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In consequence of the establishment in Israel of a Ministry for the Environment it is appropriate to take stock of the deep concern for the environment and its conservation which, from its earliest documents onwards, infuses Jewish tradition.

It is not our task here to analyze in detail the great ecological problems of our time or the ways in which they have recently manifested themselves in Israel, let alone to enumerate and describe the bodies, such as the Council for a Beautiful Israel, which are addressing them, or to list the contributions made by individual Jews, for instance scientists and economists, to the modern ecological movement. Rather, we seek to underpin Jewish involvement in conservation worldwide by drawing together the traditional source and highlighting their relevance to the contemporary scene.

We draw on a range of genres of traditional Jewish thought – the most distinctive is halakhah, or law, but history, myth, poetry, philosophy, and other forms of expression are also significant. And we must also be mindful that Judaism did not stop in the first century; it is a living religion constantly developing in response to changing social realities and intellectual perceptions. At the present time, it is passing through one of its most creative phases.


There is a worry prevalent today that people are destroying the environment on which living things depend for their existence. Many species are endangered as a result of human activity, the planetary climate may already have been destabilized, the protective ozone layer has been damaged, forests have been destroyed, species threatened or made extinct, and pollution in forms such as acid rain and other forms of water contamination is widespread.

Much of this destruction arises from the level of economic activity demanded by a rapidly increasing world population which is locally raising its living standards faster than ecologically sustainable levels of production.

In addition, there is a permanent worry that stockpiles of highly destructive weapons might actually be used and that the use of even a small part of the available arsenal would cause irreversible damage to the planetary environment, perhaps rendering impossible the survival of homo sapiens sapiens and many other species.


It is not at first sight clear what these problems have to do with religious beliefs. After all, the only belief necessary to motivate a constructive response to them is a belief in the desirability of human survival, wedded to the perception that human survival depends on the whole interlinking system of nature. The belief is not peculiar to religions but part of the innate self-preservation mechanism of humankind; the perception of the interdependence of natural things arises not from religion but from careful scientific investigation.

Moreover, the discovery of which procedures would effectively solve the problems of conservation is a technical, not a religious one. If scientists are able to offer alternative procedures of the same or different efficiency the religious may feel that the ethical or spiritual values they espouse should determine the choice. But few choices depend on value judgments alone, and no judgment is helpful which is not based on the best available scientific information.

These considerations will be borne in mind as we examine the relevance of traditional Jewish sources to our theme.

Attitudes to Creation


"God saw that it was good" is the refrain of the first creation story of Genesis (chapter 1:1 to 2:4), which includes the physical creation of humankind, male and female. The created world is thus testimony to God's goodness and greatness (see Psalms 8, 104, 148).

The second "creation" story (Genesis 2:5 to 3:24) accounts for the psychological makeup of humankind. There is no devil, only a "wily serpent," and the excuse of being misled by the serpent does not exempt Adam and Eve from personal responsibility for what they have done. Bad gets into the world through the free exercise of choice by people, not in the process of creation, certainly not through fallen angels, devils, or any other external projection of human guilt; such creatures are notably absent from the catalogue of creation in Genesis 1.

Post-biblical Judaism did not adopt the concept of "the devil." In the Middle Ages, however, the dualism of body and spirit prevailed, and with it a tendency to denigrate "this world" and "material things." The Ereẓ Israel kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534–1572) taught that God initiated the process of creation by "withdrawing" himself from the infinite space He occupied; this theory stresses the "inferiority" and distance from God of material creation, but compensates by drawing attention to the divine element concealed in all things. The modern Jewish theologian who wishes to emphasize the inherent goodness of God's creation has not only the resources of the Hebrew Scriptures on which to draw but a continuous tradition based on them.


Certain theologians, such as Matthew Fox, are greatly exercised to replace traditional anthropocentric, fall/redemption, hence guilt-laden theologies with a "creation spirituality" of "original blessing." They invoke spirits, demons and earth goddesses, and do not rest satisfied until they have appropriated scripture itself to their purposes.

Perhaps they redress an imbalance in Catholic theology. But by what arbitrary whim do they confer authority on earth-centered Genesis 1–2:4 and deny it to people-centered Genesis 2:5–3:24? And by what further willfulness do they ignore the culmination of Genesis 1–2:4 itself in the creation of humankind in the image of God, at the apex of creation?

Do they not acknowledge that the Hebrew scriptures are a polemic against idolatry, and that the most significant feature of Genesis 1:2–4 is its denial, by omission, of the very existence of sprites, hobgoblins, demons, gods, demigods, earth-spirits, and all those motley beings that everyone else in the ancient world sought to manipulate to their advantages? There is only one power, and that is God, who is above nature (transcendent).

The Bible encompasses three realms: of God, of humankind, of nature. It does not confuse them. There is "original blessing" indeed – "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31) – but this includes people, maintains hierarchy, excludes "earth spirits," and remains subject to succeeding chapters of Genesis as well as the rest of scripture.


