Protecting Biodiversity: A Covenant With Every Living Thing

The importance of protecting biodiversity both for our survival and for our appreciation of God's presence in the world and the order of creation.

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Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: "Everything that God created in the world has a purpose. Even things that a person may consider to be unnecessary have their place in creation." (Bereshit Rabbah 10:8). We are witnessing and helping produce the most rapid decline of species diversity in the history of the earth, and yet we barely understand the place in creation of most of the world's species, including those that have been lost to us through extinction. Researchers have recently discovered that the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar produces two alkaloids that cure most victims of two of the deadliest cancers: Hodgkin's disease and acute lymphocytic leukemia. How many sources of healing have been lost to us forever through environmental neglect?

Reinforcing this midrashic awareness of the versatility of species, Judaism contains a legal proscription against wanton destruction of property and natural resources, known by its command form bal tashchit, "do not destroy." This prohibition reflects the belief that human beings are temporary tenants on God's earth (Leviticus 25:23), charged to till it for their needs, but also to tend it, that it may be saved for future generations. (Genesis 2:15)

The Torah sounds the theme of conservation in this week's reading as well, through its description of the careful preservation of every species on earth in Noah's ark, both the "clean" and the "unclean." After the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah's descendants and with "every living thing on earth" never again to destroy the world. (Genesis 9:8-10) Do we dare allow ourselves to proceed with that which God has foresworn?

Preserving biodiversity is an issue of planetary survival, but it is also--as we have seen--a theological issue. Nature's stunning variety often invokes feelings of deep fascination and awe, attitudes closely associates with religious experience. Maintaining our capacity to appreciate such feelings--our capacity for wonder--may enable us to enlarge our sense of God's presence in the world and to enhance our appreciation for the sidrei bereshit--the orders of creation. Conversely, by allowing creation to be diminished, we invariably diminish ourselves as well.

To find out more about the sources and scope of the crisis of biodiversity, as well as some possible solutions, I recommend these books: Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Rain Forest In Your Kitchen (Island Press, 1992).

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Rabbi David Rosenn

Rabbi David Rosenn is the Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.