Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Ecology

A. What are the important Jewish teachings on the environment?

Perhaps the most fundamental Jewish teaching on the environment is, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." (Psalm 24:1) Many basic Torah principles are related to this statement:

(1) People are to be co-workers with God in helping to preserve and improve the world.

The Talmudic sages assert that people's role is to enhance the world as "co-partners of God in the work of creation." (Shabbat 10a) There is a Midrash (a story that teaches a Torah lesson based on biblical events and values) that beautifully expresses the idea that God needs people to help tend the world:

In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He,
created the first man,
He took him and let him pass before all the trees of
the Garden of Eden and said to him:
"See my works, how fine and excellent they are!
Now all that I have created, for you have I created.
Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My World,
For if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it
right after you."
(Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)

The Psalmist also expresses the idea that God the Creator treats every person as a partner in the work of creation (Psalm 8:4-7):

When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your hands,
The moon and work which you have established,
What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man
that You do care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than God, and do crown him
with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet....

The talmudic sages indicated great concern about preserving the environment and preventing pollution. They state: "It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery" (Kiddushin 4:12; 66d). Threshing floors had to be placed far enough from a town so that it would not be dirtied by chaff carried by winds (Baba Batra 2:8). Tanneries had to be kept at least 50 cubits from a town and could be placed only on the east side of a town, so that odors would not be carried by the prevailing winds from the west (Baba Batra 2:8,9). The rabbis express a sense of sanctity toward the environment: "the atmosphere (air) of the land of Israel makes one wise" (Baba Batra 158b).

(2) Everything belongs to God. We are to be stewards of the earth, to see that its produce is available for all God's children.

There is an apparent contradiction between two verses in Psalms: "The earth is the Lord's" (Ps. 24:1) and "The heavens are the heavens of God, but the earth He has given to the children of man" (Ps. 115:16). The apparent discrepancy is cleared up in the following way: Before a person says a b'racha (a blessing), before he acknowledges God's ownership of the land and its products, then "the earth is the Lord's"; after a person has said a b'racha , acknowledging God's ownership and that we are stewards to see that God's works are properly used and shared, then "the earth He has given to the children of man" (B'rachot 30:5).

Property is a sacred trust given by God; it must be used to fulfill God's purposes. No person has absolute or exclusive control over his or her possessions. The concept that people have custodial care of the earth, as opposed to ownership, is illustrated by this story:

Two men were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership and bolstered his claim with apparent proof. To resolve their differences, they agreed to put the case before the rabbi. The rabbi listened but could come to no decision because both seemed to be right. Finally he said, "Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land." He put his ear to the ground and, after a moment, straightened up. "Gentlemen, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it."

As indicated previously, even the produce of the field does not belong solely to the person who farms the land. The poor are entitled to a portion:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger; I am the Lord, thy God.
(Lev. 19:9-10)

These portions set aside for the poor were not voluntary contributions based on kindness. They were, in essence, a regular divine assessment. Because God was the real owner of the land, he claimed a share of His own gifts for the poor.

As a reminder that "the earth is the Lord's," the land must be permitted to rest and lie fallow every seven years (the sabbatical year):

And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof, but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lay fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with the vineyard, and with thy oliveyard.
(Exod. 23:10-11)

The sabbatical year also has ecological benefits. The land was given a chance to rest and renew its fertility.

Judaism asserts that there is one God who created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance, and that everything is connected to everything else. This idea is perhaps best expressed by Psalm 104:

...Thou [God] art the One Who sends forth springs into
brooks, that they may run between mountains,
To give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures
of the forest quench their thirst.
Beside them dwell the fowl of the heavens;...
Thou art He Who waters the mountains from His upper
Thou art He Who causes the grass to spring up for the
cattle and herb, for the service of man, to bring forth
bread from the earth....
How manifold art Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou
made them all; the earth is full of Thy property....