I recall sitting in the synagogue as a child and listening to the reading of Genesis. I was puzzled by the Hebrew word le-minehu ("according to its kind") which followed the names of most of the created items and was apparently superfluous. Obviously, if God created fruit with seeds, the seeds were "according to its kind"!

As time went on I became more puzzled. Scripture seemed obsessive about "kinds" (species). There were careful lists and definitions of which species of creature might or might not be eaten (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). Wool and linen were not to be mixed in a garment (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:11), ox and ass were not to plow together (Deuteronomy 22:10), fields (Leviticus 19:19) and vineyards (Deuteronomy 22:9) were not to be sown with mixed seeds or animals cross-bred (Leviticus 19:19) and, following the rabbinic interpretation of a thrice repeated biblical phrase (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21), meat and milk were not to be cooked or eaten together.

The story of Noah's Ark manifests anxiety that all species should be conserved, irrespective of their usefulness to humankind – Noah is instructed to take into his Ark viable (according to the thought of the time) populations of both "clean" and "unclean" animals.

The biblical preoccupation with species and with keeping them distinct can now be read as a way of declaring the "rightness" of God's pattern for creation and of calling on humankind not only not to interfere with it, but to cherish bio-diversity by conserving species.

Scripture does not of course take account of the evolution of species, with its postulates of (a) the alteration of species over time and (b) the extinction (long before the evolution of humans) of most species which have so far appeared on earth.

Yet at the very least these Hebrew texts assign unique value to each species as it now is within the context of the present order of creation; this is sufficient to give a religious dimension, within Judaism, to the call to conserve species.

Perek Shirah.

*Perek Shirah (the "Chapter of Song," as found in large Siddurim (Prayer Books), particularly those of Jacob Emden and Seligmann Baer) affords a remarkable demonstration of the traditional Jewish attitude to nature and its species. The provenance of this "song" is unknown, though in its earliest form it may well have emanated from mystical circles such as those of the heikhalot mystics of the fourth or fifth centuries. Though occasionally attacked for heterodoxy, it is clearly rabbinic not only in its theology but even in the detail of its vocabulary and allusions.

More significant than its origin is its actual use in private devotion. It has been associated with the "Songs of Unity" composed by the German pietists of the 12th century who undoubtedly stimulated its popularity.

As the work is printed today it is divided into five or six sections, corresponding to the physical creation (this includes heaven and hell, Leviathan and other sea creatures), plants and trees, creeping things, birds, and land animals (in some versions the latter section is subdivided). Each section consists of from 10 to 25 biblical verses, each interpreted as the song or saying of some part of creation or of some individual creature. The cock, in the fourth section, is given seven voices and its function in the poem is to link the earthly song, in which all nature praises God, with the heavenly song.

We shall see in the section on hierarchy in creation that the Spanish Jewish philosopher Joseph *Albo draws on Perek Shirah to express the relationship between the human and the animal; yet Perek Shirah itself draws all creation, even the inanimate, even heaven and hell themselves, into the relationship, expressing a fullness which derives only from the rich diversity of things, and which readily translates into the modern concept of biodiversity.


There has been discussion among Christian theologians as to whether the opening chapters of Genesis call on humans to act as stewards, guardians of creation, or to dominate and exploit the created world. There is little debate on this point among Jewish theologians to whom it has always been obvious that when Genesis states that Adam was placed in the garden "to till it and to care for it" (2:15), it means just what it says. As Rabbi A.I. *Kook put it:

No rational person can doubt that the Torah, when it commands people to "rule over the fishes of the sea and the birds of the sky and all living things that move on the earth" does not have in mind a cruel ruler who exploits his people and servants for his own will and desires – God forbid that such a detestable law of slavery [be attributed to God] who "is good to all and his tender care rests upon all his creatures" (Psalms 145:9) and "the world is built on tender mercy" (Psalm 89:3).

So perverse is it to understand "and rule over it" (Genesis 1:28) – let alone Psalm 8 – as meaning "exploit and destroy" (is that what people think of their rulers?) that many Christians take such interpretations as a deliberate attempt to besmirch Christianity and not a few Jews have read the discussions as an attempt to "blame the Jews" for yet another disaster in Christendom.

Hierarchy in Creation

"God created humans in His image … male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). In some sense, humankind is superior to animals, animals to plants, plants to the inanimate. There is a hierarchy in created things.

The hierarchical model has two practical consequences. The first is that of responsibility of the higher for the lower, traditionally expressed as "rule," latterly as "stewardship." The second is that, in a competitive situation, the higher has priority over the lower. Humans have priority over dogs so that, for instance, it is wrong for a man to risk his life to save that of a dog though right, in many circumstances, for him to risk his life to save that of another human. Contemporary dilemmas arising from this are described in the section on animal versus human life.

The Jewish philosopher Joseph Albo (in Sefer ha-Ikkarim, book 3, ch. 1) places humans at the top of the earthly hierarchy and discerns in this the possibility for humans to receive God's Revelation. This is just a medieval way of saying what we have remarked. God's Revelation, pace Albo and Jewish tradition, is the Torah, from which we learn our responsibilities to each other and to the rest of creation.

