Rabbi Kenneth B. Fradkin, Jewish Center of Sussex County, Newton, NJ
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, President, Toward Tradition
Rabbi Clifford E. Librach, Temple Sinai of Sharon, MA
Dr. David Patterson, Bornblum Chair in Judaic Studies, University of Memphis
Rabbi Garry Perras, Beth Shalom Congregation, Jacksonville, FL
Young children often develop irrational fears of the world and find themselves haunted at night by a phantom menace until maturity–or a creative adult–successfully wipes away the tears. There’s a story of a father who would regularly be awakened by his son’s recurring nightmare, which was provoked by the boy’s daily encounters with an overly affectionate dog. Several nights a week the man would rush into his son’s room to calm a wild-eyed little boy with a racing pulse. There, the father would sit upon his son’s bed while the boy pointed out half a dozen dogs sitting on the carpet waiting to munch on his toes. The young boy would sit in his father’s arms trembling, while his father futilely explained to him that there was no pack of dogs at all. After several weeks of interrupted nights had reduced the man to a mere shadow of his usual robust self, he knew something drastic needed to be done.
The next night when he awoke to his son’s scream of terror, the man strolled calmly into his son’s room and began rounding up the dogs. It took him no more than half a minute or so of arm waving and hissing to chase the six canines out of the room. The man was rewarded with a sleepy smile and a “Thank you, Daddy,” as he staggered back to bed. After two more nights of being chased out of the room, the dogs never returned. In the son’s somnolent state, those dogs were a real problem. Trying to persuade him that the dogs did not exist merely frustrated the boy. He felt stuck with a handicapped parent who foolishly responded to dangerous dogs with mere words. The boy’s father had to enter his son’s frame of reference and see the dogs in order to get rid of them, and ease his son.
What we have come to refer to as the environmental issue also possesses two distinct frameworks of reality. According to one of these views, there is no imminent peril that threatens to destroy us, just as there were really no dogs attacking the boy who lay safely in his bed. According to the other view, however, the problem is real, terrifying, and seemingly intractable. According to this view, the world’s original condition of natural perfection is being irreparably jeopardized by human activity. Currently, with many persuaded of imminent peril, the panic is spreading, and a portion of the population is horrified by “nocturnal dogs” that come in the form of “threats to the environment.”
This is not to say that there is no environmental problem. We are not dealing with an unhappy child and imaginary dogs. It is to say, however, that the real problem may have more to do with beliefs and convictions than with objective and quantifiable peril. This in no way simplifies the problem. Just as in the case with the small child, it is usually necessary to enter the framework in which the problem exists before one can effectively attempt a solution. In the bright light of sunrise, that little boy laughed at the nighttime intruders. At the time of the crisis, however, help came only from someone within the framework of his reality. If someone really believes the dogs are there, the problem is not the dogs but the belief.
If we believe and are convinced that no more important value exists, for example, than prolonging life span, we would be justified in prohibiting all activities that could abbreviate national life span averages. But as humans, we have always demonstrated that we are often motivated by other conflicting values. Soldiers often perform heroic acts that shorten their own lives. Many individuals choose to smoke, skydive, or climb mountains because of what these activities contribute to their lives, and they do so in full knowledge of the possibility that they may be shortening their lives. Environmentalism, especially in its more radical and virulent forms, frequently places the preservation of nature in the forefront of moral consciousness, above and beyond other values with which it may well be in conflict. In so doing, any calculation of relative benefits may be censured. We might also be making facts irrelevant to judgment.
People seldom argue passionately over facts. We tend to dismiss as foolish people those who argue over facts that are either known or easily discoverable. People might well debate which is the most beautiful mountain in the world, but now that technology permits us to take accurate measurements, they will never debate which is the highest. The purpose of the Torah, according to traditional Judaism, is to help us establish the correct beliefs with their profound ramifications, rather than to impart mere facts. Well-established scientific methods, on the other hand, provide the legitimate venue for resolving matters of fact.
Thus, the real environmental problem may well be the very belief that there exists a terrifying problem rather than any problem in itself. At the very least, it is a problem that is enormously exacerbated by certain beliefs that can stand in the way of a genuine commitment to stewardship of all God’s creation.
We shall examine further in this essay the modern phenomenon known as environmentalism; we will look at the Torah’s understanding of the “middle path” and how it relates to morality and human population; next, we will review the Jewish understanding of the right relationship between the human person and nature, especially as this relates to work and the creative spirit; and, finally, we will close with a discussion of the Torah’s view of property, pollution, and the law.
