Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tetze 5762/ August 17, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Tetze 5762/ August 17, 2002

The Eco-Ethics of the Torah

Dr. Yael Shemesh
Department of Bible

Towards the end of Parashat Shoftim, which is similar in language and content to Parashat Ki-Tetze, we find a proscription against chopping down fruit-bearing trees in time of war, when laying siege to an enemy city (Deut. 20:19). This ecological instruction strongly influenced post-biblical Jewish views on ecology, as we shall see below. In the last three decades great interest has been shown in ecology, especially the branch known as environmental ethics or eco-ethics, primarily due to the irreversible damage that human beings have been causing the earth. Motivated by short-term profit, people have been destroying the world in which they live, destroying rain forests, polluting the water and air, depleting natural resources, and bringing about global warming and the extinction of various species of animals and plants. This process of destruction has begun to accelerate relatively recently, since the industrial revolution in the 18th century. Hence it is amazing to discover the great interest in ecology shown by our ancient sources - the Bible and even more, the Oral Torah, the writings of the Sages.

A. Anthropocentric vs. Biocentric Ecology


Two opposing approaches can be identified among environmental activists regarding the question of man's place in the world: the anthropocentric approach, which revolves around human beings, as opposed to the biocentric approach, which revolves around nature. The anthropocentric approach views human beings as the CEO's of the world's resources, which must be managed wisely, sparingly, lovingly and responsibly, especially for man's own sake. Hence the term: stewardship. In contrast, the biocentric approach, termed "deep ecology," rejects placing human beings at the center, viewing them simply as another species of no greater importance than all the rest. Deep ecology emphasizes that the right of rivers, trees, pandas, etc., to exist does not stem from the benefit that they bring human beings but from the very fact of their existence.

B. The Two Approaches as Viewed in Judaism


When we ask ourselves what stand Judaism takes with respect to the place of human beings in the world, we are likely to answer that it matches the anthropocentric approach since, according to the story of Creation, only Man was created "in the image of G-d" (Gen. 1:27), and the task assigned him in the Garden of Eden was "to till it and tend it" (Gen. 2:15). Nevertheless, an instructive article by Fink shows that alongside the anthropocentric approach one can also find a biocentric approach in Judaism.[1]

A prime example of rejection of the anthropocentric approach can be found in the book of Job, which seems to scorn the presumptuousness of humans thinking themselves to be the center of the universe. The first response that G-d gives out of the tempest describes the miracles of Creation, which find expression inter alia in the fact that the Lord sends clouds and thunderstorms "to rain down on uninhabited land, on the wilderness where no man is, to saturate the desolate wasteland, and make the crop of grass sprout forth" (Job 38:26-27). The Lord's concern for places that are not settled by human beings is not consonant with a view of man as himself being the object of Creation. Further on G-d describes all sorts of animals over which He extends His providence. What they all have in common is that they bring no benefit to human beings: the wild ass or the wild ox (39:5-12), and the behemoth and leviathan, described in G-d's second speech (40:15-32). It is clearly stated and emphasized that all of them are animals that man cannot subdue and domesticate to serve his purposes. In other words, they have a reason of existence of their own, bearing no relationship to human beings. How different this picture from the views so deeply rooted in us regarding our place in the universe!

Fink illustrates the tension between the two ecological schools by citing the gemara, Tractate Sanhedrin (38a), which discusses the question why Man was made at the end of Creation. According to one opinion, it was "so that he can enter the banquet immediately. It is like a king of flesh and blood who builds a hall, decorates it, prepares a banquet, and then lets in his guests." In other words, Man is the pinnacle of Creation, the guest of honor in the Lord's world, a world created for the pleasure and use of the human race.

