Jewish Environmental Values - The Dynamic Tension Between
Nature and Human Needs
by Rabbi Saul Berman
Does Judaism address the relationship between persons
and nature? Put with such directness and simplicity, the obvious answer is
a rousing and unequivocal, Yes! Indeed, the question is not whether
Judaism addresses this issue, but what precisely it is that the Jewish
tradition teaches. 
The framework for Judaism's teachings on the environment
emerges from the dynamic tension between two verses at the beginning of
Genesis. In Genesis 1:28, God blesses the newly created humans, "...Be
fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it; have dominion
over...every living thing...." This apparent grant of absolute power
was seized upon by Arnold Toynbee and some environmentalists as a basis for
the extraordinary assertion that the Bible was at fault for human
exploitation of nature.  Toynbee and others, in their
selective reading of the Bible, did not even bother to take note of its
language just one chapter later. In Genesis 2:15, God takes the newly
created human,"... and placed him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate
it and to guard it." This verse imposes upon humans a stewardship
relationship to the world in which they live. 
Are these two verses contradictory or complementary? The
obvious approach of all Jewish biblical commentators was to assume that the
two verses could be reconciled by arriving at a synthesis of the two
extreme indications. Thus, for example, one modern Jewish commentator,
Malbim, points out that the verse in Genesis 1 is no more that a blessing,
not a directive. Thus, he contends, the point is simply that if humanity
heeds God's commands, then God will allow the land and its contents to be
subdued by obedient humanity.  The religious teaching
according to Malbim, therefore, as according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch , is in reality the proposition that God, not
humanity, is the continuing owner of all of the Earth.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests, more sharply,
that the two verses represent two aspects of the nature of human beings
which are in a constant state of tension. In Rabbi Soloveitchik's approach,
there resides the awareness that there is unavoidable dynamic tension
between the capacity to exercise control over nature and the duty to act
toward nature with a sense of fiduciary responsibility. 
Truth be told, the various commentators -- ancient,
medieval, and modern -- who have discovered the essential complementary
character of these two verses drew their awareness not from any apologetic
need to defend the ethical integrity of Torah, but from their recognition
that much in the rest of biblical legislation requires this particular
understanding of these verses.
First, on a symbolic level, the human's right to exploit
nature is severely circumscribed in the Bible. For example, one of the most
essential religious institutions of Jewish civilization is the Sabbath. The
central character of the Jewish Sabbath is formed by the biblical
proscription against ]melacha (usually translated as
"work") on the Sabbath day. Jewish tradition insists that the
notion of melacha does not relate to the physical effort expended,
nor solely to the creative result of the behavior. Rather, the Rabbis
insist, the prohibition is addressed to the attempt to prevent the
productive transformation of objects, whether natural or man-made.
Therefore, while it may be permissible to rearrange the furniture within
one's home, it would not be permissible to turn on a light switch or drive
a car, though the former clearly involves greater expenditure of energy
than the latter two prohibited acts. The point is that the essence of the
prohibition against melacha (productive work) on Shabbat is
to teach that the productive manipulation of the environment is not an
absolute right. 
Let's look at another instance of such symbolic
limitation. The laws of the sabbatical year teach that not only are the
powers of the individual subsumed under the general rights of the
community, but also that individuals do not have the right of exclusive
dominance over their own property. These teachings emerge from the biblical
indications that persons have a duty to allow their land to lie fallow
during this entire year. Beyond which, according to rabbinic understanding
of the Bible, there is no absolute right of exclusion during this year,
that is, persons may enter upon the property of another in order of take
growing crops which they need to sustain themselves and their families. 
Such teachings come as no surprise to us. The Hebrew
language itself conveys the same powerful message through the absence of a
single word through which the concept of absolute ownership can be
conveyed. All Hebrew words which are commonly used to express ownership in
reality only express the notion of possession.
Phrases like yesh li, or shayach li, or
even ba'al, do not convey the sense of absolute ownership, but of
possessory or other complex relationships (We would hope that any husband
understands what Judaism struggled so hard to convey, that his Hebrew
title, ba'al, conveys a complex pattern of duties, rights, and
responsibilities, but certainly not ownership!). The language here is the
handmaiden of theology; we cannot speak of human "ownership,"
because our theology does not believe that there is rightfully any such
notion. God is the "owner" of all, and we humans have simply
possession rights in various degrees of complexity.
