The first response to the question is: There is an enlightening book of essays, titled Judaism and Ecology (Harvard, 2002), edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, that offers a wonderful overview of the subject. The essays were written by leading Jewish scholars in a wide variety of fields, including Bible, rabbinics and Jewish law, and Jewish thought and ethics. It is a must-read for anyone interested in learning Jewish perspectives on one of the most important matters of the 21st century. I suggest that the questioner consults the book’s index and reads the information associated with such terms as bal tashhit – the prohibition against wanton destruction of things; trees/forests; shemitah; and, in particular, Prof. Eliezer Diamond’s essay, “How Much Is Too Much? Conventional versus Personal Definitions of Pollutions in Rabbinic Sources,” pp. 61-80.
That having been said, I would like to share some reflections on few Biblical sources that are foundational for our tradition’s outlook on human responsibility for sustaining the environment. The first of them, one of the most misunderstood passages in the Torah, is this segment of the first creation account, Genesis 1:26-31:
26And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 27And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” 29God said, “See, I give you every seed bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. 30And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so. 31And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
A central issue here is God’s mandate to the humans to rule over the earth and all the other creatures. Some of the great minds of the 20th century, among them Arnold Toynbee and Lynn White, suggested that this concept of human domination implanted within Western culture the notion that humans had a God-given right to do with the natural world as they wished for the benefit and “progress” of their species, even if their decisions caused harm to the earth and other life forms. Implicitly or explicitly, the proponents of this interpretation impugned the Bible as an environmentally insensitive text that generated great damage to the earth and its inhabitants.
In fact, when the words of this passage and the larger context in which they are found are read carefully, the opposite is the case. Verses 29 and 30 actually spell out what it means to rule the earth. The message God gives to the humans is that as “rulers” they have to maintain the order of creation as God had intended it to be. In verses 11 and 12 we read that on the third day God created seed bearing plants and fruit bearing trees. In vv. 29-30 God is explaining that the produce created on the third day will be for human consumption and all the other creatures will eat other green plants. Humans are supposed to maintain this order – that is, as farmers, they can engage in agriculture and raise crops and fence in their land so that the animals cannot eat the humans’ food. At the same time, they have to ensure that there is ample grassland and vegetation for the animals to eat. This was the Bible’s view of how the world was supposed to be – a balanced, harmonious, orderly place with plenty of food for all of God’s creations; and, as God’s lieutenants, the humans were commanded to rule and keep this order. That is why it was that only after the humans were created God could proclaim that what God had created was “very good,” while beforehand, everything was “good.”
This understanding of the designated role of human beings vis-à-vis God’s creation is reinforced by a statement in Genesis 2:15, where we read that Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden “to till it and to tend it” (New JPS) or “to work it and to watch over it” (R. Friedman). Nahum Sarna, in his Genesis volume of The JPS Torah Commentary, p. 20, comments: “It is his [Adam’s] responsibility to nurture and conserve the pristine perfection of the garden. This he must do by the labor of his hands. Yet, no strenuous exertion is required, for nature responds easily to his efforts.” Then, in vv. 16-17, God tells Adam which fruits of the garden he may and may not eat, indicating that while he may use the garden for his benefit, he must also exercise self control in how he derives that benefit or else he will die.
I suggest that the concept of using the bounties of the earth in a manner that will, at the same time, “preserve the pristine perfection of the garden” is the foundation of Judaism’s definition of humans’ privileges and responsibility as “rulers” of the earth. But, at the end of the day, we must realize that we are only one of millions of species of living beings with whom we must share this small, special planet. We were created by the same God who created the other creatures. We, however, were the only ones to whom God gave a mandate and a warning concerning our role on earth: Work it, you may; watch over it, you must – or you will die. Thankfully, God also gave us another commandment: “Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him (Deuteronomy 30:10-20).”
It is of interest that you employ the term ‘mitzvah’ when speaking to your children about recycling and saving the planet. This is, indeed, a worthy aspiration and endeavor, but is it in actuality a ‘mitzvah’?
The word ‘mitzvah’ is a precious Jewish word, in fact, a Hebrew word. One that is familiar to all of us. However, it is most often used to mean ‘good deed,’ which in Hebrew is ‘ma’aseh tov’ or in the plural ‘ma’asim tovim’.
When we look at listings of mitzvot in the traditional sources, they are generally found in accordance with their order in the Torah or Five Books of Moses. The Sages of Israel use the number 613 as the number of mitzvot in the Torah. In fact, there are far more than that, including Rabbinic mitzvot, but not all of these obligations are upon all Jews at any given time.
