Environmental Ethics

JNF Rabbinical Conference (1992) Lecture

Published 20 January 1992
global environment post


Download a PDF of a lecture on environmental ethics delivered by Rabbi Sacks at the JNF Rabbinical Conference which took place on 20th January 1992, to coincide with Tu BiShvat.

I want to begin by congratulating all those associate with this wonderful initiative which allows us to familiarise our­ selves with the work of the JNF and other bodies in not merely the greening of Eretz Yisrael, but the whole building of the infra-structure of agriculture and of settlements for the new Olim, and how much we are all in awe of the work that you are doing.

I think in particular on Tu Bishvat, on Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot, we are reminded precisely of that special relation­ship we have with the Land, and the JNF has been engaged for ninety years, ninety years young which is very impressive. It has been involved throughout those entire ninety years in a sense in Yishuv Ha’aretz, (settlement of the Land), not only in Yishuv Ha’aretz in the conventional sense of making it a place which can be settled by Am Yisrael, but Yishuv Ba’aretz in the sense of the improvement of the land itself and its productivity in terms of conservation, afforestation, and restoration. So it has been involved in the demography of Israel it has been involved in the ecology of Israel and it is about ecology which I wanted to speak this morning.

What is a Jewish environmental ethic? When did we begin speaking about ecology? When was this concept born? Does anyone know?

It was in fact very recent. Earliest writings were published in the late 1940’s but it only actually surfaced on the intellectual agenda in the late 1960’s. Only in the last twenty or thirty years have we begun speaking about environ­ mental ethics because it is only in this period that we have been aware of the speed with which we are depleting the world’s natural resources and the extent and speed to which we are polluting those resources.

The greenhouse effect, the ozone layer, the wonderful London fog. The effects of all these things have, of course, been accelerated by this explosion in technological capacity in the second half of the twentieth century. This has made us realise that the earth does not have inexhaustible resources and that we have to plan for what is called sustainable growth. In a phrase, the Almighty, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, did not give us the world to turn it into a waste land, but to turn it into a place for Yishuv, for settlement.

Now one of the great ironies is that this is not only a Jewish value, but the whole basis of the JNF especially in its early days was taking this Jewish value of Yishuv Ha’aretz and turning it into a reality. It was, as you know, one of the great miracles of the twentieth century conservation that Israel was turned from a waste land into a place of afforestation, a place of supreme agricultural technology, a place where the desert blooms, a place that became the fruit basket of Europe.

I think that in ecological terms this is one of the most remarkable stories of modern times. This transformation not only of Israel itself, from a wilderness to a green and pleasant land, but also the transformation of Am Yisrael, from a people who had, for nearly two thousand years, been traders because of the circumstances of galut, (Diaspora).

In a very extraordinary way we were exiles not only from the particular land of Israel but from any land. We were not allowed to hold land and therefore we were a nation of traders and we suddenly became a nation of farmers.

It is still moving to remember what happened in those early days. I remember my own great grand-father, Reb Arye Leib Frumkin, (not an untypical story of those days) a Rav, a Ben Torah from Kovno in Litha, who went to Eretz Yisrael in the early 1870’s and became the.official historian of the old yishuv; wrote a famous book which has been republished many times. He became a farmer in Petach Tikvah and there are many claims as to who built the first house in Petach Tikvah; my family claim that he built the first house. Petach Tikvah was the first agricultural settlement of the new yishuv, and that was a transformation the like of which had not been seen in Jewish history.

The real irony is this, that when nobody had ever heard of environmental ethics, what did anyone, Jews or non-Jews know about Israel? They knew Israel was the place where Jews went and they made the desert bloom. Everyone knew about it, before anyone knew about ecology. As soon as people knew about ecology, suddenly nobody ever thought of Israel.

Sometimes they thought of Israel in political terms, in military terms, Israel and the Arabs, Israel and the Palestin­ians and they forgot the good news about Israel, which was this incredible environmental miracle.

