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Ecology and Spirituality in Jewish Tradition

Ecology and Spirituality in Jewish Tradition

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Ecology is a highly practical branch of science. Nothing could be more “down to earth” than preservation of the planet. Yet there is a facet of ecological awareness that is often overlooked. This is its spiritual dimension. When we act as self-absorbed individuals, with little regard for anyone or anything that exists outside ourselves, we immediately fall into moral and spiritual error. As the Yiddish saying goes, “A blind horse heads straight for the pit!”

Thus, countless laws in the Torah adjure us to open our eyes and act responsibly and compassionately toward the world around us. Among other ecological mandates, it promulgates the laws of bal tashchit (neither to destroy wantonly, nor waste resources unnecessarily); the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees surrounding an enemy city in wartime; the laws of covering excrement, and removing debris from public places; and so forth. In doing so, the Torah indicates that although we may feel at odds with nature, having to struggle to survive, in truth the world comprises a potentially harmonious whole, in which each element is precious.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865–1935), Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel and a leading 20th-century thinker, expresses this idea compellingly: “If you are amazed at how it is possible to speak, hear, smell, touch, see, understand and feel—tell your soul that all living things collectively confer upon you the fullness of your experience. Not the least speck of existence is superfluous; everything is needed, and everything serves its purpose. ‘You’ are present within everything that is beneath you, and your being is bound up with all that transcends you.”1

A spiritually attuned person will recognize that every creature is essentially bound up with every other creature, and that we share a collective destiny. Thus, our most fundamental attitude should be one of compassion, not acquisitiveness or aggression. This ethic applies toward all levels of creation. As master Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero of Safed (“RaMaK,” 1522–1570) adjures: “One’s compassion should extend to all creatures, and one should neither despise nor destroy them; for the Supernal Wisdom [i.e., the divine wisdom that brings all existence into being] extends to all of creation—the “silent” or mineral level, plants, animals and humans. This is why our sages have warned us against treating food disrespectfully. Just as the Supernal Wisdom despises nothing, since everything is produced there—as it is written, ‘You have formed them all with wisdom’ (Psalms 104:24)—a person should show compassion to all of the works of the Holy One, blessed be He.”2

RaMaK’s words bespeak a G‑d-centered view of the universe, as opposed to one that is man-centered or nature-centered. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, founder of Chassidism, 1698–1760), we must seek the welfare of all precisely because we are equally G‑d’s works, created to perform His will.

“Do not consider yourself superior to anyone else,” the founder of Chassidism states. “In truth, you are no different than any other creature, since all things were brought into being to serve G‑d. Just as G‑d bestows consciousness upon you, He bestows consciousness upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability; and man, too, is compared to a worm, as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If G‑d had not given you a human intellect, you would be able to serve Him only like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself, the worm and all creatures as friends in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are G‑d-given.” 3

This kinship of all creation and shared mission of serving G‑d, each creature in its own way, is often compared to a cosmic song. As we recite during the Sabbath prayers, “The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name . . . All hearts shall revere You, and every innermost part shall sing to Your Name.” Indeed, when the Talmud describes the mysteries of the maaseh merkavah (“workings of the [divine] chariot,” i.e., the mystical experience), it associates this prophetic wisdom with song. The sages relate how Rabbi Elazar ben Arach demonstrated his preparedness to engage in the study of these mysteries before his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, at which point the trees of the field were encompassed by heavenly fire and broke into song, echoing the verses of Psalm 148: “Praise G‑d from the Earth, sea giants and all watery depths . . . mountains and hills, fruitful trees and all cedars . . . Praise G‑d!”4

If we listen closely, this song still may be heard. Rabbi Aryeh Levin (the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” 1885–1969) told how he once was walking in the fields with his mentor, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. In the course of their Torah discussion, Rabbi Levin picked a flower. At this, Rav Kook remarked, “All my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. 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 says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence—every creation sings its song.” 5

“These words of our great master,” Rabbi Levin concluded, “spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that day on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.”

So may it be for us who hear this story today and contemplate its perennial truth.

FOOTNOTES
1. Orot ha-Kodesh, p. 361.
2. Tomer Devorah, ch. 2.
3. Tzavaat ha-Rivash 12.
4. Talmud, Chagigah 14a.
5. Based on Simcha Raz, A Tzaddik in Our Time, pp. 108–109.
This article is excerpted from A Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment, published by Canfei Nesharim in spring 5765. For more information on Canfei Nesharim and halachic perspectives on protecting the environment, visit canfeinesharim.org.
Painting by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.
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Discussion (11)
January 16, 2014
The silence is deafening.....
No body i have seen so far has the courage to tackle the Chassidic and Jewish view on Global warming. I personally do not believe the drastic doom and gloom unless we spend billions to reduce co2 but why have no or few Jewsih leaders written about it ? if anyone knows who have please post links...Thanks
Eliyahu
Canada
March 25, 2012
hebrew
i like your Ecology and Spirituality in Jewish Tradition and i will
Thank you for a beautiful commentary that truly says it all. I think to write about love in this way, about all creation, about all creatures within, is to sing the poetry of being.

