Protecting the Earth in Judaism

Ethics & social issues By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 13th Oct 2021

The Hebrew Bible opens with a magnificent poem to the wonder of creation over which human beings are given the prerogative of stewardship. We are granted the privilege of working the earth, but in a spirit of respect and reverence, with a concomitant responsibility to preserve all life dependent on it.

The rabbis expanded the Bible’s commandment not to destroy to include all forms of waste and wanton damage to the environment, warning that if we harm God’s earth there may be no one after us to put it right. On the contrary, we are required to do our utmost to ‘repair the world’ and seek the healing of humanity and nature in all our conduct.

Judaism teaches that every species matters; all life is interdependent, nothing exists in vain. We are responsible not only for other human beings but for the rich biodiversity of our planet. The daily prayers remind us that ‘the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’

Judaism requires us to teach our children God’s ways. This is futile if we fail to leave them a viable, sustainable planet. Therefore, we must demonstrate to them through our behaviour that we truly care for God’s world, entrusted to us today for the sake of generations to come.

Judaism is an activist religion, demanding engagement with the world and the courage to challenge wrong. The Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power unflinchingly. They understood the urgency of action; in the words of the sage Hillel, ‘If not now, when.’

The Holiness of Creation

It’s told that the Rebbe of Lubavitch was walking through the fields with his son, the ripe corn swaying in the wind. ‘Behold divinity,’ he said to him. ‘The movement of each stalk is known to God who sees to the end of all generations, and divine providence guides each and every one.’

They entered a forest. Absorbed in his father’s words, the son unthinkingly plucked a leaf from a branch and, unawares, pulled it apart.

His father chided him: ‘How can you behave so mindlessly towards God’s creation? You take a leaf, created for its unique purpose, tear it in pieces and scatter them all over the place! In what way is the ‘I’ of the leaf worse than the ‘I’ of you? True, the leaf belongs to the domain of vegetation, and you are part of the domain of humanity, and there’s a big difference between them. But each has its particular sacred purpose which it was created to fulfil…’

I don’t subscribe to all aspects of its theology, but I believe deeply in the message of this story. Creation is sacred; we are not entitled to ‘tear it up’, neither deliberately, nor heedlessly by paying too little attention to the ecological effects of what is done in the name of our economy or civilisation.

We are interdependent with all life. Respect for creation, reverence for life, and justice towards the dispossessed whose homelands have, or soon may, become uninhabitable due to climate change, require us to rethink our footprint over the earth.

We need to act personally and communally in small but significant ways, reconsidering what we consume, what we waste and how we heat our homes and travel. At the same time we should participate in local, national and international work to restore biodiversity, share the earth’s resources more fairly, minimise and, where necessary adapt to, climate change.

Far from impoverishing us, this can enrich our lives physically, mentally and spiritually. It will increase our respect and deepen our reverence for the privilege of life.

This is our urgent responsibility to future generations.

Click here to learn more about EcoShabbat on 5/6 November and EcoSynagogue.

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