Therefore since nowadays green issues, and environmental issues are everybody’s issues, every politician is falling over himself to show how green he is. In the old days you tried to show you were not, nowadays you try to show you are. It is important for us to recognise with pride the contri­bution Am Yisrael has made to this cause which has been forgotten in the interim, and to explain this to our children who are very, very interested in these issues. To explain it with pride, in particular in the work of the JNF, we should be aware that one of Israel’s greatest exports, I don’t know it in financial terms, but in human terms, has been its exporting of its agricultural expertise to other parts of the Middle East and other parts of Africa. It has probably done more in those countries in the long term to alleviate famine in those countries, than the million of dollars of aid which are poured into those countries and are very often misapplied.

So Tu BiShvat reminds us of that powerful ecological tradition which JNF has turned into a reality in Eretz and Medinat Yisrael.

The environmental ethics of Judaism is a difficult subject. However, just as a subject in the simple pashut (plain meaning), what does Judaism say about it? Ecology is a good example of a general problem that you and I face, and indeed halachah faces, in the modern world.

Namely we know there are such things as halachot about Ba’al Tashchit (destroying anything but what does the halachah say about the tough environmental decisions that people have to make nowadays? Do you de-forestate? How do you set immediate gain from the economy as against the long-term devastation of an economy?

As far as I know, on this kind of broad macro-economic level, there are not any halachot, because by and large the great development of Torah SheBe’al Peh (oral law), the develop­ment of the Torah SheBe’al Peh and halachah and so on, occurred in a situation where we did not have the Medina (State) and we did not have a land of our own.

Therefore macro-economic considerations were never sheilot (questions) that came up before Jews. Jews were always indi­viduals, they were never a government, they were never in control of the macro-economy. Nowadays that we have Medinat Yisrael, these sheilot are on demand, and unfortunately by dereliction we don’t have any halachic guidelines.

The question is, in Israel’s economy, is its conservation policy conducted Al Pi Halachah, (according to religious law)?

Another need that is spinning out of things which are at this moment only implicitly in the halachah.

So how do we do this, how do we generalise from what we know about Halachah and Aggadah into a situation which didn’t occur before, not because the Torah didn’t foresee them. Of course the Torah did foresee them, but because we were not in a position, in a practical situation, where we had to answer those sheilot in a practical manner.

I think it is important in general for three reasons to take ecology as a subject. Firstly of course because we have to communicate to our kehillot and to our children, that Judaism does have something to say about the ethical issues of the day, of which the environment is perhaps one of the most important. We have on these things a tradition stretching back three and a half thousand years, indeed stretching back to the first two chapters of Genesis. On environmental ethics, we have to say with pride that our children, our people, do not have to turn to outside sources for an answer. On the contrary, certainly here we have to turn to our own mekorot (sources) for an answer.

Secondly, I believe that environmental ethics will give us an insight into the structure of Jewish ethics, and I will explain what I mean. I hope you won’t find this too difficult if I say one of the biggest problems of living in a secular age, is not so much that the ethics of our age are secular. The real problem is that being secular they are simple minded. If we want chochmah (wisdom), if we want real depth, we will not find it in secular ethics. I mean that the great burning ethical issues of the last twenty years have been presented in simple naive terms. You want peace, therefore nuclear disarmament.

If you want to end world poverty, therefore aid to third world countries. If you want to protect the environment, therefore we have to move back to organic farming.

Very often as you know, famine relief has actually made the famine worse because it has gone into supporting military dictatorships. Organic farming would move us back into a situation in which we move from agricultural over-supply to under-supply. What is wrong with this view of ethics, the view that all our kids pick up from television.

The problem is the assumption that what the world’s problems are, consist of the fact that we don’t have ideals. So long as we have ideals we will solve the problems. I actually want to say something quite fundamental here. Really funda­mental. Torah is represented by Chazal (the Sages) and by the Torah itself as chochmah (wisdom), and the Rambam (Maimonides) defines chochmah as contrasting the Chacham and the Chassid. The Chacham is the person who takes the middle way and the Chassid goes to extremes.