Alongside this view, however, we also find the opposite view: "Should he become haughty, He would say to him: the mosquito was created before you." Fink sums up by saying that the tension between faith in our ability to influence Creation (stewardship) and recognition of our own insignificance (deep ecology) - tension which finds expression in classical Jewish sources - creates a balance between the call to action and the need to maintain a measure of humility.[2]

C. The call to action - Biblical commandments with an ecological purpose


There are several commandments in the Bible that can be ascribed an ecological purpose, either central or incidental to the commandment, aside from the prohibition against chopping down fruit trees. For example, one of the reasons given by Maimonides for the commandment to let the land lie fallow in the seventh year (Lev. 25:1-5) is, "So that the yield of the land improve from not having been planted,"[3] in other words, the land will renew its strength and be improved from the temporary rest given it.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gave an interesting ecological explanation for the commandment to rest on the seventh day. The Sabbath has didactic importance, according to him. After six days of activity, during which human beings act as "stewards of the universe," using the land, plants and animals to satisfy their wishes, comes the Sabbath, a day designed to remind us that the things surrounding us do not belong to us, rather, to the Lord. Therefore, "Every Sabbath return to the Lord His universe, acknowledge the Lord your G-d, and constantly remind yourself that this universe is borrowed from the Lord... Remember who is its Master, that this borrowed universe belongs to the Lord, and that He, not you, rules all."[4]
Parashat Ki-Tetze as well contains several commandments with an ecological purpose or at least ecological ramifications:



D. Ecological-Halakhic aspects as developed in the literature of the Sages


The prohibition against chopping down goodly trees. The biblical prohibition against chopping down fruit-bearing trees is widely discussed and considerably further developed in the writings of the Sages. In the gemara it says that one who chops down goodly trees "never sees blessing in this world" (Pesahim 50b); that was Rabbi Haninah's explanation of his son's untimely death, a punishment for his having chopped down a fig-tree before its time (Bava Kama 91b). Those who chop down goodly trees are included in the list of those in whose wake people are "stricken by curses" (Tosefta Sukkah [Lieberman ed.], 2.5). According to the midrash, Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 33 (M. Higger ed., [1948], p. 202), "When a tree that produces fruit is chopped down, the sound resounds around the world but is not heard."

"Lest you destroy." The Sages extended the biblical proscription against destroying fruit trees, developing it into a broad ecological principle of "bal tashkhit" ("lest you destroy"), forbidding destruction of anything that is useful or beneficial to mankind. Maimonides summarized the idea as follows: "[This applies] Not only to trees; also anyone who breaks vessels, rips clothing, demolishes a building, blocks a spring, or wastes food by spoiling it transgresses the injunction not to destroy, and is sentenced to none other than lashes by rabbinic proscription" (Hilkhot Melakhim 6.10).

Removing industries that cause pollution. The Sages were very attentive to keeping industries that cause pollution away from inhabited areas in order to minimize the harm to people. For example, the Mishnah instructs that threshing floors be far from the city because of the chaff (Bava Batra 2.8), and that the leather industry, which causes pollution, be distanced at least fifty cubits from the city (Bava Batra 2.9). The Tosefta cites Rabbi Nathan's instruction: "Kilns [lime kilns for firing pottery] are to be removed fifty cubits from the city" (Tosefta Bava Batra [Lieberman ed.], 1.10).[6]

Prohibiting Water Pollution. The Sages also had something to say about maintaining water sources fresh and clean, as we see in the following instruction: "When dens are made to serve the public for washing the face, hands and feet, if a person's hands and feet are soiled with mire or feces, it is forbidden [to wash there]. In a well or pit, no matter what it is forbidden" (Tosefta Bava Metzia [Lieberman ed.], 11.31).[7]

E. Poetry and Belles Lettres on Nature - from the Bible to Rav Kook

The beauty of nature works magic on human beings, expanding the heart. Esthetic enjoyment of G-d's world is often accompanied by a religious experience. For example, contemplating Creation brought the author of Psalms to a recognition of the Lord's might and wisdom: "How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations" (Ps. 104:24). According to Pirkei Shira[8] all of Creation, including all the plants and animals, sings the praises of the Creator.[9]
This idea was eloquently expressed by Rabbi Nahman of Bratislav: "Know that every single shepherd has a unique tune according to the grass growing in the place where he pastures his sheep. For every single animal has a special grass that it needs to eat ... and according to the grasses and the place where he pastures, so too he has a tune. For every blade of grass has a song that it sings, which is like a passage of poetry. And from the song of the blades of grass, the tune of the shepherd is composed." He recommended praying in nature, "among the blades of grass and trees," because, "when a person prays and discourses in the field, then the blades of grass and shrubs of the field all come into his prayer, helping him and giving him strength in his prayer and discourse."
Rav Kook believed that when people make their lives fit in with nature then they can restore the sense of natural bliss, fine attributes and the experience of spiritual elation that they lost because of having grown apart from nature.[10]

