Ecological Concerns in Rabbinic Literature
The ancient rabbinic sages did not see degradation of the natural environment as a systemic problem: but we can learn from their legislation addressing the more local environmental issues of which they were aware.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Concern with the preservation of the planet [became] especially acute in the twentieth century. The proliferation of vast industries; the successful fight against disease, creating the danger of overpopulation; the use of nuclear energy; building activities on a scale unimagined in the past; the risk of global warming or the greenhouse effect, as it is called: all these factors contribute to anxiety about the ecological state of the world. The classical Jewish sources, coming from a time when the problem was hardly a serious one, cannot offer any kind of direct guidance.
The argument, on the basis of the verse: “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 creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28), that, from the beginning, Judaism was opposed to ecological concerns, is extremely faulty. When this verse was written, there was no problem of ecology. On the contrary, at that time, man’s problem was how to master the environment. This is quite apart from the fact that Jewish interpretations of the verse have never understood it to mean that man’s right and duty to conquer nature is unlimited.
Concern with the cultivation of a wholesome environment is evident in the older Jewish sources, although these do not deal with the problem on a global scale, requiring the cooperative efforts of many nations, but with the more limited problem of how city-dwellers are to come to terms with their environment and how the individual is to avoid wasting nature’s resources.
Waste disposal, for instance, was a major concern in rabbinic times. Care was to be taken, the rabbis [of classical and late antiquity] urged, that bits of broken glass should not be scattered on public land where they could cause injury. Saintly men, the [Babylonian] Talmud [=BT] (Bava Kama 30a) remarks, would bury their broken glassware deep down in their own fields. Other rubbish could be deposited on public land, but only during the winter months when, in any event, the roads were a morass of mud because of the rains. In the Mishnah (Bava Batra 2), rabbinic concern for a peaceful and clean environment was given expression in definite laws A dovecote must not be kept within 50 cubits of a town and no one may keep a dovecote on his own property, unless his land extends at least 50 cubits in every direction around it. The reason is to prevent the doves from consuming the seeds sown in the neighboring fields.