For me, too, the celebration of all things, great and small, animate and inanimate, is to hear the singing in the rock, the singing of wave and wind. All nature, of which we are part, takes up the chant, this melody and it's a song that is prayerful being about prays and praise.
fahmeed
new york, usa
January 24, 2011
Shamir
the Shamir worm that carves the stones of the temple Blessed is He who created the Tongs of the avot on the first day that pick up the coals from the altar. Could this be the shamir worm to rebuild the stones with men uttering the divine name as the coal "worms" itself through the stone.

Mishpat 10 says that Issachar dwells in Shamir. Is this a correlation? Or do they dwell in the original quarry?
Alyshja Brogan
Granby, CO USA
January 16, 2011
our mandate
I do believe our mandate is to work hard to preserve the beauty of this planet, to work hard for conservation efforts of all kinds, and to be active, as Jews, as part of a greater effort on the part of all, on behalf of all of us, to do what we can. I find there are often too few articles about this and wonder why.

The other day I opened the OELD,Oxford
English Language Dictionary, choosing a volume, at "random" out of twenty, opened it and pointed to whatever word came up. The word was, environmentalist. I think God is in the wings, and I do deeply believe the message is very clear.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
January 14, 2011
Should Jews be Vegetarians...
While it is certainly understandable that one may find meat distasteful, it is acceptable for Jews to consume ritually slaughtered kosher meat. It is our belief that the act of blessing and eating animals (or anything else kosher, for that matter) elevates that which we eat and enables us to serve our Creator with energy and enthusiasm. Traditionally, meat was reserved for special occasions, and perhaps we really should consume less. I suggest that rather than demonizing the consumption of animals, we should focus on the Torah obligation of caring for animals while they are still alive - "tzaar baalei chayim." Ideas such as free-range, hormone-free, and organic have taken hold in the kosher community, especially with Empire and other kosher suppliers of meat. I personally try to avoid veal, as the treatment of these young animals is usually reprehensible. Let us remember what the Torah instructs us, and not necessarily what the environmentalists are saying this particular month.
Jonathan Cofino
Hollywood, FL
January 25, 2010
this singing earth
Thank you for a beautiful commentary that truly says it all. I think to write about love in this way, about all creation, about all creatures within, is to sing the poetry of being.

For me, too, the celebration of all things, great and small, animate and inanimate, is to hear the singing in the rock, the singing of wave and wind. All nature, of which we are part, takes up the chant, this melody and it's a song that is prayerful being about prays and praise.

Once we see this unity, once we are on our knees contemplating this unity, we want to keep writing, keep singing, doing art, preserving and protecting, succoring and supporting, because we know, deeply, that this is what we are here to do, and it's in so doing, in doing what we are gifted, this expression of love, that brings us to the song, of which we are, in singing, song itself.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, MA
February 5, 2009
Shouldn't Jews be Vegetarian?
Vegetarians love life! It's also best for our health, long life, and conservation. Carbon dioxide pollution from animal wastes, and land used to feed animals can be changed by "Jewish heads!"
Mel Kimmel
Miami Beach, FL
chabadonwheels.com
March 2, 2008
Thankj you R. Sears
I always told men not to buy me flowers because I did not want them to hurt & kill the flowers (thank you 4 your comment Anonymous, London, UK)

R. Sears - I have 2 of your books & I just found this article. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. It is only because of authors like you, that I feel any hope 4 Judaism. When I read books by Orthodox authors who perpetuate vegetarianism, compassion for humanity & environmental awareness then I feel that I want to be Jewish. Without people like you I think I would have cut my connection with Judaism years ago, which would have been sad, because Judaism has so much good underneath. U r what Judaism is supposed to be. Jews r supposed to be compassionate towards animals & human beings, not to exploit them.
Mayim
January 20, 2008
Sharing.
I have many pets, and they are adopted, as if they are my children. One is sick, Adela, and I cry out to God for her. I pour salt into her tank for her. I gather plants for my aquariums; plant grass for my kitties; grow algae for Adela.

For my household, I plant three plants, and for God I plant a tree. -no rocks intended-
Anonymous
Sandwich, MA
January 26, 2005
Ecology and Spirituality in Jewish Religion
As a child, I was always bemused that my grandfather Rav Baruch Azulay (1908 - 1983) never bought flowers for my grandmother, until he explained one day that to give someone a bunch of flowers means that the flowers have to be cut, which is not fair to the flowers. His explanation made me smile, but it was not until I read this story that I understand how profoundly he meant it - he was a student of Rav Kook, whose signature appears on my grandfather's smicha certificate that hangs in my house.
Anonymous
London, UK
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