I. Human Population and Achieving the Middle Path
Every year governments and prominent industrialists dedicate enormous sums of money to population reduction programs conducted by a variety of agencies ranging from Planned Parenthood to the United Nations Population Fund (unfpa). After all, the argument goes, it is obvious that there must exist some maximum number of people who can survive on “spaceship earth.” We may not yet know what that number is, but that does not mean it does not exist. There must be some world population figure beyond which people will no longer have adequate food or enough resources to survive. And even if this turns out to be untrue, there surely must be some figure above which there simply will no longer be space for additional people to live. Granted, this number would be quite large, but as long as we concede that the annual growth in world population takes us inexorably closer, why not start doing something about it right away?
So what if all of America’s population could comfortably live in the small part of California between Los Angeles and the Mexican border? All this means is that doom is not imminent in America. Clearly, in the far more crowded conditions of Africa or Asia, the argument continues, responsible leadership should demand immediate action. Not only is the welfare of entire nations threatened by unrestrained population growth, but so is the living standard of families within those nations. Too many children impose economic hardship on families who are discouraged from using “family planning” techniques by ignorance or religious taboo. These families require larger homes, use more water and heating resources, and shrink available “green space” within cities.
The argument appears formidable, and indeed it is. It is neither effective nor true merely to insist that people always find a timely and appropriate solution to their problems. Sometimes we do, but occasionally we do not. Against Thomas Malthus’s stern warnings of two hundred years ago, we did find answers. New machines that made fabric plentifully and inexpensively could clothe those whom Malthus anticipated would be cold. Agricultural advances made food available for those whom he predicted would starve. For some problems, we never did find an answer. Some of the costliest wars of the twentieth century, for example, could have been avoided had we found a timely solution.
The Torah stresses a golden mean in problem solving. The great transmitter of Torah thought, Moses Maimonides, discusses how to achieve this “middle path,” as he calls it, in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. Visualize the two extremes, he advises, and then seek the geometric midpoint. For instance, neither extreme sternness nor excessive indulgence is desirable as a full-time guide to life. The excessively stern person could never raise a child without injuring him or her physically, whereas the intensely indulgent person could never raise a child without injuring him or her spiritually. This person would never be capable of exerting discipline or administering the occasionally necessary punishment. However, the parents who guide themselves down the middle path will be able to reach into themselves for the reserves of both stern discipline as well as soft compassion, as the situation demands.
Similarly, there are two extremes of human behavior, neither of which serves well. One extreme occurs when we totally ignore the future while living hedonistically and indulgently for the present. Parents feel pangs of pain while watching a growing child live self-indulgently with no thought for the future. The alternative extreme is that we can suffer through a present of complete self-deprivation in order to save for the future. Many of us have known people who survived the Great Depression of the twentieth century. These persons frequently lived the rest of their lives in depression-like circumstances, even though they possessed financial reserves that made the self-deprivation unnecessary. The challenge facing the person wishing to live the good life is to find a more balanced approach. One of Judaism’s great gifts to its adherents is a “manufacturer’s guide” to how the human person can best attain this middle path. The Torah provides a roadmap to achieving balance–being neither a miser nor a spendthrift, being neither a libertine nor an ascetic. The middle path enables one to live each day to its maximum joy potential while also conserving resources for an unknown future.
The Torah’s response to the population panic is consistent, teaching us first to identify the two extremes. One extreme is to invite government to impose draconian regulations and arduous restrictions upon us. This view insists that no sacrifice today is too great in the attempt to diminish tomorrow’s threat, no matter that the precise nature and time frame of the threat remain unknown. The opposite view, in the words of Nobel Laureate Jan Tinbergen, maintains,
Two things are unlimited: the number of generations we should feel responsible for, and our inventiveness. The first provides us with a challenge: to feed and provide for not only the present, but all future generations, from the Earth’s finite flow of natural resources. The second, our inventiveness, may create ideas and policies that will contribute to meeting that challenge.
So we see that one extreme is to regard no sacrifice today as too much to impose upon ourselves to protect all future generations until the end of time. Had earlier generations followed this perverted logic, they might well have restricted the use of whale oil. One can imagine the decrees emanating from zealous eighteenth-century environmental activists, banning the use of oil lamps past nine o’clock at night to ensure that sufficient whale oil would remain to light the homes of the twenty-first century. In so doing, what they may well have effected is limiting the educational possibilities of the early scientists who studied and experimented late into the night to discover petroleum and its many uses.
The paradox revealed by the Torah is that far from solving any problem, following either extreme actually aggravates the underlying situation. This is one of the reasons that Judaism insists on a child being raised by both a man and a woman wedded into one. A healthy child needs to be raised with both the discipline and firmness that is the natural characteristic of the male as well as with the gentleness that comes so easily to the female. Guided only by the paramount principle of indulgence or by its counterpart, cruelty, raising a child will, in both cases, yield a monster. Only the balanced middle path offers any hope of raising a well-rounded person.
