Torah stresses an environmentally conscious home

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The practice of running a household that is conscious and cautious of its impact on the environment flows naturally from principles of Jewish law and ethics. Such a lifestyle can be incorporated into the cycles of Jewish life with benefits for the environment, for Jewish consciousness and for youth.

Alongside the obvious benefit of sustaining the planet, the environmentally conscious home provides its occupants with a sense of accomplishment and even pride in personally doing something that will maintain and even better one’s world.

For the believing Jew, this feeling of well-being should be all the more gratifying, for preserving the planet is not an end in itself, but part of a greater plan that encompasses the whole of one’s existence. This greater plan is laid out in Jewish law, based in the Torah. One may feel doubly rewarded by the overall satisfaction of living a life of mitzvot, and, within this context, living an environmentally sound existence.

Four principles guide those living in an environmentally conscious Jewish home. These principles reflect this modern-day reality where there is no such thing as a free lunch, for the planet does not have an endless supply of resources.

The first principle originates in Shabbat observance: The Fourth Commandment, which begins “Remember the Shabbat day and keep it holy,” deals with the issue of limited resources and the need for restraint. Shabbat is the day when God called a halt to his creative exertions. Just as God ceased his exertions on that day, so you shall cease yours.

In essence, the Jew remembers Shabbat by mirroring or copying God’s restraint. Importantly, this “remembering” is an active rather than a passive process. While the Sabbath is celebrated for one day, it is not meant to be an isolated point in time but rather a frame of reference for the entire week.

Just as one cuts back on using electricity, gas and oil on Shabbat, so should one continue to do so during the rest of the week. Stated differently, the Sabbath is not an end but a means for getting Jews to reduce their use of energy-consuming products and services.

The second principle is taking responsibility for our health and well-being. This is how rabbinic Midrash interprets the words “Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) For example, the consumer is required to know how household products affect well-being and act accordingly.

Third, as an integral part of accepting responsibility for one’s well-being, one likewise accepts the need to think of future generations.

The assumption of a future means preparing one’s children to take up the reins. Thus, in the daily recitation of the Sh’ma, the declaration of the oneness and uniqueness of God, the Jew is told that whenever opportunity knocks one must “teach children.” Clearly, it is implied that teaching occurs in the home.

Finally, Jewish law addresses the question of how to dispose of still usable items. This question is dealt with in the concept of bal tashhit, that is, the idea of “you shall not destroy.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) It implies, for example, that household products of value that are no longer being used should be shared with others, especially the needy, who can use them.

Being environmentally conscious is an integral part of Jewish home life. It is a lifestyle based on doing, a lifestyle designed to impress examples upon one’s children.

Perhaps the motto of a compost plant in Israel best sums up the environmentally conscious Jewish home: “We did not inherit the world from our forefathers; we received it on loan from our children.’

Here are some books that will help Jews learn more about what the Torah says about living with an environmental conscience:

Listen to the Trees: Jews and the Earth,” by Molly Cone. For ages 9 to 12. (84 pages, Union of American Hebrew Congregation, $14.95)

Ecology & the Jewish Spirit,” by Ellen Bernstein (288 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95)

Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought,” Vol. 1, edited by Arthur Waskow (312 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $19.95)

Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought,” Vol. 2, edited by Arthur Waskow (272 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $19.95)

Judaism and Ecology : Created World and Revealed Word,” edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (640 pages, Harvard University Press, $28.95)

The Ecological Message of the Torah,” by Aloys Huttermann (272 pages, Rowman & Littlefield, $39.95)

This piece was previously published on myjewishlearning.com.