August 15, 2011

3 min read


I am looking for Torah sources that speak about nature, respect for life and animals, sustainability, etc.

Do we as Jews have a responsibility to nature and to preserve the other species of life on this planet? I am particularly concerned with trees and deforestation. If so, how do you feel we can best achieve "Green Judaism"?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Thousands of years ago, before environmentalism became a worldwide human concern, Judaism dealt with these issues in a detailed and sophisticated manner.

In Genesis (1:28), God commands man to "fill the world and capture it." The Torah permits us to use the world as we see fit. However, a few verses later (Genesis 2:15), the Torah tempers this by telling us that God put humans in the Garden (symbolic of the entire world) "to work it and to guard it." Since guarding something means preserving it, God wants us to both use the world for our needs, while being careful to preserve the world and not destroy it.

An example of this delicate balance comes from Deut. 20:19-20. When an army surrounds a city and prepares to use a tree as a battering ram, the Torah says that a fruit-bearing tree may not be used for this purpose. If one uses the fruit-bearing tree, then the fruit will be needlessly destroyed, since the same objective could be accomplished with a tree that does not bear fruit.

On the other hand, a person may cut down a fruit tree for some constructive purpose (Maimonides - Laws of Kings 6:8). This encapsulates the Torah perspective on the environment: While we may use the world for our needs, we may never irresponsibly damage or destroy the environment. (Needless destruction is called Bal Taschit.)

Rabbi Benzion of Bobov was strolling with a disciple, deeply engrossed in scholarly conversation. As they passed a tree, the student mindlessly pulled off a leaf and unconsciously shredded it into pieces.

Rabbi Benzion stopped abruptly. The student, startled, asked what was wrong. In response, the rabbi asked him why he had picked the leaf off of the tree.

The disciple, taken aback, could think of no response.

The rabbi explained that all of nature -- birds, trees, even every blade of grass -- everything that God created in this world, sings its own form of praise to its Creator. If they should be needed for food and sustenance, they are ingested and become part of the song of the higher species. But to pull a leaf off a tree for no purpose at all is to wastefully silence its song, giving it no recourse, as it were, to join any other instrument in the symphony of nature.

Regarding city planning and beautification, a healthy ecological balance dictates that there must remain distance between city and rural areas. Thus, the Torah (Numbers 35:2) does not permit any planting or building within a 1000-cubit radius around any of the Levite cities.

Rashi on this verse, based on the Talmud (Baba Batra 24b), comments that one purpose is to protect the beauty of the city. Thus, the Torah was concerned about zoning and city beautification.

For more, read "The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues," by Rabbi Nachum Amsel, from which this answer was excerpted.

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