Similarly, we can either ignore the growth of the human population or we can impose limits on it. If we simply ignore the problem–insisting that there is no problem–we make the same mistake made by the father when telling his son that there were no wild dogs in his room. At best, ignoring population growth does no more than persuade the population-panic enthusiasts that we are blind. At worst, it may really blind us to what may turn out to be a valid concern. On the other hand, imposing oppressive regulations of either the criminal or the tax-policy variety or promoting an ethic designed to limit families to one or two children, for instance, will also aggravate the problem in a manner already conspicuous in India, Korea, and many other parts of Asia. One unintended consequence of the population policies that have already been in force in these countries for several decades is a severe imbalance in the sex ratio. Planners are already discussing the grim picture presented by the soon-to-arrive specter of several million Asian men unable to find wives.
Thus, whether we choose one extreme or the other, we will worsen the situation we are hoping to resolve. Is there a Torah approach to the so-called “population bomb”? Naturally, the proper approach is the balanced middle path. We should not ignore the problem, but neither should we precipitate chaos today in a foolhardy attempt to ward off a distant threat, one whose outlines are still dim and vague. What is this mysterious middle path? To discover it, we need to review our fundamental beliefs about whether a human being really is a consumer or a creator. If man is merely a consumer, then, obviously, the fewer, the better. If, however, man is a creator, then, equally obviously, the more, the merrier. And the answer is not “both.” That would settle nothing. What we are asking is whether humans create more than they consume or consume more than they create. The Torah answers its own question: Humans can be either consumers or creators. This is quite a different answer from saying “both.”
The Torah-true answer is that we can raise children to be either consumers or creators. If we raise them as if they were young animals, they will grow into animals–basically consumers who are able to work like horses, but never with the capacity to truly create. In order to achieve that ability in our children, we have to raise them in the image of the ultimate Creator. That means imparting to them a sense of limits, an awareness of what is right and what is wrong. Only animals have finite needs. Humans, touched as they are by the finger of the Infinite Divine, have infinite wants. Children have to be taught that every want will demand a choice and a sacrifice, and that each of us must responsibly steward what we have been given and what we have earned. Children deserve to know that while we relate to and sympathize with their feelings, we do not expect them to follow those feelings unthinkingly. We expect them to follow their head, not their heart. They should grow into the realization that the world is not necessarily a fair place, but that it does have rules. Knowing those rules is better than whining about fairness. Finally, they should know that life judges us by our performance, not our intentions. Children raised to live by these and other similarly true and enduring principles, are a pleasure to be around.
How exactly does raising the right kind of people help to solve the problem of too many people? The Talmud relates that during the pilgrimage festivals, the Jerusalem Temple was so crowded that people barely had room to stand. However, during the period of the service that called for worshippers to prostrate themselves upon their knees on the floor, there was mysteriously sufficient room. This is, indeed, a mysterious account since everyone knows that people on their knees require more floor space than people standing erect. During the part of the service when people were on their knees, conditions should have been more, not less, crowded than when the people were standing. The traditional explanation is that standing erect is a metaphor for a condition of arrogant self-absorption. Prostration is a metaphor for humility and awareness of others. Finally, the Temple itself is depicted in the Torah as an almost mathematical model of the world. It is not hard to grasp the truth of this message: If a population consists of humble people constantly aware of one another, it never feels crowded. However, if a population finds itself surrounded by even a few arrogant and self-centered individuals, conditions feel overcrowded. Overpopulation is not a question of numbers or objectively measurable figures such as people per square mile. Instead, it is a question of whether people feel oppressed by the overwhelming presence of others. This has more to do with standards of civility and behavior than with actual population numbers. Most of us would feel less pressured and more comfortable on the crowded streets of Hong Kong or Tokyo than we would on a lonely urban alley in New York City. What we really have is not a population problem, but a perception of a population problem–a problem that results not simply from too many people, but from too many people arrogantly and thoughtlessly impressing their presence upon others. Rather than reducing the number of people, we need to reduce the incidence of selfish behavior that oppresses others and to increase the amount of creative behavior that meets others’ needs.
This may seem an inadequately poetic prescription for a pressing and prosaic problem, but it is really all we have. To seek one extreme, by doing nothing and merely watching as selfish and coarse children are born and raised to crowd a culture, is foolish. Naturally, we will all come to feel that there are too many people. We have to do something. However, seeking the opposite extreme of encouraging fewer people while ignoring the behavior of those people is equally foolish. It should be noted that this is true as long as the threat of overpopulation is vague and distant. All that is left for us to do is to focus on inculcating into our culture those values that would diminish the perception of overcrowding and also increase the contribution made by each member. This would not only reduce the clamor for population control but would also make for much more tranquility and considerably more prosperity for all of us.