Now people consistently make two mistakes about the Rambam. Number one, that the Rambam applied Derech Ha’emzait (the middle way), to middot namely to personal character traits but never applied it to halachah.

Number two, that the p’shat in Derech Ha’emzait is compromise. Not too much of this, not too much of that, you make a compromise in the middle what they call in Anglo-Jewry “middle of the road”. I can’t imagine a more profound misunderstanding of the Rambam than those two propositions. First of all the Rambam’s total picture of Judaism makes it clear that the Derech Ha’emtzait is for him primarily a function of halachah.

That halachah is the continuous application of Derech Ha’emtzait to dilemmas, and number two, that Derech Ha’emtzait does not mean compromise. It means the resolution of conflict between two ideals which are impossible simultaneously to satisfy in a finite world.

You will see how this relates to ecology. Let me add one more point. My understanding is that Chazal defined that area in which we do not need to come to a resolution, and halachah that area where we do need to come to a p’sak, a decision.

This we do, this we can’t. The area of Aggadah is the area in which Chazal explores the ideals of Judaism. The area of halachah is where they resolve the practical conflicts of ideals.

Not all Aggadah is like that and not all halachah is like that, but it is a general characterisation, a simple example. Hundreds of Aggadot talk about the virtue of Emet (truth), hundreds of Aggadot talk about the virtue of Shalom (peace), so we know those are both fundamental Jewish values. Emet and Shalom are the seal of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The question is what do we do when those two values conflict? Then we establish a priority between values, we resolve the conflict. That is Derech Ha’emzait. In some cases this way and in some cases that way, in some cases the middle but Derech Ha’emzait means the resolution of conflicts between ideals.

Now the whole of environmental ethics, every issue that comes before planners whether in Israel or anywhere else in the world is an issue of resolving conflicts. Conflict between the integrity of nature and respecting that man is the purpose of creation. The world is there as our resource. Now those two are clearly in conflict between exploitation and conservation.

Not only do today’s writings on environment not refer to Torah, I mean as a source of an environmental ethic, they actually blame the Torah as the source of our disfoliation of nature. This is what they call the ‘rape of nature’. According to the environ­ mental lobby the source of all evil in the world today is Genesis Chapter one.

This suppression and dominion over nature is man the explorer. What therefore is their solution for the ills of humankind? This as you know is the central thrust of the entire New Age movement, which has attracted a great many Jews even some “Rabbis”. They say that what we need is not more Yiddishkeit, what we need is Buddism, other Eastern faiths which are more respectful towards or reverential towards nature, and without over drama­ tising the fact, here is the clearest example of Avoda Zara (paganism) of our time. What is the essence of Avoda Zara?

Seeing nature as sacred. That is Avoda Zara, that is what the Torah spends all its time arguing against, and that part­icular Avoda Zara is today alive and well in the environ­ mental lobbies and movements and is attracting many, many Jews.

The essence of the Torah’s warning against Avoda Zara is that nature is not sacred, that God is not to be found in nature but above nature, super-natural.

Now if you read the ecological literature you will see that for the most part it is done in terms of a contract, the goodies and the baddies. The baddies, are the ones who follow the biblical ethic that nature exists for the sake of man, and the goodies or what is technically known as deep ecologists,

that nature is sacrosanct and that inanimate life has its own rights. That is the goodies and the baddies.

It is two extremes, and the interesting thing is that if you ask which is the Jewish view between these two extremes we immediately find that in fact Yahadut (Judaism) contains both extremes to an extreme. That is developed in Aggadah namely all the literatures of Judaism that don’t call for a resolution, whether in Tanach (the Bible) or Divrei Chazal (the words of the Sages).

Chazal never made any attempt to resolve these conflicts on the contrary they are both Jewish perceptions and both Jewish values.

