Central to our relationship with the world is the knowledge that God created the universe. This leads to a God-centered and not a man-centered approach to our environment. Having reverence and respect for God’s creation leads us to principles of preservation and compassion in our relationship to the Earth and its creatures. Our belief that the world God created is harmonious and beneficial for all means that we strive to maintain that harmony in all we do.
Here are five teachings of Judaism that speak to our relationship with the Earth.
Humans take a special place in the world, having both divine and animal aspects. God gave us the earth to till and tend, but he also made us mortal and gave us the same diet as the animals. Thus, though we have dominion over the earth, it is only through God’s grace. We must act as stewards, not as lords, and do everything in accordance with God’s word.
Jews observe the Sabbath every week, ceasing work and devoting themselves to rest and prayer. The earth must also experience a Sabbath, according to the Torah.
Every seventh year, Jews are commanded to let their fields lie fallow. Similarly, Jews are commanded not to harvest everything, but to leave some portion of their crops for the poor and the unfortunate to eat. In this way, we may take advantage of the bounty of the earth without being selfish.
From this passage comes the commandment against waste, called bal tashchit. It speaks to the Jewish reverence for all of God’s creations. As such, needlessly destroying any of God’s creations is forbidden.
Preservation of Human Life
Pikuach nefesh is the law commanding us to protect human lives at any cost. In contemporary Jewish thought, pikuach nefesh is considered to be related to the precautionary principle, which states that in the absence of proof that a new technology is harmful, it should be assumed that it is harmful and should be avoided. In order to preserve human life, we must use caution and look to the effects of our current lifestyle on the lives of those who will come after us.
Preservation of Species
Several passages in the Torah prohibit the unnecessary killing of non-human creatures. For instance: “If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother with her young” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Rabbinic tradition has taken this passage to indicate that Scripture does not permit people to destroy a species. This comes from a deep reverence for life and all of God’s creations.