Our Duty to Preserve Nature
Download the PDF to view the article in its original layout, as published in the JC newspaper in October 1990.
Following the publication of the government’s policy document, “This Common Inheritance”, which set out Britains’s environmental strategy, Rabbi Sacks, then the Chief Rabbi-elect, wrote an article for the Jewish Chronicle examining the Jewish approach to ecological issues.
Towards the end of the 1980s, environmental concerns moved fast from obscurity to the top of the political agenda. Throughout Europe, green parties sprouted and attracted widespread support.
Politicians of the Right and Left announced their conversion to the cause, and competed to establish their ecological credentials. It bore all the signs of a passing moral fashion.
But the issues will not go away. If anything, they will increasingly dominate public debate in the 1990s. For as other dangers recede, we may come to feel that the greatest threat to human civilisation is now no longer war but peace, not the pursuit of ideology but the pursuit of affluence.
In the past few years, the entire political map has had to be redrawn. State socialism is being dismantled in the Soviet Union. One East European country after another has turned towards democracy and the free market. There has been a slowdown in the nuclear arms race and the end of the Cold War.
But no sooner has the nuclear threat receded than we have become aware of the ecological threat of the “greenhouse” effect As capitalist and Communist states alike have been moving from collectivism to individualism, we have begun to fear the effects of unregulated economic growth: depletion of natural resources, destruction of rainforests, industrial pollution, damaging aerosols and car-exhaust emissions, and a host of other threats to the quality and viability of life. We have moved from the politics of confrontation to the politics of conservation.
These are issues on which a religious, especially a Jewish, voice should be heard, for they overturn some of our most deeply-held assumptions. For centuries, we have believed that science was the key that would unlock the bounties of nature. Today, we are fearful that it will destroy its ecological balance.
Economics was the discipline that would allow us to plan and maximise growth. But environmental questions cannot be answered by conventional economic theory. For they pose the ethical dilemma of how to weigh the future against the present. By what principles shall we restrain growth for the sake of generations yet unborn?
Environmental ethics touch on the most profound features of the human situation: our relationship to nature, our responsibility to posterity, and the limits to our exploitation of natural resources.
These issues are in the deepest sense religious and they are addressed by the Torah from its opening chapters. Judaism’s guidelines remain directly relevant today. Few passages have had a deeper influence oh human civilisation than the first chapter of Genesis. Through its momentous vision of Creation, we see the universe as the work of God. Man is its final and supreme creation, the only being made in God’s image. Nature has been handed over to his dominion. He is commanded to “fill the earth and subdue.it” and “rule” over the animals.
It was the nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber who argued that this chapter laid the foundations of Western rationalism and ultimately of the scientific revolution. Against paganism, the Torah set forth a vision in which nature was not sacred. It rejected mythology and magic. The world was neither unfathomable nor intrinsically hostile to man. Without this background, suggested Weber, the scientific enterprise might never have got under way.
But there lies the problem. Turning Weber’s theory on its head, radical ecologists have suggested that Genesis is not the answer to our present crisis, but its cause.
If we are given the unrestricted right to subdue the world, there is nothing to prevent the “rape of nature”. Instead, they call for a new paganism which worships the earth as a living organism, with its own personality and rights.
John Passmore, the Australian philosopher, has shown that this approach is doubly mistaken. First, it proposes a cure worse than the disease. To turn our back on technology will not improve but substantially reduce human welfare, now and in the future. What is needed is not less science, but a more far-sighted view of its effects.
Secondly, it misreads Genesis. For immediately after reading of man’s powers we are given, in the second chapter, a statement of man’s responsibilities.
Adam was placed in the garden, we are told, “to serve it and guard it.” Man is not only the master but also the guardian of nature. This is perhaps the best short definition of the ecological imperative as Judaism understands it.
A guardian is entrusted with property that does not belong to him. His task is to take charge of it and eventually return it to its owner intact.
So it is with nature. The world is not ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” a fact of which we remind ourselves every time we make a blessing. It has been banded into our safekeeping only on condition that we maintain it undespoiled.
But Judaism has seldom been content with broad statements of principle. To be effective they must be translated into the life of society. The Torah does this in two ways: through education and legislation.
Each age adds its own commentary to the Torah. And we can now see the three great commandments of periodic rest — Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and the jubilee year — as powerful, forms of environmental education.
