Is there a Jewish-specific perspective to the recent oil spill in the gulf? In general, what is the Jewish view on the importance of our environment? Are we obligated to respond - either financially, socially, or otherwise - in a manner different than non-Jews?
You have asked three crucial questions regarding a “Jewish response” to this particular ecological travesty. I originally thought to use the word “tragedy,” but that term makes me feel detached, somehow, from the reckless human interactions with nature that apparently brought about this situation , and we must genuinely feel the pain of those who suffer. The ultimate answers to your questions may not be available until all is known about the cause and the effect of the spill, both of which loom more horrendous as the days pass and more information is released into the public sphere.
Let me answer the second question first. In the second chapter of Genesis, we learn that “the Eternal God took the man and placed him in a pleasure-garden (translation of the Hebrew phrase ‘gan eden’) to serve it and to preserve it.” [This is my translation of the two last terms in the verse (Genesis 2:15). The Hebrew terms that the Masoretic text employs here is “l’ovdah ul’shom’rah.” Other translations have “to till it and tend it” (Jewish Publication Society), “to dress it and to keep it” (Keter Press), “to work it and keep it” (Women of Reform Judaism’s ‘A Women’s Commentary’), or “to till it and care for it” (Oxford Study Edition of the New English Bible).] In my opinion, the notion of ‘serving’ and ‘preserving’ the land, leads me to believe that our human task is more than simply one of cultivating it (‘till’) or ‘attending’ to it along with anything else under one’s watch (‘tend’).
Later in Genesis, Adam and Eve lose the privilege of living in the pleasure-garden, and God throws them out. Afterward, our tradition inferred – throughout its history – that there had always been a human desire to return to Eden and regain what was once rightfully ours. It is this attempt to return to Eden, to repair the world (as in “tikkun olam”, the ‘perfection’ or ‘repair of the world’), that drives us toward the amelioration of all aspects of human suffering. The phrase “tikkun olam” refers, of course, not only to the release of slaves or the reduction of prejudice or the elimination of war. It also includes preserving the physical qualities of the planet Earth that have suffered over centuries of human impact. It is from this standpoint that we have developed a Jewish approach to preserving our environment.
Is there a Jewish-specific perspective to this situation? As Jews who should care for the planet, we mourn the destruction of miles of wetlands and the creatures that inhabit them; we detest the despoliation of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico; and we suffer along with those whose lives and livelihoods are affected by this disaster. As Jews who are told more than 37 times by the Torah to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (‘because we know the lot of the stranger having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt’), we are to employ our empathy and understand – in our kishkes (guts) – the scope of the catastrophe. When we can put ourselves in the shoes of those affected by calamity, then we will know what they are feeling, understand what they need, and respond in Jewish specific ways to offer whatever help we can.
Are we obligated to respond differently than non-Jews? I would offer that we are required to respond as Jews, and if others wish to follow our example, they certainly should do so.
The Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah (4:6) relates the following parable about our human, ‘earthly’ interdependency. A group of people was traveling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath his seat. His companions said to him, “Why are you doing this?” The man replied, “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own place?” They replied to him, “But if you continue, you will flood the boat for us all!”
I see no necessary distinction between and among various peoples and nationalities when it comes to the need to be involved in saving our Earth. Everyone must be involved, or else we will all sink our ship. Countries who refuse to sign climate change treaties because they don’t buy into the notion that we are responsible for climate change delude themselves and threaten the future of humanity. And it is up to all people of good will and wisdom to point out the errors we commit, and help us return on the road toward Eden.
For more information about a Jewish response to environmental challenges, go to the website of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL, http://www.coejl.org) or the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE, http://www.nrpe.org)
Responsibility to protect the environment is fundamental to Jewish thought and practice. At the beginning of human existence, Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden “to work it and to guard it” (Gen.2:15). Thus, although we are given the world and its resources to use for our benefit, we are enjoined to care for it as well. Beneficiaries of the divine gift of Creation, we are to value and cherish it. As partners with God in Creation, we are to nurture it and improve upon it. Wanton destruction of the environment and the ecology would be an affront to the Creator.
The principle of “bal tashchit,” the prohibition of wantonly destroying physical property, is derived from the biblical prohibition of destroying fruit trees during a siege (Deut. 20:19-20). Even though there seems to be human benefit in terms of winning a war and vanquishing an enemy, respect for nature and ensuring its long-term integrity are deemed, in the long run, to be more important.
The recent oil spill which continues to destroy the environment is the result of gross negligence by those responsible for building and operating the rig. It is a violation of nezikin, the biblical prohibition against causing material damage (See Ex. 21:28-36; 22:45 and the opening chapters of the Talmudic Tractate Baba Kama). The deaths of the eleven workers were the immediate result of the explosion; liability is undeniable. But the damage to the ecology, water, beaches and wildlife is indirect; it is not immediate. Is it then considered “gerama”, indirect damage, for which the tortfeasor is exempt? No. The damage caused by the oil can be located in the one of the four major category of damages knownas “eish” (fire), an injurious force that progresses from one place to another during its natural course. Thus, the owners and those who participated negligently in the construction and operation of the rig are liable for the harm they caused.
In addition, the Sages ruled that we have the responsibility to act prudently and carefully so as not to cause damage to another’s property. They legislated many precautions so as to protect the interests of others: distancing one’s oven from one’s neighbor’s home, not digging pits near a neighbor’s wall, and distancing the impact of smoke and odors that may drift from one property to the next.
While causing damages is a violation of Jewish law which prescribes the amount of compensation required, financial liability in this situation, even according to Halakhah, would follow the legal, civil and contractual obligations accepted by the parties in the jurisdiction in which they are operating. These types of matters (monetary and not ritual) are determined by “dina de-malkhuta” (the law of the land), “minhag sochrim” (common business practices), and any conditions mutually agreed upon by those involved. In this sense, the legislation of the Torah is only a default position which prescribes obligations absent any other agreement. However, the Torah’s laws in these kinds of cases also present a meta-legal perspective of what is good and just.
Jews and non-Jews share this world: we breathe the same air, drink the same water, and enjoy the same beaches. Despite the differnces in our religious obligations (613 mitzvot for Jews, sevencommandments for Noahides) none of us is more or less responsible than the other to protect the environment. Every Jew and every non-Jew—each a descendant of Adam and Eve who were commanded to protect the Garden—must share the responsibility "to work and to protect" our common Garden, the planet Earth.
Throughout modernity, thinkers have wondered whether ethics could admit any hyphenated identity. Could there be a Jewish ethics about any moral problems that differed from Catholic, Islamic, Chinese or Bulgarian ethics? Or should every ethical imperative be universal, transcending the differences of particular cultures?
In most cases, I think, people recognize that the world’s specific cultures impart at least shape and nuance to different people’s ethical views. So indeed there can be Jewish business ethics that emerge from our texts, traditions and values that will overlap Christian or Islamic ethics but not be identical to them. Jewish duties regarding sex, war, medicine, poverty, loyalty, speech and other topics will often resemble those of other cultures, but will also emerge from different wells, will be expressed differently, and sometimes differ in substance.
This is true regarding environmental ethics as well. I would imagine that the world’s religious traditions would resemble one another closely in prescribing benevolent, modest, unselfish, far-sighted stewardship of natural resources and of our fellow creatures. But they will not be identical in every respect.
Jewish responses to this human-made disaster might begin with the reading of Psalm 104, the paean to creation; might command stewardly veneration of God’s manifold creatures, for if God created seabirds and shrimp, we must not destroy them; and might exact rigorous tort obligations devolving upon the operator of a dangerous business that became a public nuisance, poisoning the livelihood of many.
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