II. The Right Relationships Among God, Man, and Nature
In the prevailing climate of the environmental debate, it is necessary to state categorically at the outset that the Torah unhesitatingly prohibits cruelty to animals. This is not because animals also have rights; it is because only human beings have obligations. In the Torah’s depiction of moral reality, nobody has rights–only obligations. Naturally, if everybody discharges their obligations, we all end up enjoying those things we vainly attempted to obtain by claiming them as our rights.
The animal rights movement can best be understood by viewing it as an attempt to undo the opening chapters of the biblical Book of Genesis. The Torah and its accompanying oral transmissions insist that Genesis describes more the beliefs underlying Creation than its facts. This is to say that the Bible’s central premise is that humans and animals are qualitatively different, a contention violently opposed by the animal rights movement. After all, a woman wearing a fur coat is offensive only if she is nothing more than an animal as well–a very intelligent and well-evolved animal to be sure, but an animal nonetheless. And wearing one’s cousin’s skin over your shoulder is simply barbaric. Animal rights advocates insist that we are all animals, and no animal should have any special, species-specific rights that all other animals do not also enjoy.
The Bible teaches that the human person is the apex of God’s creation and that all creation is there for the human person to develop and use as a responsible steward. The principle at work here is, of course, precisely the same biblical principle that prohibits self-maiming, destroying a rented apartment, or even having an abortion. This is to say that tenants do not have the same rights as owners. We, as humans, do not own the world, our bodies, or the habitations we rent. Thus, we may improve them but not destroy them. According to the Torah, not only do women not have the right to do with their bodies as they wish, but neither do men. Our bodies are given to us by a gracious and generous God so that we may occupy them for a certain period of time. During that time they are to be treated with the same deference that a tenant should employ in caring for his rented premises. Similarly, we humans are granted use of the world and all it contains. We may hunt animals for food or clothing, build homes out of the wood we cut from trees, and mine the earth to extract the minerals it holds. However, we may not wantonly destroy anything at all.
Some of the areas in which animal rights activists have sought to infringe upon the rights of their fellow humans include efforts to curtail important, life-saving medical research; outlaw clothing made from animals; ban circuses; and damage the fur, meat, and poultry industries, sometimes through violence and intimidation. It is important to understand that they have taken these actions, not as the result of measurable data, but as the consequence of their own belief system. There exist two separate and utterly incompatible belief systems regarding animals. One of these doctrines stems from the belief that God created the world and all it contains, and, when done, created man as his deputy to further his work. The other doctrine stems from the belief that by a lengthy and unaided materialistic process, primitive protoplasm evolved into Bach and Beethoven.
According to the latter view, the human person is nothing more than a sophisticated animal. To devotees of this secularist faith, animal rights should indeed become the sacrament of secularism. There is no way to satisfy adequately both sides of the animal rights debate. By their very name, activists betray their agenda. By aggressive evangelism, they intend to promote and advocate the belief that no qualitative difference exists between humans and animals. Needless to say, by encouraging the oppressive human behavior mentioned above, this belief adds fuel to those who promote the population panic.
It is chiefly because of the absence of any prevailing moral counter-force that animal rights activists manage so easily to infuse their faith into the general culture. The Torah depicts the entire account of the serpent enticing Adam and Eve as a tug-of-war between man’s divine nature and his animalistic inclinations. Classical Judaism recognizes a sort of spiritual gravity that inclines humans to view themselves as animals. As animals, we would have few, if any, moral obligations; we would be free to act in accordance with whatever we believe are our instincts; and we could follow our hearts instead of our heads.
As the poet John Milton describes so faithfully in Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve do succumb to their animalistic inclinations, but finally atone and recover their place as God’s special children, created in his image and charged with the task of improving the world by populating it and conquering nature. The Hebrew for conquering, koveish, clearly distinguishes between annihilating and conquering. The former is a verb for utterly destroying one’s enemy. The latter refers to leaving one’s enemy’s resources and abilities intact, or even enhancing them, but redirecting them for one’s own end. That is what we are told to do with the resources of the natural world. We may not destroy, but we may use them in every possible beneficial manner. Animals are part of the natural world, and their purpose is strictly in the context of human life. One reason that sacrificial rites played such a vital role in the daily services of the Jerusalem Temple was to drive home the point to the ancient Israelites that killing animals in the service of God, and for the purpose of his people, was morally permissible.
