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The Modern Environmental Movement:
Jewish Perspectives

by Preston Hunter

The modern environmental movement is a growing social force, akin in many ways to traditional world religions, one of the oldest of which is Judaism. While some environmental commentators call for an abandonment of traditional beliefs and practices in order to effectively respond to the current environmental crisis, this is unnecessary for contemporary Jews. Within Judaism, traditional religious beliefs and practices do not conflict with modern, scientifically sound environmental practices. In fact, traditional Judaism espouses philosophies and practices that coincide remarkably well with those prescribed by the modern environmental viewpoint.


Judaism is among the oldest surviving world religions, tracing its roots back some 4,000 years to Abraham the Semite described biblically as the father of the Hebrew people, and 3,300 years ago to Moses, who brought forth the covenant (Torah) between the Jews and their god. Additionally, Jewish scripture includes narratives of human involvement with Yahweh (or Jehovah), the god of Abraham and Moses, stretching back to the dawn of human society (Genesis chapters 1-10).
The next major world religion may be environmentalism. An infant compared to Judaism, the modern environmental movement began thirty years ago with the publication of Rachel Carson's
Silent Spring , followed by other authors' books, all "sending the world very specific warnings about the risks of postwar technologies" (De Steiguer 1993). These writers believed that runaway use of technology was creating unpredicted environmental catastrophes worldwide. They identified previously unrecognized environmental problems and warned that these could result in irreparable damage to the ecosystem and the extinction of countless species, possibly even our own.
Because the term "world religion" has traditionally been applied to systems like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, it may seem inappropriate to place environmentalism in this category. Rather than focusing on revelation and scripture, environmentalism is a more secular, scientific, and political movement. Even so, in looking at today's environmental crisis, leaders of the movement see its roots deep within the human spirit.
1 In his landmark treatise on the "global ecological crisis" (Gore 1992, 1), Vice-president Al Gore wrote: "The search for truths about this ungodly crisis and the search for truths about myself have been the same search all along" (1992, 13).
Further indicating that the movement goes beyond purely empirical science, ecologist Marianne Beasley spoke for many environmentalists when she said:

One cannot fulfill oneself spiritually unless one walks in harmony with the Earth. Nor can one be a true creature of the Earth unless one reflects with one's spirit and soul upon the meaning, the beauty, and loveliness, and essential unity of all creation Our Planet Earth has much to teach us, can nourish us spiritually as well as physically.
(Beasley 1993)

Linked to the religious or spiritual side of the environmental movement are ecofeminism and other movements "identified with the earth, Mother Earth, Mother Nature [and] a reverence and concern for the earth, nature and our resources"
(Wilde 1991). Some movements favor creating an environmentally centered religion of a type similar to some contemporary feminist theology, building "on a foundation of not only rejecting Christian and Jewish thought but also seeking out the antithesis to those traditional world views" (1991).
Whether environmentalism somehow evolves into a world "religion" in the more traditional sense rather than simply a world movement remains to be seen. Proponents of such a radical form of the movement are, however, a minority. Most people concerned with the environment are like most people in general: religion is part of their life, and they have at least some connection to religion or long-established religious traditions
(Bowker 1986, 4).
Because most humans are "religious" (in degrees varying from nominally to intensely), most of the world's major problems have "a deep religious root"
(1986, 4). At the same time, solutions to those same problems, including the current environmental crisis, can also be found within human religion. Recognizing this, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh wrote in an open letter to Jews and Christians,

The importance of religion to the conservation of nature and the natural environment is that it takes it out of the realm of human self-interest and gives nature a sacred status as the creation of the Almighty . If the major faiths are to make a more positive contribution to the conservation of what is left of the natural world, it is essential for them to think through how best humanity can meet the wishes of the Almighty in respect of his creation . The Jewish and Christian scriptures have a great deal to say about the divine creation [and ecological issues] . The challenge to Jews and Christians today is to bring human hubris under some sort of control based on the sacredness of nature and taking into account the way God's creation actually works .
(Prince Philip, 1989, 4-5)

