Are Jews required to do anything special to "repair the world" after the gulf oil spill? Is there a Jewish perspective on how this tragic accident should impact our view on offshore oil drilling moving forward?
There are numerous texts in Judaism that refer to the responsibility of humans to preserve and safeguard the environment.Many of these texts link directly to the first chapter of genesis, where in describing the creation of the world the text reveals the divine purpose of humankind:“They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth.”The word “rule” is interpreted just as if humans were kings. A good king enriches himself not by plundering his people since eventually his people will run out of gold to give him, but rather creating an environment where all his people can prosper to serve as an everlasting source of income for the king.
In Midrash Rabbah, the great 1st millennium C.E. collection of midrash, we read that God told Adam, “Take care that you do not become corrupt and thus destroy My world.For once you become corrupt, there is no one after you to repair it.” This passage speaks powerfully to the important role that each generation plays in preserving the world.
The Jewish value of Ba’al Taschit – do not destroy – also serves as an important part of this discussion.Taken from the passage in the Torah that speaks of the laws of war, namely that the Israelites are not permitted to destroy fruit bearing trees during a siege, this value has been taken as an environmental commandment. Acts like recycling, limiting our use of resources and sharing the use of resources are all a part of this value.
Therefore, to the first part of this question the answer is yes and no. Yes, Jews have a responsibility to work to preserve and repair the natural environment that sustains us all. That responsibility, however, is at a high level at all times, not just in light of the recent oil spill. Having stated that, there is no doubt that Jews can take it upon themselves to join in on cleanup efforts as a fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Ba’al Tashchit.
The result of this tragic accident does not change any Jewish views, but simply amplifies them.The principle of Ba’al Taschit, should already be leading Jews to embrace alternative forms of energy such as solar and wind power, and to the reduction in the amount of oil used.(As an aside, the terrible human cost of the recent coal mine tragedy in West Virginia combined with the environmental and human impact of the oil spill should lead us to find ways to use less fossil fuel in general.)
Judaism has always valued the importance of nature, from the fact that the Torah was given in a natural setting, to the prohibition in the Jerusalem Talmud against living in a town without a green garden. Using the natural resources that we have been given in a responsible way that always leaves enough for the next generation is a core Jewish value.
Jews are always required to do “something special” to “repair the world”, but we must first define our terms. The earliest use of tikkun olam, the idea of repairing the world, occurs in the Talmud in the context of certain rabbinical enactments meant to address possible social injustice or communal problems. The principle, however, extends beyond the Jewish community and into the broader world, as evidenced by the exhortation that punctuates our three daily prayers – “l’taken olam b’malchut sha-[k]ai” (to repair the world through/under God). In fact, we must view this imperative through this prism, i.e. that our repair must conform to God’s will as described in His Torah. This is the force of the kabbalistic/mystical idea of “Histakel b’oraita bara alma”, that God looked into the Torah and created the world. Thus, the Torah is really the blueprint for the design and operation of the world, and by delving into the Torah, its teachings on justice and holiness, we can discover what the ideal world should look like.
The Torah teaches us that we must take care of the environment (see Deuteronomy 20:19 and commentaries, among other sources), and the Talmud discusses in great detail the design of cities to maximize beauty and minimize discomfort to the residents (see the 2nd Chapter of Bava Batra). Jewish tradition, based on the above verse, stresses that we must preserve the world, while not causing undue waste in any area of our lives (the prohibition of bal tashchit). This seemingly utopian ideal, however, is balanced by our mandate to literally conquer the world (see Genesis 1:28), which, in tandem with the prophet Yeshayahu’s statement that the world was created for mankind to settle (see 45:18), generally means that we are to use the resources of the world to our benefit. Over the past few thousand years, mankind has literally conquered the world, using our collective creativity and intelligence to create what was unimaginable for previous generations.
Clearly, then, the Torah, in its inviting complexity, is exhorting us to find the golden mean between protecting and preserving our resources while continually improving our way of life. Whether the question is offshore drilling, cloning or space exploration, we must always analyze the risks/benefits as above – are there better ways to fuel our energy needs at less risk to both mankind (the most important factor) and the environment? This should be solely a question for disinterested experts in science and energy exploration, without any of the tawdry political machinations that often cloud climate and energy clarity. If there are safer ways to produce energy that will fuel the legitimate needs of mankind, then those should be explored, even if they cost more, though such costs would not be unlimited.
This question is actually a good example of the sophistication of Jewish law, which understands that there are rarely black and white issues in applying Halacha to modern questions. A Torah scholar must thus weigh all factors and ideally find a compromise which will balance the various principles which lie behind an issue such as offshore drilling. Thus, while a Jewish perspective on the issue will have to weigh the benefits of such drilling to the inherent risks, this is independent of the clear Jewish mandate to preserve our world, and not needlessly waste things, whether electricity, food or any resource. We must also ensure that both government and corporations fulfill their ethical imperatives, and not turn blind eyes to danger in exchange for political capital or extra profits. By living our lives modestly according to Jewish law, and inspiring others to “do the right thing”, we will hopefully ensure that all of our needs are met while we continue to preserve all the beauty of God’s world for future generations.
Question: Are Jews required to do anything special to "repair the world" after the gulf oil spill? Is there a Jewish perspective on how this tragic accident should impact our view on offshore oil drilling moving forward?
Judaism contains many teachings that promote ecological consciousness and a commitment to environmental stewardship. In the past forty years, with the rise of the secular environmentalist movement, many Jews, especially those in the Renewal, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative/Masorti groupings, have articulated the synthesis of Judaism and environmentalism.
Thus, we find that the dominant interpretation of the festival of “Tu Bi’shvat”, the “birthday of the trees”, has moved from the Zionist emphasis on land reclamation and reforestation in Israel to an environmentalist emphasis on saving the world’s rain forests, promoting the value of sustainability in our economic behavior, recycling, conserving, and reducing our carbon footprint so as to combat global warming with all of its grave consequences.
With respect to oil, there is an additional, political element. Jews have long championed the search for renewable energy sources as an alternative to oil, because the world’s thirst for oil accords enormous political significance to the Arab countries that control a large fraction of the world supply of that fuel source. Here, the Jewish commitment to the safety and security of the State of Israel combines with environmental priorities to lead Jews to lobby for alternatives to additional oil drilling.
The recent Gulf of Mexico disaster has only intensified these considerations. In keeping with environmentalist thinking, many Jews argue that the increasingly desperate search for oil is condemning future generations to an ever-more inhospitable climate and to all the human and ecological disasters that will ensue. Zionists argue that the focus spent on finding the dwindling reserves of oil—which at best, will fuel our economies for a limited period of time-- would be far better spent on the research and development to bring non-polluting, non-global warming sources of energy to market: geo-thermal, solar, wind, and wave sources.
From a biblical perspective, we see the mandate to preserve the environment in the charge given by God to the first human, to “till and tend” the Garden of Eden. Many Jews argue that, in our success at tilling, i.e. working, the world, we have overlooked the mitzvah of tending, i.e. preserving, our natural home.
Rabbi Michael Panitz
Answered by: Rabbi Michael Panitz
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