The Environmentalists' Bible

By: Samantha Hulkower

If you ask the average person on the street for the first book championing the idea of environmentalism (defined for our purposes as placing a value on maintaining a healthy environment for the benefit of all living things), most would probably come up empty-handed. Those who could think of something would probably say 'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson. A few others might mention Al Gore's power point-cum-feature film 'An Inconvenient Truth'. I'd wager almost no one would say the Torah. If we look beyond the rules of Kosher and Shabbat, we can find sources for ideas you'd expect to hear at a Greenpeace rally, not the Five Books of Moses. 

While there are numerous pesukim (sentences) in the Torah we could examine, there is one particularly well-known verse that is most cited when highlighting how 'green' the Torah really is. The last book of the Torah, Devarim, lists the rules for Jews going to war. Chapter 20, verses 19-20, require that Jews don't cut down fruit trees when entering enemy cities. It might seem like a stretch to make this the cornerstone of environmentalism, until you dig a little deeper. Common military practices, such as scorched earth where one army would burn everything around to reduce the resources of their opposition; or salting the earth, mentioned in the Book of Judges,  where the winning side salted the fields of the losers, preventing them from ever being able to grow anything and re-inhabiting the land. Such methods are incredibly destructive, most especially for the people living there, but also for the plants and animals in that ecosystem. To command an invading army to leave fruit trees standing - a potential source of food and weapons that could be used against them - is incredibly pragmatic. It's actually one of the 613 mitzvot identified by the Torah Scholar Maimonides as 'Bal Tashchit' - or 'don't be destructive/wasteful."

From the proscribed protection of trees, Rabbis have extrapolated a number of rules that fall under this category, which just happen to also be common refrains heard in the 'green movement' today. Maimonides summarizes Bal Tashchit as, "Take from nature what you need, but do not destroy it!"and lists other principles from this law, including not wasting food and not damaging sources of potable water. The Talmud discusses not killing animals unnecessarily (hunting is definitely not a Jewish sport).

It's not only Rabbis from 1,000 years ago, or more, that take the commandment to use the Earth's resources sustainably seriously. There is a famous story told from the late 1930s, of a conversation that occurred during a walk between the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Kook, and the equally holy, and famous, Rabbi Aryeh Levin. The two revered scholars were on a stroll in Jerusalem, when Reb Aryeh absentmindedly plucked a few leaves off a tree while they were passing by. Rav Kook incredulously asked his friend why he did such a thing.

"Did what?" Reb Aryeh asked innocently.

Rav Kook responded, "You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow. Every sprout and leaf of grass says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence, every creation utters its song!

Reb Aryeh said in his biography that this conversation left a lasting impression upon him. And the already thoughtful Rabbi became even more conscientious about his impact on his environment. 

So while the statement, "You shall work the land," found in Beresheet, the first book, tends to be thrown around pretty often to support the extraction of natural resources, rest assured that there is a constraint waiting at the end. We are allowed to, and supposed to, utilize the Earth and it's resources, but only to the extent that is necessary. Perhaps a less exercised refrain, but one that is gaining popularity across the Jewish world.

Samantha Hulkower is a very new Olah Chadash, living in Jerusalem. She enjoys trying to speak Hebrew, finding the humor in every situation (especially dating), and is looking forward to the day she can successfully argue b'Ivrit. You can also view her blog on environmental issues in Israel here.

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