The question must be asked: Is Judaism up to the task? Can a religion centered on the Law given to Moses over three thousand years ago actually be expected to address modern environmental concerns? The challenge seems daunting when one considers that modern environmental issues are, by definition, modern. Love, hate, marriage, death, sin, happiness and similar phenomena normally addressed in religious tradition are perennial issues--encountered by people of Moses' time and throughout Jewish history, as much as by people today. Global warming and depletion of tropical rain forests are in a completely different category, and one might not expect to find applicability to these modern issues within ancient religion.
In Jewish belief God, is omnipotent and omniscient; his word in the Torah is eternal. Thus it is not surprising to a faithful Jew that Jewish scripture deals with even the most contemporary of environmental problems. Within the traditional Jewish canon are answers to the questions modern Jews might ask when pondering the modern environmental crisis. These answers are not derived from complex and questionable "wresting" of obscure passages, but are plain, easily understood passages that are an integral part of God's law for the Jews. The religion's environmental concern is genuine and longstanding
(Helfand 1983, 139). Judaism, born anciently in an entirely nontechnological world, is ecologically sound by today's most exacting scientific standards. To be truly Jewish is to be green.

Issues Central to the Environmental Movement

While it is not my purpose to survey and define comprehensively the modern environmental movement, I will define its central issues in order to make comparisons to the Jewish environmental ethic. By examining Jewish teachings and practices as they pertain to specific current environmental issues, I will illustrate Judaism's applicability to the modern environmental crisis.
What issues are central to the modern environmental movement? This question cannot be answered definitively. Lists vary according to the organization or expert consulted. Most lists, however, contain many similar items. A current tract from the Earth Save Foundation addresses the following issues: human health, rain forest depletion, topsoil loss, desertification, dwindling freshwater supplies, pollution, energy, global warming, and pesticides
(Earth First 1992). Desertification, extinction of species and loss of bio-diversity, rain forest depletion, and our view of nonhuman species are among the major issues covered by various prominent scientists in Soulé's Conservation Biology: The Science of Scarcity and Diversity(1986), considered by many to be the "Bible" of conservation biology. Learning to Listen to the Land , another anthology written by leaders in the environmental movement, focuses on bio-diversity, human overpopulation, and our relationship with nonhuman life as major issues (Willers 1991). Al Gore's comprehensive and prescriptive environmental book addresses desertification, the loss of species and genetic diversity, global warming and air pollution, water pollution, human overpopulation and birth control, and rain forest depletion (Gore, 1991). The range of topics covered in each of these sources is similar, most issues being discussed (to varying degrees and in varying and forms) in most sources.
Most of the issues described in this brief survey are of concern to everyone, but when it comes to expanding knowledge and understanding, they become primarily the realm of professional scientists. One of the issues -- humans' relationship to animals and nature -- is more philosophical than scientific in nature. In identifying this topic as an important, even central, issue of environmentalism, it is necessary to recognize that the environmental movement transcends purely scientific considerations.
The topic of animal rights, mostly ignored fifteen years ago but now often emerging in discussion and media
(Regan 1986, ix), is frequently linked to the environmental movement. This issue is sometimes frowned on or avoided by those who approach environmental concerns from a purely scientific standpoint. Biologists generally consider the concerns of individual organisms subordinate to entire populations and eco-systems. Indeed, many depend on experimentation with individual organisms (which animal rights activists generally oppose) for their research. People who consider themselves environmentalists, however, come from a broad cross-section of society, not just professional biologists and scientists. The numerical majority of self-professed environmentalists are not professional scientists; they are individuals concerned about environmental issues for personal, spiritual, and moral -- as well as scientific -- reasons.
A popular view among many who deem themselves environmentalists is that humankind can't cure the environmental crisis without changing its view of the natural world. Sometimes termed "deep environmentalism," this philosophy proposes that a) we must recognize the intrinsic value of every form of life, apart from its value to humans, b) animals inherently possess rights equal or similar to those of humans, and c) environmental problems such as extinction and the loss of natural habitat are caused by human unwillingness to grant animals these rights (
Naess 1986, 507-509; Robinson &; Bolen 1989, 166).
It must be understood that all these issues are interrelated and form a larger whole. Some are symptoms; others are causes. Environmentalists are united in the view that humans are the chief cause of the environmental crisis. Furthermore, environmentalists agree nearly unanimously that the human species is causing these monumental problems for two reasons: (1) there are too many humans (overpopulation), and (2) human use of and interaction with the natural world
2 is abusive and excessive.3
Jewish perspectives on only some of these central concerns of the environmental movement will be examined here. Yet with only a brief examination, it becomes evident that these issues, "modern" though they may seem, are addressed impressively in traditional Jewish scripture, thought, and practice. The issues to be focused on here are deforestation, water pollution, and general respect for nature, more specifically, animal rights.

