Balancing resources and lives — being Jewish and ‘green’
I entered the classroom, where more than 30 Jewish adults who had been studying together for the past semester buzzed in conversation. I began class by asking my students a simple question: “Are you concerned about what is happening to our environment and worried about what the future will be for your children and grandchildren?”
Without a single exception, everyone in the room said yes.
Read any newspaper today and you will find stories about the problems that are being created by global warming: water, air and soil pollution; destruction of ecosystems and rain forests, and, of course, our dependency on oil. However, human abuse of our earth is not a new issue or one that has developed solely as a result of technology. Sadly, man’s instinct to destroy the natural world dates back to biblical times.
It seems that we have always needed guidance in how to treat the earth. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, we are commanded not to cut down fruit-bearing trees during a siege against a city, although we can cut down nonfruit-bearing ones for building materials. This prohibition on destroying (bal tashchit) teaches us two very important lessons: restraint in how we act upon the earth and the value of humility.
What better time could there be to limit the human tendency to act without concern for the earth than in a time of conquest, when we are easily carried away by our own sense of power? Even more significant is the idea of our responsibility for and to future generations. Bal tashchit prohibits us from destroying a source of food that will one day feed the people who survived the battles that are being fought.
Judaism has a lot to say about how to create a balance between using the resources we have and abusing or destroying them. The rabbis and sages greatly expanded the concept of bal tashchit to prohibit the wasting of everyday goods and materials, as well as clogging of wells, release of toxic fumes and chemicals and killing of animals for convenience.
The basic principle they established bears repeating today: While man may use the earth for his needs, he may not use any resource needlessly. But how do we weigh our needs against our excesses? Who decides what is a legitimate use and what is wasteful?
In attempting to answer these questions, we need to look at the purposes for which man was created in the first place. Our first answers are found in Genesis 1: 28, where we learn that man was put on the earth to “fill it and conquer/subdue it,” and in Genesis 2:15, where our Divine purpose is “to work it [the Garden of Eden] and to guard it.” Our marching orders seem clear, or do they?
From the beginning of time, we have had to face the challenge of balancing our obligation to use the environment for our own needs with the responsibility to preserve and protect it. Jewish tradition is rich with ideas, rituals and holidays that enable us to develop a sound Jewish environmental ethic keeping this tension in mind.
Every day, each time we eat, the Jewish menu of kashrut reminds us that the world is ours to use, but that there are limitations on how we can use it. The concept of restricted foods is incrementally introduced in the Torah — first, when God permits Adam to eat only fruits and vegetables and then, later in the Torah, when the Israelites are given a long list of animals, birds and fish that they are no longer permitted to eat — reinforcing the idea that we do not have unrestricted use of the world in which we live.
Jews have a special weekly reminder to help us balance our need to control the environment with caring for it. Shabbat is the original Earth Day: It celebrates the majesty of creation and tells us in no uncertain terms that the earth is for us to enjoy, but that we have a weekly obligation to let it rest, just as we are commanded to rest. On Shabbat, we relinquish our own work in order to pause and reflect on the wonder of creation, rather than to dominate and control it.
The concept of the sabbatical year, or shmita in Hebrew, also helps us develop a continuing environmental awareness by requiring us to refrain from agricultural activity, such as planting, plowing and harvesting during the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated in the Torah. Once again, we are required to limit our use of the earth, which is on loan to us, in order to fulfill our role as stewards.
Recently, much has been written about the concept of ecokashrut, which is the practice of using environmentally friendly, ecocertified kosher foods, goods and materials as a way of sanctifying individual use and consumption. Ecokashrut looks for Jewish solutions to contemporary environmental problems in traditional texts and ideas like tikkun olam (repairing the world), chesed (compassion) and tzedek (justice). It encompasses more than just the food we eat, but the clothing we wear, the cars we drive and the products we use to sustain us.