According to Albo, just as clothes are an integral part of the animal, but external to people, who have to make clothes for themselves, so are specific ethical impulses integral to the behavior of particular animals, and we should learn from their behavior. "Who teaches us from the beasts of the earth, and imparts wisdom to us through the birds of the sky" (Job 35:11) – as the Talmud put it (TB Eruvim 100b): "R. Johanan said, If these things were not commanded in the Torah, we could learn modesty from the cat, the ant would preach against robbery, and the dove against incest." The superiority of humans lies in their unique combination of freedom to choose and the intelligence to judge, without which the divine Revelation would have no application. Being in this sense "higher" than other creatures, humans must be humble towards all. Albo, in citing these passages and commending the reading of Perek Shirah, articulates the attitude of humble stewardship towards Creation which characterizes rabbinic Judaism.

A Divergence Between East and West?.

With regard to the hierarchical model there appears to be a radical difference of approach between Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the one hand and Hindus and Buddhists on the other.

The difference may be more apparent than real. Consider the following:

I recall that in the year 5665 [1904/5] I visited Jaffa in the Holy Land, and went to pay my respects to its Chief Rabbi [Rav Kook]. He received me warmly… and after the afternoon prayer I accompanied him as he went out into the fields, as was his wont, to concentrate his thoughts. As we were walking I plucked some flower or plant; he trembled and quietly told me that he always took great care not to pluck, unless it were for some benefit, anything that could grow, for there was no plant below that did not have its guardian [Heb. mazzal] above. Everything that grew said something, every stone whispered some secret, all creation sang… (Aryeh Levine, Laḥai Roi (Heb., 1961), 15, 16).

Rav Kook, drawing on a range of classical Jewish sources from Psalm 148 to Lurianic mysticism, and without doubt accepting the hierarchical view of creation, nevertheless acknowledges the divine significance of all things – the immanence of God. Conversely, although Buddhists and Hindus teach respect for all life they do not conclude from this that, for instance, the life of two ants takes precedence over the life of one human being; in practice, they adopt some form of hierarchical principle.


Kindness to animals is a motivating factor for general concern with the environment, rather than itself an element in conservation.

Kindness to animals features prominently in the Jewish tradition. The Ten Commandments include domestic animals in the Sabbath rest, and the "seven *Noachide laws " are even more explicit. Pious tales and folklore exemplify this attitude, as in the Talmudic anecdote of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch's contrition over having sent a calf to the slaughter (TB BM 85a and Genesis Rabbah 33).

Causing Pain or Distress to Animals.

In rabbinic law this concern condenses into the concept of ẓa'ar ba'alei ḥayyim ("distress to living creatures"; see Cruelty to *Animals ). An illuminating instance of halakhic concern for animal welfare is the rule attributed to the third-century Babylonian Rabbi that one should feed one's cattle before breaking bread oneself (TB Ber. 40a); even the Sabbath laws are relaxed somewhat to enable rescue of injured animals or milking of cows to ease their distress. Recently, concern has been expressed about intensive animal husbandry including battery chicken production.

Meat Eating

The Torah does not enjoin vegetarianism, though Adam and Eve were vegetarian (Gen. 1:29). Restrictions on meat eating perhaps indicate reservations. Albo (Sefer ha-Ikkarim 3:15) wrote that the first people were forbidden to eat meat because of the cruelty involved in killing animals. Isaac *Abrabanel (1437–1508) endorsed this ("Commentary on Isaiah" (Heb., ch. 11 on the verse "The wolf shall lie down with the lamb."), and also taught (that when the Messiah comes we would return to the ideal, vegetarian state ("Commentary on Genesis" (Heb., ch. 2). The popular trend to vegetarianism has won many Jewish adherents though little official backing from religious leaders.


On February 23, 1716, Duke Christian of Sachsen Weissenfels celebrated his 53rd birthday by a great hunting party. History would have passed by the Duke as well as the occasion had not J.S. Bach honored them with his "Hunting Cantata." The text by Salomo Franck, secretary of the upper consistory at Weimar, is a grand celebration of nature and its priest, Duke Christian, with no sense that hunting sounds a discordant note, and the cantata includes one of Bach's most expressive arias, Schafe können sicher weiden ("Sheep may safely graze").

Conditions of Jewish life in the past millennium or so have rarely afforded Jewish notables the opportunity to celebrate their birthdays by hunting parties. But it has happened from time to time and led rabbis to voice their censure.

N. Rakover sums up the halakhic objections to "sport" hunting under eight heads: (1) It is destructive/wasteful (see section on cutting down fruit trees). (2) It causes distress to animals (section on causing pain and distress to animals). (3) It actively produces non-kasher carcasses. (4) It leads to trading non-kasher commodities. (5) The hunter exposes himself to danger unnecessarily. (6) It wastes time. (7) The hunt is a "seat of the scornful" (Ps. 1:1). (8) "Thou shalt not conform to their institutions" (Lev. 18:3).