Sources of Jewish Teaching

Before I examine Jewish beliefs and practices, it will be useful to identify briefly their three main sources. The primary source is the Hebrew Bible (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament). The Bible (or Tanakh, in Hebrew) is the "sacred scripture" of the Jews and "the source of all Jewish teaching"
(Jacobs 1984, 56). However, Jews believe the Bible can not be fully understood without interpretation.
After the last books of the Bible were written (about 400 B.C.E.), a scholarly class of Jews produced Bible-based commentary and laws which were considered sacred and binding. Around 200 C.E., a collection was produced of all the laws and practices that had been developed up to that time. Edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince, this became known as the Mishnah. Around 500 C.E. the Babylonian Gemara, a collection of scholarly commentary and discussion about the Mishnah, was first published. The Mishnah, combined with its commentary the Gemara, are known as the Talmud -- the second source of Jewish teaching.
The Talmud is a "sacred work, second only to the Bible itself; indeed, in a sense, [it is] more significant since it [provides] the final authority for Jewish observances"
(1984, 64). In practice the Talmud, like the Bible, is Jewish scripture. The word Torah (Hebrew for "law") is used to mean "Jewish scripture" and refers to the combination of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. Torah is also the word used for the first five books of the Bible -- those attributed to Moses and counted as the most holy part of the Bible.
Much of the Jewish environmental ethic can be traced to Talmudic commentary on biblical passages. Because of the addition of the Talmud to official Jewish canon, there are many more clearly environmental commandments and writings in Jewish scripture than there are in Christian scripture (even though both religions have the Old Testament in common).
Post-Talmudic rabbinical codes and commentary make up the third source of Jewish teaching. Because the Talmud is difficult to understand, Jewish religious leaders and scholars have produced commentary on it since it was published. Most published versions of the Talmud feature the original Talmudic writings surrounded by subsequent scholarly explanation. Books containing rabbinical commentary, many of them providing codes which explain more clearly how a Jew should live in accordance with the Torah, have been published separately. The most important of these is the sixteenth century
Shulhan Arukh ("Arranged Table"). Jewish writings in this class continue to be produced to this day.

Examining Jewish Environmental Ethic

In examining the Jewish environmental ethic, it is important not to use the Bible as a primary source. It is not my purpose here to interpret the Bible and explain its environmental implications. I will not prescribe how Jews should understand the Bible and Talmud. I will instead describe how Jews have traditionally interpreted their scriptural cannon, as exhibited by Jewish writings, traditions, laws, and practices. This is the "Jewish environmental ethic."


