A Jewish Perspective on Ecology and Environmental Problems

by Rabbi Akiva Wolff

Over the past few years I have given many talks on the subject of ecology and the environment from a Torah perspective. I’ve done it in Israel and America, to the young and old, religious and non-religious, and everything in between. It’s a good topic – most people find that the Torah has far more to say about ecology than they ever imagined and they come away more impressed with the awesome wisdom and relevancy of the Torah. Inevitably though, by the end of the talk, someone will ask: “If all this is in the Torah, then why aren’t religious Jews better examples – why aren’t religious neighborhoods better kept up; why are the religious people so indifferent to environmental problems, etc. etc.”

There are valid responses to these questions, but the fact that they come up so often might indicate something we should already be aware of. We can be better representatives of the Torah, which is our guide for properly using this world. The environment is an important issue, many Jews (particularly our non-religious brethren) are concerned about it, and unfortunately, there is a common perception that Torah-observant Jews are part of the problem, not the solution.

First, a short review of the problem. The physical environment, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat is becoming increasing polluted. Compared with a century ago, there are a lot more people in the world and each person is using more resources, producing more wastes and causing more negative impact on the environment. That adds up, over the years, to a lot of problems such as water shortages, air pollution, water pollution, and more exotic and uncertain problems like the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming. Not only are we (mankind at large) damaging the environment – our life support system; in many cases we are endangering human life. Scientists estimate that worldwide, millions of people die prematurely each year because of environmental problems and predict that this will greatly increase in the future if the problems continue.

The hashgafic issues on what ultimately causes death and illness aside, the Torah goes to great length to warn us to zealously guard ourselves from anything that may endanger our lives and our health. This includes physical hazards that medical experts judge to be harmful to human life, such as air and water pollution. In Israel alone, epidemiologists claim that air pollution causes over 1000 premature deaths per year – more than are killed each year by all the traffic accidents and terrorist incidents combined. In large, polluted cities like New York and Los Angeles, the numbers may be even higher.

In addition to endangering our lives and our health, environmental problems have other negative affects on our lives. While many think that improving the environment has to come at the expense of the economy, in the long run the economy suffers from poor environmental quality. Health care costs increase, and addressing environmental problems once they become acute is extremely expensive, requiring higher taxes and curbs on industrial and agricultural production. Poor environmental quality can also harm our spiritual and physical development. A healthy, clean and attractive environment adds to our spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

So, what can we do? I don’t recommend becoming an environmental fanatic – there are enough of those already, and many of their worldviews are antithetical to ours. The most important tools we need to help address environmental problems are probably wisdom, balance, discipline and a spiritual focus – or in a word – Torah. The Torah gives us guidelines we need to live in harmony with each other and with our environment. Let’s focus on one example – bal tashchis.

One of the main causes of environmental problems is the dramatic increase in consumption (and overconsumption) of material resources, especially over the past century and a half. Using more resources means causing more environmental damage – from producing the resources (including extracting, refining, packaging and transporting the material) and from disposing of the wastes. Therefore, reducing the amount of resources we consume can have a significant impact in improving the quality of the environment. Americans, with less than five percent of the world’s population, consume over a quarter of all of the resources used in the world. A tremendous amount of this is waste. There are European countries with standards-of-living equal to that of most Americans that use far less.

To help address this problem, we can apply the Torah prohibition of bal tashchis, which forbids the waste or unnecessary destruction of any useful resources. This includes not using more food, fuel, paper, or other resources (including money!) than necessary for our needs – to accomplish what the Creator put us here to do. The idea of wasting was repugnant to our ancestors, most of whom barely had enough to meet their basic needs. We in the modern western world who have been blessed with such an abundance of material wealth, have been influenced by the surrounding society, (not to mention the yetzer hara), to violate one of the mitzvot of the Torah!

While forces in our modern society attempt to link a person’s success and happiness with the amount of resources they consume, our tradition teaches otherwise. The Sefer HaChinuch, for example, writes in his section on bal tashchis, “This is the way of the pious and elevated people …they will not waste even a mustard seed, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage they see, and if they are able to save, they will save anything from destruction with all of their power…Every person is obligated to master his inclinations and conquer his desires .” To put it succinctly, spiritually elevated people don’t waste.

We can probably all improve our observance of bal tashchis. A lot of it comes down to thinking. By applying the same intellectual tools we use for learning a sugiya of gemorah or working out a problem at work or home, for analyzing how to make better use of the material resources the Creator has entrusted us with, we can improve our Torah observance, save money, positively influence others and help to improve the environment. A few practical suggestions include using the car less often (automobiles are one of the worst causes of environmental problems) and choosing to walk, bicyle or use public transportation; using less water for washing, cleaning and watering the plants; reusing or recycling rather than throwing away; and turning off lights or other appliances when they are not needed.

For better or worse, the environment has become an important issue in today’s world, and is likely to become more prominent in the future. We can view this as an opportunity. With our increasing awareness of environmental problems we can become more appreciative of our threatened environment and ultimately of the Creator who entrusted us with the natural world and its resources and gave us the Torah as instructions on how to properly use it. As the midrash in Koheles Rabbah says: When the Holy One Blessed Be He created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him – “see my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are; and I created all of it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world because if you spoil it, there will be no one after you to repair it.”

 

Rabbi Akiva Wolff is a lecturer at the Jerusalem College of Technology – Machon Lev. He directs the Center for Business Ethics’ Judaism and the Environment unit, which researches Torah perspectives and solutions to environmental problems. He is also writing a book on the subject.