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Ecology: A Jewish Perspective

May 9, 2009 | by

Man is entrusted with the proper management of the world. We may not stand aside and watch the world being destroyed.

Before we can hope to solve the problems of ecology in the technological age, we must get at the roots of these problems. These lie primarily in our basic attitude toward the purpose of our life -- in our choice of priorities. In the secular society, the top priority is self-interest. Any sense of responsibility toward the world at large is -- if it exists at all -- extremely secondary.

Let us illustrate this with a typical example. In a certain industry, it is standard practice to use a manufacturing process which is highly economical, but at the same time contributes to the destruction of the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere. If we were to suggest to the manager of a company in this industry that he use an alternative process which reduces pollution, but is more costly, he would answer, "My first responsibility is to the stockholders. I do not have the right to tell them to reduce their profits in order to preserve the quality of the atmosphere fifty years from now." From a secular standpoint, this claim is difficult to refute.

The Secular Approach

Present efforts to stem this tide focus mainly on legislation to impose restraints on the public. But this approach has very limited effectiveness -- and occasionally even backfires due to the cumbersome bureaucracy required1. Auxiliary propaganda drives to recruit public support, too, are largely ineffectual, because they lack a rational basis. The spirit of "After us the deluge!" is difficult to overcome.

The Torah View

The Torah attacks this problem by helping us to change our inner motivation. Specifically: "The whole of Torah is for the sake of social harmony2." And: "[Be considerate of your fellow's wishes] -- that is the whole of Torah3."

The Torah shapes the human personality on two planes. It works on the cognitive level by providing a rational and integrated ideology and world view conducive to social harmony. It works along behaviorist lines by imposing a body of regulations prescribing in detail the required course of action in given situations. By developing an awareness of the divine origin of the prescribed code of conduct of Jewish law, it nurtures inner motivation and thus minimizes the need for externally imposed enforcement and the concomitant bureaucracy.

What does Torah ideology say on our issue?

When God created the first couple, he blessed them, "Fill the world and conquer it4." Conquest can be for the purpose of exploitation, or for the sake of development. Which did the Creator intend? Our Sages answer this question in a midrash:

When God created the first man, he took him around to all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him, "See my handiwork, how beautiful and choice they are... Be careful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you."5

We see here that the Torah views man as being entrusted with the orderly and proper management of the world. Therefore we may not stand aside and watch the world being destroyed.

The Problem of Over-consumption

The ecological problem has another source. Two hundred years ago, economist Thomas Malthus published a thesis according to which mankind has a built-in time bomb ticking away inside it. The world's population multiplies at an ever-increasing rate, with which the rate of food production cannot possibly keep up. Although his thesis is rational, it is highly misleading. More recent research has found that this is not the primary problem at all. A factor of considerably greater importance is the average individual consumption, which is increasing at a much faster rate than that of population, as indicated by the following figures:

In the course of 30 years, the world's population doubled, while energy consumption per capita increased eightfold in this period. We may add to this the fact that in North America and Western Europe, ten percent of the population consumes 50% of the world's energy.

At this point, then, the real danger to the world lies in this excessive consumption. Not only does it deplete the world's energy store, it also is the chief cause of the warming of the atmosphere.

The root of the problem lies in a selfish world view which inflates personal consumption beyond the essential.

This over-consumption is also manifest in our use of raw materials. It can even be found in our dietary habits. Note that the production of one kilogram of beef consumes sixteen kilogram of grain.6 People are well aware of this; the problem is that they are not prepared to act accordingly.

The Torah Approach

All this shows that the root of the problem lies in a selfish world view which inflates personal consumption beyond the essential. Regarding this problem, the Torah instructs us to "be holy," or in other words, to refrain from self-indulgence and luxuries.7 (The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, signifies dedication to an ideal.)

"Noble ideas," you may say, "but how are they to be implemented?" The answer to this objection lies in halakhah, Jewish law. Halakhah is a body of strict, detailed demands which the Torah places upon the Jew. Halakhah is not interested in the individual's world view, and its demands are not affected by it. On the contrary, by guiding his actions and thereby molding his character according to the principles of behaviorist psychology, the halakhah supports the ideology, enabling it to develop man's world view and hence, again, his conduct.

As in all areas of life, regarding environmental quality the Torah does not merely call for sublime goals. It harnesses halakhah in the service of its noble concepts, thus transforming the abstract vision into a functioning principle in society. It does this on two levels: first, through laws which instill awareness of our obligations toward society and the environment; second, through other mitzvot which train us in self-control, and thus to sanctity and acceptance of divine service. These mitzvot change our selfish orientation, and teach us to be guided by ideals and not simply by desires.

Let us discuss a number of Torah-ordained commandments whose thrust is ecological.

Damages to Neighbors

In the commandment to "love your fellow as yourself,"8 the Torah has given us a principle which is indeed great,9 but which would remain a mere utopia were it not anchored in halakhah. One of the halakhic areas which educates us to love our fellow and to be concerned for his welfare is that of "damages to neighbors." This is a broad topic, which also has a significant influence on the ecology.

The Torah deals at length with owners' responsibility for damages caused by their possessions, at times even if caused only indirectly and also if caused by an object which technically they did not own.

In the case of an inanimate object, such damages are classified as "damages caused by a pit." The responsibility rests with the person who dug or uncovered the pit in the public domain.10 In this category are damages caused by a banana peel thrown in the street, or dangerous waste material disposed of in the public domain. When the object is transported by natural forces, such as the wind, it is in the category of "fire,"11 which includes damage caused by pollution of air or waterways.