Central to the Jewish treatment of deforestation is the principle of
bal tashit. bal tashit is a Hebrew term meaning "thou shalt not destroy" (Singer 1905, 240) or "you shall not wantonly destroy" (Helfand 1983, 139). The origins of bal tashit are in the Bible4: the biblical injunction refers specifically to cutting down trees when waging war against enemies, but in subsequent interpretation the rabbis have said this is because the Bible was citing the "most likely situation under which such destruction might occur" (1983, 140). The rabbis called bal tashit "an admonition against any kind of waste or willful destruction" (Singer 1905, 240), clearly giving it wide environmental application. Indeed, "the verse has become the locus classicus for conserving all that has been created, so that the very phrase "bal tashchit"5 is inculcated into small children to teach them not to destroy or waste even those things they do not need" (Solomon 1989, 14). Teaching his son about bal tashit, the Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona (c. 1300) told his son that if anything can be saved, "even a grain of mustard," then no effort should be spared to do so (1989, 14).
Extrabiblical scripture referring to bal tashit is found in the Talmud,
6 where bal tashit is applied to "numerous non-military situations" and in the eleventh-century code of Maimonides, who said the penalty of flogging should be imposed not only for cutting down trees during siege but "whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent" (Helfand 1986, 44).
In this modern era, bal tashit applies to anyone "burning down forests, destroying animal life and natural vegetation, or wantonly harming the ecology"
(Wigoder 1989, 101). The rapid destruction of forests, whether rain forests in Brazil or old growth forests in Oregon and Washington, is the antithesis of this Jewish ideal. Jewish law makes some specific and strict allowances for cutting trees in some instances,7 but the deforestation happening today is done mostly to satisfy greed and to graze more cattle in order to supply hamburger to wealthy nations.8 Humankind is ethically responsible for this destruction, whether contributing to it directly or indirectly (Helfand 1986, 44-45). The Talmud characterizes such "wanton exploitation" and destruction as idolatry (Cohen 1991, 77). A Jewish conservation ethic should extend to such tree-saving practices as conserving paper and eating less (or no) beef.
Today, Jewish scripture and tradition pertaining to forest protection are yielding fruit in cogent ways. A Jewish denomination
9 in Britain, for instance, passed a resolution based on bal tashit in 1988 and has followed up with paper recycling programs, encouragement of the use of "environment-friendly commodities," and the establishment of a Biblical Garden in London to help "focus the minds of children [and] numerous visitors on biblical attitudes to nature" (Rose 1989, 67).
Jewish "religion schools and synagogue adult education units" have begun emphasizing forestation and environmental topics, linking these issues to "the agricultural base of the festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Succot (Tabernacles), as well as the special tree-planting day of Tu Bishevat, always a favorite with Jewish children"
(1989, 68).
Forests in the modern Jewish state of Israel,
10 growing out of what was until recently "dry sand" and "barren desert," are one of the most visible manifestations of Israeli commitment to trees and forests (Jacobs 1984, 161). Israel's heavy investment in the most advanced forestry technologies available, coupled with help from Jews worldwide through the National Jewish Fund, have resulted in the planting of "170 million trees in Israel over the last forty years" (Rose 1989, 68). Israel's forests--grown from technology, sacrifice, and Jewish ideal--stand in miraculous contrast to the deforestation happening worldwide.

Water Pollution

Water is indispensable to the continuation of human and nonhuman life. The healthy functioning of human societies and natural eco-systems requires water that is plentiful and clean. Yet today, water supplies throughout the world are both threatened and threatening (such as with acid rain). A recent statement in the Jewish journal Tikkun recognizes the problem: "Global water pollution needs to be halted and water quality restored"
(Merchant 1991, 66).
Judaism has traditionally recognized the importance of water; water has been used in ceremony and celebrated. Jews are commanded to thank God for the rainbows and electrical storms they witness
(Helfand 1986, 41). In the Talmudic period, "water" was symbolic for the divine teachings (Singer 1905, "Water"). The ancient Simhat Bet ha-Shoevah ("The Festival of the Water-Drawing") illustrates Jewish thanksgiving to God for life-giving water and reverence to the water itself. Its ceremonies, described in the Mishnah (Sukkah 5), involved pouring water in offering to God and "joyful dancing and singing" (Cohn-Sherbok 1992, 507).11 The water to be offered to God was

drawn from the Pool of Siloam in a golden ewer of the capacity of three logs. It was borne in solemn procession to the water-gate of the Temple, where the train halted while the Shofar was blown "teki 'ah, teru 'ah, teki 'ah." The procession then ascended the "kebesh," or slanting bridge to the altar, toward the left, where stood on the east side of the altar a silver bowl for the water.
(Singer 1905, 476-477)

"Simhat Bet ha-Shoevah" was one of the most popular celebrations in the days of the temple. Symbolic prayers for rain, showing recognition of rain's value and its source (God), were probably part of the tradition
(Singer 1905).
So valuable is water that "several laws were instituted by the rabbis to safeguard" it from pollution
(Solomon 1899, 16). Here is a typical law:

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.
(1989, 16)

The Talmud says that the destruction (i.e., pollution) of water can be a violation of
bal tashit(Helfand 1986, 44) and allows for "claim[ing] damages or obtain[ing] 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" (Solomon, 1989, 16). Echoing these ancient laws is modern Israel's "prohibition on the transport of hazardous substances in roads adjacent to the Sea of Galilee" (Rose 1989, 68).
An even bigger modern incarnation of Jewish concern for clean water is the Ministry of the Environment in Israel. This ministry was established in 1989 to "deal with a massive range of environmental issues, to protect natural resources and to control pollution in the air, earth and water, and sewage and waste disposal . Emphasis is on the quality of air, drinking water [and] coastal amenities"
(1989, 69).
Israel is a pioneer in water conservation and reuse--"the most ambitious water reuse effort in the world." Between 1989 and 1991, Jerusalem achieved a 14 percent drop in per capita water use through "water-saving devices, leak detection and repair, and more efficient irrigation of parks." Perhaps most amazing is Israel's intensive use of "drip irrigation," a technology developed by this nation. Drip irrigation and other "microirrigation techniques" apply water directly to plant roots, along with nutrients, in precisely measured, monitored, and controlled amounts. "Drip systems often achieve efficiencies in the range of 95 percent," and Israel now has "around half its total irrigated land under drip, which has helped its farmers reduce their water use on each irrigated hectare by one third even while increasing crop yields." The initial investment for using this technology is extremely expensive,
12 an illustration of Israeli commitment to environmentally sound water conservation (Postel 1993, 29-36).

Animal Rights and General Respect for Nature

Respecting nature is a part of Judaism. Jewish commentator Jonathan Helfand wrote that although "the God of Genesis told man to subdue and master the earth in both content and spirit the Jewish tradition negates the arrogant proposal that the earth is man's unqualified dominion . As part of the divine plan of creation himself, man has the obligation to respect his inanimate and animate counterparts in the world"
(1986, 39,45).
Although "Judaism consistently values human life more than animal life"
(Solomon 1989, 17), all living things are to be respected. The Midrash says

Even things which one regards as superfluous in the world, such as flies, fleas, and mosquitoes, are included in the creation of the world, and the Holy One Blessed be He conveys His message with everything, even by means of a snake, even by means of a mosquito, even by means of a frog.
("Biology," Encyclopedia Judaica , year and author unknown, 1027)

Though we might not appreciate the need for certain animals--and some may even bother us--the Talmud declares that God "created nothing without a purpose"
("Biology," Encyclopedia Judaica , 1028).
Jewish respect for animals is embodied in this aggadic
13 saying about Moses:

While our teacher Moses was tending the sheep of Jethro in the wilderness a kid ran away from him. He ran after it until it reached Hasuah. Upon reaching Hasuah it came upon a pool of water [whereupon] the kid stopped to drink. When Moses reached it he said, "I did not know that you were running because [you were] thirsty. You must be tired." He placed it on his shoulder and began to walk. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, "You are compassionate in leading the flocks belonging to mortals; I swear you will similarly shepherd my flock, Israel." (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 2:2, quoted in
Bleich 1986, 61)

