Environmental issues are as old as time, book explains

If the Goldman Environmental Prize had been available at the Creation, the Lord would have been a deserving winner for all six continents! In less than a week He fashioned a natural paradise of towering mountains, vast oceans, lush river valleys and fertile plains. He populated this jewel with diverse life. But then He made the questionable judgment of giving man dominion over His Creation (Genesis 1:28-30). Even in ancient times the despoliation of the earth through unsound agricultural practices, war and other human follies merited the attention of the sages. Biblical wisdom enjoins human beings to respect and preserve nature and the land in which exists the very manifestation of God.

Historically, Jews have connected in several different ways with the natural environment. These are set forth in "Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 years of Ecology in Jewish Thought," a two-volume anthology edited by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of Philadelphia. Some two dozen authors are included, ranging from the late philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to Rabbi Michael Lerner of San Francisco, the editor of Tikkun. They dissect the biblical injunctions, rabbinic commentaries, Zionist political tractates and contemporary eco-Judaism agendas to reveal the prominence of ecological and environmental themes in Jewish law, tradition and practice.

The two volumes are organized into four chronological and thematic periods.

"Biblical Israel" runs to Roman times and destruction of the Temple. As essayist Jonathan Helfand puts it, Judaism was "one of the first great environmental religions," as the significance of a particular piece of earth and the responsibility for sustaining it became deeply imbued in Jewish law and tradition.

"Rabbinic Judaism" covers the subsequent 2,000 years during which the Jewish people no longer had a direct physical relationship with the Land of Israel. That intimacy was replaced by a broad concern for protecting the earth so as to use its resources to meet the urgent needs of a scattered, impoverished people.

The third era begins in the 19th century with "Zionism" and its aspirations to reclaim Eretz Israel. The Zionist vision includes reconnecting with the ancient soil of the homeland through agricultural labor, and settling the land with people, trees and crops to distinguish the Jewish turf from that of the Arab.

The fourth and final part, "Eco-Judaism," focuses on the environmental consciousness of the latter 20th century, especially in Israel and in America. It is in these lands that a politically empowered constituency of Jewish environmental activists seeks rapprochement with the earth through a fusion of traditions like Shabbat — giving the earth a rest every seven years — with the global battle against greed and corporate power.

Each of the four themes remind us of the historic bond between the Jews and God's dominion. Indeed, ancient concerns seem closely related to contemporary ecological values. In an injunction seemingly prescient of the Endangered Species Act, the Torah tells us "Do not take the mother bird together with the young" (Deuteronomy 22:6). The rabbinic concept of Bal Taschit, based upon the prohibition against destroying the enemy's fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19), was expanded into a general forbidding of waste and unnecessary loss. It is a fitting rallying cry against the wholesale destruction of the Amazon rainforests.

Even Maimonides in the 12th century appears to prefigure the environmental ailments of the 21st in stating that "The quality of the urban air compared to the air in the deserts and forests is like thick and turbulent water compared to pure and light water."

"Torah of the Earth" is most interesting when addressing the contradictions and nuances of Jewish environmental "policy." For instance, God gave all Creation to Adam to subdue and master, yet some commentators point to God's declaration that "The Land is mine" (Leviticus 25:23) to remember that God did not totally relinquish his proprietorship, and that man was not licensed to damage or destroy the earth. Similarly, the Zionists lived with the paradox of competing visions, one which drew them back to the land in an ancient partnership with it, while at the same time they championed modernization and economic development, which exacted a high price through industrialization.

The current era of eco-Judaism has both absorbed the earlier traditional consciousness and moved beyond it by intertwining itself with other Jewish agendas. For example, the movement has been attractive to feminists who, as Waskow introduces it, concluded "the habit of treating the earth as mere object and instrument might be related to treating women as objects and instruments. So a Judaism in which men and women are to have equal voices may also need to be one in which the earth has a voice."

Returning to our opening speculation, God might well be ineligible for the Goldman Environmental Prize. After all, when it comes to Genesis and its implications, He tends to favor a top-down rather than grassroots approach!