Stewardship of the Environment in Jewish Tradition

Reference: The Movement for Reform Judaism, U.K.

Looking after our environment

As part of our commitment to l’taken olam, to fix the world, we understand that Judaism places enormous emphasis on the ‘stewardship of the planet’; looking after our environment. This is not simply a modern response to our urgent need to deal with climate change, but a long-standing part of our religious heritage. This article will show a range of Jewish sources that can inspire us and enable us to make looking after our environment a positive and informed choice.

Judaism’s and God’s relationship to and with the earth is the very first thing we learn about in the Torah. The first pasuk (verse) of Bereishit, the book of Genesis, tells us that:

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Just 12 lines later in pasuk 12 we read about the third day of Creation where:

וַתּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע, לְמִינֵהוּ, וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה-פְּרִי אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ-בוֹ, לְמִינֵהוּ; וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב

The earth brought forth vegetation; seed bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

The Torah is telling us that nature is something fundamentally important to God. Perhaps from this we can extrapolate that since all human beings are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, we should also find nature important too. If this is true then creating a meaningful relationship with the natural environment around us is could be the first mitzvah, the first commandment given to us as opposed to the tradition of the first mitzvah being to be fruitful and multiply from Bereishit 1:28.

This tension is tragically ironic if we are to believe environmentalists such as Professor Roger Short from Melbourne University who says that ‘the world is overpopulating itself to a catastrophic future of terrorism and climatic disaster and that for the first time in history, human activity is outstripping the natural world’s ability to cope due to exploding and uncontrolled population growth.’

We certainly understand that we have an increasing need to protect our environment and be responsible for it. A report from June 2011 suggests that our oceans are ‘at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history’ and that this is already impacting humanity.

So what does Judaism say about protection of the world, the stewardship of nature?

We once again find ourselves back in the book of Bereishit, this time in the Garden of Eden. God tells the first human beings that they should rule, (be responsible for?) the fish, the birds, all the living things that creep on the earth and that plants and fruit shall be theirs for food. Later in Bereishit 2:15 God places human beings in the Garden of Eden, ‘to till it and to tend it’. To make the point further a quite wonderful midrash on the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), states that:

בשעה שברא הקב”ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך


At the time that God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Rabbah Kohelet 7:13).

According to our tradition this environmental concern dates back over 5700 years. An impressive feat when you take into account the fact that, Friends of the Earth for example, has only been around since 1969. This begs the question as to why tikkun olam seems to only be a relatively modern part of our identity as Jews. How now as Reform Jews, do we continue this commitment to tikkun olam from a point of reference that is rooted in Judaism?

Interestingly, Ellen Bernstein, in her book, ‘Ecology and Jewish Spirit’, writes that “Moderns too often pose the wrong question to religion. They ask what Judaism says about ‘the environmental crisis’ or about ‘nature’. These are modern terms that have risen out of our separation from the natural world. Ancient Israelites depended on nature for their natural livelihood; rain and crops determined their fate, and nature was an integral part of their lives. In a culture where the wisdom and the force of nature were experienced each day, terms like environment and nature have almost no meaning.”

In modern Israel too there is a pressing need to understand the importance and urgency of looking after the environment and how that can have an immediate benefit to the individual too. In January 2011 the Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan launched a ‘Let’s Think Green’ information campaign. “Despite the increase in environmental awareness, it seems that the public is not aware of the simple actions that everyone can adopt which protect the environment and bring about real economic savings to the household. The link between environment and economy has not been previously discussed in Israel and in this respect the campaign is innovative. We will deal with the following subjects: saving paper, responsible food purchasing, green driving, saving electricity, and more.”

Looking after the world then is simply (and maybe literally) about going back to our roots and that the stewardship of the planet is clearly something that needs to be part and parcel of our everyday lives. As Rabbi Neil Amswych of Bournemouth Reform Synagogue tells us, “In the Reform Movement we know that it is no longer sufficient to just give sermons on the environment or to stage occasional events – sustainability needs to be part of our life-long Jewish response to God’s creation – to serve it and to preserve it.”

In the words of Pirkei Avot, Wisdom of the Sages [“Ethics of the Fathers”], 2:16, quoting the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Tarfon:

הוא היה אומר, לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה

He used to say, It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.

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