Sometimes our environmental situation reminds me of an old joke: The doctor asks his wary patient, “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
“Gimme the good news first.”
“You’ve got 48 hours to live!” says the doctor.
“That’s the good news?!” the patient shrieks. “What’s the bad news?”
Answers the Doc: “I figured this out yesterday.”
In the years since Rachel Carson awakened Americans to bad environmental news in her 1962 classic, Silent Spring, and historian Lynn White blamed it on religion (Science, 1967), we’ve been frantically working to reverse the environmental damage we’ve already done — even as we continue to do more. The good news is, environmentalism is now mainstream and pervasive. For every challenge you can name, a host of groups around the world, secular and religious, are working to address it.
Religion takes the long view: It looks beyond our day-to-day activities to how everything plays out over eternity. Jewish environmentalists agree with White’s assertion that “Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny — that is, by our religion.”
But they disagree with White’s and subsequent Christian theologians’ charges that Judeo-Christian belief systems gave humans the green light to destroy their planet. Actions are based on interpretations, and no religion is richer in interpretations than ours.
Several Talmudic rabbis note that in Genesis, God created humans last, on the sixth day, after all the animals and insects, perhaps as an afterthought, so we shouldn’t get such big heads about ourselves. In the environmentally favored first version of Genesis, man and woman are created equal, and as God walks Adam through Eden, the Creator cautions, “Tend the Garden carefully, for if you destroy it, no one will come after you to set things right.”
Trailblazers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Robert Gordis, Eric Freudenstein, Ellen Bernstein and others started laying the foundation for a Jewish environmental philosophy in the late 1960s. Coincidentally, they also provided Christian theologians with biblical sources they could use for structuring their own earth-stewardship philosophies and “green parish” efforts.
This strong Jewish environmental wisdom is covered in several rich, accessible books, including Jeremy Benstein’s The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (2006), Carol Diament’s 1993 collection, Judaism and Ecology, Lillian Ross’s, The Judaic Roots of Ecology (1981), or Hava Tirosh-Samuelson’s 2003 collection, Judaism and Ecology. Spanning Genesis through current rabbinic discussion, they show how Torah and Talmud support responsibility toward our environment and each other, and resist and punish irresponsibility.
The admonitions against waste (ba’al tashchit), and causing pain of living things, (tsar b’alelh chaim), for example, are introduced in Leviticus. It also introduces the concept of a sabbatical year for land, and a Jubilee year for divesting ownership, and re-distributing wealth. The sabbatical year initiated the practices of crop rotation and spiritual refreshment; the Jubilee concept is still too radical to embrace. Talmudic sages regarded private land ownership as a transitory state, since Earth was created by and belonged to God, and entrusted to humans for care. So the earth is not ours to own. Rather, we hold it in trust, in common, in perpetuity, and anyone who damages the commons is liable for repairing and restoring it, and compensating all injured parties. Neither the Torah, the Talmud nor Mishnah Torah (Maimonides’ legal code) explains how we’re supposed to run an economy we dissolve and re-create every 50 years. That remains a tantalizing question.
Leviticus also links social justice and ecosystem health when it requires that remainders of grains and produce from farms and fields be left for the poor to glean. Further laws and commentaries continue the exploration of issues that we face today as much as our sages and rabbis before us did: Pollution, environmental destruction and protection, population growth, obesity and conspicuous consumption, conservation, and urban planning, design and sprawl.
Overeating, for example, is seen as doubly violating ba’al tashchit: wasting food and damaging one’s own body (Orach Meisharim 6:29). Bearing more than two children per family, say both Hillel and Shammai, also violates ba’al tashchit, though many post-Holocaust rabbis advocate boosting Jewish births to replace those lost in World War II. Urban green space is first mandated in Numbers, when the Levites are installed in 48 cities, where they’ll be supported by tithes from surrounding pastures and orchards.
All this demonstrates the extraordinary vision of our sages, and the surprising similarities between what they faced then and what we face now: Daunting challenges in social justice, economics and the environment. They have given us guidance, but as they often asserted in Pirke Avot, ideas are nothing without action. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Which reminds me of my other favorite environmental joke: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?