It is not only on the symbolic plane and on the
linguistic plane that the teachings of Torah address the relationship
between humankind and nature. On the direct practical level, there are
dozens of Torah laws which regulate in great detail what we may and may not
do to the environment. The Torah prohibits the crossbreeding of different
species of animals,  as it bans the transplanting of
branches of differing species of fruit trees,  and
the intermingling of seeds in planting. 
The Torah, there and elsewhere, teaches us the lesson of
the inviolability of nature, of our need to make symbolic and real
affirmation of nature's original order in defiance of humankind's
Likewise, Torah prohibits various forms of activities
which would involve cruelty to animals.  We may not
harness together animals of different strengths;  we may not pass by an animal which has collapsed under its load, but are
duty bound to help it;  we may not slaughter a
mother and its young on the same day  as we may not
take the fledglings while the mother bird hovers over them.  Some eighteen different laws of the Torah call upon us to live in awareness
of the fact that God's creatures require our care and deserve our
All of God's creation, and even the increments which
other humans have made to God's world, are entitled to be protected from
wanton destruction. Thus do the Sages understand the import of the verse in
Deuteronomy,  which literally would ban only the
destruction of fruit-bearing trees during war.  Maimonides, too, understands the law this way in his listing of the 613
biblical commandments,  as well as in his fuller
treatment of this legal issue in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. 
What, however is the underlying attitude of Torah in all
of this protective legislation? Is the Torah teaching us that all
substances within nature have a right to exist which cannot be violated by
humans? The fact is that much of contemporary environmental thinking seems
to be moving precisely in that direction. There is an increasing rejection
of the stewardship model in favor of an absolutist assertion as to the
integrity of nature. Would Torah agree to such a proposition?
The law of Lo Tash'chit, the biblical prohibition
against the wanton destruction of nature, may provide us with an
instructive illustration. The passage in Deuteronomy reads as follows:
"When you besiege a city for a long time, fighting against it to
conquer it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe
against them; for you may eat of them, and you may not cut them down, for
is the tree of the field a person that it should be besieged by you? Only
trees which you know not to be fruit bearing trees, may you destroy and cut
down; and you may build bulwarks against the city that wars against you,
until it is subdued." 
The language of Rambam, as well as the language of the
early Halakhic Midrash on which his codification of this law relies,
is powerful in its generality. Rambam insists that this prohibition does
not only apply to fruit bearing trees, but to all objects which either
exist in nature, or which have been manufactured by human beings.  The level of protection provided for seems to be
vast, all-inclusive, and without exception. Yet careful analysis of the
passages in the Talmud dealing with this law reveal a vital and different
The Gemara in Bava Kamma, with remarkable
understated radicalism, suggests that protection even of fruit-growing
trees may be overridden by economic need.  The Gemara in Shabbat contends that destruction for protection of health is
permissible.  Elsewhere, the Gemara in Shabbat goes even further in indicating that personal aesthetic preference is
sufficient to justify what would otherwise constitute a wasteful use of
natural resources.  The Gemara of Shabbat in yet a third location, to top off these indications, contends that the
gratification of a psychological need is sufficient also to override the
prohibition of Lo Tash'chit.  Indeed, in the
context of all of these exemptions, it is difficult to construct a case in
which violation of Lo Tash'chit would be actually be present.
To rephrase the situation, the talmudic texts recast the
prohibition of Lo Tashchit as a prohibition against the wasteful use
of resources, while expanding the range of human needs which are sufficient
to constitute a destructive act as non-wasteful. This is a powerful
counterbalancing of human needs against the autonomous rights of nature, in
which the former clearly wins out.
It is this view which is in turn codified by Rambam in
his selection of the term derech hash'chata ("in a wasteful
fashion"), which suggests that only wasteful destruction falls within
the purview of the prohibition.  This position is
adopted as well by the Tosafists, who take even further the exemption for
psychological need in their contention that destruction in expression of
anger is not violative of the law of Lo Tashchit.  The dynamic tension between the two verses, ve kivshuha and le'avda
v'leshamra as understood by Rabbi Soloveitchik, are simply playing
themselves out in the realm of Halakha. It is not acceptable in
Jewish law to make an assertion of the independent rights of nature. The
rights of nature need to be carefully balanced, calibrated, against human
interests; and in that balancing, it will be the human interests which will
have the priority.
