From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (“bal tashchit”) its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you in the city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
It’s a tribute to the subversive creativity of Talmudic tradition that the Rabbis could take a text such as this – coming from a litany of Biblical laws concerning warfare – and transform it into Jewish tradition’s foundational environmental commandment.
Indeed, the sages of the Talmud would eventually apply the term bal tashchit (“do not destroy”) to apply to issues far transcending concern over fruit-bearing trees during wartime. The concept “bal tashchit” eventually became a Jewish legal term referring to the destruction of natural resources on a wide scale, ranging from the wanton killing of animals (Talmud Hullin 7b) to the wasting of fuel (Talmud Shabbat 67b).
Since the Jewish imperative to care for the environment is Biblically based, it might come as a surprise to learn that many in the environmental movement blame Biblical tradition for promoting the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources. I still remember well when Time Magazine promoted environmental concerns by choosing Earth as “Planet of the Year” in 1989. In its cover story, Time made the following pointed observation:
Humanity’s current predatory relationship with nature reflects a man-centered world view that has evolved over the ages. Almost every society has had its myths about the earth and its origins. The ancient Chinese depicted Chaos as an enormous egg whose parts separated into earth and sky, yin and yang. The Greeks believed Gaia, the earth, was created immediately after Chaos and gave birth to the gods. In many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. Nature — the soil, forest, sea — was endowed with divinity, and mortals were subordinate to it.
The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced a radically different concept. The earth was the creation of a monotheistic God, who, after shaping it, ordered its inhabitants, in the words of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, 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 moveth upon the earth.” The idea of dominion could be interpreted as an invitation to use nature as a convenience.
In fairness, it should be said that the key word phrase in the above is “could be interpreted as.” We might say it is not Biblical tradition per se, but rather a corrupt misinterpretation of the Bible (specifically the oft-quoted Genesis 1:28) we might blame for introducing this “radical new concept.”
If Genesis 1 teaches us anything at all, it is that creation is the sacred product of a divine process. In this context, God does not simply hand the earth over to humanity so that we may run roughshod over creation as we see fit. In this regard, the Torah’s use of the term “dominion” (“kivshuha“) clearly denotes mastery as responsibility, not exploitation.
This point is powerfully driven home by the interpretation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who commented on the Deuteronomy verse above by saying that humanity’s careless waste of God’s creation is nothing short of idolatry:
Yea, “Do not destroy anything” is the first and most general call of God… If you should now raise your hand to play a childish game, to indulge in senseless rage, wishing to destroy that which you should only use, wishing to exterminate that which you should only master, if you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving God Who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as the means of wise human activity – then God’s call proclaims to you, “Do not destroy anything!
Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then do you have the right over them which I have given you as a human. However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human but an animal and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me!” This is what God calls unto you, and with this call does God represent the greatest and the smallest against you and grants the smallest as also the greatest a right against your presumptuousness…
…In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that creation and its creatures are the property of God, who presumes also to have the right, having the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols – anger, pride, and above all, ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, 56:397-398)
As Rabbi Hirsh would have it, it is not Western religious tradition, but rather the idolatrous twisting of this tradition that has led humanity to its “current predatory relationship with nature.” If we do indeed “use nature as a convenience,” it is not the Torah, but rather own “anger, pride, and ego” upon which we must ultimately lay blame.