Why Judaism is an Environmentalist Faith

One issue I keep coming across in my discussions with atheists is the persistent misconception that religion promotes the idea that the Earth is man’s to do with whatever he pleases.

I do not attempt to speak for other faiths, or even for all Jews, but I explain that at its core Judaism is about Tikkun Olam, the betterment of the world in partnership with Hashem. The usual reaction I get from the more polite folks is arched-eyebrow skepticism. “I am sure that is how you read it, but does everyone?”

Jonathan Helfand offers superb documentation of where Judaism stands on the environment in a paper published in Martin D. Yaffe’s Judaism and Environmental Ethicsa 2002 compendium of writings on the topic. Helfand’s paper, “The Earth is the Lord’s: Judaism and Environmental Ethics,” presents what he calls a “Jewish Theology of the Environment,” drawn from Halacha, Aggadah, and Tefilah.

He starts out by summarizing the line of thinking that environmentalists follow to condemn Abrahamic religion, originally posited by Arnold Toynbee in the pages of the New York Times in 1973:

The doctrine that placed one God above nature removed the restraints placed on primitive man by his belief that the environment itself was divine. Monotheistic man’s impulses were no longer restrained by a pious worship of nature, and the God of Genesis told man to subdue and master the earth, proclaiming man’s dominion over the natural world.

Again, speaking only for Judaism, Helfand refutes the point in a comprehensive essay that establishes that not only did Hashem not give the world to man for his own, but that He enlisted man as a partner in its preservation even as man was provided its fruits for sustainment.

He also explains why we are required to protect the environment, use care with endangered species, and to serve as stewards of the world. In short, Helfand explains that the concept of sustainability is rooted deeply in Torah. He concludes:

While nature has indeed been, to use Weber’s term, “disenchanted” by the biblical creation epic, it is wrong to conclude that by releasing man from primitive constraints monotheism has given him license or incentive to destroy. In the Jewish tradition nature may be disenchanted, but never “despiritualized.” For Judaism nature serves as a guide and inspiration. “Bless the Lord, 0 my soul,” cries out the Psalmist as he views the heaven and earth and the wonders of creation. “How great are Thy works, 0 Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of your possessions” (Psalm 104:1, 24).

I love that: Judaism may have disenchanted nature, but it never despiritualized it. On the contrary, Judaism has given the world a framework that enables us to respect and preserve nature without having to worship it.

Naturally, this is a learned essay in an academic publication, not the ruling of a posek. Nonetheless, it provides a foundation for others to use as a guide or a resource when seeking to do so.

Finally, one of the things I love about this article is that it is a demonstration of the value of the oral Torah and the Aggadah, and the importance of using great care when interpreting Torah. If an environmentalist can dig into Genesis and find justification for despoiling the Earth, so could a well-intentioned Jew who proceeds without the guidance of the sages.

I keep this article in Evernote now, making sure it is handy for my next debate with an environmentalist.

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2 thoughts on “Why Judaism is an Environmentalist Faith

  1. Pingback: The Rabbis on the Environment | Hebrew Hutong

  2. Dear David,
    Thank you for your kind words. My interest in the subject goes back to 1970 when I first began to write on the topic. It is nice to see that 40 years later my work still attracts interest. I take no credit. It is the eternal value of the texts of Jewish tradition that render the discussion relevant – then and now.

    Jonathan Helfand
    Professor Emeritus\
    Brooklyn College – CUNY

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