Judaism and Environmentalism

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By Aaron Feigenbaum

Gan Eden is best known as a paradise from which Adam and Chava were expelled after they ate the Etz HaDaas and the fate of humanity was changed forever. And what about the garden itself? Bereishis 2:9 tells us “Hashem G-d caused to sprout from the ground every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food.” Thus, we see very early on that the Torah wishes for man to live harmoniously with his surroundings and to benefit from them. Gan Eden was a place where this ideal was fully realized and where everything Adam and Chava needed was provided for them. No trees had to be chopped down to build houses, no animals had to be killed for food, and no plants had to be uprooted for farming. However, after Adam and Chava sinned, man was destined to live off the land and all these things became necessities.
The question we are faced with now is how to balance our needs in a modern society with the dictates of the Torah which call for respecting all of Creation and avoiding senseless destruction. Fortunately, the same Torah that told us of man’s perfect relationship with nature in Gan Eden also gave us a blueprint for treating our surroundings as best we can, not just for our sake but for G-d’s as well.
A notable environmental ethic is the mitzvah to avoid bal tashchit or senseless destruction. It stems from Devarim 20:19-20:“When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down; is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you? Only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down, and build a bulwark against the city that makes war with you, until it is conquered.”

This statement has some very powerful and profound implications. In Mishneh Torah, the Rambam derives from this the prohibition to not “smash household goods, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a spring, or destroy articles of food.” Sefer Hachinuch further elaborates on the mitzvah saying: “All destruction is included in this prohibition. The root of the mitzvah is known to teach our souls to love what is good and to subsequently cleave to it…This is the way of people of good deeds who love peace, rejoice in the good of creation and bring everyone close to the Torah. They do not destroy anything – even a mustard seed – and it troubles them to encounter any destruction or harm. If they can act to save anything from destruction, they use their entire strength to do so.”


As this passage points out, there is a clear connection between wastefulness and spiritual decline, as well as between mindfulness of our property and surroundings and spiritual enrichment. But the Western world is still horribly wasteful. According to the EPA, “In 2012 alone, more than 36 million tons of food waste was generated, with only five percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting.” That figure represents almost half of the U.S. food supply for 2012 or $165 billion worth of food. Another report from Washington State University notes that Americans represent 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy.
Besides consumer wastefulness we also have industrial destruction of the environment in the forms of deforestation, carbon emissions, plastic pollution, overfishing, and nuclear waste (to name only a few of our most pressing environmental concerns). Wastefulness also hurts the poor as food that could go to charity instead gets thrown out. As Rabbi Samson Hirsch argues: Bal tashchit is “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which G-d has given them as masters of the world.” Now is the time to heed the Torah’s message and adapt ourselves both technologically and spiritually to meet these challenges.
Yet the Torah’s mitzvahs regarding the environment don’t stop there. Vayikra 35:1-5 ordains that the cities the Levites dwell shall be enclosed with open land. The Rambam in Mishneh Torah extends this to all cities in Israel. Rashi comments that the enclosure is meant for the “aesthetic enhancement of the city” (Arachin 33b). This has been carried over to modern times where many American and European cities have a green enclosure surrounding them.
In regards to air pollution, the Mishnah tells us in Bava Basra 2:8 “A permanent threshing floor must be kept at a distance of 50 cubits from a town. One should not set up a permanent threshing floor on his own property unless there is a space of 50 cubits in every direction.” The Rambam interpreted this to limit air pollution and thus any industrial operations which cause dust injurious to humans and animals (Yad, Shekhenim 11:1.)
Water pollution is also of great concern to the Mishnah. It tells us in Bava Basra that “Flax water must be kept away from vegetables” (11:10) and that it is forbidden to dig a cesspit near a neighbor’s well for fear that the well would be contaminated. As with the story of Cain and Abel, the Mishnah here is instructing us that we have a duty to protect each other and stand up against injustice wherever we see it.
From these teachings and others, we learn that protecting the environment is a Torah obligation that not only protects Hashem’s creation (including us), but also teaches the principles of self-restraint, compassion, and empathy. While the environmental values taught in the Torah and Gemara don’t completely map onto the modern liberal movement of “environmentalism,” it is likely that the environmentalist movement was inspired by these values. Even if we don’t normally consider ourselves environmentalists, we should still do what we can to ensure a bright future for future generations. Perhaps we can help on an individual level by recycling or we can drive an energy-efficient car. Recognizing how fragile is our planet reminds us of the great responsibilities entrusted to us, not just for our own physical survival, but for the fulfillment of our Divine mission. However, individual action fulfills only part of this mission. We should stand up as a community for legislation that makes reckless destruction of our environment illegal and sends a clear message that Creation is not something that can be needlessly tampered with and exploited.
If we stand together as a guiding light to the nations, then we can shape our destiny and create a better, cleaner, more peaceful and more spiritually aware world for tomorrow.

(Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Encyclopedia Judaica)