Sustainability and environmental protection are becoming popular discussions these days and I want to play my part in the movement. Is there anything that Judaism forbids me to do to help the environment?
Every Jew can play a significant, Torah inspired role in helping to preserve our planet. Our diets, our consumption of energy, our efforts at reforestation, our use of sustainable paper goods, our successes at recycling, and more, all stem from the responsibility that God gave humanity in the Garden of Eden. At that time, the Torah said “the Eternal God took and placed the human in a pleasure-garden (translation of the Hebrew phrase ‘gan eden’) [in order to] serve it and to preserve it.” Genesis 2:15).
[This is my translation of the two last terms in the verse “l’ovdah ul’shom’rah.” Other translations have “to till it and tend it” (Jewish Publication Society), “to dress it and to keep it” (Keter Press), “to work it and keep it” (Women of Reform Judaism’s ‘A Women’s Commentary’), or “to till it and care for it” (Oxford Study Edition of the New English Bible). In my opinion, the notion of ‘serving’ and ‘preserving’ the land, leads me to believe that our human task is more than simply one of cultivating it (‘till’) or ‘attending’ to it along with anything else under one’s watch (‘tend’), so I use a translation that mirrors my understanding of the text’s intention.]
A previous text, however, can actually yield an opposing view. Genesis 1:28 relates that “God blessed them [man and woman] and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” These actions would certainly run counter to sustainability.
Some employ this text to advance human superiority on earth, but in reality, most of Judaism accepts the idea of the need to sustain our planet. And we find this Genesis chapter 1 passage most concretely refuted in a passage from Midrash. “When the Holy One of Blessing created the first human, God took him and exhorted him about all the trees in the Garden of Eden, saying ‘See My works, see how beautiful and perfect they are, and, by the way, all I created, I created for you. Beware lest you spoil and destroy my world, for if you will spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you’ (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).” There is clearly this rabbinic bias in favor of preserving our world and its environment.
Some Orthodox authorities, I imagine, could point to the need to be scrupulous about certain prohibitions of Shabbat that would run counter to sustainability. The prohibitions of using perforated toilet paper (which as been recycled and is therefore better for the environment) because it tears easily, or using motion sensors for lighting (which could illuminate certain areas only when people are present and save electricity, but whose igniting could violate the Shabbat) are very serious prohibitions for Orthodox Jews, and others. But I would also say that nothing in Judaism forbids us to play a part in sustaining the world we live in.
You have phrased the question in an interesting way. I am not sure what you were planning to do, but let's begin with the obvious - whatever you do, make sure you do not break the law of the country in which you live, and do not do anything that brings disgrace on the cause, on yourself, or on the Jewish people.
Further, when advancing this worthy cause, do not break Jewish law to achieve your goals.
If you keep within these parameters, you should be fine.
I commend you on your dedication to caring for God’s world. The Torah and its Sages teach us that the human species was assigned a role of stewardship in this world, that we are obliged to “work and tend” this paradise, and to care for its health, for if we wreck it, “there will be none other to repair after us.” [Genesis 2.15; Midrash Rabbah to Ecclesiastes 7.13].
This is a good Jewish value. But it is not the only Jewish value. So even if it helps the environment, you are still forbidden from:
Eating milk and meat together. If you became convinced that the world’s healthiest, most sustainable meal was an organic cheeseburger, it would still be forbidden.
Dishonoring your parents. Even if your mother owned a ranch whose animal husbandry practices were objectionable to you, your obligations to honor her remain in force.
Traveling on Shabbat. If there were a totally worthwhile public protest taking place on Saturday 20 miles from your home, and you were totally convinced of the value of this action, you should decline to participate, and remain at home on Shabbat (or convince your environmentalist colleagues to move the date of their event to Sunday).
This is only a short sample of the list of the 365 prohibitions in the Torah, and the many others added by the Sages over the centuries. Even if it would help protect the environment and promote sustainable practices, you still cannot steal, lie, destroy property, strike others, commit adultery, light a fire on Saturday or wear a linen-woolen mixture. Among quite a few other things.
All of which is to remind ourselves generally that it is morally and Jewishly insufficient to identify a single value as all-important, such that it overwhelms all other values, and encourages us to use otherwise improper means to reach otherwise proper ends.
It is a Jewish imperative to guard the environment and promote sustainable living. In our day it is most urgent. May you merit to fulfill this mitzvah and all the others, thereby living a rounded and complete life, full of ritual and ethics, prayer, study and relationship.
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