Environmentalism is not necessarily Paganism

In The Way Into Judaism and the Environment, Jeremy Benstein, associate director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, explores traditional Jewish thought regarding humanity’s stewardship of the natural world.

Much of prevalent contemporary Judaism is the heir to Western European Enlightenment and philosophical rationalism, and so we have learned to ignore the peshat, the clear straightforward contextual understanding of these many texts, that Jews from the Bible onward have believed that nature is alive and deeply spiritual. We must acknowledge that if we reject the sentience of nature, we are not rejecting paganism for the sake of Jewish belief; rather, we are rejecting some deeply rooted Jewish values in the name of a hyper-rationalist scientific world view.

Investigators looking for support for environmentalism in the classic texts often cite isolated examples, such as the prohibitions against cruelty to animals, the requirement to preserve fruit trees in times of war, the prohibitions against wasting resources or giving birth in times of famine or other hardship. We turn to ancient documents for guidance in a technological age. How can we apply these core concepts to contemporary environmental issues? While we can’t manage the planet the way God can manage it (or if you prefer, the way it has managed to manage itself without our help for the duration) our impact – due to sheer numbers if nothing else – requires us to become involved in shaping environmental policy. Benstein suggests guiding principles may be extrapolated from the rules on agriculture as well as torts and damages. Who owns the world? Who is responsible for protecting it from harm? Private property is transient, but common property is timeless and should be preserved for future generations. Both waste induced by excess, and deprivation so deep that long-term effects can’t be considered, lead to environmental degradation.

In the past two hundred years the human population has increased from about half a billion to roughly ten billion. We were fruitful and multiplied. How can we reduce unsustainable levels of consumption and limit our impact? Benstein discusses water rights, eco-kashrut, food production, personal health, social justice, and the trend toward urbanization, all in light of Jewish law. While in the pre-industrial age we sought protection from the wilderness, we now seek protection from over-urbanization, sprawl, pollution, noise, and consumerism. The inner work of spiritual practice – knowing when we have enough – is a critical first step for realigning our priorities.

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