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The Biblical Environmentalist

The Biblical Environmentalist


Lush green grass, tall trees and fresh streams framed our journey through G‑d's perfect nature. Sunlight filtered through the overhanging brush, creating patterns on a pine-needle carpet that was rich with activity and teeming with life.

Nature's beauty, unbridled and uncapped, radiated in pristine glory. Untouched by human hand and filled to overflow with insects, birds and wildlife, it was simply a paradise on earth. The animals knew it and we knew it too. We were frolicking in G‑d's own playground.

If only all of the world could be so preserved. If only our planet could become one large conservation. Alas, that cannot be. For humanity to survive we must disturb nature's delicate little petals. We cannot build homes without felling trees. We cannot farm land without turning over soil. We cannot eat without disturbing animal and vegetation.

The Contemporary Question

How much should be disturbed and how much should be preserved? That is the contemporary debate. Should we rob the environment to feed our appetites? Should we deplete our resources to serve unending and unnecessary needs? Should we uproot forests and supplant deserts to make space for suburban development?

The developer says, yes. Growing populations require housing even if it encroaches on the environment. Sprawling population centers require goods and services even if it encroaches on the environment. Despite the cost, humanity's needs must come first.

The environmentalist disagrees. "Leave G‑d's nature alone," he says. Revel in its pristine glory, enjoy its enchanting beauty and cherish its peaceful serenity. If we don't learn to protect and enjoy our environment today, it won't be here to serve us tomorrow.

Whichever way we turn we are forced to choose. For humanity to thrive, the environment must pay a price. For the environment to thrive, humanity must pay a price. In its final form the question is, does man belong to nature or does nature belong to man?

The religious answer is, neither. Both belong to G‑d.

A Hybrid Opinion

In his Monumental work, Horeb, Samson Raphael Hirsh argued that mankind is summoned by G‑d to govern his created earth and to fashion all things in our environment to our own purposes; the earth for habitation, plant and animal for food and clothing.

We are permitted to rule over the world for the six weekdays. On the seventh day, however, we are forbidden, at divine behest, to fashion anything into an instrument of human service. In this way we acknowledge that we have no ownership or authority over the world. Nothing may be dealt with as we please, for everything belongs to G‑d.1

Rabbi Hirsch drafts opposing arguments into his hybrid philosophy. The developer claims humanity's dominion over nature and Rabbi Hirsch grants that dominion. The environmentalist argues that we have no right of ownership over nature and Rabbi Hirsch grants that point as well.

Within these parameters mankind is entitled to inhabit the planet and to utilize its resources as necessary. However, unnecessary destruction of any kind, even picking a leaf from its branch without reason, is a crime against nature and forbidden by G‑d.2

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt, Germany, 1808-1888), Horeb, Soncino Press, New York/London/Jerusalem p. 62.
See also Likkutei Diburim, Vol. I, p. 168-170 (R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch 1880-1950).
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
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Victoria Garden City, Idaho February 12, 2011

respect I think this question falls in the category of respect for he who created this world. If we respect him we will use his creation in the way he planned. Out of respect we will also use only what we need. I do not have a lot of the modern conveniences because they are simply that. (conveniences) I try to weigh my needs with my wants when I purchase anything. Out of respect for G-d I try to do the least amount of damage while using the resources he gave me.This to me is the message he wants us to send.The real message of environmentalism. Reply

Mayim March 3, 2008

Thanks Rabbi Gurkow I think that when we choose 2 engage in meditation necessary 2 fulfill the 10th Commandment 2 overcome our desire then these issues will b irrelevant because we will not desire things anymore therefore we will not b tempted 2 take anything from the Earth because we won't have any desires at all. It is possible 2 b completely content without a single material object. I habitually go for days & weeks at a time in the middle of the woods with next 2 nothing but a sleeping bag. I haven't bought a single article of clothing, not even socks, in years. I thought I needed all of those clothes & gizmos because my society & the advertisers told me I needed all that stuff. But then I realized I would have 2 choose between living a truly pious life or working in unholy jobs for money so I choose 2 learn how 2 live without money & it has been the most rewarding, contenting & productive experience of my life. Thank u 4 your environmental consciousness & thank u for linking it 2 Judaism. Reply

Coby Segall July 13, 2006

Comment I wanted to add that the main issue is not whether to use the earth's resources or not to. Even the extreme environmentalists use the earth's resources but the way in which we do it is what is important. So if instead of using a paper or styrofoam cup for Shabbat we use regular kitchen plates we prevent more garbage from ending up in land fills.
And when we print on both sides of the paper we prevent more trees from being cut down.
So the key is how we use the earth and not whether we use it or not.
If we all take small steps to help the environment we could live here in harmony without destroying G-d's precious garden. Reply

Anonymous June 27, 2006

The rabbi's comments are right on. The real question is... details!

Perhaps some prominent rabbi could take on even a small peice of the large task of sifting through the ramifications of these ideas and principles. What about some practical talk from a rabbi about what a Jew or any person can and should do. Disposable paper and plastic ware?... Organic food?... Trash trash trash?... the list goes on.

What about destruction that occurs as a secondary or tertiary effect of one's actions. For example, the "destruction of the ozone layer". I know that the Rebbe spoke abou the merits of solar adn other alternative energy sources. But, it seems to me like in practice, chasidim are not talking, thinking, or doing anything about the big environmental issues.

I understand that our main avidah (work) is in the realm of hafotzas hamayanos (spreading the wellsprings of Torah). But, isn't this part of Torah as well? Isn't this issue at the very heart of our identity as humans? So... what do you think? Reply

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