The Environment

MBR Public Policy Statement on the Environment  - January 9, 2008 

The Public Policy Committee of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis resolves to support efforts that protect and preserve the environment through advocacy, action, and education. The connection between Jewish tradition and the natural world begins with the first words of the Torah, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," (Gen. 1.1). Our ancestors learned to live in harmony with the land. Biblical tradition teaches the importance of leaving the fields to lie fallow in the sabbatical year. Through our rituals we are never far from an awareness of the world around us. We thank God for the foods we eat, both before and after eating. Our psalms ring with the praises of the Creator of heaven and earth. We say blessings for a variety of natural phenomena, from eating the first fruit of the season, to seeing the ocean, to coming upon a marvel of nature.

A midrash underscores our responsibility, as Jews and as human beings, to care for the planet: "When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: 'Look at my works! See how beautiful they are-how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one repair it after you'" (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1).

The Torah expresses concern for the environment even in the extreme setting of war, "When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy [lo tashchit] its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down." (Deut. 20:19) The concept of bal tashchit, of not destroying and not wasting, was elaborated upon by Talmudic rulings that prohibit killing animals for convenience (Hullin 7b), wasting fuel (Shabbat 67b), and, in a minority opinion, eating extravagant foods when simpler ones are available (Shabbat 140b). Rambam, in his code of Jewish law, states, "Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit." (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:10)

In our time, growing concern for bal tashchit and increased awareness of all that threatens the sacredness of the planet, have provided the impetus for a Jewish environmental movement. Recognizing our responsibility for the natural world, as Jews and as human beings, the Mass Board of Rabbis supports active concern for the environment through:

  • Advocacy: supporting and promoting legislation to preserve and protect the environment, as well as to protect the health and safety of children, workers, and adults through such efforts as reducing the use of toxic materials;
  • Education: fostering greater awareness among children and adults in Jewish sources as well as the scientific imperative for environmental concern; and
  • Action: encouraging all Jews and Jewish communities and institutions to reduce their own negative impact on the environment and to working with others to help insure the continued renewal of Creation.