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How Can We Solve the Ecological Crisis?

How Can We Solve the Ecological Crisis? 

By Rabbi Prof. Yehudah Levi

Rabbi Prof. Yehudah Levi is a former Rector, head of the Physics/Electro-optics Department of the Jerusalem College of Technology, and has been a President of the American Orthodox Jewish Scientists both in the USA and Israel.  He has published many books and journals on Torah and technical subjects, and has won awards for his writings.  He is currently a lecturer at the Jerusalem Academy.
(From: Yehudah Levi, Facing Current Challenges, Talk 36)

The Scope of the Problem
The forecasts are frightening.  If our use of energy continues at current levels, along with standard practices in industry, transportation, and clearing of land by burning forests, the Earth's atmosphere will continue to heat up (the "greenhouse effect").  There will be significant melting of the ice surrounding the two Poles, and massive flooding of lowlands all over the world.  In addition, the erosion of the atmosphere's delicate ozone layer, which protects us from the sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays, will continue.  This damage would lead to some three million new cases of skin cancer and over fifteen million new cases of cataracts in the first decade of the twenty-first century.1  All this in addition to air and water pollution, which cause a buildup of poisons in the bodies of animals and humans.  In this way, mankind can easily destroy the world without resorting to an atom bomb.

The ecological problem has another source.  Two hundred years ago, economist Thomas Malthus published a thesis according to which mankind has a built-in time bomb ticking away inside it.  The world's population multiplies at an ever-increasing rate, with which the rate of food production cannot possibly keep up.  Although his thesis is rational, it is highly misleading.  More recent research has found that this is not the primary problem at all.  A factor of considerably greater importance is the average individual consumption, which is increasing at a much faster rate than that of population growth, as indicated by the following figures:

In the course of thirty years, the world's population doubled, while energy consumption per capita increased eight-fold in this period.  We may add to this the fact that in North America and Western Europe, ten percent of the population consumes fifty percent of the world's energy.

At this point, then, the real danger to the world lies in this excessive consumption.  Not only does it deplete the world's energy store, it also is the chief cause of the warming of the atmosphere.

ecolandscapeThis over-consumption is also manifest in our use of raw materials.  It can even be found in our dietary habits.  Note that the production of one kilogram of beef consumes sixteen kilograms of grain.2  People are well aware of this; the problem is that they are not prepared to act accordingly.  Present efforts to stem this tide focus mainly on legislation to impose restraints on the public.  But this approach has very limited effectiveness - and occasionally even backfires due to the cumbersome bureaucracy required.3  Auxiliary propaganda drives to recruit public support, too, are largely ineffectual, because they lack a rational basis.  The spirit of "After us, the deluge" is difficult to overcome.

What have these problems to do with us as Jews?  The Torah Approach
The Torah enables us to solve this problem by helping us to change our inner motivation.  Specifically: "The whole of Torah is for the sake of social harmony"4.  And: "[Be considerate of your fellow's wishes] - that is the whole of Torah"5.  The Torah shapes the human personality on two planes.  It works on the cognitive level by providing, in agadah, a rational and integrated ideology and world view conducive to social harmony; it works along behaviorist lines by imposing a halakhic body of regulations prescribing in detail the required course of action in given situations.  By developing an awareness of the divine origin of the prescribed code of conduct, it nurtures inner motivation and thus minimizes the need for externally imposed enforcement and the concomitant bureaucracy.  Thus halakhah and agadah supplement each other to ennoble the human being.

A Jewish World View
When God created the first couple, he blessed them, "Fill the world and conquer it"6.  Conquest can be for the purpose of exploitation, or it can be for the sake of development.  Which did the Creator intend? Our Sages answer this question in a midrash:

When God created the first man, he took him around to all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him, "See my handiwork, how beautiful and choice they are... be careful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you."7

We see here that the Torah views man as being entrusted with the orderly and proper management of the world.  Therefore we may not stand aside and watch the world being destroyed.

Let us demonstrate the Torah approach with a typical example.  In a certain industry, it is standard practice to use a manufacturing process which is highly economical, but at the same time contributes to the destruction of the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere.  If we were to suggest to the manager of a company in this industry that he use an alternative process which reduces pollution, but is more costly, he would answer, "My first responsibility is to the stockholders.  I do not have the right to tell them to reduce their profits in order to preserve the quality of the atmosphere fifty years from now."  From a utilitarian standpoint, this claim is difficult to refute.  The Torah, however, gives a resounding response: "Thus speaks God...the Creator of the earth... He did not create it for desolation, He formed it to be settled."8

All this shows that the root of the problem lies in a selfish world view which inflates personal consumption beyond the essential.  Regarding this problem, the Torah instructs us to "be holy," or in other words, to refrain from luxuries.9  (The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, signifies dedication to an ideal.)

