Notes from the Marom Beit Midrash
Can Judaism Be Green?
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
[Accuracy of trancription is not guaranteed, particularly since the speaker spoke very fast and these notes required some reconstruction after the talk.]
R. Wittenberg started saying something about his take on the three-year drought here in London. As a gardener, he said, fear has become real him; he's never seen it so dry in early May so that the ground is cracked, and he's wondering for the first time whether it's worth planting anything at all. It brings to mind the Biblical descriptions of drought. Fear of drought runs deep through the Bible. Fasting was the Biblical response to drought.
This led into a brief discussion of what environmental measures people practise; but he said most people who try to do the obvious are tinkering at the edge of the issue.
At the New North London Synagogue's recent Green Fair, Mayer Hillman said, "When will you have the courage to tell your community that it's forbidden to travel to Israel?" "I can't do that," replied R. Wittenberg. "Then it's rubbish!" exclaimed Hillman.
R. Wittenberg isn't sure Hillman's pessimistic scenario (which he expounded with great conviction and urgency at the Green Fair, making me regret I had not brought luminiferous to take notes) is the case, but saving the environment is nevertheless a pressing issue.
Meta-halachic issues: The rôle of the human vis-a-vis the earth
In the early environmentalist period Judaeo-Christianism was blamed for being exploitative, due to the following verse:
Genesis 1:26 בראשית א כו God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. ויאמר אלהים נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו וירדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים ובבהמה ובכל הארץ ובכל הרמש הרמש על הארץ׃
The Hebrew ירדו is related to רוֹדָן, the word for "tyrant". What people infer from this is that when G-d made humans in the Divine Image, just as G-d has absolute power over humans, G-d is giving humans absolute power over the earth and the animals on it.
A second relevant text is the first commandment in the Torah:
Genesis 1:28 בראשית א כח God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־הָאָרֶץ׃
What are the Earth's resources there for? The viewpoint—closely associated with western capitalism—that draws on these sources answers: human consumption. Humanity is perceived as the pinnacle of Creation, which is there for Man's use. It's not there for beauty or spirituality or to be an integrated ecosystem; it is there only as a commodity within the limits of self-destruction, which we have now reached.
To hear this being attributed to Torah is, for R. Wittenberg, very disturbing.
The counter argument to this says understanding what Genesis means in this way is a travesty. You can't take these two verses out of context; you have to consider them in the context of the rest of the Torah. The attitude which permeates the Bible and rabbinic thinking is that the world belongs to G-d: "לי הארץ"; also Psalms 24:1 לה׳ הארץ ומלואה "The earth is the LORD's, and its fulness." We have no claim of permanent ownership of the Earth.
To claim that [this verse] provides "justification" for the exploitation of the environment, leading to the poisoning of the environment, the pollution of the atmosphere, the poisoning of the water, the spoliation of natural resources, is... a complete distortion of the truth. On the contrary, the Hebrew Bible and Jewish interpreters prohibit such exploitation. Judaism goes much further and insists that humans have an obligation not only to conserve the world of nature but to enhance it, because the human is the "co-partner with God in the work of creation."—Robert Gordis
One of the numerous things which remind us that the earth is G-d's in the Torah is the institution of the sabbatical year: every seventh year, you're not allowed to plough the land, and though you can eat such produce as comes up; you have to share it with strangers and animals.
The idea of the sabbatical year is not so you can get more out of the land; it's because the text (Leviticus 25:2–7) describes it as a sabbath to G-d. This is the light in which everything else has to be understood.
Norman Solomon famously said the relationship between mankind and the earth is not one of dominion but of stewardship.
We need to balance the verses in Genesis 1 with one in Gen. 2, describing why G-d put the man on the earth:
Genesis 2:15 בראשית ב טו The LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to preserve it. וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן־עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ׃
A שומר in halachic context is a guard with specific duties they are entrusted with. The steward is obliged to have the same concern as their boss; so what is G-d's concern is our concern. Far from giving man absolute power, G-d is saying you may exercise authority under my remit.
A Midrash to Kohelet reads:
Do not destroy my world, because there is no one who can come after you to put it right.
In other words, it's possible to enter upon an irreversible pattern of damage.
These two models represent two very different current feelings about the environment—as exemplified by, for example, George Bush, and the nations which signed up to the Kyoto Protocol.
Unfortunately, there isn't a strong perception amongst the charedim [ultra-Orthodox] that environmentalism is an issue—go to Stamford Hill, and you'll find all the recycling bins full, but those of the charedim empty. There aren't enough rabbis raising this as an issue.
