Within Jewish thought and writing, the significance placed on protecting the environment is unmistakable. In the first words of the Torah, we read that the formation of the Earth is a matter of divine concern, and several verses later, that man is to “rule over ... all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen. 1:26).
Therefore, humans have an obligation, as God’s co-partners in the work of creation, not only to conserve the world of nature, but also to act as its steward and enhance it. In the Rabbinic commentary on Ecclesiastes, we read that, “When God created Adam (whose name comes from the Hebrew word for land), he led him around the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘Behold my works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! All that I have created, for your sake did I create it. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it for you’ ” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).
Two biblical stories about impending disasters help to inform the Jewish approach to the environment. In the story of Noah, the response to imminent danger is to hoard as many animals and immediate family members as possible, to protect the animals in pairs to repopulate the world. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s inclination is to negotiate with God and do all that he can to stop the disaster. To model Abraham’s proactive response, particularly in terms of protecting the environment, liberal Jews worldwide have endorsed the principles of bal taskhit (not to destroy) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
The environment also factors into Jewish ritual and our holiday cycle. In the final year of the seven-year agricultural cycle, by law, Jewish farmers observe shmita (the sabbatical year) during which their land is left uncultivated and ownerless. This is a test of the farmer’s religious faith, a provision for the needy and an act of preserving nature.
Also, the three festivals — Passover, Shavuot and Succoth — all are harvest festivals, making Jews aware of their connection to the land of Israel and its agricultural calendar. In these ways and many, many more, Judaism is a celebration of natural life and the world we all live in.
Mark N. Swick
Community liaison, Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston