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Caring for the Creation: A Jewish perspective
In an age of widespread environmental pollution and chronic resource depletion it is only prudent to consider ways in which we might protect what is fragile and conserve what is valuable. Yet for the religious Jew caring for creation is more than a matter of prudence: it is a response to God's commandments.
The first chapter of Genesis (verse 26) grants human beings «dominion» over the rest of creation but that word «dominion» cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the verse or without reference to other Biblical and post-Biblical passages. The beginning of Genesis 1:26 tells that man and woman were created in God's image. They are therefore expected to image God in their dealings with the rest of creation and as God is just and merciful so should they be just and merciful. The Talmud (in Sanhedrin 598) interprets dominion as the privilege of using animals for labour. The eleventh century commentator Rashi understands the verse to mean that human dominion over animals is granted by God on condition that no abuse is involved if humans become unworthy of the trust placed in them by the Creator, then (says Rashi) they will sink to a level lower than that of any animal.
Each morning the devout Jew praises God who «daily renews the work of creation». Creation is viewed by Judaism as an ongoing process and the Jew should view himself as a junior partner in that process. Aware of his status as God's steward, the religious Jew should strive to recognise the boundary between use and abuse and constantly seek guidance from the Holy One, blessed be He who is without fault and incapable of error.
«The earth is the Lord's and the fullness there of: the world and ali who dwell within ih» (Psalm 24:1). Such verses as this help the devout Jew to remember who is actually in charge. Acceptance of God as master and man as servant encourages conservation of the earth's precious resources and to clarify Jewish responsibility towards the earth and its flora and fauna. Biblical and post Biblical legislation specifies a program of action:
When you besiege a city... you shall not destroy its trees... you may eat from them but not destroy (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).
From this prohibition were drawn many others which in sum total serve to prevent wanton destruction of anything useful to humanity. The judging of what is useful cannot exclude considerations of effect upon the environment because it is indisputable that assaults against nature are ultimately assaults against the quality of human life. Judaism condemns, and Jews should seek to prohibit, ali acts likely to further damage our planet.
«God took man and placed him in a garden... to work it and to preserve it» (Genesis 2:15). This verse entities humans to work the earth and extract its wealth providing they also guard and conserve it. Conservation is as old as Judaism.
Assaults against the environment often begin with abuse of animals. In its concern for animal welfare Judaism has always displayed a rare sensitivity. Genesis 24 relates how, when Eliezar went to Haran to find a wif e for Isaac, he looked for a girl who would show kindness both to humans and animals. After Rebecca had drawn water for Eliezar and his men she immediately watered their camels. Later Jewish teaching insisted that it should be the other way around and so the Talmud states, «A man may not sit down to his own meal bef ore he has fed his animals» (Berakhot 40A).
In Proverbs 12:10 we read, «A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal», yet such consideration may not be restricted to one's own animals. Exodus 23A teaches that stray animals must be taken care of and returned to their owners at the earliest opportunity. This applies even to animals belonging to one's enemy for the very next verse in Exodus 23 urges the offering of assistance to the fallen work anima! of an enemy. Deuteronomy 22:4 demands that any fallen animal must be helped lo its feet. Exodus 20:10 teaches that animals must rest on the Sabbath Day and the need for such consideration is repeated in Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14.
In Leviticus 22:27 it is stated that a young damestic animal may not be separated from its mother tilt at least seven days old and in Leviticus 22:28 it is prohibited to kill an anima! together with its young, mainly in order to prevent the one witnessing the death of the other. Commenting on these two verses the twelfth century philosopher Maimonides wrote: «The pain of animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young one is not produced by reasoning but by feeling and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living things.» (Moreh Nevukhim 3:48).
Deuteronomy 22:6 and 7 forbid the capture of a mother bird together with her young or her eggs. the young or eggs are required the mother must be absent when they are taken. In practice young fledglings were of baie use to anyone so the prohibition tended to protect both mother and young. Eggs were more likely to be taken but here the bond with the mother was much weaker.
Deuteronomy 22:10 states «You shall no/ plow with an ox and an ass together». These animals differ greatly in their nature, size and strength and it is consequently cruel to the weaker animal to yoke them together. The prohibition extends to the yoking together of any animals of unequal type. Deuteronomy 25:4 states, «You shall not muzzle the ox when he treads out the com». This prohibition extends to ali work animals for it was considered sheer cruelty to excite an animals desire for food and then prevent the satisfaction of that desire.
In Jewish post-Biblical literature much is written about the need to spare animals from pain or stress. The Talmud forbids gladiatoria) shows and hunting (Avodah Zarah 186) so that bull or cock-fighting and fox or big game hunting are quite abhorrent to the observant Jew. So too is the trapping of animals for such luxury items as fur coats or the merciless hunting of whales for the production of perfumes or pet foods. None may purchase an animal tilt he has first purchased the food for that animal to eat (Talmud Yerushalmi, Ketubot 42). The Sabbath may be profaned to assist an animal in distress (Talmud Bavk Shabbat 128B).
Much has been written and spoken against the Jewish method of slaughter but this method (known in Hebrew as Shehitah) is actually designed to spare the animal suffering. Genesis 1:29 states that man was to be a vegetarian but after the flood, in Noah's time, the consumption of flesh was allowed as a concession to human weakness. Even so, the species of animal, bird and fish which may be consumed by an observant Jew are severely restricted. The Shehitah method renders an animal unconscious in about 2 seconds and it is doubflul if pain is registered in such a short time. If it is, it can only be momentary and is as nothing compared to the life-long suffering endured by so many farm animals in our day. «Factory Farming» is an abomination, an affront to the Creator, and as the Talmud demands that animals be spared pain at all costs (Baba Metsia 31A-32B), the products of intensive animal husbandry are unsuitable for Jewish consumption. To deprive God's creatures of sunlight, fresh air and exercise is utterly sadistic and it is against intensive animal husbandry, rather than against particular methods of slaughter, that our efforts ought to be directed.
Similar criticisms may be levelled by Judaism against research laboratories where millions of animals are yearly tortured to supposedly advance the frontiers of science.
The abuse of animals desensitises the abuser and facilitates the abuse of fellow humans and the spoliation of soil, air and water and all that they support.
The sensitive person possesses some awareness that the various components of creation are interconnected and that damage done to one component is liable to cause damage to others. Modem consumer societies place enormous strains upon delicate environmental balances and the increasing incidence of ecological disasters should urge us all to exercise greater restraint in the enjoyment of the earth's manifold riches. In a finite world, infinite appetites and aspirations are sorely misplaced.
During the past decade Jewish involvement in and support of environmental agencies such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Survival International and the various Animal Welfare Societies has increased apace. There has been a Jewish presence at meetings of the International Whaling Commission, at the World Council of Churches consultation on -Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation» and at the very important Catholic gathering at Assisi to mark the eight hundredth anniversary of the birth of St. Francis.
The Reform Synagogues of Great Britain have produced radical resolutions calling for the banning of trade in exotic species of flora and fauna, the phasing out of such economic policies as result in beef and butter mountains in Europe together with famine and hunger in the world and the imposition of heavy penalties upon industries which continue to destroy or pollute the environment. The Reform Synagogues Social issues Group has produced a comprehensive “Jewish Guide to Ecologically Aware Shopping» and in an article recently published in Manna I specified some twenty-seven ways in which my fellow Jews could help to save our air, soil, water, trees, animals and other resources from further harm or depletion.
We Jews are few in number and clearly we need to work in concert with others who care equally about the future of our planet. Yet our tradition is rich in source material to aid us in our struggle and we feel ourselves to be especially responsible for maintaining God's wonderful creation.
“And God saw all which He had made and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)
The earth is very good and with the assistance of sufficient numbers of responsible humans it will remain so.
Hillel Avidan is Rabbi al West Central and Ealing Liberai Synagogues, London and Chairman of R.S.G.B Assembly of Rabbis. He has published Feasts and Fasts o!ìsrael He took part in the WCC ecumenica) consulfadon on the Integrity of Creation held in Granvollen, Norway in 1988.