Why the Environment is a Jewish Issue
By Rabbi Joel Hoffman
The Purpose of This Essay
The purpose of this essay is frame the big picture of why the environment is a Jewish issue as well to relay one simple thing everyone can do to help preserve the environment which does not take up much time, nor infringe on one’s lifestyle, nor cost any money.
The Natural World in Jewish Tradition
According to a Midrash God said: “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I created, I created for you. Reflect on this, and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Midrash Eccesiates Rabbah 7:13) This is a very powerful statement. God is telling us that we are responsible for preserving His creations.
Another classical Jewish text from around 2,000 years ago teaches: “even those creatures that you deem superfluous in this world such as flies, fleas and gnats, even they were included in Creation, and God’s purpose is carried out through everything – even a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog.” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 10:7)
To help ensure the earth’s preservation, God gave the Jewish people many Mitzvot (commandments) that pertain to nature and the environment. One of the 613 Mitzvot in the Torah is not to destroy fruit trees in an offensive war (Deut. 20:19). The name of this Mitzvah is Baal Tash’hit, which means “don’t destroy”. The Rabbis in the Talmud taught that, in fact, all forms of wasting are a violation of the Mitzvah of Baal Tash’hit, and gave several examples such as the breaking vessels in anger and causing a lamp to un-necessarily burn more oil. The Mitzvah of Baal Tash’hit teaches us to conserve resources.
Another Mitzvah is Shmita, not working the land during the seventh year, which teaches us about ecological sustainability; as well as to maintain green belts around cities (Numbers 35:4), the prohibition against grafting diverse seeds and cross breeding animals (Leviticus 19:19), and Shabbat, which is a weekly rest for humans, animals and the natural world. Rabbinic texts are also full of numerous laws pertaining to waste disposal and pollution, as well as the directive that if a person takes water from a well but does not use it all, s/he should not throw it out but find some productive use for it.
God wants us to not just preserve the natural world, but to also appreciate and enjoy it. Therefore, Jewish law requires a blessing to be said upon seeing wonders such as lightening, rainbows, shooting stars, the ocean, etc., as well over food, fragrant trees and flowers. It is a Jewish tradition to say 100 blessings per day, which means 100 times per day we are supposed to pause, appreciate and enjoy.
Environmental Issues Today
Today we are faced with numerous environment-damaging realities such as global warming, electromagnetic radiation, pollution, toxic waste, etc., and it is a Mitzvah to do something about it. Judaism, however, does not provide a list of specific things to do. Rather, classical Jewish texts provide a framework for defining the source of the problems and evaluating possible solutions.
The root cause of these environmental issues is simply our extensive desires for energy and usage of fossil fuels, as well as the lack of recycling. A disproportionate percentage of the world’s environmental issues are caused by Americans. For example, the United States consists of less than five percent of the world population but contributes 25% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, 500,000 trees are used every Sunday to print the Sunday newspapers across the United States of which 71% is not read; and overall only 25% of paper is recycled. The average American throws out 700 pounds of paper every year. With aluminum, 38% is recycled of which recycling takes less than 5% of the amount of energy originally needed produce an aluminum can. Furthermore, only 12% of glass and less than 2% of plastic is recycled. This later number is particularly disturbing because it takes twice as much energy to incinerate plastic as it does to recycle it. It is also estimated that 33% of packaging is unnecessary.
In recent years many countries have taken large-scale measures to help the environment but the United States as a whole lags behind. For example, whereas in the United States 10% of garbage is recycled, in Japan 50% of garbage is recycled. Never-the-less, there are numerous things one can do to help preserve the environment which do not take very much time, nor infringe on one’s lifestyle, nor cost any money.
What We Can Do
In addition to putting used paper and empty bottles and cans in the blue recycling bins, another action everyone can do is when an incandescent light bulb in our home burns out, to replace it with a new cost-effective compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb.
The price of a CFL bulb is about four to five times more than an incandescent light bulb, but it lasts seven to ten times longer, and most important, uses 75% less electricity to produce the same amount of light. This means that replacing the CFL bulbs less often makes up for the additional initial cost of the CFL bulbs. And at the current price of electricity, one will save about $25 in electricity costs over the lifetime of a CFL for every incandescent bulb that is replaced by a CFL bulb. The more CFL bulbs in one’s house, the more savings!
As one can see, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFL light bulbs is a “no brainer.” Also, whereas 80% of an incandescent light bulb’s light is really heat and not light, CFL bulbs produce almost no heat so houses which use CFL bulbs require even less air conditioning.
Economists have calculated that if every house in the United States would replace just one incandescent light bulb with a CFL bulb the positive effect would be the equivalent there being 1 million less cars on the road.
Not only will switching to CFL bulbs save a family money because CFL bulbs use 75% less electricity to produce the same amount of light, but it is a Mitzvah because by doing so it contributes to there being less global warming, electromagnetic radiation, pollution and toxic waste.
Rabbi Joel Hoffman is on the senior staff of The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership.
The opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent The David Project.