A religious Jew may choose to restrict his diet to vegetables during the week, but come Saturday and most holidays, he is to eat some meat as a religious obligation. The reason for this is that God created a world of hierarchy. Minerals are consumed by a higher life form, namely plants. Animals survive by consuming plants, while the highest life form of all, humans, eat animals. It is interesting to note that those animals permissible to Jews as food are animals that eat only plants. In other words, those animals that violate the hierarchical order, such as wolves and bears, may not be eaten by Jews. Now, for a Jew to attempt to improve on God’s definition of morality by refraining from eating any meat on moral grounds is another way of announcing that one is nothing more than an animal oneself. Animals are supposed to eat only plant life. Thus, a Jew who eats only vegetables is announcing himself to be a very good animal. Once each week, God demands of his people that they leave the moral refuge of vegetarianism. We are then forced to confront the reality that an animal died to provide our meal. That places an obligation upon us to be worthy of the sacrifice. Now, for an animal to die for no reason other than to provide meat for another animal is less than ideal. Thus, the plundering animal is regarded as non-kosher, or not fully worthy of being eaten by Jews. However, the Jew who eats meat on a regular basis knows that he must conduct himself in a manner that makes his food’s sacrifice morally justified. He is obligated to be a human, not merely another animal.
While always prohibiting cruelty or wanton destruction, Judaism abhors the entire notion of animal rights since it violates the very foundation of biblical belief in God’s sovereignty and God’s role as ultimate arbiter of moral right. Judaism and secularism are fundamentally incompatible, and the doctrine of animal rights is a doctrine of secularism.
III. The Spiritual Nature of Human Work
The religious Jew has much appreciation for the beauty of nature. We are filled with gratitude for these natural treats to our senses that are also natural resources vital to the human race. In fact, a collection of benedictions is part of every religious child’s early-learned faith arsenal. From the earliest age, Jewish children smilingly utter the benediction for a rainbow upon seeing this arc in the heavens. When seeing a beautiful tree, the ocean, hearing thunder, and for many other manifestations of God’s world, we say a fervent “thank you.”
But factories and skyscrapers also reflect Jewish values. A factory speaks of the human yearning to emulate God’s power to create. A city speaks of humans living together in peace and harmony as instructed by their Father in heaven. For this reason, the Temple was to be constructed in the heart of Judaism’s quintessential city, Jerusalem, rather than in a remote corner of unspoiled countryside. While forests and swamps are certainly recognized to be part of God’s creation, merely leaving them in their original and pristine condition is ignoring God’s directive to harness the forces of nature for the benefit of the human race. We are to leave our imprint upon the world in a way that improves what we found. The metaphor is the gracious landlord who allows rent-free tenancy in a not yet fully completed home, asking only that its tenants constantly work to improve its condition. Leaving it as we found it is poor repayment for the generosity.
The general hostility toward industrial development that is often evidenced by environmental activists is frequently rooted in a pantheistic opposition to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and is as old as the Tower of Babel. Judaism takes note of how industrial development tends toward the spiritual and away from the merely material. In our own times, this is quite clear as we see development lead societies past the manufacture of steel and large machinery to the creation of data and knowledge. One hundred years ago, Americans were building ships and railway locomotives. Today, that work is often being done by more recently emerging economies, while we have marched on to produce products whose value per unit of weight vastly exceeds anything that was produced by our old heavy-industry economy. Judaism views this as a movement toward human recognition of the primacy of the spiritual over the material. It is no coincidence that this tendency for society to move toward the spiritual also brings along with it less disruption of nature. Instead of imposing barriers to industrialization upon the developing world, we would be better served to assist developing nations in moving through this early phase of growth. In this fashion, each part of the world can make its own decisions and judgments about how it will balance its own needs. There are parts of the world–and will probably always be parts of the world–where immediate access to food and shelter trumps all other concerns. Those of us in the developed world may not want a rubber-tire factory next door. However, if we lived near Cairo and presently were neighbors to the world’s biggest garbage dump, which is populated by ghostly skeletons rummaging through the filth to find food for another day’s existence, we may welcome the arrival of a tire plant to displace the garbage dump. Judaism has great faith in the ability of ordinary human beings to make their own decisions and to find ways to overcome tragic circumstances.
This faith comes from another religious conviction not shared by many environmentalists. Again, if we are nothing but sophisticated animals, it is only right that important decisions should be made for us by an elite group of people playing the roles of zookeeper or farmer. In this view of reality, we are not capable of determining for ourselves just how much prosperity we are willing to sacrifice to halt development. Since nature is the ultimate good, our zookeepers will determine that no burden is too heavy for us to shoulder in service to our god of nature. Judaism insists that we are exalted creatures built in the image of our Creator and equipped with almost godlike powers to create. Thus, Judaism opposes attempts to deprive humans from making their own personal choices; we each have the freedom and the responsibility to order our own behavior toward God’s law. Naturally, Judaism also does not protect us from our own poor choices. Part of moral growth is living with the consequences of bad decisions. Part of Judaism’s preoccupation with an oral transmission is the ongoing accumulation of experience that validates the Torah’s laws.