Also, Judaism and western capitalism are regarded as being too closely connected. But this is a misconception of Judaism; core Jewish values are simply not money-related: תלמוד תורה [studying of Torah], חסד [lovingkindness], צדקה [practice of charity], הכנסת אורחים [hosting guests]. We've lost this vision. The Bundists had it, but their movement was lost with the Holocaust.
These are not sharp enough: the halacha doesn't provide us with a code of what to do in the name of stewardship of the Earth, in the same way that הלכות שבת tells us how to keep Shabbos, הלכות כשרות tells us how to keep kosher, and so forth.
(i) The protection of species
This is cryingly relevant, but it has to be inferred; it is not explicit in the halacha.
Norman Solomon cites Noah's Ark in this regard. Every kind of animal (מין) had to be represented. Every species is valuable before G-d. Therefore the diminishment of the number of species on Earth is a diminishment of G-d's earth.
A second source for this idea:
Deuteronomy 22:6–7 דברים כב ו–ז Should a bird's nest be before you in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether there be fledgelings within or eggs, and the mother bird sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother bird with the young. You must be sure to send the mother away, and take only the young, so that it go well with you, and you prolong your days. כי יקרא קן צפור לפניך בדרך בכל עץ או על הארץ אפרחים או ביצים והאם רבצת על האפרחים או על הביצים לא תקח האם על הבנים׃ שלח תשלח את האם ואת הבנים תקח לך למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים׃
There are various interpretations of this verse; one of them is explained by Nachmanides:
The reason is that we should not have a cruel heart and fail to show mercy. Or that the Bible won't allow the rooting out of a species, even though it allows killing within that species. Maimonides has written in the Guide for the Perplexed that the reason is... because animals suffer great anguish because of this and there is no difference between the anguise of humans and that of animals for their offspring.
This does not go far enough to protect species in our day, but the intention is there—it was conceivable to Nachmanides in the thirteenth century that a species could be wiped out—and he read from the Torah's words that biodiversity is important.
(ii) The issue of waste
Deuteronomy 20:18 דברים כא יח When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down—for is a tree of the field a man?—to employ them in the siege: Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down. כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור׃ רק עץ אשר תדע כי לא עץ מאכל הוא אתו תשחית וכרת
This was gradually widened from not destroying a fruit-tree to a widespread law against waste, known as בעל תשחית. Maimonides says anyone who smashes china or rips up garments is guilty of בעל תשחית. This needs application on a vastly wider scale in our society, which has become very consumerist.
In the days of the rabbi's parents, who were refugees, the idea of throwing something away because it is slightly broken, rather than repairing it, was unknown. We are a culture of unnecessary carelessness in our material goods. We need to reintroduce the concept before buying something of considering whether we actually need it.
Our culture has ingrained habits of the need for consumption. The rabbi cited the difficulty of his finding a cobble willing to repair a shoe of his that his dog had chewed rather than throwing it away and buying a new one. It was cheaper to buy a new one—but would result in much higher consumption of reources.
(iii) Animals and their welfare.
The principle here is clled צער בעלי חיים: Alleviating the suffering of animals. There are a number of customs in the Torah from this is derived; for example, in the grinding of corn, you are not allowed to muzzle the ox that drives your millstone around, as it would be cruel to the ox. Also, you can't yoke together an ox and an axe; and you are not allowed to overload a beast of burden.
This area of halacha is sufficiently alive and well that Israel has recently outlawed the production of pâté de foie gras, of which it had previously been a producer.
Nevertheless, this principle should be applied more widely: When we buy animal produce—both meat and dairy produce—we should not merely be concerned with whether it is kosher, but whether its production violates צער בעלי חיים.
The halacha here has teeth but they are not really sharp enough.
A brief discussion here ensued on שחיטה (shechita, Jewish ritual slaughter), and whether it was cruel to the animal or not. The rabbi said that done well, it is the most humane way of slaughtering—with the animal's windpipe and blood vessels severed with a sharp knife, it loses consciousness almost immediately*—but said it is not always done so as to ensure this. He then added the question that if we were to discover a means of slaughtering an animal which is far less painful than שחיטה, should the laws of Judaism not require us to investigate it?
* [Due to loss of pressure in the carotid artery confusing the carotid sinuses, which measure concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood, and adjust the blood supply to the brain accordingly.]
