What’s Jewish about protecting the environment?


Earth Day officially falls on April 22 this year, but for many Jews this event is not a once-a-year commemoration — it’s a constant fulfillment of a biblical commandment. In fact, there are many Jewish teachings that specifically talk about the need to conserve, protect and defend the planet.

“Do not destroy and desolate My world, for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.” This mandate, Midrash Ecclesiates Rabbah 7:13, is one of several that the Jewish Environmental Initiative (JEI) uses as a guiding force in its work to protect the globe.


“As Jews we’re commanded to restore and protect God’s earth. It is related to tikkun olam,” said Gail Wechsler, director of domestic issues and social justice for the Jewish Community Relations Council, which coordinates JEI.

Rabbi Randy Fleisher of Central Reform Congregation and chair of JEI echoed Wechsler’s comments, saying it’s halachic (Jewish law). “Don’t waste. Conserve. It’s a principle of Jewish law.”

Fleisher explained that the Hebrew word for human is adam and the word for earth is adamah. “Going back to the root of our language there are these two words which are intrinsically connected; adam could be translated as an earth-being. Linguistically, in Hebrew, we-humans and the earth — are connected; we’re codependent on each other.”

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation pointed out that even at the beginning of the Torah God tells Adam and Eve to protect the environment and not to cut down trees. “God said ‘Go out into the world; be fruitful and multiply and harness it,'” Shafner said. “Then two chapters later God puts them in the garden and tells them to work it or to serve it. These are clearly different modes of being. It is legitimate to use the world for human needs but we also have to protect it.”

Shafner said one example of protecting the earth is the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees, even in a time of war. “We are not allowed to waste things without a need,” Shafner said. This statement is reflected on JEI’s Web site: “The Biblical injunction, b’al tashhit, is a prohibition against wasting resources. The concept of tikkun olam mandates that we repair the world.”

Another familiar Biblical account, with an environmental message, is the story of Noah. “What happens in Noah is a warning that something bad is happening to our world,” Wechsler said. “We’re going to have these floods and a response is needed.”

JEI uses the story of Noah to educate the community on what people can do to make their lives and synagogues greener. Called Project Noah, JEI sends packets of materials to congregations, education directors, and day schools to coincide with the reading of Noah. These packets contain selected readings for services, classes, and projects appropriate for specific age groups.

Judaism and nature

The connection between Judaism and nature is strong and innate. “Judaism is a natural life path. It began when the earth was in a more pristine condition,” Fleisher said. “Judaism is an indigenous, nomadic and agricultural culture. Our celebrations were outdoors and some continue to be.”

Tu b’Shevat, Sukkot, Lag b’Omer and Tashlich are a few examples of these outdoor festivals. At Hoshanah Rabbah in St. Louis, members of the community join together at the confluence of the rivers; this month the community gathered outside for Birchat Hachama, Blessing of the Sun.

To reinforce this connection between Judaism and nature, every year Bais Abraham holds an outdoor event of hiking and meditation at Babler State Park. “In nature, you can sense the majesty of God in a powerful tree,” Shafner said. “Every time we’re inspired by nature we utilize that inspiration with prayer to the Divine; if you see a beautiful tree there’s a blessing.”

Fleisher referred to the Psalms, which talk about mountains singing and rivers clapping. “These were written by people who knew the outdoors,” he said. “When we lose nature and the natural world we lose some of the original inspiration our ancestors had.”

Shafner, whose congregation is starting an organic garden, said we have to have an appreciation of the world God made. “One of the reasons we are starting the garden is because people are very removed from our food and our land. It’s important to appreciate how food comes out of the ground.”

The people who care about protecting the earth are those people who spend their time in the natural world. “Once you appreciate the outdoors,” Fleisher said, “then you want to preserve it.” In terms of human health that means examining the type of chemicals we put into the water and sky. “It is a Jewish obligation to be healthy and to keep ourselves healthy,” Fleisher continued.

Environmentalism and Israel

Another aspect to the connection between Judaism and protecting the planet is America’s reliance on fossil fuels and foreign oil. “Energy independence is a big national issue. It’s better for the environment, national security and for Israel,” Wechsler said. “The less dependent we are on nations who are hostile to us and to Israel the better off we’ll be for a whole number of reasons.”

To that end, efforts to become energy self-sufficient have been implemented in the Jewish community. In addition to recycling bins, there are: green audits; weatherizing projects; information about compact fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances; tree plantings; lunch ‘n learns on environmental initiatives; eco-conscious landscaping and transportation options. “One day a week I demand that people don’t use their cars,” Shafner said. “That’s on Saturdays.”

Being environmentally friendly is not a luxury, Wechsler said. “People say that since we’re in bad economic times this shouldn’t be important but they’re connected.” The national effort to retrofit our current older buildings to make them more energy efficient has a positive effect on the economy because it gets people to work on projects and creates green-collar jobs, Wechsler explained. “As we have more problems with climate change they will lead to national disasters and that is a very big economic impact on all of us,” she said.

The lesson from learning about the environment and Judaism is that there is a strong and interdependent connection. We need a clean planet in order to live and to stay connected to God. “Obviously in Judaism the role of the rabbi is to help people become more in touch with the Divine,” Shafner said. “Maimonides said ‘How can you get in touch with God who’s so abstract? Certainly by being in touch with nature.'”