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Should Jews Care About Environmental Sustainability?

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

When I began learning about Judaism, I was an environmentalist. I assumed that there wasn’t much discussion on environmental issues in the Torah, but as I studied more and more, I learned that this is not so.

In this week’s parshah, Bereishit, G-d tells man:  “Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the Earth and subdue it.”[1] Then, unbeknownst to most people, the Torah continues: “Hashem G-d took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it.”[2] From a Jewish perspective, humans are both masters and guardians of the Earth; we are here to use it and protect it.

Finally! This is what I had been trying to tell my friends and family for years! With climate change (whether you believe it is natural or accelerated by man), extinction, desertification, deforestation, exponential population growth and pollution, I was ecstatic to see that G-d had told the first man, and all subsequent humans in history: take care of the Earth.

As Jews, we are commanded to take care of our bodies, because they house our souls.[3] Caring for our bodies enables our souls to thrive and fulfill their G-d given purpose. So too, we are commanded to take care of the Earth because it houses our collective souls.

Many think the environment is about the Earth or animals; it is ultimately about preserving man’s ability to survive and thrive.

The Torah, which is an instruction manual for life, has many guidelines for how we are meant to both enjoy the world and protect it. Take the Jewish view of animals. Jewish law prohibits unnecessary cruelty to animals.[4] The method of Kosher slaughtering, shechitah, seeks to minimize the animal’s pain and is the most humane slaughter method known today.[5] Then there’s “Bal Taschit,” which means “Do not destroy.” Jews are prohibiting from destroying or wasting resources: food, water, energy, clothing, or money.[6]  There are many more “environmental” mitzvot, which benefit us as well as the planet.[7]

Yet as I integrated into a religious Jewish community, I was disappointed to see that the value of environmental sustainability is not prominent, and even seems to be ignored. For example, religious Jewish families often have many children. On Shabbat and Holidays, large quantities of food, paper and plastic goods are often consumed. I had trouble reconciling these types of behaviors with the Torah’s call for environmental stewardship.

At some point in my journey, it all came together with the following teaching: I learnt that according to the Torah, all of life is tied into the Earth’s system on both a physical and spiritual level. So when there is an ethical and moral breakdown in humans, the environment begins to break down as well.

In other words, environmental degradation is an external, physical reflection of an internal, spiritual human breakdown.

Thus, we don’t believe that Jews should limit the number of children they have for the sole reason of keeping the global population down. The spiritual impact of all of the mitzvot that one child may do can have a greater impact on preventing environmental destruction than one less child in the world could on a more external, natural level. It is the same idea with paper goods on Shabbat. Those resources enable hosts to relax and enjoy Shabbat, while opening their home to guests to experience Shabbat with them. Arguably, this spiritual (and physical) benefit far outweighs the environmental impact of the paper goods.

Since the Jewish perspective teaches that the root of environmental issues is spiritual, I strive to be the best person I can be through mussar (self-development work) and keeping the mitzvot. In addition, I take reusable bags to the store and recycle. I ride my bike or walk sometimes instead of driving (A big deal in L.A.). I try to unplug outlets or turn off lights when I am not using them. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet during the week and eat meat on Shabbat and holidays. (Also a big deal, since I was vegetarian for seven years!)

As someone who studied and worked in the field of environmental law and policy, I believe that we need such policies to ensure a proper relationship to the environment on a global scale. As Jews, I believe we must also address the issue from a spiritual perspective.

Resource Suggestions: Canfei Nesharim and Hazon are two Jewish sustainability organizations. Canfei Nesharim seeks to educate and empower people to protect the environment from a Torah perspective. Hazon is a pluralistic organization with an emphasis on sustainable farming and outdoor events.

[1] Genesis 1:28

[2] Genesis 2:15 (Emphasis added.)

[3] “Guard yourself [your body] and guard your soul very carefully” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).

[4] Rabbi David Sears, Compassion for all Creatures, Canfei Nesharim, http://canfeinesharim.org/compassion-for-all-creatures-longer-article/. Some Rabbinic authorities even hold that one must not only refrain from causing an animal pain, but must actively intervene to relieve the pain. Id.

[5] Id. An animal should not be killed in the sight of another animal, the animal should be restrained carefully, and the slaughterer should be a Torah scholar. Id.

[6] Rabbi Yehuda Levi, Ecological Problems: Living on Future Generations’ Account, in Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment 21-22, (Canfei Nesharim, New York, 2005) at 24. The basis for Bal Tashchit is the Torah’s commandment that one should not cut down a fruit tree in wartime. (Deuteronomy 20:19). The Talmud understood this verse to be a general principle beyond war and fruit trees. “If Jews must not cut down fruit trees in the extreme case of a war of conquest, when destruction is the norm, how much the more so does this apply to normal life.” Rabbi Yonatan Neril, Summoning the Will Not to Waste, Canfei Nesharim, http://canfeinesharim.org/summoning-the-will-not-to-waste-longer-article-for-deeper-study/.

[7] For instance, cities in Israel are commanded to have a “green belt” around them, areas of undeveloped land to ensure that the expansion of cities (urbanization) does not go unchecked. Rabbi Yonatan Neril, Grapes, Goats, and Open Spaces: Sustainability in Settling the Land of Israel, Canfei Nesharim, http://canfeinesharim.org/grapes-goats-and-open-spaces-sustainability-in-settling-the-land-of-israel/. (quoting Numbers 35:2,3).  Many are familiar with the mitzvah of Shemitah, which requires that every seventh year, farmers do not use the land for agriculture. Though this practice was mandated thousands of years ago, fallowing the land is considered a modern organic agriculture technique to prevent soil depletion and enhance fertility.[7] (Leviticus 25:3-4.)

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