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A Jewish Perspective on Care of the Earth

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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In Genesis we read the traditional Jewish understanding of how the world came into being. Now whether or not we believe it all actually happened as it says, or if it is a metaphor, it does express the incredible achievement that our world is, and the awe and wonder which people have held towards it through the ages.


While saving the earth, recycling and eco-language may all seem very new, the rabbis (who produced lots of important Jewish law, teachings and literature for the last 2000 years and which we continue to study today), also knew that it was important! A Midrash (a story on a Biblical theme) states:


When God created the first human being, God led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Behold my works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! All that I have created, for your sake did I create it. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’


(Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)



Here we see the importance of preserving the world, in part because it is God’s creation, but also because we won’t get a second chance. What we do now will impact on generations who we hope will come after us, but who may not have that opportunity if we continue as we are at the moment. Going green even has a special name in Judaism (in fact it comes from mystical Judaism – Kabbalah (similar to what Madonna’s into – but also very different)) and that is Tikkun Olam – repair of the world.


Resourcing and recycling


I am aware that a huge amount of waste goes out of my house each year, even though I recycle plastic bottles and cardboard by taking them to the tip, food waste which the local council composts, and cans, newspaper, junk mail, tin foil and so on which the council also collects. Yet each week my black wheelie bin is full and it all goes straight into landfill sites, which we are leaving for those who will come after us to deal with. Judaism teaches me that wasting anything is a big problem, and in the Talmud (from around 1300 years ago) we have a law which forbids any wastage, known as bal tashchit. It is mostly concerned with wasting food, which today seems even more intolerable when so many people have to go without, but it was also extended to any goods, as we see here:


Rabbi Eleazar said: I heard that one who tears [his clothes] too much for a dead man transgresses the command bal tashchit


(Baba Kamma 91b)


Without going into the details of mourning rituals, this discussion shows that wasting clothes is against the law of bal tashchit, just as throwing away half your dinner is. So not only is recycling important to me in caring for the earth, but ensuring I make the most of all I have is also important, and not throwing things away that I could still use (or that somebody else could via a charity shop or freecycle1). It is also important for me to consider where my clothes and possessions have come from, and whether people have suffered to make them, or have been taken advantage of. Jewish business ethics (as well as my own sense of the world!) encourage me to make sure that what I use in the world is bought and disposed of responsibly, because caring about everyone in the world is also a part of caring for the world.2


We share this world


The world was given to us to enjoy and make use of, but it is not ours alone – we share it with each other, with the rest of creation, and with generations who will have to deal with our mess after us. Sometimes it seems like an impossible task, and one that no one can ever really influence, but I find this text from around the year 200CE keeps me motivated:


We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it.


(Pirke Avot, 2:21)


So while we might not always feel it is worth it, and we might not see the fruits of our efforts, considering our carbon footprints, the amount we fill up the land with our rubbish, where our food and clothes come from and so on, are all an important responsibility which if we all work towards together, with none of us feeling free to abstain from it, we might find ourselves doing some real good to care for the amazing gift that our world is.


1 – you’d be amazed what people can use!!

2 2008 Kosher Guide has a starter page about buying fair trade and the

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