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Judaism and Ecology: A Theology of Creation

Daniel B. Fink
Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel


Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “I am dust and ashes.”

—Rabbi Simcha Bunam

The endeavor to formulate a systematic environmental ethic is quite new to Judaism. For most of Jewish history, our sacred texts—from Hebrew Scriptures to Talmud to medieval philosophical, legal and mystical literature—have dealt with ecological issues incidentally, as they arose. Ecology was not a discrete area of inquiry; it was, instead, an integral part of the weave of relationships between God, humanity in general (and Israel in particular), and the rest of the natural world. Furthermore, Jewish positions on environmental issues have never been monolithic. In this, they reflect the multivocal nature of our tradition’s texts and worldview. Still, contemporary scholars seeking a normative Jewish perspective on questions central to earth ethics can find much of interest in what is known as “the account of creation” (ma’aseh b’reishit) set forth in the first two chapters of Genesis and subsequent generations of commentaries on these texts. For the most part, Jewish teachers have resisted the tendency to read the Torah in a static, literalist manner. The Genesis narrative describes an ongoing process, for as the Jewish liturgy affirms, God renews the work of creation daily. Humans occupy a unique niche in this dynamic picture of God’s world. We are both a part of nature and apart from it.

Between Dust and Divinity

Consider the order of the creation in the first chapter of Genesis. Humanity is not formed until the sixth day, after light and darkness, water and dry land, plants and animal life. We are clearly the final act of the Creator. But what does this suggest about our place in the cosmos? The Babylonian Talmud recounts a debate over why God created humanity last of all the living beings. One Rabbi suggested that people were the pinnacle of creation. He compared God to a king who prepared a fantastic feast and, after all was readied, invited the guest of honor. Thus, God made the entire natural world for the sustenance and enjoyment of humanity. Then, a second sage offered a very different response: “Adam was created at the end of the sixth day so that if human beings should grow too arrogant, they may be reminded that even the gnats preceded them in the order of creation.” According to this perspective, humanity is more or less a divine afterthought.

This is the same tension expressed in Simcha Bunam’s aphorism about keeping two truths in one’s pockets. A Jewish earth ethic recognizes humanity’s unique power to use nature’s bounty to our benefit. At the same time, it reminds us that each part of God’s creation has its own intrinsic value. As the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides states in his Guide to the Perplexed, the Torah affirms after each day’s creation, “God saw that it was good.” Such praise is not reserved for humanity. Indeed, the biblical narrator declares that upon finishing, “God saw all of the works of creation and behold, they were very good.” The text goes out of its way to emphasize the value of each plant and animal. Therefore, Maimonides concludes, “All the other beings have been created for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else [e.g., humanity].”

The Question of Dominion

If human prerogatives are counterbalanced by the assertion of nature’s intrinsic value, what can one make of the somewhat infamous verse where God tells the first humans to master the earth and take dominion over all the living things? Contrary to the critique of Lynn White and many others, mainstream Judaism did not interpret this as a divine carte blanche to exploit nature without remorse. Nine hundred years ago, Rashi, the most distinguished commentator on the Torah, noted that the Hebrew word for “take dominion” (v’yirdu) comes from the same root as “to descend” (yarad). Thus, he declares: “When humanity is worthy, we have dominion over the animal kingdom; when we are not, we descend below the level of animals and the animals rule over us.” We are preeminent only when we act in keeping with the highest standards of responsibility. Abusing the rest of the creation is a sign of debasement rather than dominion. To cite a modern example, if we destroy human life on earth through nuclear accident or war, the cockroaches will, in all likelihood, succeed us as the “masters” of the planet.

Furthermore, the true significance of the mandate given to humanity in Genesis 1 is not defined until the second half of the creation account, which is found in Gen 2:4–15. Many biblical critics of the past century have emphasized the discrepancies between these two stories, attributing them to different authorial traditions. However, Jewish tradition—and an increasing number of literary-minded contemporary scholars—view the accounts as complementary. Each speaks to an important aspect of our relationship with the rest of God’s creation, and the full picture emerges only in the rich dialectic between them.

While the first account is primarily concerned with the linear unfolding of God’s cosmic plan to impose order upon chaos, the second accentuates humanity’s links with the earth. It introduces the concept of stewardship. Humans (adam) are formed from humus (adamah). God set us in the garden and told us to work it and watch over it. This is what our dominion actually entails. As the twentieth century German-Jewish scholar Benno Jacob points out, God’s commandment to watch over the garden characterizes the land as God’s property, not ours. Genesis 2 defines the mandate set forth in the previous chapter. We are guardians of a divine trust. As the psalmist later reminds us, “The earth is the Lord’s.”

Shabbat: Last in Creation, First in Intention
It is not easy to maintain the proper tension between human dominion and nature’s integrity. From the start, God seems to recognize that people will frequently choose to misinterpret their stewardship as license to plunder the natural world. Therefore, immediately after forming humanity, God establishes an essential constraint on our destructive tendencies, the Sabbath. This is the crown of creation, a day on which all forms of work are forbidden. The Rabbis of the Talmud maintained that although the Sabbath was the last thing God created, it was meant to be from the start, “first in intention.” These same sages defined the “work” prohibited on the Sabbath as any of thirty-nine types of activity that change the natural order. Once a week then, we are called upon to refrain from all labor that employs the things of nature for the achievement of human ends. The Sabbath is a tangible reminder that the creation is worth more than any monetary considerations. No wonder Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel considered this day the last, best hope of modern women and men who seek a vision of peace with all things in our profane age of clattering commerce. Later in the Torah, the principle of the sabbath day is applied to agricultural policy in the ordinance of the sabbatical year. Every seven years, the farmer is required to let his or her land lie fallow, relying instead upon God’s bounty. We moderns tend to see this as an early—and sound—policy of soil conservation. However, it is also one more expression of the proposition which underlies all Jewish environmental ethics: we are only tenants on this earth. The land belongs to God. We are given permission to enjoy the Creator’s abundant gifts, but we must not waste or wantonly destroy anything. The Jewish injunction known as bal tashchit teaches us to live lightly, conserving earth’s abundance. Indeed, the rabbis declare that anyone who eats a fruit without saying the proper blessing of thanksgiving to God is like a thief, stealing from the Creator.

Conclusion: A Gift to Our Descendants
The creation narrative which opens the Torah has been the source of a steady stream of commentary, as each generation has sought to reinterpret it. We continue to revisit the Garden and explore the relationship with the rest of God’s creation. Our final selection is rooted in this tradition. It comes from Koheleth Rabbah, a collection of homilies based on the book of Ecclesiastes. It leaves us with a crucial charge: Preserve this beautiful world for your descendants, for if you fail to do so, there will be no more chances to restore it. When the Blessed Holy One created the first human beings, God took them and led them around all the trees of the garden of Eden and said to them: “Behold My works! See how lovely and commendable they are! Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe, for if you do corrupt it, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

About this Author
Daniel B. Fink is Rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, in Boise, Idaho. He received his Bachelor’s degree in History and Philosophy from the University of Virginia, and a Masters of Arts in Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He is an ardent environmentalist who enjoys hiking, canoeing, biking, and kayaking. He is coauthor, with Ellen Bernstein, of Let the Earth Teach You Torah (New York: Shomrei Adamah, 1992) and, with Aubrey Rose, Judaism and Ecology (London: Cassell, 1992), as well as numerous articles on Judaism and environmental policy.