From this we see that although Jewish religious tradition despises hunting for sport, this is on ethical and ritual grounds rather than in the interest of conservation.28

The Land and the People – A Paradigm

Judaism, both in biblical times and subsequently, has emphasized the inter-relationship of the Jewish people and its land, and the idea that the prosperity of the land depends on the people's obedience to God's covenant. For instance:

If you pay heed to the commandments which I give you this day, and love the Lord your God and serve him with all your heart and soul, then I will send rain for your land in season…. and you will gather your corn and new wine and oil, and I will provide pasture…. you shall eat your fill. Take good care not to be led astray in your hearts nor to turn aside and serve other gods…. or the Lord will become angry with you; he will shut up the skies and there will be no rain, your ground will not yield its harvest, and you will soon vanish from the rich land which the Lord is giving you (Deut. 11:13–17).

Two steps are necessary to apply this link between morality and prosperity to the contemporary situation: 1. The chosen land and people must be understood as the prototype of (a) all actual individual geographical nations (including, of course, Israel) in their relationships with land and of (b) humanity as a whole in its relationship with the planet as a whole. 2. There must be satisfactory clarification of the meaning of "obedience to God" as the human side of the covenant to ensure that "the land will be blessed." The Bible certainly has in mind justice and moral rectitude, but in spelling out "the commandments of God" it includes specific prescriptions which directly regulate care of the land and celebration of its produce.

To sum up – the Bible stresses the intimate relationship between people and land. The prosperity of land depends on (a) the social justice and moral integrity of the people on it and (b) a caring, even loving, attitude to land with effective regulation of its use. Conservation demands the extrapolation of these principles from ancient or idealized Israel to the contemporary global situation; this calls for education in social values together with scientific investigation of the effects of our activities on nature.


When you enter the land which I give you, the land shall keep sabbaths to the Lord. For six years you may sow your fields and for six years prune your vineyards but in the seventh year the land shall keep a sabbath of sacred rest, a sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard … (Lev. 25:2–4)

The analogy between the sabbath (literally, "rest day") of the land and that of people communicates the idea that land must "rest" to be refreshed and regain its productive vigor. In contemporary terms, land resources must be conserved through the avoidance of overuse.

The Bible pointedly links this to social justice. Just as land must not be exploited so slaves must go free after six years of bondage or in the Jubilee (50th) year, and the sabbatical year (in Hebrew shemittah – "release") cancels private debts, thus preventing exploitation of the individual.

The consequence of disobedience is destruction of the land, which God so cares for that he will heal it in the absence of its unfaithful inhabitants:

If in spite of this you do not listen to me and still defy me … I will make your cities desolate and destroy your sanctuaries … your land shall be desolate and your cities heaps of rubble. Then, all the time that it lies desolate, while you are in exile in the land of your enemies, your land shall enjoy its sabbaths to the full (Lev. 26:27–35).

If in Israel today there is only a handful of agricultural collectives which observe the "sabbath of land" in its biblical and rabbinic sense, the biblical text had undoubtedly influenced the country's scientists and agronomists to question the intensive agriculture favored in the early years of the State and to give high priority to conservation of land resources.


When you are at war, and lay siege to a city…. do not destroy its trees by taking the axe to them, for they provide you with food (Deut. 20:19).

In its biblical context this is a counsel of prudence rather than a principle of conservation; the Israelites are enjoined to use only "non-productive," that is, non fruit-bearing trees, for their siege works.

In rabbinic teaching, however, the verse has become the locus classicus for conserving all that has been created, so that the very phrase bal tashḥit (lit. "not to destroy") is inculcated into small children to teach them not to destroy or waste even those things they do not need. In an account of the commandments specially written for his son, Rabbi Aaron Ha-Levi of Barcelona (c. 1300) sums up the purpose of this one as follows:

This is meant to ingrain in us the love of that which is good and beneficial and to cleave to it; by this means good will imbue our souls and we will keep far from everything evil or destructive. This is the way of the devout and those of good deeds – they love peace, rejoice in that which benefits people and brings them to Torah; they never destroy even a grain of mustard, and are upset at any destruction they see. If only they can save anything from being spoilt they spare no effort to do so (Sefer Ha-Ḥinnukh, Mitzvah 529).


The Mishnah rules: "One may not raise small cattle [i.e., sheep, goats, etc.] in the Land of Israel, but one may do so in Syria or in the uninhabited parts of the Land of Israel (BK 7:7). The history of this law has been researched, and there is evidence of similar restrictions from as early as the third century B.C.E.