What is particularly striking is that the Torah itself sets out these two conflicting models in the first two chapters of Genesis.

The Torah has a very elaborate structure in which it allocates six-sevenths of our time to the exploitation of nature and one­ seventh of our time to the respect and reverence of nature.

The Shabbat, the Shemittah (Sabbatical year) and Yovel (Jubilee year). That is the ecological balance the Torah creates in us vis-a-vis nature.

As we are aware, the whole structure of Shabbat and Shemittah and Yovel, are not simply for human benefit, on the contrary they are for the benefit of the created order. The Torah says explicitly that animals have a right to rest on Shabbat, the land has a right to rest on Shemittah and if you deprive it of that right then “I will drive you off the land and restore that right”. So the Torah indicates that the earth has a valid claim as God’s creation to be free of man’s manipulation, and man must respect this, but on the other hand the world was created for man. How do we resolve this? Answer, by setting aside one-seventh of our time, whether in days or in years, to be green, and to my mind nobody has ever suggested or even dreamt of an ecological consciousness raising experiment to equal Shabbat and Shemittah.

In other words here is a situation in which on Shabbat every­ thing the environmentalist wants us to do, we do. We have no mastery, no Ba’alut, over animals, we have no Ba’alut over the Karka (earth) because we can’t do any work etc etc, so we become totally green citizens one day a week and one year in seven.

So that is how this Derech Ha’emtzait which in this case as you will see as in many others is not a mathematical centre, it is a balance, in this case, six here and one there but it is a balance. The Rambam explains at length why a balance is not actually a midway point, on the contrary a balance is always to one side or another but here the Torah creates, in its halachot, all the agricultural halachot a balance a Derech Haemtzait between two conflicting hashkofot (concepts) both of which are Torah Hashkofot, which we don’t need to resolve except when it comes to halachah lerna’aseh (practical laws) and then the Torah does resolve the question.

I would say there were probably four shittot (points of view). Number one, that we don’t actually have duties towards nature, what we do have duties towards is the long-term interests of man­ kind. So we shouldn’t make the soil infertile by over-utilising it.

That is a very utilitarian view. That really our duties towards nature are simply our duties towards the next generation of human beings, and not really towards nature at all.

There is a second view that there is a sanctity to the natural order of things and we shouldn’t try and change nature.

There is a third view, the most extreme, perhaps, deep ecological view which is that nature has rights.

And there is a fourth view that is sort of linked to these, namely that human beings are in fact contrary to what we have always thought, not the central purpose of creation. That last view, that human beings are not the central purpose of creation we find most clearly in two sources. One is the Book of Job and the other is the Rambam when he is discussing the Book of Job and the whole problem of Tzadik ve’rah Lo (the righteous sufferer).

The whole essence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s questions to Job are in effect one way of saying “what makes you think you are so important”. “Were you there when I created the world, you think everything exists to serve man, what about the wild animals, the antelope, the crocodile, the this, that and the other? All these animals, all these things that you can’t use, because you can’t tame them and yet they are My creations? So don’t think the whole world exists for you. Proof, look at these animals, look at these hills, look at these mountains. You think creation exists to serve man, it does not”. That is HaKadosh Baruch Hu‘s answer to Job and that is essentially the Rambam’s deep answer to the problem of Job. That man actually is a microcosm in an infinite and expanding environment.

Of course the Rambam ironically also takes the most lenient view when you are dealing with Ta’amei Hamitzvot (the reasons for the commandments). The Rambam for instance, says that quite simply, Sh’mitah is not because we owe any duty to the land but because if we leave the land fallow one year in seven, this improves agricultural productivity. So he takes a kind of long term view. The view that nature is sacred is the view taken in particular by the Ramban (Nachmanides). The commentators focus on this when they look at the commandment about mingled cattle seeds. Why does HaKodosh Baruch Hu forbid us to inter­ breed cattle, why does He forbid us to plant mingled seeds.

