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
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
Those that imply that animals exist for the sake of human
those interpreting ‘dominion’ as guardianship or stewardship.
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.
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.’
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
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
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
In reform Judaism, individual couples are allowed to use their
own judgment in what, if any, birth control methods they might wish to
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.
Additional comments on the Jewish approach:
The Talmud stresses the importance of fuel efficiency.
Those who burn
more fuel than necessary violate the law of not wasting.
A 13th century
German pietist text suggested that righteous people of good deeds do not waste
in this world even a mustard seed. 7
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
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
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
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
According to Moses Cordovero, the 16th century Kabbalist, “the principle of
wisdom is to extend acts of love towards anything, including plants and
The first four comments were contributed by Rabbi Fred Scherlinder
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.
A search of the Amazon.com data base shows the following books on Jewish responses to the environment:
At least, it should. Sometimes Amazon returns the strangest selections.
If you see a generic Amazon ad below, please click on your browser's refresh key.
The following information sources were used to
prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still
Louis Jacobs, "The Jewish Religion. A Companion," Oxford
University Press, (1995).
John Bowker, Ed., "The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions,"
Oxford University Press, (1997).