Environmental Ethics

From a Jewish Perspective
Studies of Religion Conference
30 June 2011
Rabbi Paul Jacobson
Halakhah (pathway/Jewish law)
 Jewish ethical code based on Torah and rabbinic
 Does not legislate for every occurrence, certain choices
are left to man’s moral sense of what is right or wrong
 Ongoing interaction between halakhah and ethical
issues confronting society
Environmental Ethics (Summary)
 Environmental justice is a Jewish value.
 Genesis 1
God created the world
God’s creation is good
Human beings are created in the image of God
Tzedek (righteousness, justice)
Tikkun Olam (repairing the world)
Brit (covenant – we are partners with God in the upkeep of the
Bal tashchit (do not destroy/cut down)
Tza’ar ba’alei chayim (prevention of cruelty to animals)
B’tzelem Elohim (created in God’s image)
Balance: Values & Needs of humans vs. claims of nature
Bal tashchit (do not destroy/cut
 When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a
long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy
its trees, wielding the axe against them. You may eat
of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the
trees of the field human to withdraw before you into
the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not
yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down
for constructing siege works against the city that is
waging war on you, until it has been reduced
(Deuteronomy 20:19-20).
Tza’ar ba’alei chayim (prevention of
cruelty to animals)
 If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any
tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the
mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do
not take the mother with her young. Let the mother
go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare
well and have a long life (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).
 Additional Commandments
Sh’mita/Yoveil (Sabbatical year for
the land/jubilee)
 When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land
shall observe a Sabbath of the LORD. Six years you
may sow your field and six years you may prune your
vineyard and gather in your yield. But in the seventh
year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a
Sabbath of the LORD; you shall not sow your field or
prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after
growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your
untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for
the land (Leviticus 25:2-5).
B’tzelem Elohim (Created in the
image of God)
 And God created man in God’s image, in the image of
God, God created him, male and female God created
them (Genesis 1:27).
 Even those things that you may regard as completely
superfluous to creation – such as fleas, gnats, and flies
– even they were included in Creation; and God’s
purpose is carried through everything – even through
a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, and a frog.
Caring for the land?
 The LORD God formed man from the dust of the
earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and
man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).
 The LORD God took the man and placed him the
Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it (Genesis 2:15).
 When God created Adam he led him past all the trees
in the Garden of Eden and told him, “See how
beautiful and excellent are all My works. Beware lest
you spoil and ruin My world. For if you spoil it there is
nobody to repair it after you.
 Or…???
Dominating the land?
 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fertile and
increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish
of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things
that creep on the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I give you
every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and
every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be
yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all
the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on
earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give all the
green plants for food.] And it was so (Genesis 1:28-30).
Consequences of our Actions
 If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon
you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving God
with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your
land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather
in your new grain and wine and oil—I will also provide
grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat
your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods
and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up
against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there
will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce;
and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD
is giving you (Deuteronomy 11:13-17).
Contemporary Efforts
 Coalition on the Environment in Jewish Life
 Jewish Ecological Coalition (www.jeco.com.au)
 Google search: “Jewish environmental initiatives”
 Religious Action Centre (www.rac.org)

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