The answer is, it is a chok (statute). Tl”·e question is, what is the meaning of the word chok? Of course, our normal understanding of chok is that it is a thing without a reason!

According to the Rambam, chok is not that at all. Chok is something which has a reason but it takes us a long time to get to it, and in order to understand the reason, we have to engage in history. That is the second explanation of chok. The third explanation is the Ramban’s p’shat. Chok means natural law.

There are two kinds of law. There is a law that we observe, we can obey or disobey, like the laws of the land, that is what is mishpat (justice), and there is a law in nature, like Galileo, Newton, Einstein, these are laws. A law of nature is a chok, and therefore what is the meaning of chok? That we should not change the order of nature by manipulating nature and creating new forms which Hakodosh Baruch Hu did not create.

The fourth view, the most radical view actually, is the view of Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch would have been right at the forefront of the environmental lobby because Hirsch, actually makes this following incredible statement. That Chok Mishpat is laws of justice between man and nature. And he says the only reason why we don’t understand chukim is that we aren’t animals, plants or shrubs. If we were plants we would know why there were chukim.

The whole principle that we don’t wilfully destroy anything; is justice. Justice towards animals and inanimate objects. So chok means ‘justice’.

Only trees that you know do not produce food may you cut down for use building sieges.

Deut. 20:19

The principle of Ba’al Tashchis (wanton destruction of anything useful) is a very careful mediation between these two stand­ points. On the one hand Ba’al Tashchis teaches us to respect nature as Hakodosh Baruch Hu‘s creation in the most radical and fundamental ways. We can’t think of an analogy, I don’t know of any analogy in any secular law, because the halachah of Ba’al Tashchis effectively undercuts all absolute Ba’alut in anything.

So the halachah very very carefully mediates and takes a medium position. We are certainly not allowed destructively to exploit the world’s resources, that is totally against Ba’al Tashchis, on the other than we don’t have to hold back by our total commit­ment to conservation in all circumstances.

I hope that I have shown you as follows. Number one, that Judaism does have an environmental ethic and we have things of relevance to say on the subject.

Number two, that what matters is not so much that we spoke about it before everybody else did, (we also have Mekorot on this), but we have a fundamentally different approach to this. The whole argument is conducted in terms of two extremes the anti­ conservationists and the conservationists about both of which we “yes”.

But one without the other is Avoda Zara. If you have only the sanctity of nature without the importance of man, that is Avoda Zara. You have only the exploitation of the world without reverence for nature that is creating wasteland. The Torah is the Derech Ha’emtzait and the whole essence of the environ­ mental problems is to create the Derech Ha’emtzait. To trade this consideration against that and to create an ecological balance, between the present and the future. That is why John Parson the great Australian philosopher, has written the greatest book on the subject of environmental ethics, “Man’s Concern for Nature”, published already fifteen years ago, who is not a Jew, and has no connection with Jews or Judaism, and comes to the con­clusion at the end of his masterly work that for his money the best environmental ethic is halachah. Extraordinary thing, you should know about this, it is not an unimportant testimony of the greatest philosophical work on the environment. John Parson comes to the conclusion that the Jewish ethic is the best hope for the human race. Because an ultra-conservationist approach will plunge us back into the pre-technological dark ages and not help anyone.

An ultra-exploitative approach will very rapidly destroy the biosphere so this balance which is a feature of halachah in general and environmental halachah in particular is something that we have to teach the world and I hope we have to teach our­ selves. Ultimately of course my favourite single statement on the environment very clearly is from the story in the Talmud when the King sees a man, Choni, planting a carob tree and says: “tell me how long it takes for a carob tree to produce fruit?” He answers, “seventy years”. He says to him, “do you still expect to be around in seventy years?” He says: “well I found carob trees when I came into the world, so presumably somebody planted them for me, so will I do for future generations.”

That, in a nutshell, is the Jewish environmental ethic. That in a nutshell is the essence of the JNF.