He himself was extremely assiduous about not destroying the works of the Creator unnecessarily. In his memoirs Rabbi Arye Levin recounts how he learned compassion from Rav Kook, one day when accompanying him to meditate in the field:

On the way I picked a plant or flower. The Rabbi was shocked, and said to me quietly, "Believe me, that all my life I have taken care not to idly pick any grass or flower that could grow and flourish, because there is not a blade of grass in the lower realms without a correspondence in the upper realms that tells it: Grow! Every blade of grass says something, every stone whispers some secret, every creations sings some song." These words, emanating from a pure and holy heart, became deeply engrained in my being, and since then I have begun to have more compassion for everything.[11]

Rav Kook's admiration for every blade of grass or flower, for every animal and person, stemmed from their all being creatures of G-d and as such being important and having a place in the world that He created. This approach calls to mind the eloquent words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:[12]

The earth does not belong to you, rather you are given to it. You must respect it as holy ground and view every creature as a creation of G-d and brother to you, loving it and helping it fulfill its destiny according to the Lord's design. Therefore, every creature should be reflected in your soul, therefore your heart should resonate with every cry of distress and with every shout of glee in the world; therefore your heart should rejoice when buds appear in the land and mourn over every flower that wilts ... They have all been given you on loan, and they all will appear some day before the throne of the Lord to testify either for you or against you, if you ignored them or used them, whether for blessing or for curse.

Let me conclude with the edifying remarks of the Midrash on the consequences of destroying the world, and its warning which is so relevant to our lives today:

"Consider G-d's doing! Who can straighten what He has twisted?" (Eccle. 7:13). When G-d created Adam he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: Behold how fine and excellent are all the things that I have made! And all that I created, I created for your sake. Take care not to spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it there shall be no one to come after you and repair it. (Eccl. Rabbah [Vilna ed.], 7.1[13])


[1] Dan Fink, "Between Dust and Divinity: Maimonides and Jewish Environmental Ethics", in Ecology and the Jewish Spirit, ed. by Ellen Bernstein, Woodstock 1998, pp. 230-239.
[2] Fink, pp. 237-239.
[3] Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, ch. 39.
[4] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Sefer Horev - Ra'ayonot al Hovot Yisrael ba-Golah, New York 1953, Pirkei ha-Edut, par. A - The Sabbath (pp. 69-70).
[5] Likewise, Abarbanel's interpretation of this verse.
[6] For further reading see Nahum Rakover, Eikhut ha-Sevivah - Heibetim Ra'ayoniyim u-Mishpatiyim be-Mekorot ha-Yehudiyim, Jerusalem 1993, Ch. 4: "Zihum he-Avir" [Air Pollution], pp. 65-71; Eikhut ha-Sevivah, Ch. 2: "Zihum Avir - Nizkei Ashan ve-Re'ah" [Air Pollution - Hazards of Smoke and Fumes], pp. 37-63; Barry Freundel, "Judaism's Environmental Laws," in Ecology and the Jewish Spirit, pp. 214-224.
[7] For further elaboration, see Rakover, loc. sit., Ch. 5: "Zihum ha-Mayim" [Water Pollution], pp. 73-76.
[8] Pirkei Shira - hem Shirot Beru'ei Maalah u-Matah, ed. by Hannaniah of Monzilesi and Gamliel ben Hananiah of Mantua, 1681. Written between the fifth and seventh century, C.E.
[9] For example: The song of the snake - "The Lord supports all who stumble, and makes all who are bent stand straight" (Ps. 145:14); the song of the mouse - "I extol you, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me" (Ps. 30:2); and in apposition, the song of the cat - "I pursued my enemies and overtook them" (Ps. 18:38).
[10] Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook, Ein Ayah - Berakhot, Vol. 2, Jerusalem 1990, p. 297.
[11] Simhah Raz, Ish Tzadik Haya - Masekhet Hayyav shel Rabbi Aryeh Levin, Jerusalem 1973, p. 74.
[12] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Igrot Tzafun - 19 Mikhtavim al ha-Yahudut, Bnei Brak 1967, Fourth Letter, pp. 46-48.