On Shabbat, we are commanded to renounce our manipulation of the world. It is a day that sets a limit to our intervention in nature. The earth is not ours, but God’s. For six days, it is handed over to our management; on the seventh day, we symbolically abdicate that power. No secular equivalent remotely rivals Shabbat as a day of “green” consciousness.
What Shabbat does for man and the animals, the sabbatical and jubilee years do for the land. It, too, has its right to periodic rest.
This is a theological idea, but as Maimonides pointed out, it has a sound ecological basis. Land which is over-exploited eventually loses its fertility. Yishuv ha’aretz, the settlement of the land, means conserving its resources and not pursuing short-term gain at the cost of long-term desolation.
There are other commandments, too, which restrain our interference with nature. The Torah groups together three prohibitions: against crossbreeding livestock, planting a field with mixed seeds and wearing a garment of mixed wool and linen. It calls these rules chukim, or “statutes.” Nachmanides, and later Samson Raphael Hirsch, gave this word a novel interpretation.
They understood chukim to mean laws which respected the integrity of nature. To mix different species, argued Nachmanides, was an affront to the Creator and an assault on the creation.
Hirsch put it more arrestingly. Chukim were laws which embodied the principle that “the same regard which you show to man you must also demonstrate to every lower creature, to the earth which bears and sustains all, and to the world of plants and animals.”
Hirsch was what today would be called a “deep” ecologist. He believed that there is such a thing as “justice” towards nature and that the world cannot be subordinated to the interests of man. It was a view shared by the great mystic, Rabbi Abraham Kook, who held that animals have rights and that one should not needlessly even pick a flower. “All of creation,” he said, “sings a song.”
These are extreme views. But as well as educating towards them, the Torah provided the basis for direct environmental legislation. The source here was the command in Deuteronomy against destroying fruit-bearing trees in the course of war: against what we would now call a “scorched earth” policy.
The Rabbis understood this not as a limited provision, but as an example of a more general imperative. They extended it to peace as well as war, to indirect as well as direct destruction, and to other objects as well as trees. In Jewish law, one may not needlessly destroy anything of potential human benefit.
To be sure, conservation is not an absolute value. Halachah permits the destruction of natural resources in the course of constructive projects that will ultimate enhance human welfare. But the onus of proof is on the developer.
And there remains a deep-seated reverence for trees in Judaism, expressed in modern times by the afforestation of Israel and the celebration of Tu BiShvat, the “new year” for trees. No Jew should be indifferent to the destruction of rainforests.
Beyond conservation, the Rabbis extended the Torah’s rule that waste should be disposed of far from human habitation. They banned garbage disposal that interfered with crops or amenities, pollution of the water supply and activities that would foul the air or create intolerable noise in residential areas. The biblical provision for open space around the levitical cities is one of the earliest examples of town planning.
So Judaism contains detailed precedents of environmental legislation, as well as commands that educate us in respect for and restraint towards nature as God’s creation.
Admittedly, environmental ethics has not yet received the same intense halachic treatment as has medical ethics. Probably that is because medical decisions are taken by individuals, while environmental decisions are usually taken by governments.
An individual turns to halachah for guidance. Governments rarely do. But it is not because Judaism regards ecological issues lightly. On the contrary, Tikkun ha’olam, perfection of the world, is one of the mandates of the halachah. Maimonides repeatedly insists that we cannot pursue spiritual ideals without first ensuring our physical survival. That has always needed long-term planning and the decision to limit consumption in the present for the sake of the viability of the future.
Judaism categorically rejects two attitudes to the environment. One, associated with the Stoic-Christian tradition, is that we have no moral duties towards nature. The other, drawn from some Eastern religions, is that nature is holy and to interfere with it is sacrilegious. The first allows technology to run rampant, while the second turns its back on it altogether. Neither extreme, we believe, does justice to the challenge of human civilisation.
God, said Isaiah, did not create the world to be desolate: He formed it to be inhabited. He gave man the intelligence to control nature. Therein lies his dignity. But He charged him with the duty of preserving nature. Therein lies his responsibility.
The Rabbis put it simply. They said when God made the first man, He took him to see all the trees of the garden of Eden. He said to him: “See how beautiful are My works. All that I have created I have made for you. But be careful that you do not ruin My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.” Surely a moral for our time.