The Mishnah itself does not itself provide a rationale for the law. Later rabbis suggest: (a) that its primary purpose is to prevent the "robbery" of crops by roaming animals, and (b) that its objective is to encourage settlement in the Land. This latter reason is based on the premise that the raising of sheep and goats is inimical to the cultivation of crops and reflects the ancient rivalry between nomad and farmer; at the same time it poses the question considered by modern ecologists of whether animal husbandry is an efficient way of producing food. (The rabbis of the Talmud, however, did not envisage vegetarianism and did not ban the raising of large cattle in the Land. They assumed that meat would be eaten but tried to ensure that its production would not interfere with agriculture).


The concept of "promised land" is an assertion that the consummation of social and national life depends on harmony with the land.

The biblical pilgrim-festivals all celebrate the Land and its crops, though they are also given historical and spiritual meanings. Through the joyful collective experience of these festivals the people learned to cherish the Land and their relationship, through God's commandments, with it; the sense of joy was heightened through fulfillment of the divine commandments to share the bounty of the land with "the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow" (a frequent expression, for instance, Deuteronomy 16:11).

Specific Environmental Laws

Several aspects of environmental pollution are dealt with in traditional halakhah. Although the classical sources were composed in situations very different from those of the present the law has been, and is, in a continuous state of development, and in any case the basic principles are clearly relevant to contemporary situations.


Arising from Deuteronomy 23:13,14 halakhah insists that refuse be removed "outside the camp," that is, collected in a location where it will not reduce the quality of life. The Talmud and Codes extend this concept to the general prohibition of dumping refuse or garbage where it may interfere with the environment or with crops.

It would be anachronistic to seek in the earlier sources the concept of waste disposal as threatening the total balance of nature or the climate. However, if the rabbis forbade the growing of kitchen gardens and orchards around Jerusalem on the grounds that the manuring would degrade the local environment (BK 82b), one need have no doubt that they would have been deeply concerned at the large-scale environmental degradation caused by traditional mining operations, the burning of fossil fuels, and the like.

Smell (see also the following section) is regarded in halakhah as a particular nuisance, hence there are rules regarding the siting not only of lavatories but also of odoriferous commercial operations such as tanneries (TB BB ch. 2; codified, with subsequent developments, in Shulḥan Arukh ḤM, ch. 145). Certainly, rabbinic law accords priority to environmental over purely commercial considerations.


Like smell, atmospheric pollution and smoke are placed by the rabbis within the category of indirect damage, since their effects are produced at a distance. They are nevertheless unequivocally forbidden.

The Mishnah (BB2) bans the siting of a threshing floor within 50 cubits of a residential area, since the flying particles set in motion by the threshing process would diminish the quality of the air.

Likewise, the second-century rabbi Nathan ruled that a furnace might not be sited within 50 cubits of a residential area because of the effect of its smoke on the atmosphere (BB 1:7); the 50-cubit limit was subsequently extended by the geonim to whatever the distance from which smoke might cause eye irritation or general annoyance (S. Assaf (ed.), Geonic Responsa, (5689/1929), p. 32).

The Hazards Prevention Law, passed by the Israeli Knesset on March 23, 1961, contains the following provisions:

#3 No person shall create a strong or unreasonable smell, of whatever origin, if it disturbs or is likely to disturb a person nearby or passerby.

#4a No person shall create strong or unreasonable pollution of the air, of whatever origin, if it disturbs or is likely to disturb a person nearby or passerby.

The subjectivity of "reasonable" in this context is apparent. Meir Sichel, in a study on the ecological problems that arise from the use of energy resources for power stations to manufacture electricity, and from various types of industrial and domestic consumption such as cooking, heating, and lighting, has drawn on the resources of traditional Jewish law in an attempt to define more precisely what should be regarded as "reasonable." Citing rabbinic responsa over an 800-year period he concludes that halakhah is even more insistent on individual rights than the civil law (of Israel), and that halakhah does not recognize "prior rights" of a defendant who claims that he had established a right to produce the annoyance or pollutant before the plaintiff appeared on the scene (M. Sichel, "Air Pollution – Smoke and Odour Damage," in: Jewish Law Annual, 5 (1985), 25–43).

In an exercise such as Sichel's there is no difficulty in applying traditional law to the contemporary context with regard to priority of rights, and also in clarifying the relationship between public and private rights. However, it is less clear that one can achieve a satisfactory definition of "reasonable," since ideas of what is acceptable vary not only from person to person but in accordance with changing scientific understanding of the nature of the damage caused by smells and smoke, including the "invisible" hazards of germs and radiation unknown to earlier generations.


Several laws were instituted by the rabbis to safeguard the freedom from pollution, as well as the fair distribution, of water. A typical early source says:

If one is digging out caves for the public he may wash his hands, face, and feet; but if his feet are dirty with mud or excrement it is forbidden. [If he is digging] a well or a ditch [for drinking water], then [whether his feet are clean or dirty] he may not wash them (Tosef. BM 11:31 (ed. Zuckermandel).

Pregnant with possibilities for application to contemporary life is the principle that one may claim damages or obtain an appropriate injunction to remove the nuisance where the purity of one's water supply is endangered by a neighbor's drainage or similar works. It is significant that the geonim here also rejected the Talmudic distance limit in favor of a broad interpretation of the law to cover damage irrespective of distance (cited in Sh. Ar., ḤM 155:21).