Mitzvah comes from the Hebrew root ‘to command,’ while ma’aseh tov derives from an action which is desirable, but may be optional.
There are numerous commandments which relate to agriculture and the earth. This is especially important to the Jewish People who descend from shepherds and farmers as is obvious as we read the Torah and the subsequent books of the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh.
In the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, Genesis, we find the place of Man in the Creation. The sixth day of creation begins with bringing forth all of the animals and concludes with the special creation of humans. At this point, man and woman were created in a single creation of humankind by God.
Here we find a powerful verse containing a blessing and charge to the first humans and thereby to all humans to follow. “And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, ‘v’-hkiv-shu-hah’ and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.“(Gen. 1:28)
The word ‘v’-khiv-shu-hah’ literally means to conquer it or take charge of the earth.
A most pivotal narrative in the Torah is found in the story of placing the Man in the Garden of Eden. The language of the Torah makes explicit that this is the idyllic setting for humanity. Humankind has a special relationship to all of nature in its most pristine setting. All of this is seen in Chapter two of Genesis and following.
“And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to (l’ov-dah u’l’shom’rah) cultivate it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden you may freely eat.” (verses 15-16)
The language of ‘a-vo-dah’ to work or cultivate and ‘sh’-mi-rah’ to guard and keep, are very telling about the attitude of our most fundamental book of Judaism—the Torah. Clearly, humans have a God given responsibility to care for and protect their environment.
This is further expressed in the naming process of every living creature that God brought before Adam. This in a very real sense brought human mastery over the animal kingdom. “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name.” (verse 19)
According to the Torah account, Adam and Eve’s offspring followed their parents in caring for nature. The Torah says, “…and Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. “(Gen. 4:2)
We know that the story shows the many shortcomings in the earliest humans who were cast out of the garden and were destined to work very hard at caring for the earth in order to provide for their own sustenance.
“Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust shall you return. “(Gen. 3:18-19)
The Noah story comes to show a type of anti-creation, the unraveling of everything beautiful in the Garden of Eden tale. A cataclysm is brought upon the earth, with the loss of almost all life on earth; however, the end of the narrative is reassuring with the words of God’s promise never again to bring destruction to the earth.
In Chapter eight we see God reinstating the laws of nature and cycle of seasons, promising stability forever. “While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (verse 22)
Finally, in Chapter nine, God promises the humans to never again bring about an annihilation of life. “And I will establish my covenant with you; nor shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; nor shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This [rainbow] is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for everlasting generations. “(Gen. 9:11-12)
In his desire to comfort Israel—the Jewish People—the Prophet Isaiah ties the eternity of the nation to the eternity of God, Himself, and to His assurance that the world is here for a purpose and that is to be inhabited by God’s people and His creatures.
“But Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you shall not be ashamed nor confounded to all eternity. For thus says the Lord who created the heavens; God Himself who formed the earth and made it; he has established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited; I am the Lord; and there is no one else. (Isaiah 45:17-18)
Whether or not we can find recycling or saving the planet listed as a mitzvah, we can see that such an idea is deeply rooted in our religious tradition and literature.
Yes, it is absolutely a mitzvah to protect the environment – both in its colloquial meaning of ‘good deed’, and in its technical meaning of being a commandment. As a matter of fact, there are at least two commandments which enjoin us to protect our world. The first is the very first commandment in Torah – pru u’rvu – ‘be fruitful and multiply’. The rest of the verse (Genesis 1:28) says:
“And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
While you might interpret this to mean the world is ours to do with as we please, the traditional understanding of this verse is that we are all stewards of the earth and therefore responsible to protect and preserve creation as God made it.
Further, Deuteronomy 20:19-20 says:
“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do no yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.”
From here we get the injunction – bal tashchit – “do not lay waste”. It is incumbent upon us not to destroy this earth that God has given us.
Finally, the Talmud tells us, in Avot d’Rabbi Natan:
“Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai ... used to say: if you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 31b). “
We see from this the great importance the ancient sages placed on preserving the environment.
These are just a few of many examples from the Bible and the Talmud that teach us the value and importance of protecting the world that God has created for us and entrusted to us. There are several Jewish organizations that are devoted to this work, and you can learn more about Jewish text and tradition on the environment by visiting their websites. See the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) – www.coejl.org. Also, Hazon: Jewish Inspiration, Sustainable Communities – www.hazon.org. And Jewish Vegetarians of North American – www.jewishveg.com.
I hope you will continue to educate yourself and your children about the vital importance of protecting our environment. It is an important Jewish value, and essential to our role as partners with God in the ongoing work of creation.