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Environmental concerns

Jewish responses

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In the Hebrew Scriptures, humans are conceived as superior to all the rest of creation, which exists merely for his use and exploitation. However, according to Midrash -- the method by which the ancient Jewish Rabbis investigated Scripture in order to make it yield laws and teachings not apparent in a surface reading -- God is reported as saying to man: ‘All that I have created has been for your sake; take care then not to spoil and destroy My world. 1 God put on man a restraint, which different from a literal interpretation of the creation stories in the book of Genesis. Also, Judaism envisages a hierarchy in creation, with the higher levels expected to exercise responsibility as stewards. 2

The purpose of animal creation in the text of Genesis is subject to various interpretations. For example, there was the claim by Saadiah Gaon that animals have been created for man’s benefit. It was refuted by Maimonides who argued that the statement that man can rule over animals does in no way imply that God created them for this specific purpose. Maimonides also ridiculed Saadiah Gaon’s notion that animals will be recompensed in the Hereafter for the suffering they have to undergo on earth. 1 Evidently, as in Christian texts, there are two interpretations:

bullet Those that imply that animals exist for the sake of human beings, and
bullet those interpreting ‘dominion’ as guardianship or stewardship.

In general both Judaism and Islam emphasize that animals come from the hand of the Creator, and while they are to some extent given to humans for their use and food, this is within limits and must always be in the context of kindness.

While Judaism does not advocate vegetarianism and permits the killing of animals for human use, animals must not be subject to unnecessary suffering. The Talmud urges man to feed the animals in his care before he himself sits down to eat. While hunting animals for food is permitted, rabbinic authorities prohibit hunting as a sport.

There arose a theological problem, which was discussed particularly by Judah Halevi, a 12th century poet and religious philosopher: Why should animals have to find their food by preying on one another?

How should Jews feel about animals is expressed by the Maharal of Prague as follows: Love of all creatures is also love of God, for whoever loves the One loves all the works that He has made. When one loves God, it is impossible not to love His creatures. The opposite is also true. If one hates the creatures, it is impossible to love God Who created them. 3

The competing belief, based on Genesis 1:28, that Judaism has always been opposed to ecological concerns, is considered invalid by Louis Jacobs. 1 He believes that when this passage was written, ecology did not exist as a problem. At that time, man’s problem was how to master the environment.

Concern with the cultivation of a wholesome environment is evident in older Jewish religious works, although these deal with the problem on a local rather than a global scale. They deal mostly with how city-dwellers are to come to terms with their environment (such as waste disposal and planting trees), and how individuals are to avoid wasting nature’s resources. The prohibition known as bal tashit (do not destroy) was based by the Rabbis on the biblical injunction not to destroy fruit-bearing trees (Deuteronomy 20:19). This was extended to include wasting anything that can be used for the benefit of mankind. For instance, while it was the custom to rend garments on hearing of the death of a near relative, to tear too much or too many garments violates this rule. Maimonides formulated the prohibition as:

“It is not only forbidden to destroy fruit-bearing trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain, or wastes food, all in a destructive way, offends against the law of ‘thou shalt not destroy.’ 1

As the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish life (COEJL) states: for more than a thousand years Jews have been distant from nature. A reconciliation between Jews and nature is now needed.4 COEJL member, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, declared:

“The earth we inherited is in danger, the skies and the seas, the forests and the rivers, the soil and the air, are in peril. And with them humankind itself is threatened. As earth’s fullness has been our blessing, so its pollution now becomes our curse. As the wonder of nature’s integrity has been our delight, so the horror of nature’s disintegration now becomes our sorrow." 5

Population growth is one of the main stressors on the environment. There are wide differences among the various Jewish traditions concerning contraception and birth control. For an orthodox Jewish couple, birth control is considered acceptable for use only in limited circumstances 6 -- primarily when the life of the wife may be endangered by a pregnancy. 1 In less strict Jewish traditions, some authorities permit the use of the pill, and if there is a risk to the wife, a coil or a cap. There is even the possibility of condoms being permitted. 1 In reform Judaism, individual couples are allowed to use their own judgment in what, if any, birth control methods they might wish to employ. 6 Note that according to traditional interpretation of the Torah, active prevention of pregnancy is in violation of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:22) Coitus interruptus is not allowed. For more comprehensive treatments see references 4 and 1.

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Additional comments on the Jewish approach:

bullet The Talmud stresses the importance of fuel efficiency. Those who burn more fuel than necessary violate the law of not wasting. 7
bullet A 13th century German pietist text suggested that righteous people of good deeds do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. 7
bullet Maimonides said: "It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of humanity’s existence. Rather, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sake." 7
bullet According to Midrash, even those creatures you deem superfluous in the world – like flies, fleas, and gnats – nevertheless have their allotted task in the scheme of Creation. 7
bullet Just as it is important to judge Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, in the context of the times in which he lived, and not in absolute terms of his being a slave owner, so we must judge the Jewish Bible, including the first five books known as the Torah, in terms relative to what was taking place in society 3,000 years ago. 3
bullet The Kabbalists, leaders of the Jewish mystical tradition, showed a sense of urgency and intensity with which they pursued the task of redeeming creation. They held that “If we are lax, if we should neglect our responsibility, the agony of humanity will deepen." 8
bullet According to Moses Cordovero, the 16th century Kabbalist, “the principle of wisdom is to extend acts of love towards anything, including plants and animals." 9

The first four comments were contributed by Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb. 7

As stated in “Protecting the Environment is a Mitzvah" (the official document of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life), “there are many Jewish teachings which explain our responsibility to protect environment. However, few Jews have been introduced to them,"

The overall Jewish approach to the environment appears to be somewhat more friendly than the approach by Christianity.

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A search of the data base shows the following books on Jewish responses to the environment:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Louis Jacobs, "The Jewish Religion. A Companion," Oxford University Press, (1995).
  2. John Bowker, Ed., "The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions," Oxford University Press, (1997).
  3. David Sears, "Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition," at:
  4. "What’s Jewish About Protecting the Environment?" at:
  5. Web of Creation, "Quotations on the Environment,"at:
  6. "Birth Control," Wikipedia, at:
  7. Michael Schut & Tanya Marcovna Barnett, "The Cry of Creation," Booklet & study guide, Earth Ministry, (2003). Purchase at: Online at: This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  8. Paul Mendes-Flohr, "Apocalyptic and Prophetic Eschatology – a Jewish Homage to St. John of Patmos," at:
  9. Jeffrey Kluger, "Evidence is Mounting that Human Activity is Helping Fuel These Monster Hurricanes," Time, 2005-OCT-03.

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-AUG-16
Latest update on: 2006-AUG-27
Author. Vladimir Tomek

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