Rabbinic law on noise pollution offers a fascinating instance of balance of priorities. The Mishnah lays down that in a residential area neighbors have the right to object to the opening of a shop or similar enterprise on the grounds that the noise would disturb their tranquility. It is permitted, however, to open a school for Torah notwithstanding the noise of children, for education has priority. Later authorities discuss the limit of noise which has to be tolerated in the interest of education (Rashi on TB BB 21a), and whether other forms of religious activity might have similar priority to the opening of a school (Sh. Ar., ḤM 156:3).


Much could be said of the rabbinic appreciation of beauty in general. Here we concern ourselves only with legislation explicitly intended to enhance the environment, which is rooted in the biblical law of the Levitical cities:

Tell the Israelites to set aside towns in their patrimony as homes for the Levites, and give them also the common land surrounding the towns. They shall live in the towns, and keep their beasts, their herds, and all their livestock on the common land. The land of the towns which you give the Levites shall extend from the center of the town outwards for a thousand cubits in each direction. Starting from the town the eastern boundary shall measure two thousand cubits, the southern two thousand, the western two thousand, and the northern two thousand, with the town in the center. They shall have this as the common land adjoining their towns. (Lev. 35:2–5)

As this passage is understood by the rabbis, there was to be a double surround to each town, first a "green belt" of a thousand cubits, then a two-thousand-cubit-wide belt for "fields and vineyards." While some maintained that the thousand-cubit band was for pasture, Rashi (on TB Sota 22b) explains that it was not for use, but "for the beauty of the town, to give it space" – a concept reflected in Maimonides' interpretation of the Talmudic rules on the distancing of trees from residences (see Maimonides, Yad., Shekhenim, ch. 10).

The rabbis debate whether this form of "town planning" ought to be extended to non-Levitical towns, at least in the land of Israel, designated by Jeremiah (3:19) and Ezekiel (20:6,15), the beautiful land."

The rabbinic appreciation of beauty in nature is highlighted in the blessing they set to be recited when one sees "the first blossoms in Spring":

You are blessed, Lord our God and ruler of the universe, who have omitted nothing from your world, but created within it good creatures and good and beautiful trees in which people may take delight [in the name of Judah bar Ezekiel (third-century Palestinian) in TB Ber. 43b; a whole chapter of Sh. Ar., OḤ 226, is devoted to it.).

Sample Ethical Problems Relating to Conservation


Judaism consistently values human life more than animal life. One should not risk one's life to save an animal; for instance, if one is driving a car and a dog runs into the road it would be wrong to swerve, endangering one's own or someone else's life, to save the dog.

But is it right to take a human life, e.g., that of a poacher, to save not an individual animal but an endangered species? I can find nothing in Jewish sources to support killing poachers in any circumstances other than those in which they directly threaten human life. If it be argued that the extinction of a species would threaten human life because it would upset the balance of nature, it is still unlikely that Jewish law would countenance homicide to avoid an indirect and uncertain threat of this nature.

Even if homicide were justified in such circumstances, how many human lives is a single species worth? How far down the evolutionary scale would such a principle be applied? After all, the argument about upsetting the balance of nature applies equally with microscopic species as with large cuddly looking vertebrates like the panda, and with plants as much as with animals.

Judaism, true to the hierarchical principle of creation (see above), consistently values human life more than that of other living things, but at the same time stresses the special responsibility of human beings to "work on and look after" the created order (Genesis 2:15 – see section-Stewardship or Domination).


The question of birth control (including abortion) in Judaism is complex, but there is universal agreement that at least some forms of birth control are permissible where a potential mother's life is in danger and that abortion is not only permissible but mandatory up to full term to save the mother's life. Significant is the value system which insists that, even though contraception may be morally questionable, it is preferable to abstinence where life danger would be involved through normal sexual relations within a marriage.

What happens where economic considerations rather than life danger come into play? Here we must distinguish between (a) personal economic difficulties and (b) circumstances of "famine in the world," where economic hardship is general.

On the whole, halakhah places the basic duty of procreation above personal economic hardship. But what about general economic hardship, which can arise (a) through local or temporary famine and (b) through the upward pressure of population on finite world resources?

The former situation was in the mind of the third-century Palestinian sage Resh Lakish when he ruled: "It is forbidden for a man to engage in sexual intercourse in years of famine" (TB. Ta'an. 11a). Although the ruling of Resh Lakish was adopted by the codes (Sh. Ar., OḤ 240:12 and 574:4), its application was restricted to those who already have children, and the decision between abstinence and contraception is less clear here than where there is a direct hazard to life.

Upward pressure of population on world resources is a concept unknown to the classical sources of the Jewish religion and not indeed clearly understood by anyone before Malthus. As Feldman remarks:

It must be repeated here that the "population explosion" has nothing to do with the Responsa, and vice versa. The Rabbis were issuing their analyses and their replies to a specific couple with a specific query. These couples were never in a situation where they might aggravate a world problem; on the contrary, the Jewish community was very often in a position of seeking to replenish its depleted ranks after pogrom or exile…. (Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law (1974), 304)

Feldman goes on to say "It would be just as reckless to over-breed as to refrain from procreation." As the duty of procreation is expressed in Genesis in the words "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" it is not unreasonable to suggest that "fill" be taken as "reach the maximum population sustainable at an acceptable standard of living but do not exceed it." In like manner the rabbis (TB Yev. 62a) utilize Isaiah's phrase "God made the earth … no empty void, but made it for a place to dwell in" (45:18) to define the minimum requirement for procreation – a requirement, namely one son and one daughter, which does not increase population.

Of course, there is room for local variation amongst populations. Although as a general rule governments nowadays should discourage population growth there are instances of thinly populated areas or of small ethnic groups whose survival is threatened where some population growth might be acceptable even from the global perspective.


Can religious sources offer guidance on the choice between nuclear and fossil, and other energy sources?

They can have very little to say and – especially in view of the extravagant views expressed by some religious leaders – it is important to understand why their potential contribution to current debate is so small.

The choice among energy sources rests on the following parameters: (1) cost effectiveness; (2) environmental damage caused by production; (3) operational hazards; (4) clean disposal of waste products; (5) long-term environmental sustainability.

Cost effectiveness cannot be established without weighing the other factors. There is no point, however, at which religious consideration apply in establishing whether a particular combination of nuclear reactor plus safety plus storage of waste and so on will cost more or less than alternative "packages" for energy production.

It is equally clear that religious considerations have no part to play in assessing environmental damage caused by production, operational hazards, whether waste products can be cleanly disposed of, or what is the long-term environmental sustainability of a method of energy production. These are all technical matters, demanding painstaking research and hard evidence, and they have nothing to do with theology.

It is a matter of sadness and regret that extreme environ-mentalists are so prone to stirring up the emotions of the faithful for or against some project, such as nuclear energy, which really ought to be assessed on objective grounds. Much of the hurt arises from the way the extremists "demonize" those of whom they disapprove, and in the name of love generate hatred against people who seek to bring benefit to humanity.


A very similar analysis could be made of the problems relating to global warming. The fact is that in mid-1990 no one knew the extent, if any, to which global temperatures have risen as a result of the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and no one knew what would be the overall effects of the projected doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the middle of the next century. Some consequences, indeed, may be beneficial, such as greater productivity of plants in an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, neither the techniques of mathematical modeling used to make the projections, nor the base of global observations at 500-kilometer intervals, can yield firm results. (See the summary provided by Robert M. White, "The Great Climate Debate," in: Scientific American, July 1990.)

So how can a government decide whether to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and vast sums in aiding third world countries to avoid developing along "greenhouse" lines, when the draconian measures required greatly limit personal freedom and much of the expenditure might be better diverted to building hospitals, improving education and the like?

Essential steps, including better research, must be initiated, but it would be a lack of wisdom to rush into the most extreme measures demanded. It is clear that the decisions must be rooted in prudence, not in theology. Theology tends to absolutize and call for radical solutions where we have only relative and uncertain evidence, or conversely to commend us to faith in God when we ought to be taking initiatives ourselves.


After writing about the progress from physical evolution through biological evolution to cultural evolution, Edward Rubinstein states:

Henceforth, life no longer evolves solely through chance mutation. Humankind has begun to modify evolution, to bring about nonrandom, deliberate changes in DNA that alter living assemblies and create assemblies that did not exist before.

The messengers of directed evolution are human beings. Their messages, expressed in the language and methods of molecular biology, genetics and medicine and in moral precepts, express their awareness of human imperfections and reflect the values and aspirations of their species. (E. Rubinstein, "Stages of Evolution and their Messengers," in: Scientific American (June 1989), p. 104.)

These words indicate the area where religions, Judaism included, are most in need of adjusting themselves to contemporary reality – the area in which modern knowledge sets us most apart from those who formed our religious traditions. Religion as we know it has come into being only since the Neolithic Revolution, and thus presupposes some technology, some mastery of nature. But it has also assumed that the broad situation of humanity is static, and this is now seen to be an illusion.

All at once there is the prospect, alarming to some yet challenging to others, that we can set the direction of future development for all creatures in our world. The Ethics Committees of our hospitals and medical schools are forced to take decisions; although the religious take part – and Judaism has a distinctive contribution to make to medical ethics – it has yet to be shown that traditional sources can be brought to bear other than in the vaguest way ("we uphold the sanctity of life") on the problems raised even by currently available genetic engineering.

Will religions, as so often in the past, obstruct the development of science? They need not. Jewish religious have ranged from Isaac Abrabanel, who opposed in principle the development of technology (see his commentary on Genesis 2), to *Abraham bar *Ḥiyya , who in the 12th century played a major role in the transmission of Greco-Arab science to the west. If Judaism (or any other religion) is to contribute towards conservation it will need to be in the spirit of Abraham bar Ḥiyya, through support for good science, rather than through idealization of the "simple life" in the spirit of Seneca and Abrabanel.

Conclusion – Religion and Conservation

Judaism, along with other religions, has resources which can be used to encourage people in the proper management of Planet Earth. We will now review the interaction of religion with conservation with special reference to the source cited.

1. We saw in the section on goodness of the physical world how Judaism interprets the created world, with its balanced biodiverse ecology, as a "testimony to God," with humankind at the pinnacle holding special responsibility for its maintenance and preservation. Certainly, this attitude is more conducive to an interest in conservation than would be emphasis on the centrality of the "next world," on the spirit versus the body, or on the "inferior" or "illusionary" nature of the material world.

2. One of the priorities of conservation at the present time is to control population so as not to exceed resources. Although Judaism stresses the duty of procreation we learned in the section on procreation versus population control that it offers the prospect of constructive approach to population planning, including some role for both contraception and abortion.

3. We have noted several specific areas in which Judaism has developed laws or policies significant for conservation. Prime among them (see the section: The Land and The People – a paradigm) were the laws regulating the relationship between people and land, for which the "chosen people" in the "promised land" is the model. Care of animals (section: Concern for Animals), waste disposal, atmospheric and water pollution, noise, and beauty of the environment were also treated in the classical sources. It would be neither possible nor fully adequate to take legislation straight from these sources; but it is certainly possible to work in continuity with them, bearing in mind the radically new awareness of the need for conserving the world and its resources as a whole.

4. Religions, Judaism included, discourage the pursuit of personal wealth. While in some instances this may be beneficial to the environment – if people want fewer cars and fewer books there will be fewer harmful emissions and fewer forests will be chopped down – there are also many ways in which poverty harms the environment – for instance, less research and development means that such technology as remains (presumably for hospitals and other welfare matters) will be less efficient and the problems of environmental pollution less effectively addressed. Only rich societies can afford clean disposal of wastes.

5. Some religions remain strongly committed to evangelistic or conversionist aims which inhibit cooperation with people of other religions. Judaism is not currently in an actively missionary phase; some would say that it is unduly introspective, and needs to proclaim its values in a more universal context. All religions, however, must desist from ideological conflicts and espouse dialogue; conservation cannot be effective without global cooperation.

6. Mere information can motivate, as when someone who perceives a lion ready to pounce reacts swiftly. If ecological disaster were as clearly perceived as a crouching lion ideological motivation would be unnecessary. It is better that religions support conservation than oppose it, but the world would be safer if people would act on the basis of rational collective self-preservation rather than on the basis of confused and uncontrollable ideologies.

7. Several times, particularly in discussing energy sources and global warming, we had to stress the need to distinguish between technological and value judgments. Whether or not nuclear reactors should be built must depend on a careful, dispassionate assessment of their hazards; shrill condemnation of the "hubris of modern technology" merely hinders judgment, though it is right and proper that religious values be considered when an informed choice is made. Of course, the same need for objective assessment before value judgments are made applies to all other major conservation questions, such as how to reverse deforestation, control the greenhouse effect, restore the ozone layer.

8. Towards the end of the section on directed evolution we noted a characteristic religious ambivalence towards science. In the interest of conservation it is essential that the "pro-science" attitude of Abraham bar Ḥiyya, Maimonides, and others be encouraged. The extreme attitude of "simple life" proponents must be resisted. For a start, the present world population could not be supported if we were to revert to the simple life. Moreover, who would wish to do without sanitation, communications, electric light, books, travel, medical services and all those other benefits of "complex" civilization?

Finally, let us note that Judaism, like other religions, has a vital role to play in eradicating those evils and promoting those values in society without which no conservation policies can be effective. The single greatest social evil is official corruption, frequently rife in precisely those countries where conservation measures must be carried out. Next in line is drug addiction with its associated trade. But political animosities, such as those in the midst of which Israel finds itself, and which siphon off the world's resources into arms and destruction, surely head the list of human activities inimical to conservation. Religions must combat these evils and at the same time work intelligently for peace, not only between nations but among religions themselves.

For the Jewish contribution to the environmental sciences, see *Environmental Sciences . See also *Conservation .


D. Ehrenfeld and P.J. Bentley, "Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship," in: Judaism, 24 (1985), 310–11; Israel Ministry of Justice, N. Rakover (compiler), Protection of the Environment (Heb., 1972); idem, Protection of Animals (Heb., 1976); S. Cooper, in: Harvey E. Goldberg (ed.), Judaism: Viewed from Within and from Without (1987), ch. 1; D. Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism (1983), ch. 8; R. Schwarz, Judaism and Vegetarianism (1982); D.M. Feldman, Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law (1974); I. Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics, (19754); G. Allon, History of the Jews in the Land of Israel in the Period of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Hebrew), 1:173–78 and 359.

[Normon Solomon]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.