Action we can take
How do we root our action plan in the Judaic tradition? First of all, by implementing our belief that this is God's world, not ours. To take seriously the notion that we are but leasing the planet from God is to provide ourselves with specific behavioural guidelines... Harvest a tree? Not without planting another. Farm the land? Not without allowing it periodic rest and rejuvenation. See to it that any degradation of the environment is accompanied by an equivalent restoration. Evaluate land use on the basis of how it improves or degrades the environment.—David Swartz
The Tosefta (material from the Mishnaic period which was not part of the Mishna) to Bava Kama 10:2 says:
A farmer was clearing stones from his field and throwing them onto a public thoroughfare. A chasid [pious person] rebuked him, saying: "Worthless man! Why are you clearing stones from land which is not yours and depositing them on property which is yours?" The farmer scoffed at him for this strange reversal of the facts. In the course of time the farmer had to sell his field, and as he was walking along the public road, he fell on those same stones he had thoughtlessly deposited there. He then understood the truth of the chasid's words: the damage he had wrought in the public domain was ultimately damage to his own property and well-being.
The farmer only perceives his own rights and land; once the stones are off his land, they are gone to nowhere. This is the same attitude we tend to have to rubbish—we don't think of the landfill sites filling up once it is gone from our doorstep. The chasid, by contrast, sees the value to the public of the commons [my term, not the rabbi's—as in the tragedy of the commons].
This is very applicable to our private wants—e.g. going on holiday, etc—versus what the wider community needs. As a diaspora community, we all have relatives on three continents. Are we to rule that no one should go and see their dying mother in South Africa because flying is bad? Or what about sending our children to camps; or going to see the shtetl our ancestors came from? The difficult issue is how to budget our consumption.
We also need to lobby for injustice of air travel being so much cheaper than overland travel.
We have to introduce changes, now. This will be hard. As Jews we face particular dilemmas. We want to support Israel by going there; we have family accross the world we want to see. But we need to budget and reduce our air travel. We should try to do purely holiday travel by rail, certainly without flying. We must try to be one car families (or none) rather than two; we must cut our driving significantly. We should stop leaving lights, heating and computer on needlessly at home, work and Synagogue. We should use time switches for the fullest efficiency on Shabbat*. We must stop using disposable plastics which can't be recycled and throwing away foil. In short, we need to develop a "green halacha".—Jonathan Wittenberg
* Somebody raised the question of what about those who cannot install timeswitches. To my astonishment, the rabbi replied with the question [not his words—he was speaking too fast for me here]: Is it better to view the prohibition against fire on the Sabbath as enjoining you not to switch your lights off once you are done with them, or not to burn the electricity, and waste the resources and contribute to global warming, throughout? [This second choice has been my thinking for a while, but I was astonished to here it even suggested by a rabbi.]
More discussion followed; someone asked what's the point in doing our bit for environmentalism when the USA and China don't, and outweigh all the rest of us are doing? There's two arguments that can be given to this: Just because some people steal doesn't mean you should, or that it's ethical for you to. Secondly, you have no argument for trying to persuade people to do something you don't yourself.
An audience member point out that ISO-40001 on packaging means the company has an environmental managing system.
R. Wittenberg argues Al Gore is not a hypocrite for flying everywhere to argue the cause of environmentalism; pointing out that he can achieve more in raising people's consciousness and achieving results by doing so than by not doing so.
He said thing are really beginning to move forwards now as regards international recognition that something has to be done, and people doing it.
The final source, which I shall link to rather than quoting at length, is the New Scientist article Green Stuff: Your Top Ten Ways to take on Climate Change.
And finally, a thought of mine, which has nothing to do with R. Wittenberg or Judaism:
The world we lived in then was wide, and most of it was open to us, with little trouble. Roads, railways and shipping lines laced it, ready to carry one thousands of miles safely and in comfort. If we wanted to travel more swifly still, and could afford it, we travelled by aeroplane. [...] A world so tamed sounds utopian now. Nevertheless, it was so over five-sixths of the globe[...].
It must be difficult for young people who never knew it to envisage a world like that.
That's from The Day of the Triffids, set after a collapse the scale of which makes even Mayer Hillman looks like an optimist. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder whether it's a scenario that might come into actuality later this century, once the West Antarctic ice-cap has melted, writing off Bangladesh, the Netherlands and elsewhere, crops are failing across half the globe, and the presence of a fourth world of refugees battering at the gates of the First World has sufficed to make even the ostriches with their heads buried deepest in the sand legislate or tax jet travel out of easy affordability.
I hope it won't come to that... but I have insufficient faith in our leaders to be able to say with any conviction that it definitely won't.