The basic Jewish principle of balance and middle path also conflicts with the contemporary environmental doctrine that preserving each spotted owl and each kangaroo rat is more important than any costs borne by humans and any sacrifices made by people. Judaism would never countenance loggers suffering the indignity of joblessness in order not to disturb the nesting habitat of the owl. When homes for people become dramatically overpriced because of the regulatory costs of providing for the habitat of the kangaroo rat, Jewish tradition also must object. People need not justify their needs or desires to nature. They are warned only against destroying things for no good purpose.
The view being presented here is occasionally made less palatable by the admittedly immoral practices of some of the participants in our economy. When a large and powerful corporation inflicts measurable damage upon its neighbors, for example, and then takes refuge in legal tactics, a wellspring of local frustration understandably bubbles up. Morality cannot allow people to evade responsibility by hiding behind the corporate veil. The corporation is nothing more than a vehicle for human cooperation. By surrounding a disparate group of people with a culture, an ethos, and an entire system, the corporation allows individuals who otherwise might have to be subsistence farmers to cooperate with one another in a larger and more lucrative enterprise. This cooperation allows for the provision of goods or services to their neighbors in such a manner as to allow them all to derive desirable income from the venture. Nonetheless, a corporation possesses no right to inflict upon its neighbors damage that its employees, managers, or shareholders would be prohibited from inflicting individually.
We see, therefore, that Judaism views development as people following their Creator’s mandate to be fruitful, to multiply, and to conquer the earth. Instead of maintaining a sentimental and false image of nature, we religious Jews understand that nature is harsh and unforgiving. We understand that since the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the struggle imposed upon us by God is to extract a living from an often reluctant earth. We must do so without laying claim to the benefits of another’s labor and without recourse to dishonesty or theft. Our task is, in essence, to subdue nature and redirect it for holy purposes. Even the traditional Jewish practice of circumcision speaks to this godly mandate. The world I gave you is not perfect, says the Almighty. Even your own bodies await your finishing touch. Even more so, we are told, the entire earth awaits your finishing touch. Your labor is welcome, and its results are pleasing to me, says the Lord. For this reason, Judaism is prouder of man’s skyscrapers than of God’s swamps, and prouder of man’s factories than of God’s forests.
IV. Pollution, Property, and the Law
There is little question that Judaism and its comprehensive legal system consider pollution to be a serious offense. Numerous examples of how one citizen can harm another by various forms of pollution are cited in the Talmud. However, these examples are always civil cases brought by one individual seeking damages against another. Conspicuously missing is the notion of government initiating action against citizens. One explanation for this is the Torah’s strong enthusiasm for private and relatively free transactions between individuals. In Judaism, ecclesiastical authority is also civil authority. Thus, in an ultimate sense, our “central government” is God and the moral law. The Jewish king is instructed to write his own copy of the Torah personally, meticulously copying it from the official texts. He is further instructed to always carry it with him to indicate that he, too, is subservient to its rules and laws. The prototypical Jewish model of a king is King David, whose closeness to God resulted in his writing the Book of Psalms. He also worked closely with the high priest and the Sanhedrin, a supreme court made up of seventy-two rabbis. This model of a religious scholar-king is hardly the picture of a strongly centralized government.
There is thus great dependency upon the local court of law known as the Beth Din, or house of law. One enormous benefit derived from retaining a strong local flavor to law is that there is far less likelihood of cases arising in which an individual is charged with harming all of nature, all of the world, or all of the air and water. Cases brought before the Beth Din must be brought by the individual being harmed. Certain problems are simply too large for mere mortals to solve and are regarded as being God’s problems; we turn to him in perfect faith to solve them. It would be considered an act of spiritual arrogance to usurp responsibility for problems of a cosmic scale. Is this the same as doing absolutely nothing about real pollution problems? No, not at all. By far, the majority of real pollution problems do indeed have local parties as litigants, and they are subject to local solutions and are addressed in Jewish law.
Jewish thought traditionally views these problems through the lens of religious faith. There is no certain way to answer the question of what will be the end of the human story. However, the question clearly has only two possible answers: either oblivion or deliverance. Perhaps we are all ultimately doomed by carbon monoxide, global warming, a rising tide of disposable diapers, melting polar ice caps, ultra-violet radiation penetrating a hole in the ozone layer, a rogue meteorite, nuclear winter, some combination of all the above, or some entirely new and unknown threat. The details are not important, but the conclusion is. One way or another, humanity is doomed. The only alternative is that through some grand program of divine redemption, all of humanity will be delivered into a new and better tomorrow.
