Why going green is the Jewish way
“The Eternal God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to keep it and to watch over it.” (Genesis 2:15)
The foundation of the Jewish relationship with the environment stems from Genesis 2:15 which states: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.”
Later rabbinic commentary on that verse adds detail to God’s instructions to Adam: “Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And everything I made, I created for you. Be careful [though] that you don’t spoil or destroy my world—because if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13). As modern stewards of creation we too must be especially careful not no destroy this earth beyond repair.
Jewish tradition emphasizes many additional values speaking to our nation’s need for energy policies that are environmentally responsible and that pay due attention to the public health and safety of both present and future generations. Humankind has a solemn obligation to improve the world for future generations.
Among the many insightful Jewish environmental quotes and ancient teachings, these are some of the most poetic texts dealing with environmental integrity and eco-justice:
Genesis 9:9-10: “Behold, I establish my Covenant with you, with your children after you, and with every living creature that is with you, of the birds, of the cattle and of every wild animal of the earth with you.”
Exodus 23:6: “do not subvert the rights of your needy.”
Leviticus 19:15: “do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich.”
Deuteronomy 20:19: “When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?”
Deuteronomy 22:6: “Do not take the mother bird with her young.” Rabbi Nachmanides interpreted this to mean that we are prohibited from taking actions causing the extinction of a species. Someone who kills mother and children in one day, or takes them while they are free to fly away, is considered as if having destroyed the species.
Psalm 24:1 “The Earth is God’s, and the fullness thereof.”
Psalm 33:5: “God loves righteousness and justice; the Earth is full of God’s loving-kindness.”
Rabbi Isaac b.Sheshet, Resp. 196, 14thc: “One is forbidden from gaining a livelihood at the expense of another’s health.”
Genesis Rabah 10:7, Shabbat 77b, and Exodus Rabah 10:1. “Of all the things God created, nothing was created in vain — not even the things you may think unnecessary, such as spiders, frogs or snakes. All beings are part of the greater scheme of creation of the world.”
Sefer HaChinuch 529; 13th Century: “Righteous people … do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can, they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the wicked … rejoice in the destruction of the world, just as they destroy themselves.”
Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 31b: Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai … used to say: “if you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.”
Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach: When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? … God replied, Oh Noah, how different you are from the way Abraham… will be. He will argue with me on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah when I tell him that I plan their destruction… But you, Noah, when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on behalf of the world. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch you. You thought of no one but your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned.
Exodus Rabah 2:5: When we ponder why God appeared to Moses in a lowly bush, the rabbis tell us it is to illustrate that nothing in creation is without God’s holy presence, not even the most common bush.
The Talmud explains: While the sage, Choni, was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”
The principle of pikuach nefesh – saving lives above all else – is the greatest Jewish moral obligation. In order to fulfill this obligation we must do everything in our power to protect the environment as a vehicle for saving the lives of millions of humans and diverse species worldwide, especially those unable to adapt to a changing climate.
“It is not required of you to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it” ( Pirkei Avot 2:21)
Article adapted with permission from the Greening Resources section of the Union for Reform Judaism in the USA.
Published by the South African Union for Progressive Judaism, Johannesburg.
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*From Conversations On World Religions and Ecology (The Forum of Religion and Ecology at Yale)