Where Business Meets Ecology

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

“For Hashem ,your G-d is bringing you to a good Land: a land of flowing waterways” (Devarim 8:7)

In the past Israel’s waterways were distinguished as the sites of famous historical events, but today many of them are unfortunately recognized as ecological disaster areas. The embarrassing collapse of a bridge at the opening of the 15th Maccabiah Games several years ago exposed the hazardous and lethal state of the Yarkon River. When the bridge collapsed, four athletes fell into the river and died from its pollutants and another athlete suffered severe and debilitating injuries. In the last few weeks the media has drawn attention to another environmental catastrophe caused by effluents flowing untreated into the Kishon River from nearby factories.

This venerable waterway, which was eulogized by Devorah for its role in sweeping away Sisera’s chariots in the book of Shoftim (Judges), (and incidentally performed the same role for Napoleon when he fought the Arab brigands in the Jezreel Valley in 1799) is now so heavily polluted that it endangers all living organisms in its vicinity. In an unprecedented move, the Israeli army stopped using the river for training exercises when it became clear that the Kishon has caused a high incidence of cancer among divers and many divers have begun to file lawsuits.

What is the attitude of the Torah towards these environmental issues? Does the Torah condone the pollution of the environment when it serves to advance the interest of society or the economy? For example, the Haifa chemical companies and oil refineries have claimed that there is no economically viable way to dispose of their effluents, and this legitimates dumping them in the river. In many modern day situations business interests tend to override environmental concerns, as can be seen in the ongoing debate over the Kyoto agreement which limits fuel emissions. Would the Torah view this in a negative light?

I would like to approach this topic from another verse in our Parsha. The Talmud (Chulin 84b), quoting Rabbi Yochanan, says that whoever wishes to be wealthy should run a sheep farm. This is adduced from the verse (7:13) “And He will love you and bless…the fruit of your flocks”. The word for fruit, “Ashtarot”, has a connotation of wealth (Ashirut) in Hebrew. Tosphot (ibid) points out the discrepancy between this source and another in Pesachim which says that one who raises small livestock will not see any success in his work. Tosphot concludes that one should situate his sheep farm in outlying areas away from the cities, since there is no evil eye in such places which can stunt the farm’s successful growth. Amazingly, Tosphot makes no mention of another Talmudic statement (Bava Kama 79b) which explicitly forbids raising small livestock in Israel. How then can Rabbi Yochanan, who lived in the land of Israel, praise a forbidden activity such as raising small livestock?

Possibly Rabbi Yochanan wants to draw attention to the abovementioned dilemma regarding business and ecology. When the Rabbis proscribed raising livestock, they were well aware of the serious economic damage which could ensue from their enactment. This is borne out in the same Talmudic source which permits raising large livestock since they are needed for plowing and transporting, and most people could not manage without them. Yet despite this the rabbis forbade raising small livestock except in the deserts of Israel and outside the country. One might assume that the reason for this restriction was that animals might graze in other people’s fields and thus their owners would be guilty of theft. But in that case the restriction should apply equally both in and outside of Israel. Rashi therefore explains that the Rabbis wanted to sustain the development of the land of Israel, and small livestock tend to destroy the local vegetation. They were not concerned with ecological considerations outside Israel since most of that area belongs to gentiles, and for this reason they permitted the growth of livestock in the Diaspora.

We can see here that when the Rabbis had to weigh economic and environmental considerations they were not afraid to decide in favor of preserving the environment even when lucrative professions had to be disqualified.

However there is a problem with this thesis, since the Talmud goes on to quote a number of stories implying that the main issue here is damage to other people’s property. Moreover Rav, the great Babylonian Rabbi said that “we are now like the land of Israel for small livestock”, seemingly because the bulk of the Jews then lived in Babylon and the prohibition was based on the potential damage to Jewish property and not on environmental propriety. In this vein the great codifiers of Jewish law, the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 409) write that in their time when the Jews did not own much of Israel it is permitted to grow small livestock. Does this mean that there is no need to preserve the natural environment if no damage will be caused to Jewish property?

Rabbi Eshtori Haparchi, a 13th century rabbi and geographer, argues that this is a mistaken approach. He maintains that the original reason for the enactment was the need to sustain the environment, and only later on the prohibition was extended due to the widespread damage to property caused by small livestock. Yet this extension does not negate the original reason for the prohibition, “That in the land of Israel this is inherently forbidden, since we are warned not to damage it and are commanded to protect it at all times, even when it is not in our hands”. (Caphtor Vaferach Ch. 10)

Based on Rav Eshtori’s interpretation we can now combine the two reasons for the enactment. The original enactment served to preserve the national heritage of the Land of Israel from economic predators, since it is the property of the entire Jewish nation. Rav simply said that this principle applies also to individual Jewish property, which could be severely affected by uncontrollable small livestock. Thus the obligation to preserve the land remains the basis of the enactment, and it applies even more now that we are back in Israel and can protect the land. We see that already two millennia ago the Rabbis dealt with this issue and decided in favor of protecting the land, and it behooves us to emulate them and clean up our beautiful waterways.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).