Surprisingly, we are cautioned against causing the loss of benefit to another, even if he has no legal claim to it.12 The principle that "one should not drain the water of his well when others need it" is found in the Mishnah.13 A Jew is even commanded to prevent damage threatening his neighbor from an outside force.14

The Sages of the Talmud expanded these rules also to psychological disturbances, such as possible exposure to a neighbor's observation, noises, and so on. Anyone suffering such annoyances may appeal to the courts to force his neighbor to remove them. This may include the removal of the cause of the noise, although the noise is only indirectly due to it15 and even if its removal will cause the owner financial hardship. Based on these rules, the Ryvash drafts the guiding principle: "One may not protect his own property from damage at the expense of his fellow's damage."16 This principle could serve as a guideline in modern legislation for pollution control.

Four particular nuisances are especially liable to legal action according to Jewish law: smoke, sewage odors, dust and similar aerosols, and vibrations.17 Even if consent had initially been given, the offended neighbor can retract it. All of these are forms of pollution which are a source of great concern to this day. In particular, halakhah limits the proximity of certain industrial processes to the city, to prevent air pollution within the city. Included are threshing floors (because of the chaff), processing of carcasses, tanneries (because of the smell), and furnaces (because of the smoke).18 Tanneries are specifically limited to the areas east of the city, in consideration of the prevalent wind patterns in the Land of Israel.19

Mere aesthetic damage such as littering in public places is also included in the prohibition against causing damage.

We have already mentioned the value the Torah places on beauty. It is obvious, then, that mere aesthetic damage such as littering in public places is also included in the prohibition against causing damage -- if not according to the letter of halakhah, then according to its spirit. We find at least one example of such legislation: furnaces were forbidden in Jerusalem because the smoke blackened the walls of the houses, "and this is a disgrace."20

All the above is only a small sampling from over one hundred paragraphs in the Code of Jewish Law21 which deal with damages caused to neighbors, most of them environmental. One who studies and applies these laws in daily life becomes considerate and sensitive, and will not make light of harming the environment. He will beware of causing damage in general, and ecological damage in particular.

A Psychological Revolution22

In searching for the sources of the problems of ecological destruction, whether industrial- or consumer-centered, we will find that they lie chiefly in people's selfishness. When personal advantage tops the scale of priorities and everyone tries to expand the sphere of his own power, the expanding spheres are bound to collide, creating shortages and conflict. This fosters a situation where mankind seems to march toward massive environmental degradation -- unless, that is, it finds an alternative to this basic self-centered orientation.

This is where the Torah steps in. It works to eliminate the prime cause of conflict by providing a goal common to all mankind: to make us into loyal servants of God. Such a servant will see to it that he acquires the tools he needs to succeed at his job -- but no more. As a result, he will not strive for unlimited expansion of his sphere of influence.

Such a world view also transforms the entire creation into a means toward, and partner in, the service of God. Ultimately it will all be part of one system, all of whose components contribute to the common goal. If "mitzvot were only given as a means to refine mankind,"23 then the Torah and its mitzvot treat, in the most fundamental manner, the problems of the quality of the environment. They also hold the only solution to the problem of the ecology: a reshaping of man's character.

Perhaps this is the message of Ezekiel's vision24 when he was shown a polluted ocean, with its fish and other marine life near death.25 Then a small trickle of water emerged from under the threshold of the Temple -- "water signifies Torah,"26 and the Temple is but the sanctuary of the Torah.27 Gradually the water grew to a great stream, on whose shore grew all manner of fruit trees, whose leaves do not wither and whose fruits never cease. When these waters reach the ocean, the polluted ocean waters are healed, and all the fish and marine life return to health.

Here we behold a vision of an ecological paradise coming into existence through the Torah.

This article is excerpted from A Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment, to be published by Canfei Nesharim in Spring 5765. For more information on Canfei Nesharim and halachic perspectives on protecting the environment, visit


1. M. Gerstenfeld, Environment and Confusion (Academon, Jerusalem, 1994).
2. BT Gittin 59b, from Proverbs 3:17.
3. BT Shabbath 31a (cf. above, essay 12, note 3).
4. Genesis 1:28.
5. MR Ecclesiastes 7:13 s.v. reëh.
6. F.M. Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, Ballentine (NY, 1975); pp.11, 382.
7. Leviticus 19:2 and RaMBaN commentary ad loc. from BT Yevamoth 20a.
8. Leviticus 19:18.
9. JT Nedarim 9:4.
10. M Bava Kama 1:1 and commentaries ad loc.; ibid chap. 3.
11. Loc. cit.
12. BT Yevamoth 44a; (M Yevamoth 4:11).
13. According to SeMaG (neg. #229) and Meiri (BT Yevamoth 44a), the prohibition is based on bal tashchith.
14. BT Bava Metzi'a 31a; SA CM 259:9.
15. BT Bava Bathra 23a; SA CM 155:39.
16. Responsa RYVaSh #196.
17. SA CM 155:36.
18. M Bava Bathra 2:8-9; SA CM 155:22-23.
19. Loc. cit.
20. Rashi BT Bava Kama 82b.
21. SA CM #153-6.
22. The ideas in this section are, primarily, from R. A. Carmell, "Judaism and the Quality of the Environment", in Challenge, A. Carmell & C. Domb, eds., (Feldheim, 1976); pp.500-525.
23. MR I 44:1.
24. Ezekiel 47:1-12.
25. The prophet refers to the waters of the sea being "cured"; this implies that they had been polluted; his vision concerning the animals around the water: "they will live," implies that they had been near death. The Hebrew term used to describe the "uncured" water is "mutza-im", which is cognate with "tzoah" = feces, again implying pollution (Cf. 2 Kings 10:27, as read.)
26. BT Bava Kama 17a.
27. The purpose of a building is indicated by its innermost content. In the sanctuary, the Torah and the Tablets were in the Holy of Holies. Cf. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch on Exodus 25:21.

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