by Dr. Meir Tamari
Throughout the teachings of the Sages and throughout Jewish literature, from the Bible down to the stories of the Chasidic masters, the beauty of nature, and the importance of all of its components and their positive spiritual effects on man are quite clear.
However, this theme of the importance of nature and all its components, together with the beauty thereof, must not lead us to misunderstand or to read into Judaism things which are not there. It is easy in our involvement with environmental movements not to be aware of the element of idolatry in the form of the soul and the spirit of the wind or the water. Nature is only a creation of God’s so that none of the natural elements have a power or a value of their own, over and above that given to them by God, the Creator.
It is very common today to view man simply as an equal partner with the other forces in nature. Judaism sees man as the pinnacle of nature, and everything else in the world is there to serve him and is to be used for his benefit. This, however, does not permit the waste or wanton destruction of the forces of nature. It is true that man is the lord of creation, but from a Jewish perspective, these rights come with obligations. Natural resources are given and we are permitted to use them, yet at the same time we are obliged to husband them and to guard them. Man may not wantonly destroy natural resources, just as an individual is not allowed to destroy even his own property. The Rabbis said that he who destroys his property, willfully or in anger, is like one who worships idols.
Jewish law recognizes that the community, considered as neighbors in a courtyard, citizens in a town or “national” groups, has rights that must be protected against injury from the action of individuals. This concept expresses itself in the communal right to taxation, which in effect takes property from individuals to finance communal needs. It also has the right to limit activities of individuals or corporations that damage the environment or detract from the community’s scenic beauty. At the same time, however, because of its symmetry, Jewish law took great steps to protect the interests of individuals against excessive use of eminent domain. World economic history is rife with examples of the misuse of the right of taxation in general and eminent domain in particular. Farmers’ fields and crops have been destroyed in order to facilitate the sports of kings and lords. In the modern state, great care must be taken not to destroy the legitimate rights of the individual whilst protecting society from the environmental damage which can come from economic growth.
Ecology and Economic Welfare
Some of the most complicated issues in ecology arise in those cases where devotion to ecological protection conflicts with the community’s economic welfare. In the final analysis it is necessary to decide to what extent society has to suffer economic hardship in order to enjoy aesthetic pleasure or unpolluted air and water. The halakhic answer to this conflict may be seen in two responsa.
The first, that of the Rashba, maintains that there is a serious difference between nuisance caused by a particular economic activity and real ecological harm. In this particular responsum, Rashba refers to the case where the use of a man’s kitchen caused smoke and bad smell that disturbed those who lived in the apartment above. His neighbors, in response, wanted to force the man to do something to prevent it.
The Rashba says that what is happening in this instance is a result of living together, and therefore people must be prepared to suffer this “normal” amount of environmental damage. This is based on the rule that a person is entitled to do work in his own property even if it causes a certain amount of inconvenience to others. A modern responsum, therefore, allowed a doctor to see patients in his house even though this caused the neighbors a certain amount of inconvenience. However, a doctor wishing to open a clinic or a hospital, would have to do so in an area with proper zoning since this would exceed the “normal use of one’s property.”
The second responsum refers to the case of the vats used to dye textiles. These vats produced bad odors and the town’s people wished to have them closed down in accordance with the halakhic rulings. The rabbi to whom the question was addressed accepted the basic justice of the demand. He pointed out, however, that the whole town depended on the textile industry for its livelihood.
Public interest therefore demanded that the town’s people would have to suffer the environmental damage. It was not possible to insist on closing them down. A later authority pointed out that in an autonomous Jewish state, zoning conditions would have prevented this occurrence. Even so, it would seem that the logic of the first responsum is correct, that the economic dependence of the town on an industry could lead the halakhic authorities to permit such environmental damage to continue.
It must be made very clear that this economic consideration would not be acceptable where there was a real danger to human life. A person is not permitted to cause damage to another person’s body, nor even to his own. One may not place oneself in danger of being physically harmed. This means that employers are obliged to provide reasonable protection against injury from machinery and other hazards for their workers. It could also mean that workers would not be allowed to work at the cost of seriously endangering their lives. A person could not agree to do dangerous work in exchange for a bonus or higher wages. It is quite conceivable that, if the given level of technology is such that there is no way for industries to be operated without such physical harm resulting, they may not be allowed to operate at all according to Jewish law.
Finding a balance between the need for economic development and the costs of environmental protection must be seen in the light of the halakhic concept of reasonable risk. It is true that people may not endanger their health or their lives, yet in “real” life such danger exists even in normal economic activities. It is not viable to carry the principle of safety ad absurdum. Rather, reasonable risk can be used to permit the pursuit of a livelihood without transgressing the biblical commandment of “Thou shalt surely guard yourselves carefully,” which is an injunction against the risk of physical danger.
This concept of reasonable risk provides guidelines both for legislative and financial measures aimed at protecting the physical and environmental welfare of citizens. No society in the world is able to fund everything which may be considered environmentally desirable, while excessive legislation may make even reasonable economic growth impossible. Therefore, priorities have to be set to enable society to fulfill its obligations, and guidelines are needed to assure a balanced growth.
Dr. Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the JCT Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.