Although he created animals for human use, the god of Judaism "at the same time laid upon [humankind] the obligation to respect and consider the feelings and needs of these lower creatures"
(Revel, year unknown, 330). Laws governing animals and commanding Jews to respect them include Biblical prohibitions against acts such as having animals work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10), muzzling animals while threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4), and yoking animals of two different species together. Rabbi Ibn Ezra explained that God gave this last commandment so that a stronger-pulling species wouldn't cause stress or discomfort to weaker ones. Another Biblical passage commands: if a "passing wayfarer sees an animal staggering under a burden too heavy for it [he] must stop and unload it, even though it belongs to his enemy (Exodus 23:5, as discussed by Revel, year unknown, 330).
Jewish treatment of animals shows compassion by following other Biblical prohibitions against "taking the young before sending away the mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) and killing an animal and its young on the same day (Leviticus 22:28)"
(Jacobs, 1984, 175-176). The medieval commentator Nahmanides explained that these injunctions, in addition to being compassionate, are meant to help preserve species from extinction. This idea was echoed by the Sefer Ha-hinukh, which further states that "there is divine providence for each species and that God desires them to be perpetuated" (Helfand 1986, 45).
Post-biblical Jewish scripture requires feeding one's cattle before oneself
(Bleich 1986, 63; Revel, 330) and eases Sabbath laws to allow rescuing injured animals or milking cows ("to ease their distress") on the Sabbath (Solomon 1989, 11). Force-feeding geese to increase the size or quality of their liver (Jacobs 1984, 176) and killing animals for pet food (Bleich 1986, 75) are unnecessary and cruel according to the rabbinic writings, and are therefore prohibited.
Jews are famous for , the extensive code of laws dictating the preparation of "kosher"
14 food. An important element of kashrut is shehitah, the proper killing of animals in a way that inflicts the least amount of pain possible. To qualify as kosher, animals are killed "by a skilled and learned person who [knows] all the laws, never by a brutal slaughterer performing the task solely for the money" (Jacobs 1984, 133). A faithful Jew will not eat meat prepared any other way.
The rules for shehitah killing are detailed and many. Though not found in the Bible itself, these rules are in the sacred Talmud, which says they "were given by God to Moses at Sinai"
(1984, 134-145). The rules of shehitah require humane treatment of animals before and during killing. For instance, knives used for killing must be finely sharpened, and even a tiny nick in a knife would mean animals killed by it aren't kosher, because it might tear while severing the animal's windpipe (1984, 135).
Jews recognize that even the most careful killing involves some cruelty, and for this reason many Jewish sects in the past have been vegetarians
(Revel, 330), while today vegetarianism among Jews is increasingly popular (Solomon 1989, 12). Nevertheless, mainstream Judaism allows meat consumption as long as it inflicts minimal cruelty to animals. This minimum is achieved through shehitah, which "distinguished medical authorities have testified involves an almost immediate cessation of consciousness on the part of the animal, so that it is the most painless method of killing . One expert declared that he wished his own end might be as painless as that of an animal killed by shehitah" (Jacobs 1984, 135).
The combination of ancient Jewish teachings with modern environmental and animal rights issues has given rise to such organizations as the Society for the Protection of Nature and the Society for Animal Welfare (both in Israel), as well as the worldwide Jewish Vegetarian Society. The Jewish Vegetarian Society, which claims "some prominent rabbis as members," cites Genesis, particularly verse 29 of the first chapter which says that fruits, grains, and vegetables "to you shall be for food"
(Rose 1989, 66-67).15


The discussion of these three environmental issues in light of Jewish thought and law illustrates that traditional Judaism includes a concern for the environment and the instruction necessary to inspire Jews to live in an environmentally conscious manner. The consistent cohesion between Judaism and the modern environmental movement is remarkable.
Judaism teaches that "the environment, like man, has certain unalienable rights, and these rights are endowed to it by the Creator--and as a result they may not be summarily dismissed or violated"
(Helfand 1986, 48). Jewish writer Jeremy Cohen said, "Responsible interaction with the environment offers men and women the deepest personal and spiritual fulfillment, while environmental irresponsibility will lead to their physical and spiritual demise. Judaism's environmental consciousness originated long before the ecological "cause célèbre" of our generation and, I should hope, will long outlive it. Like so much else in the rabbinic ethos, it calls upon human beings to be mindful of whence they have come, where they are going, and before whom they will have to account for their actions" (Cohen 1991, 77).
In addition to the strong environmental ethic within Judaism, the more general, spiritual side of the religion contributes inestimably to not only the wellness of individual Jews, but the wellness of the environment as well. Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish journal
Tikkun , said, "Environmentalists cannot afford to simply address environmental issues--they need to look at the issues that have led to" the current crisis (Lerner 1991, 50). Lerner insists that for the environmental movement to be successful, it must "speak to people's fundamental spiritual and ethical concerns." It must deal "with the pain in people's lives and the collapse of their spiritual and ethical environment [as a] prerequisite for engaging them in the struggle to save the physical environment" (1991, 50). Judaism provides this synthesis; within it are both the prerequisites for dealing with the "spiritual and ethical environment," as well as guidance for the applied, physical battle.
Today Jews recognize and are concerned about environmental problems. Even orthodox rabbis increasingly devote their sermons to environmental issues
(Rose 1989, 67). Furthermore, "Jewish individuals and groups are much involved with national bodies like Friends of the Earth" (1989, 68). Many Jews realize that secular though these problems seem, our solutions must "be based on religious and moral values" (1989, 69).
Judaism's applicability to the modern environmental movement illustrates that Judaism, though ancient, is nevertheless a contemporary, living religion, applicable to Jews today and tomorrow as much as it was when Moses descended Mt. Sinai. Jews can best answer the problems of the current environmental crisis by living the religion that has been handed down to them for millennia. People in general could live lifestyles more conducive to the continued health of the earth, the environment, and our own species by adopting similar practices.