B. What connections to ecology are in Jewish history and prayers?

Much of early Jewish history is closely related to the natural environment. The patriarchs and their descendants were shepherds. Their work led them into many types of natural settings, including mountains, prairies, wilderness, and desert. They thus developed a love and appreciation of natural wonders and beauty. According to Charles W. Eliot, "no race has ever surpassed the Jewish descriptions of either the beauties or the terrors of the nature which environs man."

The greatest prophet, Moses, while a shepherd, learned many facts about nature which were useful in leading the Israelites in the desert. The Ten Commandments and the Torah were revealed to the Jews at Mount Sinai, in a natural setting. The forty years of wandering in the wilderness trained Israel in the appreciation of natural beauty.

Jews have often pictured God through His handiwork in nature. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, when marveling at the heavenly bodies, intuited that there must be a creator of these wonders. The prophet Isaiah stated:

Lift up thine eyes on high,
And see: Who hath created these?
He that bringeth out their host by numbers,
He calleth them all by name;
By the greatness of His might, for He is strong in power,
Not one faileth.
(Isaiah 40:26)

Many Jewish prayers extol God for His wondrous creations. In the morning, religious Jews say the following prayer to thank God for the new day:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe.
Who formest light and createst darkness,
Who makest peace and createst all things.
Who in mercy givest light to the earth
And to them that dwell thereon,
And in Thy goodness renewest the creation
Every day continually.
How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!
In wisdom hast Thou made them all;
The earth is full of Thy possessions....
Be Thou blessed, O Lord our God,
For the excellency of Thy handiwork,
And for the bright luminaries
Which Thou hast made:
They shall glorify Thee forever.

At the Sabbath morning services, the following prayer is recited: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Psalms 19:2).

The sensitivity of the Torah to environmental cleanliness is illustrated by the following law, which commands disposal of sewage, even in wartime, by burial in the ground, not by dumping into rivers or littering the countryside!

Thou shalt have a place outside the military camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad. And thou shalt have a spade among thy weapons; and it shalt be when thou sittest down outside, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.
(Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

The preservation of the land of Israel has been a central theme in Judaism. The three festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) are agricultural as well as spiritual celebrations. Jews pray for dew and rain in their proper time so that there will be abundant harvests in Israel. Jewish tradition militates against abuse of natural resources and the environment.

C. How serious are environmental problems today?

It is becoming increasingly clear that our world is facing many environmental threats. Almost daily there are newspaper and television reports related to acid rain, the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion, erosion of topsoil, destruction of forests and other habitats, pollution of air, water, and soil, and toxic wastes. Many areas have had severe droughts recently. It is significant that at the start of 1989, Time magazine, instead of choosing its usual "person of the year", selected our endangered earth as "planet of the year".

In 1993, over 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates -- a majority of the living recipients of the prize in the sciences -- signed a "World Scientists' Warning To Humanity." Their introduction stated: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about." The scientists' analysis discussed threats to the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, living species, and forests. Their warning: "we the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated".

Today's environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues:

D. What are some of the major causes of current environmental threats?

The problems today are due to the fact that the ways of the world are completely contrary to Jewish values:

It is urgent that Torah values be applied toward the solution of current environmental problems. This means, for example: an energy policy based not on dangerous energy sources, but on CARE (conservation and renewable energy), consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving the environment, conserving resources, creating jobs, protecting human lives, and considering future generations; a shift toward vegetarian diets, since meat-centered diets and the livestock agriculture associated with them cause much pollution, waste important resources, and are inconsistent with other basic Jewish values.

