How Green Is Judaism? Exploring Jewish Environmental Ethics

By Vogel, David | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

How Green Is Judaism? Exploring Jewish Environmental Ethics


Vogel, David, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS REPRESENTS AN IMPORTANT JEWISH issue: it links the Jewish tradition of ethical analysis to a significant contemporary problem. [1] Jewish tradition makes a distinctive and important contribution to our understanding of contemporary environmental ethics and the complex relationship of human beings and nature. While the Bible, which extends over seven or eight centuries, as well as post-biblical exegesis, contains not one normative view of nature but a variety of views, many ancient and medieval Jewish texts both express and are consistent with a strong environmental ethic. Far from providing a blanket endorsement to man's domination of nature for his own benefit, Judaism imposes numerous restrictions on how, when, and to what extent people can use the natural environment. Rather than simply expressing anthropocentric values, many of its ideas and principles either explicitly or implicitly evoke themes that are consistent with eco- or biocentric understandings of the relationship between pe ople and nature. [2] Indeed, the latter ethos, rather than representing a major new departure in or challenge to western religious thought, is actually prefigured in both ancient and medieval Jewish religious texts.

But while Judaism may be consistent with many contemporary environmental values and doctrines, its teachings are not identical to them. Specifically, Judaism does not regard the preservation or protection of nature as the most important societal value; it holds that humans are not just a part of nature but have privileged and distinctive moral claims; it believes that nature can threaten humans as well as the obverse; it argues that nature should be used and enjoyed as well as protected. Jewish tradition is complex: it contains both "green" and "non-green" elements. It is both inappropriate to over-emphasize the former, as have some Jewish environmentalists, or the latter, as have some environmental critics of western religion. [3]

In the Jewish tradition, humans have both moral claims on nature and nature has moral claims on humans. But neither claim is absolute: nature both exists for the sake of humans and for its own sake. While the natural world must be respected and admired, its challenge to human interests and values must also be recognized. The key contribution of ancient and medieval Jewish texts to contemporary environmental discourse lies in the concept of balance--balance between the values and needs of humans and the claims of nature--and between viewing nature as a source of life and moral values and as a threat to human life and social values. The teachings of Judaism challenge both those who would place too low a value on nature as well as those who would place too high a value on it.

Anthropocentrism and Eco-centrism

"When you besiege a town for many days, waging-war against it, to seize it: you are not to bring-ruin upon its trees, by swinging-away (with) an ax against them, for from them you eat, them you are not to cut-down--for are the trees of the field human beings, (able) to come against you in a siege? Only those trees of which you know that they are not trees for eating, them you may bring-to-ruin and cut-down, that you may build siege-works against the town that is making war against you, until its downfall" (Deuteronomy 20: 19-20). [4]

This is perhaps the most frequently cited passage in contemporary writings on Jewish environmental ethics and is often evoked as a textual basis for Jewish environmental ethics. Yet it contains an important ambiguity. Put simply: why should one not destroy the fruit trees?

One interpretation of this passage, expressed by the medieval Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), is that we should not destroy the fruit trees because our lives are dependent on them and the food they produce. Thus destroying the fruit-trees is forbidden because it is not in the long-term interest of humans. However, the medieval Jewish scholar Rashi (1040--1105), offers a rather different interpretation. …

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