Can we then safely turn our attention away from the
environment and simply refocus on human needs which are, in any case, so
vast and demanding? After all, in America as elsewhere, the problems of
poverty and homelessness, starvation and AIDS, war and crime, are certainly
pressing and make legitimate demands on our time and our resources. How can
we turn our attention to the snail darter and the spotted owl, to species
preservation and the chemical components of the atmosphere, if we haven't
even yet begun to address hatred and inhumanity within our own species?
A reasonable response to this questions begins with the
recognition that the life of mitzvot is just that, a life of
commandments, plural, not a life of mitzvah, singular. The life of mitzvot does not have a single, overriding, all important value to be sustained
singly, beyond all others. Even belief in God, if it is a mitzvah,
is just one of 613.
The life of mitzvot is like a small garden with
613 flowers, each of which needs to be cultivated and cherished so that the
magnificent beauty of Jewish life in its entirety may be achieved and
appreciated. The task before the Jewish people, as the task confronting all
of humanity, is not to discard or disregard the garden of ultimate values
and replace it with this single new overriding concern: environmentalism.
Our task is to discover within the garden of 613 flowers those few or many
which demand of us attention to the problems of the environment. And those
flowers certainly exist.
I would like to propose two challenges and thereby two
stages in our responsibility to environmental issues.
"Hatzalah" (short-term rescue): Jewish
law posits a duty of rescue of persons based on the biblical mandate,
"You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor"
(Leviticus 19:16).  This demand, almost unique in
the annals of legal history,  makes it a crime for
a Jew to fail to intervene in the rescue of an innocent person from injury
or death. As is indicated by the conjunction of verses, this duty is based
on the underlying principle of "You shall love your neighbor as
yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). It is precisely in consequence of our
duty to love the other that we bear also the responsibility to rescue her
But if there is, in Jewish law, no duty to love nature
or God's world, why then would I assert that we have a duty to rescue it?
Firstly because it has become abundantly clear that the real risk in our
continued pollution of the environment is not the Earth -- but rather it is
humankind. The Earth will undoubtedly survive our depredations and will
continue to swarm with life, but humankind may be extinguished and end this
stage of God's experiment on the Earth. If we love humanity, then we must
now act to save it from ourselves.
Toynbee had suggested that the only way to proceed to
reverse the Judeo-Christian teaching of human mastery over the environment
was to revert to pagan, pre-Christian thinking as to the sacralization of
nature. Aside from his failure to comprehend Jewish teachings on this
entire matter, Toynbee's willingness to abandon the entire moral progress
which humanity has made under Judeo-Christian influence is astonishing.
What price environmentalism! We need not abandon monotheism nor adopt pagan
beliefs. We need simply to teach Torah's duty to rescue humanity from
ourselves because of our love of humanity, of ourselves.
A second path to the same conclusion is available
through the awareness of our duty to love God. In Jewish law, the duty to
rescue persons is extended to the rescue of their property. The mitzvah of the return of lost property is one manifestation of this responsibility.  Our duty to the beloved neighbor is to keep him
whole in both body and property.
But, as we demonstrated earlier, an essential Jewish
teaching is that the entire world belongs to God. If then we love God, we
are duty-bound to protect and preserve God's property -- this entire Earth.
"Anavah" (Long-term rescue): The real
cause of environmental pollution, the real reason that people have brought
the Earth to its knees begging for relief, has nothing to do with people's
excessive observance of the command of "subdue it!" It is not the
Jewish teaching of the centrality of God's covenant with humanity which is
at fault for human mistreatment of the environment.
The real cause of abuse is human failure to heed
religious teachings against the exclusive importance of material goals. The
real cause of our destruction of the environment is our total preoccupation
with wealth and comfort. To the extent that science and technology have
become the handmaidens of profit instead of truth, they have become part of
the problem and need now to be redirected to being part of the solution.
The longer-term solution to environmental problems
depends upon our ability to re-educate ourselves and our children towards
humility -- towards anavah -- and moderation. We need to devote
ourselves to the elimination of material excess in our lives, in our homes,
in our offices, in what we eat, and in the technology which we utilize so
wastefully. Even our waste is wastefully disposed of. Only such a
reorientation, in which material excess is replaced with deep spiritual
awareness of the ultimate partnership between humanity and the Earth in the
achievement of God's goals, can lay the foundation for a new and more
healthy relationship between us and our environment.