E. What are the connections between meat-and dairy-centered diets and pollution and ecothreats?

A prime cause for current ecological problems, a cause that is generally overlooked, is the wastefulness of meat-based diets. Largely because of this wastefulness, modern agricultural methods related to meat production are major factors related to the environmental crises facing the United States and much of the world today. (Many connections between animal-centered diets and current environmental threats are documented in many recent books. Especially valuable are Diet for a New America by John Robbins, Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin, and Vegetarian Sourcebook by Keith Akers.) Following are some of the consequences of meat-centered diets:

Because of many of the above factors, the animal products industry pollutes more water than all other industries combined! When we consider all these negatives environmental factors, and then add the very harmful effects related to human health and global hunger, we can argue that, next to the threat of nuclear war, flesh-centered diets and the livestock agriculture needed to sustain it are the greatest threats to global survival today. Also, while hopefully nuclear war will never occur, the negative effects of meat-based agriculture occur daily. Hence, in order to reduce the many ecological threats that increasingly threaten our nation and the world, it is essential that people move toward vegetarian diets.

F. What are the important Jewish teachings on conserving resources?

The Torah mandates that we are not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value. This prohibition, called bal tashchit ("thou shalt not destroy") is based on the following Torah statement:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shall not destroy (lo tashchit) the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knoweth that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down, that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall.
(Deut. 20:19-20)

This prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare was extended by the Jewish sages. It it forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished (Sefer Ha-Chinuch 530). The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: "Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit" (Kidushin 32a). In summary, bal tashchit prohibits the destruction, complete or incomplete, direct or indirect, of all objects of potential benefit to people.

The seriousness with which the rabbis considered the violation of bal tashchit is illustrated by the following talmudic statements:

The sage Rabbi Hanina attributed the early death of his son to the fact that the boy had chopped down a fig tree.
Baba Kamma 91b

Jews should be taught when very young that it is a sin to waste even small amounts of food.
B'rachot 52b

Rav Zutra taught: "One who covers an oil lamp or uncovers a naptha lamp transgresses the prohibition of bal tashchit"
Shabbat 67b

Each action mentioned would cause a faster (hence wasteful) consumption of the fuel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated that bal tashchit is the first and most general call of God: We are to "regard things as God's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!" (Horeb; Vol. 2, p. 282) He indicateds that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than is necessary to obtain one's aim. (Horeb; Vol. 2, p. 280) The following midrash is related to this concept:

Two men entered a shop. One ate coarse bread and vegetables, while the other ate fine bread, fat meat, and drank old wine. The one who ate fine food suffered harm, while the one who had coarse food escaped harm. Observe how simply animals live and how healthy they are as a result.
(Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:18)

G. What are the connections between meat-and dairy-centered diets and the wasteful use of resources?

(The facts below and many additional facts relating diet and the consumption of resources can be found in recent books, such as Diet for a New America by John Robbins, Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin, and Vegetarian Sourcebook by Keith Akers.)

As these facts indicate, meat-centered diets are extremely wasteful.

H. What Jewish response to the current world population crisis would be consistent with both Jewish survival and environmental threats related to rapid population growth?

There has been an explosion in world population recently, largely due to an increase in life expectancies related to improved standards of living and advances in sanitation and medical technology. While it took until about 1850 for the world's population to reach one billion people, currently human population grows by approximately a billion people every 10 years.

According to the Population Reference Bureau's 1994 World Population Data Sheet, world population in mid-1994 was 5.607 billion people. It is growing extremely rapidly and is projected to reach 7.022 billion by 2010 and 8.378 billion by 2025. While it took all of human history to reach its current population, at current rates of growth, world population is projected to double in only 43 years. There is currently a population increase of about 90 million people every year. At this rate, the world population increase every 3 years is greater than the entire present population of the United States!

Rapid population growth is related to many current global problems, including hunger, resource depletion, energy shortages, pollution, poverty, unemployment, and stagnating economies. Even without the expected continued sharp increase in population, an estimated 20 million people die annually due to hunger and its effects, 10 million infants each year die before their first birthday, and there are almost daily reports about environmental threats, such as depletion of the ozone layer, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, acid rain, soil depletion and erosion, and air and water pollution.

Many people believe that rapid population growth is the greatest problem that the world currently faces. They emphasize connections between population increases and hunger, resource depletion, pollution, and other current problems. A group, Zero Population Growth (ZPG), argues that only with a stabilized population will the world's people be able to have clean air and water, a decent place to live, a meaningful job, and a good education.

