aspect of human life, and not to something marginal. Rabbi Yaakov b. Asher, the Baal Haturim, thus begins his the Even Ha-Ezer section with the words: “The intent of the creation of Man is to be fruitful and multiply.” The main goal of man’s creation is the creation of other human beings.
Thinking about these two aspects of the Divine image together—the ability to create and the ability to rule and exercise dominion—indicates that a merely extractive relationship with nature conflicts with the Divine image, for it worsens the conditions under which future people, themselves created by human beings, will live. Our basic responsibility to the world derives from our responsibility to observe the commandment “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Man’s duty to not destroy the world does not direct him to withdraw from the world. Quite the opposite. We are commanded to live in the world and increase within it, and this commandment itself requires us to ensure we leave future generations with resources. Precisely because we are commanded to live in this world, we need to make sure it is possible for others to do so, too.
Shabbos and Resting
Shabbos, also a central feature of the Divine labor of creation, gives us further insight into the proper balance between nature and culture. Shabbos rest allows a withdrawal from human civilization, especially creative technology, to a more natural state of affairs. Most, if not all, of the labor prohibitions, deal with tools aimed at refining nature or creating new things from its raw materials. The two major holidays rely on similar withdrawals: we are commanded to abandon labor-intensive bread for matzah on Pesach, and on Sukkos we leave the home for a temporary shed—to dwell closer to nature. Similar observations apply to the commandments of Shemittah and Yovel.
However, the proportions of six days versus one day, six years versus one year (and a Yovel year), show that the purpose of the withdrawal is not to live without technology or sanctify nature, but to avoid the harm, religious and ecological, of enslavement by technology. Nature is not ideal, and it is technology rightly understood and used that realizes the divine potential in humankind. The commandments of Shabbos and Shemittah are preceded in the Torah by parallel instructions regarding work: “Six days you shall work,” “Six years shall you sow your fields.” Work is not inherently negative any more than undisturbed nature is inherently good. The danger lies in forgetting the source of what our work applies to. The lands we sow and the trees we cut were created by God. Remembering this necessarily leads to a degree of humility and modesty in efforts to subdue nature for the benefit of humankind.
The singular foreignness of nature, which remains not entirely deciphered despite scientific achievements, arouses feelings of unique majesty. Human actions, by contrast, even if endlessly impressive, lead to other, not necessarily religious feelings
Moreover, the natural world, untainted by technology, invites us to an encounter with and a return to God. Creation in its initial state, before the human improvement and subjugation phase, has the power to arouse precious feelings of wonder, fear, and love of God. The singular foreignness of nature, which remains not entirely deciphered despite scientific achievements, arouses feelings of unique majesty. Human actions, by contrast, even if endlessly impressive, lead to other, not necessarily religious feelings.
To take one prominent example, observing heaven is noted by Scripture as a sure way to become amazed at God’s work: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which you have set in place” (Tehillim 8:3); “The heavens proclaim the glory of God and the work of His hands is told by the sky” (Tehillim 19:1), and so on. These days, we must go far astray from our homes to places with virtually no “light pollution” to behold a starry sky. Our love and fear of heaven have suffered from being so far from God’s handiwork unmixed with our own, yet we are compensated by the Mitzvos we listed—Shabbos, eating matzah, sitting in the sukkah, as well as Shemittah and Hakhel to some degree. These restore the human ability to behold nature in its original, primal situation and to remember the master Creator whose work stands behind, indeed, enables, all human progress.
Technology Out of Control
In addition to the safeguard of Shabbos, which seeks to prevent humanity from becoming addicted to technology, the work of its own hands, there are also more explicit rebukes in our sources to a pure-conquest view. Among the prophets, Yeshayahu often warns of the power of (low-tech) technology:
The blacksmith with the tongs works one in the coals, fashions it with hammers, and works it with the strength of his arms. Even so, he is hungry, and his strength fails; He drinks no water and is faint. The craftsman stretches out his rule, he marks one out with chalk; he fashions it with a plane, he marks it out with the compass, and makes it like the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, that it may remain in the house. He cuts down cedars for himself, and takes the cypress and the oak; he secures it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a pine, and the rain nourishes it. Then it shall be for a man to burn, for he will take some of it and warm himself; yes, he kindles it and bakes bread; indeed he makes a god and worships it; he makes it a carved image, and falls down to it. He burns half of it in the fire; with this half he eats meat; he roasts a roast, and is satisfied. He even warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his carved image. He falls down before it and worships it, prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Yeshayahu 44:12-17)
Yeshayahu presents a clear connection between closeness to God and awareness of the initial state of creation before the appearance of humankind. For us to live properly in the world and impose our dominion as Hashem meant us to, we need to remember that we are not absolute masters.
Our ability to multiply and leave what we received to future generations—and even add to it—is what defines our creation in God’s image. Unrestrained use of creation’s resources is thus sinful, for it denies the unborn of the opportunities for fulfilling God’s vision that we ourselves have been bequeathed
Many species have already been rendered extinct in the twentieth century due to the destruction of their habitats, especially through the clearing of rainforest for agriculture, global warming, and the increase in oceanic acidity. According to updated estimates, future generations will not benefit from the plenty we enjoyed. They will be extremely restricted, even if we stop the engines tomorrow. The commandment of “and rule the fish in the sea” is being realized to its extreme. But is this truly a faithful realization of God’s intention?
Our ability to multiply and leave what we received to future generations—and even add to it—is what defines our creation in God’s image. Unrestrained use of creation’s resources is thus sinful, for it denies the unborn of the opportunities for fulfilling God’s vision that we ourselves have been bequeathed. Our duties to God and to our fellow men, born and unborn, demand a more modest and responsible engagement with God’s Creation.
 See the full report here: https://d5i6is0eze552.cloudfront.net/documents/Publikasjoner/Andre-rapporter/RF_StateOfTheRainforest_2020.pdf?mtime=20210505115205.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash