Is The Torah Green?
With the recent withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Climate Change Accords, people have been asking me what is the Jewish attitude towards global warming? I think that the question of human caused climate change is an empirical question and therefore Judaism doesn’t really have an opinion about it. In addition, I can’t give you my personal opinion because a. I am not a scientist and b. I don’t have all the facts in my possession, so I cannot really offer an informed, scientific evaluation of the evidence. It seems to me that there is climate change but I don’t feel that I’ve got the expertise to either endorse or refute the idea. I’m leaving that to the experts, the politicians and the radio talk show hosts. But the question I want to address is on a more philosophical level. Do we have a responsibility to worry about the environment and to worry about the natural world, or should we say, as people who believe in G-d, that it’s all in the hands of G-d anyway, leave it to Him? I’m sure He knows what’s happening and so why should I worry.
Let’s look at some Jewish sources and try to formulate an approach. There is a Midrash – (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7 2nd Century CE) that says that when G-d created the world and G-d created the first humans, Adam and Eve, He showed them the entire world and said, “Look at this world, isn’t it beautiful?” And I’m sure they said, “Oh yeah, it’s gorgeous, totally etc. etc.” G-d showed them Israel, He showed them Australia, (the two most beautiful places in the world in the descending order) and then He said to them, “It is indeed beautiful. Make sure that you don’t destroy it!!” The implication is that the human has the capacity to destroy. In fact there are numerous commandments of the Torah that show that we are able to have an impact on our society and our environment, good or bad. If not so, it would not make sense for the Torah to give us commandments regarding the environment.
So for example, the Torah tells us that you are not allowed to destroy fruit bearing trees when you besiege a city (Devarim 20:19) which is known as a prohibition against bal tashchit, do not engage in wanton destruction. (By wanton I do not mean burning down Chinese restaurants, I mean wanton with an ‘a’.) The Oral Law extends the prohibition, of the destruction of fruit trees to a prohibition against the destruction of anything which is useful. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10)
And as the Sefer Hachinuch – (Mitzvah 529, Barcelona 14th Century) says, to destroy even a mustard seed worth, which is a tiny, tiny amount of anything which is valuable to other people, or to humanity in general, is wrong. The Talmud says a person should not spill out the water of his cistern when there are other people who need it. (Yevamot 11a). We also find that there are numerous laws about the protection of the environment in which we live, not to set up polluting industries in proximity to places where we live. (Bava Batra 24b, 25a) There are rules in the Torah (Rambam, Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years 13:1‑5) about building cities in Israel that require that around the cities there be strips, what you might call nature strips. Areas of land which are left in their natural state that are not used for agriculture but left natural, and an additional strip around the city where agriculture is permitted. So obviously the Torah considers it important that we should have a healthy and complete environment. We believe also that the entire environment is interconnected to the human being. There’s a very interesting blessing we say every morning: “Blessed are You our G-d, King of the Universe Who has given the rooster wisdom to distinguish between day and night.” You have to ask yourself, what type of blessing is this? How many people say that blessing sincerely when they’re woken up at 4:00am in the morning by a rooster? The only blessing I want to say when I’m woken up by a rooster, if that should ever happen is, the blessing al mitzvat shechitah, the blessing on shechitah, kosher slaughter. But frankly, it’s hard to see this as something about which to bless G-d.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook explains in his commentary on the Siddur, (Olat Reiyah, Vol. 1) that the blessing about the rooster is really a blessing about the interconnection between the natural environment and the human being. The first manifestation of that interconnectivity is being woken up for my day’s work and for my work in the service of G-d. But how am I woken up? By an animal, by a rooster. The rooster crows, we might say, in order to wake me up and my waking up as a result of that rooster is a beautiful interconnection, it is the tip of the iceberg of the incredible and vast interaction between the human and the environment.
We find, for instance, that the Torah obligates us to shoo away the mother bird when taking eggs from the nest. (Devarim 22:6-7) You cannot take the eggs and the mother bird simultaneously. A reason given by some of the commentaries is very simple and elegant. (Ramban ad loc) When you take the eggs then at least the mother bird is able to lay more in the future. If you take the mother bird then the eggs can still hatch. But if you take both, you have destroyed the producer and the product. This act is tantamount to a miniature destruction of a species because that line of birds has been destroyed. The commentaries say that we see from this commandment that G-d does not want and species to become extinct. He created the world in such a way that everything interacts and everything is interconnected, and He wants all the elements to remain intact.
And therefore, I think from these various laws we see, that although everything is ultimately in the hands of G-d, He has given us tremendous power and tremendous responsibility. The human being has the ability to create, the human being has the ability to destroy. And if there is indeed a concern about the environment because of what we are doing then maybe we have to reconsider our lifestyles and our choices. We should consider if we need a huge vehicle that consumes vast amounts of gas and produces vast amounts of pollution or can we use a smaller vehicle that is safe and economical.
If the Jewish people everywhere, and all the Jews in Israel would not drive one day a week, Shabbat, can you imagine what that would do for the environment? You would reduce, at least in Israel, exhaust emissions by a good 1/7th without any fancy technology, without any change in the type of fuel, without any change in the type of car, just by the observance of the Shabbat. So here’s a challenge to you folks out there. If you are concerned with the environment, make one day a week, a walking day. Try for a 24 hour Shabbat, to only go to places where you can walk. No public transport, no motorized vehicles, no pollution and you know I am fairly certain that you will enjoy the experience. You will enjoy not having to worry about parking, not having to worry about traffic, not having to worry about traffic jams. It’s a beautiful experience and it’s only a little bit of the beauty of Shabbat.