Before considering what a proper Jewish response to these issues might be, let us consider some relevant Jewish teachings:

The first commandment in the Bible indicates the duty of having children -- "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth,..." (Genesis 1:28) Later, this was repeated to Noah after the flood had destroyed most of humanity (Genesis 9.1).

There are many Talmudic statements that stress the importance of having children. For example, Rabbi Joseph said, "One who does not have children, it is as if he has diminished the Divine image, since it is said 'In the image of God made he man' (Genesis 1. 27) and this is immediately followed by 'Be fruitful and multiply'" (Genesis 1:28). The school of Shammai taught that the duty of procreation was fulfilled when one had two sons (since Moses had two sons), while the School of Hillel taught that one should have a boy and a girl, since we are to imitate God and the Bible states, "male and female created He them" (Genesis 1.27).

In spite of Judaism's strong emphasis on procreation, there are justifications in the Bible for the zero population growth philosophy:

There would thus seem to be some rationale for Jews to practice and advocate zero population growth. But, we should look more deeply into the problem. Are current crises due primarily to too many people or are there other, more important causes?

Perhaps what the world needs today is not ZPG, but ZPIG, zero population-impact growth. For it is not just the number of people that is important, but how much they produce, consume, and waste. Affluent nations have an impact on the environment very disproportionate to their populations. The United States, with less than 5% of the world`s population, uses a third of the world`s resources and causes almost half of its industrial pollution. It has been estimated that an average American has 50 times the impact of an average person in the poor countries, in terms of resources used and pollution caused. This means that the U. S. population of 256 million people has a negative effect on ecosystems equal to almost 13 billion Third World people, or well over twice the world`s population.

Most people connect current widespread hunger and resource scarcities in the world today to overpopulation. Yet, several studies have indicated that there is currently enough food in the world to feed all the world's people adequately, and the problem lies in waste and inequitable distribution. For example, in the U. S. over 70 percent of the grain goes to feed the 7 billion animals destined for slaughter each year, and two-thirds of our exports are used for animal feed, while at least a billion of the world's people lack enough food.

Poverty, injustice, and inequality also contribute to continued population growth. The poorer countries do not provide unemployment benefits, sick leave, or retirement pensions. Hence, children are depended upon as the only form of security in periods of unemployment, illness, and old age. They are also regarded as economic assets, since by the age of seven or eight, children are net contributors to their families -- fetching water and firewood from distant places, looking after younger children, cooking, cleaning, and hence freeing adults for other jobs. Furthermore, infant death rates are still relatively high in the underdeveloped world, so many children are desired to insure that some will survive to provide old-age security.

Because of these conditions, family planning programs by themselves, are ineffective in lowering birth rates. It is necessary to improve people's economic and social conditions, so that children are not desired to provide economic survival and old-age security. With an improved economic outlook, people start to limit their families, as has ocurred in the United States and in affluent countries in Europe. However, unless the world changes its present unjust and inequitable social, political, and economic conditions, the world's population will continue to grow rapidly, along with global hunger, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and violence.

In conclusion, Jews can play a major role in addressing issues related to the current population crisis. While reaffirming that every human life is sacred and every birth brings God's image anew into the world, we should support family planning programs consistent with people's cultures and religious beliefs. We should strive to make people aware that rapid population growth is more a result of global problems that their root cause. Finally, as we battle for the justice and more equitable sharing of the earth's abundant resources that are necessary to improve conditions for all the world's people, we should make others aware that this is also the most effective way to move the world to a more sustainable population path.

General References

Akers, Keith, A Vegetarian Sourcebook, Arlington, Virginia: Vegetarian Press, 1985.

Lappe, Frances Moore, Diet for a Small Planet, New York: Ballantine Books, (revised Edition), 1982.

Robbins, John, Diet for a New America, Walpole, New Hampshire: Stillpoint Publishing, 1987.

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