There is no way to predict which will ultimately come to pass. We can, however, solve those problems that affect some real individual persons here and now. Is someone being harmed by the polluted rainwater run-off from his neighbor’s industrial enterprise? Is someone’s property value being adversely impacted by bad smells or noxious fumes (air pollution) emanating from his neighbor’s activities? Is a landowner along a river bank polluting the water, thus harming those downstream? All these are examples of legitimate pollution problems addressed by Torah law.
There is, however, little Torah justification for exploiting human fears about the future to expand the role of government. Judaism would clearly resist the notion that we must tackle those problems that are too big for any human to solve by making a government big enough to try to solve them. Consider the prophetic warnings about the dreadful consequences of appointing a king. Absolutely no Torah precedent or theological justification exists for government imposing restrictions upon individuals for the benefit of “nature” or “the environment.” Not only is this not an explicitly Jewish religious imperative, but the exercise of government authority for possibly dubious ends represents a clear rejection of traditional Judaism, which has always stood rock-solid against allying itself with the changing fads and fascinations of the moment. Orthodox Judaism criticizes those who attempt to keep Judaism up-to-date by importing the doctrines and movements of secularism. A few generations ago, Russian rabbis castigated those well-intentioned Jews who established Jewish communist groups with the goal of retaining the involvement of young people in Judaism. Today, similar misguided efforts establish Jewish branches of feminism, homosexuality, and radical environmentalism for the purpose of “keeping Judaism relevant.” The core of Judaism has always been relevant precisely because of its commitment to unchanging values and its indifference to the philosophical fads of the day. According to Maimonides, the eleventh-century Jewish sage, “It is clear and explicit in the Torah that it is God’s commandment, remaining forever without change, addition, or diminishment, that we are commanded to fulfill all the Torah’s directives forever.” Thus, large-scale fears such as the threat of world annihilation are best responded to by the Jew with faith that God will solve them. Meanwhile, we should each concern ourselves with acting in accordance with the covenantal rules. We may not damage our neighbor’s property, but neither does our neighbor have the right to interfere with our activities of fishing, hunting, manufacture, mining, or agriculture, if these activities do not directly harm him or his property.
Judaism also resists the government taking control over more and more of a society because of its commitment to people owning property rather than a society owning property. One of the very few exceptions to this rule was the Jerusalem Temple that was, of course, owned by no individual Jew. Otherwise, much religious emphasis is placed upon people owning property, and much care is exercised to protect people from threats to that ownership.
It should be understood that the Jewish emphasis on private property is a religious manifestation of a people’s relationship with their God and the moral law. Along with so many other aspects of Jewish life, this one also is intended to affirm the Genesis account of Creation, whose central thesis is that we humans are qualitatively different from animals. No animal owns property. To be sure, many animals exhibit a territorial imperative. For instance, lions and elephants both mark their territories to let others know they claim dominance over that area. However, this is not ownership. Lions do not object to elephants in their territory, and they depend on deer ignoring those border markings. If all animals respected lions’ “ownership” of an area and kept out, lunch with the lions would be an unusual event.
The Book of Genesis, however, details the mechanism by which humans can own land. Abraham’s purchase of a burial site for Sarah is presented in such detail precisely to familiarize Abraham’s descendants with the methodology by which humans can own land. This methodology turned out to be a startlingly novel concept, not only to Ephron and the men of Chet, but also to far more recent nations and races that knew nothing of land ownership by people. Yet Judaism is clear that God’s plan for humanity calls for people to own land. This is partially on account of God’s desire for us to recognize ourselves to be different creatures from animals, and partially on account of God’s desire that we live among one another and interact with one another. Economic interaction and its attendant rewards of wealth are part of God’s plan to ensure that the children of God do constantly interact with one another for mutual benefit. Land ownership helps to ensure this dynamic.
It is worthwhile to note that God promises Israel very specific benefits to following the covenant, and these promises are very much benefits of this world. God ensures rain in its time, bountiful crops, happy homes, well-behaved children, and wealth–wealth like that which the faithful Job lost and then recovered. God safely makes these promises, as it were, because the covenant is more than mere ritual. It is far more than prayer and good deeds. Major parts of the covenant are focused on how to organize human society and its economic interactions. There are far more rules about human economic interaction in the Bible than about all the prayer and the dietary rules combined. These rules promote human interaction, mutual dependency, and wealth creation. Besides prohibiting each and every one of us from destroying things purposelessly, these rules further God’s plans for humanity.
Conclusion: Theocentrism or Secularism?