The challenge ahead of us is the common challenge of
science and religion together -- to discover and implement the means of
assuring the physical survival of humanity on Earth, to discover and
implement the means of assuring the spiritual survival of a more humble and
more modest humanity on this, God's earth.
Sources: The Coalition on
the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) - Rabbi Saul Berman is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the Stern College of Yeshiva University. Reprinted with permission from Human Values and the Environment, a publication of the University of Wisconsin.
2. For an early treatment of these issues,
see Eric G. Freudenstein, "Ecology and the Jewish Tradition," Judaism 19:4, Fall 1970.
3. The New York Times, op. ed.
page, May 1, 1970.
4. An immediate Jewish response to
Toynbee was penned by Norman Lamm, "Ecology, The Work of
Creation," Sh'ma 1:1, May 22, 1970. An expansion of that
response by the same author is, "Ecology In Jewish in Jewish Law and
Theology," Chapter VI of Faith and Doubt, New York: Ktav
Publishing House, 1971.
5. Malbim, Meir Loeb Ben Jehiel
Michael, (1809-1879), Commentary to Genesis, 1:28.
6. The Pentateuch, translated
and explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch, English edition by Isaac Levy, Vol.
1, London, 1959. Genesis 1:26-28.
7. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "The
Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition 7:2, Summer 1965, pp. 10-16.
8. Dr. I. Grunfeld, The Sabbath,
Feldheim Publishers, 1972, pp. 3-29.
9. Dr. I. Grunfeld, The Jewish
Dietary Laws, 2:11, Shemittah and Yobel. London: Soncino Press, 1972,
10. Leviticus 19:19.
11. Leviticus 19:19, as per
Maimonides, Book of Commandments, negative commandment no. 216.
12. Deuteronomy 22:9.
13. For an outstanding general
treatment of this issue, see Elijah Judah Shochet, Animal Life in Jewish
Tradition, Chapters 9, 10, and 13. New York: Ktav Publishing House,
1984, pp. 144-194 and 245-272.
14. Deuteronomy 22:6-7.
15. Exodus 23:5 and Deuteronomy 22:4.
16. Leviticus 22:28.
17. Deuteronomy 22:6-7.
18. Deuteronomy 20:19-20.
19. Sifrei to Deuteronomy 20:19-20
(Finkelstein edition of Sifrei Devaraim, pp. 238-240.).
20. Sefer Hamitzvot,
negative commandment No. 57.
21. Mishneh Torah, Book
14, Shofetim, Laws of Kings 6:10. There is a substantial
literature around the apparent discrepancy between Maimonides's very
expansive position in Sefer Hamitzvot, as opposed to the reading of
his position in Mishneh Torah which appear to hold that the
prohibition, in its biblical meaning, applies only to fruit-bearing trees.
In reality, all that differs in the later is Rambam's recognition of Lo'
Tash'chit as a Lav Shebiklallot, a compound prohibition, in
which the biblical penalty of lashes pertains only to that violation which
is expressly mentioned in the Torah. The prohibition itself applies to all
objects of value.22. Deuteronomy 20:19-20.
23. See notes 17-20.
24. Baba Kamma, 91b-92a.
25. Shabbat, 128b-129a.
26. Shabbat, 140b.
27. Shabbat, 105b.
28. See note 20.
29. Kiddushin 32a, Tosafot
s.v. Rav Yehudah.
30. For a brief but fascinating study
of the relationship between the verse itself and the law derived from it,
see Baruch Levine, "On translating a Key Passage," S'vara 1:1, Winter 1990, pp. 71-73.
31. Ernest Weinrib, "Rescue and
Restitution," S'vara 1:1. Winter 1990, pp. 59-65. For an
outstanding and exhaustive treatment of this element of Jewish Law, see
Marilyn Finkelman, "Self-Defense and Defense of Others in Jewish Law:
The Rodef Defense," The Wayne Law Review, vol 33, 1987, pp.
32. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah,
Book of Damages, Laws of Robbery and Lost Property, Chapter 11.