  1. Examples abound within such books as Bill Willers, ed., Learning to Listen to the Land (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1991); Michael E. Soulé, ed., Conservation Biology: The Science of Scarcity and Diversity (Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc., 1986); Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1970); Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992).

  2. Concerning the use of the term "natural world": "Natural resources" is a traditionally used term, but many environmentalists increasingly reject the idea that plants and animals should be considered nothing but "resources" for humans.

  3. Wilde mentions notable examples of books that pioneered identification of the threats that human actions posed to the environment, as well as the idea that human overpopulation is one of the earth's most pressing problems These include Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968), The Closing Circle (1971) by Barry Commoner, and Limits to Growth (1972), written by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  4. Deuteronomy 20:19: "When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field [is] man's [life]) to employ [them] in the siege."

  5. Bal tashchit vs. bal tashit : Hebrew to English translations are not entirely standardized.

  6. While there is a Palestinian Talmud (first published around 400 C.E.), distinct from the Babylonian Talmud, we can follow convention and refer to the much more widely used Babylonian version as simply "the Talmud."

  7. "A tree which extends into the public road may be cut to allow a camel and its rider to pass beneath. (B.B. ii. 14)" (Singer, 1905, "Trees, Laws Concerning.")

  8. EarthSave Foundation, "What's the Beef & Who Pays?": "Since 1960 more than 25% of Central American rainforests have been cleared to create pastureland for cattle. By the 1970s, two thirds of all the agricultural land in Central America was utilized for livestock, which was destined for export to North America. Cattle ranching has destroyed more rainforest in Central America than any other activity. For every quarter-pound hamburger that comes from a steer raised in Central or South America, approximately 165 pounds of living matter have been destroyed While peasant agriculture can often sustain a hundred people per square mile, the average rainforest cattle ranch 'employs one person per 2,000 head of cattle and this amounts at best to one person per twelve square miles.'"

  9. "The Reform Synagogues, a progressive group representing about 15 per cent of British Jewry."

  10. It must be pointed out that today, "Israel" and "Judaism" are by no means synonymous. Israel is a secular state. To add, however, "and Judaism is a religion," is far too simplistic. According to an old joke, ask three Jews what a Jew is and you will get four answers. Israeli law defines a Jew as any person, regardless of religious persuassion, even atheists, whose mother is Jewish, as long as that person hasn't joined another religion. Jews are a people and a nation as well as a religion. The connection between traditional Judaism and many remarkable Israeli environmental practices may seem tenuous, but it can not be summarily dismissed.

  11. After the destruction of the second temple--the site of both animal sacrifices and the water libation ceremonies--the libation of water (Simhat Bet ha-Shoevah) was no longer practiced.

  12. Initial output typically runs $1,500-3,000 per hectare (Postel, 1993, 29).

  13. Aggadah: the rabbinic interpretation of the Bible (Old Testament), found within the Talmud, which yields not legal code, but rather inspirational inspirational stories, poetry, sayings, parables, etc.

  14. Kosher: Adaption of Hebrew word meaning "proper" or "fit."

  15. Genesis 1:29, King James Version: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which [is] the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat."



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