"Noble ideas," you may say, "but how are they to be implemented?"  The answer to this objection lies in halakhah.  Halakhah is a body of strict, detailed demands which the Torah places upon the Jew.  Halakhah is not interested in the individual's world view, and its demands are not affected by it.  On the contrary, by guiding his actions and molding his character, the halakhah supports the agadah - the ideology - enabling it to develop man's world view and hence, again, his conduct.

As in all areas of life, regarding environmental quality the Torah does not merely call for sublime goals.  It harnesses halakhah in the service of its noble concepts, thus transforming the abstract vision into a functioning principle in society.  It does this on two levels: first, through halakhoth which instill awareness of our obligations toward society and the environment; second, through other mitzvoth which train us in self-control, and thus to sanctity and acceptance of divine service.  These mitzvoth change our selfish orientation, and teach us to be guided by ideals and not simply by desires.  By means of this two-pronged plan, halakhah - in conjunction with the ideals provided by the agadah - can also solve the problem of the ecology.

Let us discuss a number of Torah-ordained commandments whose thrust is ecological.

The Obligation to Settle the Earth
We learn our obligation to be concerned with the settlement of the world from the Prophets: "He did not create it for desolation, He formed it to be settled" - to be developed.  This obligation includes, among others, a halakhah pertinent to the Torah scroll.  Although it is ordinarily forbidden to sell a Torah scroll, even in order to raise funds for a mitzvah, there are exceptions; one of them is that a Torah scroll may be sold to finance a marriage.10  Scripture evidently invests the mitzvah to procreate with special significance; this obligation comes to ensure that the world has a population to take care of it.  That purpose makes it central to Judaism, more than other commandments.

A number of special Torah-ordained commandments directly indicate that we are responsible for the orderly management of the world.  Among them are the prohibition of wanton destruction and the obligation to provide a "green belt" around a city.  In addition, the prohibitions against causing damages to neighbors, and the commandments related to sanitation, serve to safeguard the quality of the environment.  Let us discuss a number of these commandments.

"Do Not Destroy"
The commandment "do not destroy" can be seen as a direct outgrowth of our custodianship of the world.  First and foremost, it means that we should be aware of the ownership rights of the Master of the Universe by showing respect for anything of value in His world.  The converse of this obligation is expressed by the prohibition against needlessly ruining any object.  Any wanton destruction, whether through disdain or frivolity, is damage to God's property.  If the damage is done in anger, it is considered the first step in rebellion against God: "One who tears his clothes, breaks a vessel, or scatters his money in anger, should be in your eyes as an idolator."11

The destruction of fruit trees is explicitly forbidden by the Torah.12  This is mentioned in the context of the siege of a city, where the trees are the enemy's property - in other words, a setting in which we would expect the Torah to waive such fine considerations as the "sanctity" of plant life.  After all, human life is in danger!  Yet despite this, if it is feasible to use barren (non-fruit-bearing) trees for the siege, we are forbidden to destroy fruit trees.  God Himself set an example by instructing us to build the Temple only with wood from "barren" trees.13

From the explicit prohibition against the destruction of fruit trees, our Sages deduced that it is all the more forbidden to destroy the fruits themselves.14 Destruction of food, particularly disrespectful handling of bread, man's principal food,15also shows ingratitude toward God, Who sustains us with bread.

In fact, according to halakhah, any usable item is covered by this prohibition.  "One who breaks vessels, tears clothing, destroys a building, stops up a well, or wastes food in a destructive fashion, transgresses the prohibition of  'Do not destroy.'"16 (The broadening of the prohibition appears to stem directly from the words of the Torah, and is not merely a Rabbinic enactment.17)  Even the use of fuel is to be based on maximum efficiency.  According to the words of our Sages in the Talmud, one who consumes fuel wastefully transgresses the prohibition "Do not destroy."18  Thus the Torah anticipated today's energy conservation campaigns by millennia.

The Torah's choice of trees as the prototype prohibition against pointless destruction may have seemed rather odd in earlier generations.  Today, however, the vital importance of trees and their influence on the climate, the land, and the entire ecology is well known.  Thus we have been granted an opportunity to see the profundity of God's infinite wisdom in a manner denied to earlier generations.

Unlike many other commandments, the prohibition "Do not destroy" applies also to indirect actions.  For example, we may not divert a stream if as a result fruit trees will wither.19  (Still, the tree owner is not obligated to maintain the tree by watering it and otherwise caring for it.20)  It should be noted that "Do not destroy" applies even to ownerless property,21so that it covers pollution of the atmosphere, lakes, oceans, aquifers, and so on.

One of the treasures, the world provides us with, is beauty; it too should be preserved.  Although the Torah did not explicitly command us to protect beauty, it did give us a hint that this is the will of God.  The ceiling of the Tabernacle was made of artistically woven curtains of blue, purple, and scarlet thread; the Torah required that these curtains be covered by a protective layer of hides.  "The Torah taught us derekh eretz, that one should care for beautiful things."22

Our most precious material gift of all, the human body, also needs care and cultivation - not for its own sake, but to keep it ready and fit to serve us at all times.  It too is included in the mitzvah "Do not destroy."  The extent of the Torah's concern for this aspect is highlighted in the Talmud's question: by what right does a Jew eat wheat bread, when barley bread is much cheaper and one can subsist on it?  The answer: "Not destroying one's body is more important [and wheat is more healthy]."23  It is interesting to note the ruling of a later halakhic authority that one who overeats transgresses the prohibition "Do not destroy" twice - he wastes the food and also harms his body.24

Spoiling the landscape, even if not included in the prohibition "Do not destroy" from the halakhic standpoint, is clearly against the spirit of the Torah, as we shall see presently.

Careful attention to the mitzvah "Do not destroy," together with the enactments previously mentioned, foster in a Jew a special appreciation for all of creation, animate and inanimate: he will see in each creature a partner in the service of God Who created us all.

City Planning
The beauty of the environment is an important factor in the quality of life.  It is no surprise, then, that the Torah did not merely establish abstract principles about urban planning.  Instead, it provided detailed regulations intended to protect the beauty and comfort of city life.  At the same time, halakhah prevents a city's unchecked expansion, a phenomenon damaging to the quality of life today in developed -and developing - countries, which confronts city planners with difficult challenges.  We refer to the mitzvah obligating us to establish a "green belt" around every walled city, which we present in the words of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch.25  The cities of the Levites were surrounded by a municipal domain of two thousand cubits width in all directions.  The inner thousand cubits were called the migrash ha'ir [city lot]. This inner patch of land was an empty area, intended for "their animals and their property and all their needs"26 - for animals and possessions and other vital uses, like laundering.27  The outer thousand cubits28 were fields and vineyards.29  We find that the total domain of the municipality consisted of city, lot, and field.  It is stated here that "the field of the lot of their city shall not be sold."  [The Sages] interpreted this verse in a broader sense: not only should the ownership not be changed, but also its purpose should not be changed.  "What is meant by 'It shall not be sold'?  It shall not be transformed."30   We are not to make a field into a lot, nor a lot into a field [by planting].31  [We are not to make] a lot into a city [by building houses], nor a city into a lot.30  "Because it is an eternal estate for them."  Because it was given to them for all future generations, no generation has a right to change it as it wishes.  The present generation is not the sole master over it.  Rather, the future generations are equal to them in their rights.  Just as they received it from their predecessors, so are they to leave it for those who will come after them.

Rav Hirsch goes on to explain how this mitzvah, together with that of the Jubilee year, ensures a balance of urban and rural populations, and prevents the problems typical to the lives of each of these groups.  According to these regulations, all the fields, as well as the houses on farms and in unwalled towns, revert to their original owners every fifty years.  Only houses in walled cities can be sold permanently.  We see from this that cities originally surrounded by a wall can produce a population cut off from the surrounding fields, and from agriculture altogether - an urban population.  At the same time, the laws of the "green belt" completely eliminate the possibility of the unchecked expansion of these cities, and thus, the formation of the monstrosity known as megalopolis.  If there is a need for additional homes, a new city must be established.

At the same time, the rural areas always maintain their ties to the original settlers and the rural population is guaranteed that they will never be permanently removed from their land.  Thus the Torah encourages medium-size settlements, both urban and rural.  The demoralization and character corruption, the volatile mixture of a wealthy class and a working class, typical of large cities, are avoided. Cultural deprivation, which is often the lot of the rural population, is also prevented.

Damages to Neighbors
In the commandment to "love your fellow as yourself,"32 the Torah has given us a principle which is indeed great,33but which would remain a mere utopia were it not anchored in halakhah.  One of the halakhic areas which educates us to love our fellow and to be concerned for his welfare is that of "damages to neighbors."  This is a broad topic, which also has a significant influence on the ecology.

The Torah deals at length with owners' responsibility for damages caused by their possessions, at times even if caused only indirectly and also if caused by an object which technically they did not own.

In the case of an inanimate object, such damages are classified as "damages caused by a pit."  The responsibility rests with the person who dug or uncovered the pit in the public domain.34  In this category are damage caused by a banana peel thrown in the street, or dangerous waste material disposed of in the public domain.  When the object is transported by natural forces, such as the wind, it is in the category of "fire,"35which includes damage caused by pollution of air or waterways.

Surprisingly, we are cautioned against causing the loss of benefit to another, even if he has no legal claim to it.36  The principle that "one should not drain the water of his well when others need it" is found in the Mishnah.37  A Jew is even commanded to prevent damage threatening his neighbor from an outside force.38

The Sages of the Talmud expanded these rules also to psychological disturbances, such as possible exposure to a neighbor's observation, noises, and so on.  Anyone suffering such annoyances may appeal to the courts to force his neighbor to remove them.  This may include the removal of the cause of the noise, although the noise is only indirectly due to it39 and even if its removal will cause the owner financial hardship.  Based on these rules, Ryvash drafts the guiding principle: "One may not protect his own property from damage at the expense of his fellow's damage."40  This principle could serve as a guideline in modern legislation for pollution control.

Four particular nuisances are especially liable to legal action according to Jewish law: smoke, sewage, odors, dust and similar aerosols, and vibrations.41  Even if consent had initially been given, the offended neighbor can retract it.  All of these are forms of pollution which are a source of great concern to this day.  In particular, halakhah limits the proximity of certain industrial processes to the city, to prevent air pollution within the city.  Included are threshing floors (because of the chaff), processing of carcasses, tanneries (because of the smell), and furnaces (because of the smoke).42  Tanneries are specifically limited to the areas east of the city, in consideration of the prevalent wind patterns in Eretz Yisrael.43

We have already mentioned the value the Torah places on beauty.  It is obvious, then, that mere aesthetic damage such as littering in public places is also included in the prohibition against causing damage - if not according to the letter of halakhah, then according to its spirit.  We find at least one example of such legislation: furnaces were forbidden in Jerusalem because the smoke blackened the walls of the houses, "and this is a disgrace."44

All the above is only a small sampling from over one hundred paragraphs in the Shulchan Arukh45which deal with damages caused to neighbors, most of them environmental.  One who studies and applies these laws in daily life becomes considerate and sensitive, and will not make light of harming the environment.  He will beware of causing damage in general, and ecological damage in particular.

"According to Its Species" - the Message in Creation
In conjunction with the kilayim (hybridization) prohibitions, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch writes as follows:

"Contemplate this divine order in the universe and respect it in your actions.  Do not forget that God appointed you to serve and nurture the world... Do not compel any creature to use its powers which were destined for its own species to foster another."46

In our days, when genetic engineering research arouses deep concern for the future well-being of Creation, the sensitive ear will here find an echo of this concern.

A Psychological Revolution47
In searching for the sources of the problems of ecological destruction, whether industrial- or consumer-centered, we will find that they lie chiefly in people's selfishness.  When personal advantage tops the scale of priorities and everyone tries to expand the sphere of his own power, the expanding spheres are bound to collide, creating shortages and conflict.  This fosters a situation where mankind seems to march toward an ultimate ecological holocaust - unless, that is, it finds an alternative to this basic self-centered orientation.

This is where the Torah steps in. It works to eliminate the prime cause of conflict by providing a goal common to all mankind: to make us into loyal servants of God.  Such a servant will see to it that he acquires the tools he needs to succeed at his job - but no more.  As a result, he will not strive for unlimited expansion of his sphere of influence.  Such a world view also transforms the entire creation into a means toward, and partner in, the service of God. 

Ultimately it will all be part of one system, all of whose components contribute to the common goal.  If "mitzvoth were only given as a means to refine mankind,"48then the Torah and its mitzvoth treat, in the most fundamental manner, the problems of the quality of the environment.  They also hold the only solution to the problem of the ecology: a reshaping of man's character.

Perhaps this is the message of Ezekiel's vision49 when he was shown a polluted ocean, with its fish and other marine life near death.50  Then a small trickle of water emerged from under the threshold of the Temple - "water signifies Torah,"51 and the Temple is but the sanctuary of the Torah.52

Gradually the water grew to a great stream, on whose shore grew all manner of fruit trees, whose leaves do not wither and whose fruits never cease.

When these waters reach the ocean, the polluted ocean waters are healed, and all the fish and marine life return to health.

Here we behold a vision of an ecological paradise coming into existence through the Torah.

Abbreviations used: 
BT/JT - Babylonian/ Jerusalem Talmud. 
M - Mishnah
MR - Midrash Rabbah: I,II, etc. - Genesis, Exodus, etc.
MRT - Midrash Rabbi Tanchuma
MT - Mishneh Torah, RaMBaM
TM - Minor tractates (Mesekhtoth Ketanoth)
SA - Shulchan Arukh 
OC, YD, etc.- Orach Chayim, Yoreh Dei'ah etc.

1. Cf. Science News, 2 Nov. '91, p.278 & 7 Dec. '91, p.380.
2. F.M. Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, Ballantine (NY, 1975); pp.11, 382.
3. M. Gerstenfeld, Environment and Confusion (Academon, Jerusalem, 1994).
4. BT Gittin 59b, from Proverbs 3:17.
5. BT Shabbath 31a (cf. above, essay 12, note 3).
6. Genesis 1:28.
7. MR Ecclesiastes 7:13 s.v.
8. Isaiah 45:18.
9. Leviticus 19:2 and RaMBaN commentary ad loc.
10. BT Megillah 27a.
11. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Horeb, chap. 56 (#398) from BT Shabbath 105b.
12. Deuteronomy 20:9.
13. Exodus 26:15; MR II 35:2.
14. Sifrey Deuteronomy #203.
15. Leviticus 26:26; Isaiah 3:1.
16. MT Melakhim 6:10 and note 21, below.
17. Sedey Chemed, Kelalim, Beith #17; Peiath HaSadeh, ibid. #47.
18. BT Shabbath 67b.
19. Note 14, above.
20. Chazon Ish on MT Melakhim 6:8.
21. Shulchan 'Arukh HaRav, Shemirath HaGuf WeHaNefesh, chap. 14.
22. Rashi, Exodus 26:13; Yalkut Shim'oni #422.
23. BT Shabbath 129a & ibid. 140b.
24. Orach Meysharim 29:6.
25. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34.
26. Numbers 35:3.
27. BT Nedarim 81a.
28. According to RaMBaM (MT Shemita WeYovel 13:2)-2000 cubits.
29. BT Sotah 27b.
30. BT 'Erkin 33b.
31. Cf. BT Bava Bathra 24b.
32. Leviticus 19:18.
33. JT Nedarim 9:4.
34. M Bava Kama 1:1 and commentaries ad loc.; ibid chap. 3.
35. Loc. cit.
36. BT Yevamoth 44a; (M Yevamoth 4:11).
37. According to SeMaG (neg. #229) and Meiri (BT Yevamoth 44a), the prohibition is based on 'bal tashchith'.
38. BT Bava Metzi'a 31a; SA CM 259:9.
39. BT Bava Bathra 23a; SA CM 155:39.
40. Responsa RYVaSh #196.
41. SA CM 155:36.
42. M Bava Bathra 2:8-9; SA CM 155:22-23.
43. Loc. cit.
44. Rashi BT Bava Kama 82b.
45. SA CM #153-6.
46. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Horeb #408.
47. The ideas in this section are primarily from R. A. Carmell, "Judaism and the Quality of the Environment", in Challenge, A. Carmell & C. Domb, eds., (Feldheim, 1976); pp.500-525.
48. MR I 44:1.
49. Ezekiel 47:1-12.
50. The prophet refers to the waters of the sea being "cured"; this implies that they had been polluted; his vision concerning the animals around the water: "they will live," implies that they had been near death. The Hebrew term used to describe the "uncured" water is "mutza'im", which is cognate with "tzoah" = feces, again implying pollution (Cf. 2 Kings 10:27, as read.)
51. BT Bava Kama 17a.
52. The purpose of a building is indicated by its innermost content. In the sanctuary, the Torah and the Tablets were in the Holy of Holies. Cf. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch on Exodus 25:21.

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