Perhaps the most fundamental question that shapes almost every facet of the environmental debate is how humans arrived on this planet. There are clearly only two possible answers to this question. Either a benevolent and loving God created us in his image and placed us here, or, alternatively, we are here as a result of an interminably long process of unaided materialistic evolution that converted primitive protoplasm into each of us. Needless to say, the approach that claims that God used evolution to place us here merely attempts an answer to the question. Of course God could have used evolution. That is not the issue. The issue is only whether we were put here by a creator, or whether we arrived here by a random and unaided materialistic process.
If it is the former, then the Creator’s views and wishes as expressed in his instruction manual on life, the Torah, need to be taken into account as we organize ourselves. If it is the latter, then there is no Creator and no instruction manual, and we are free–no, obliged–to follow our own best instincts. And the harrowing aspect of all this is that it cannot be settled in time to determine the best course of action. We have no recourse but to believe one way or the other. This is only a matter of belief, not facts. If it were a matter of fact, there would likely be no believers either in God or in materialistic evolution left, just as there are no true believers in the flat-earth theory or in old theories about heat being an extruded liquid. Facts tend to sort themselves out. Beliefs can be debated forever. Yet most of the genuinely meaningful decisions we make in life depend on beliefs, not facts. When people get married, it is with the belief that they are acting wisely and that they will live happily ever after. They act on the basis of belief rather than on the basis of any real and reliable facts.
Similarly, most of us lack the ability to determine, beyond any doubt, the facts concerning human arrival on this planet. Rather, we tend to intuitively recognize the subtle social consequences of either belief, and we then adopt the one that offers our souls the least dissonance. Those of us comfortable with the implications of divine rules and laws feel comfortable with God having put us here. Those of us committed to a life with no externally imposed rules and laws feel more comfortable with a belief that rules out a Creator. Not surprisingly, all our presumptions about environmentalism fall into place according to this simple schematic.
If there is no God, then indeed there is nobody to take care of future generations–nobody to care for cosmic threats to earth, nobody to solve the really big problems that will possibly face the distant future. It then becomes not only wise but also noble and moral to make that selfless worry for the future our own concern. If there is no God, then we humans are no better than any animal, and we only practice an evil form of “speciesism” by eating, using, being entertained by, or riding on animals. If there is no God, then any human conceit that we may change the face of the planet in a way that no animal would dream of doing, is just that–a conceit.
If, on the other hand, there is a God, then everything changes. If there is a God who has created us, then each and every human person has infinite value, and none can be sacrificed for the sake of nature or some abstract cause. It is God’s definition of morality that we must follow. Recognizing that life is indescribably complex, Judaism disdains moral governance by aphorism. A Jewish judge is not someone who has exhibited compassion, intelligence, or popularity. Instead, an appointed arbiter of communal morals is someone who has been sufficiently familiarized with God’s view of the extended order of human cooperation that we call society. This person would have done this by mastering not only the several hundred chapters of the Five Books of Moses, but also the thousands of pages of the Talmud and the thousands of responsa, which constitute the establishment of legal precedent during two millennia of Jewish jurisprudence. Spurning spurious simplicity, Jewish law even lacks a term for nature. While the Hebrew word teva does mean nature, it is not a word that can be found in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The omission is particularly noticeable in the first few chapters of Genesis, wherein God does not create nature. Instead, God creates each element separately. God creates mineral, vegetable, and animal, with all the subspecies and variations within that category. Traditional teaching insists that this understanding of Creation is to discourage worship of nature.
It is not possible to have it both ways. We must choose between two incompatible beliefs. One is the God-centered or theocentric view of reality to which each and every Jew is surely obliged to cling. The other, environmentalism, particularly in its more radical and virulent forms, is fundamentalist secularism. Those of us who consider ourselves persons of faith allow the environmental movement to set the terms of the debate at our own peril. The question is not how we should tackle and ultimately solve the problems about which environmentalists warn us. The question is how we should cope with more and more of our fellow citizens adopting a faith that inspires its believers to act in ways that sacrifice the multitude of human values to an environmental cause.
Clearly, to begin with, we need to demonstrate that we see the dogs in the dark room. We need to familiarize ourselves with the spurious science that produces terrifying scenarios on demand. But, in the final analysis, the child will be cured only when he no longer sees imaginary dogs, and when he walks confidently with his own dog at his side. The problem is not threats to the environment; it is really the threats to our souls. And as in countless earlier instances of history, imprudent beliefs can cause well-intentioned people to do terrible things.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth B. Fradkin, Director, Jewish Center of Sussex County, Newton, New Jersey
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, President, Toward Tradition
Rabbi Clifford E. Librach, Temple Sinai, Sharon, Massachusetts
Dr. David Patterson, Bornblum Chair in Judaic Studies, University of Memphis
Rabbi Garry Perras, Beth Shalom Congregation, Jacksonville, Florida