8th grade Jewish Environmental Justice text study


On the Environment, Abraham Joshua Heschel, "God in Search of Man," (Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 1976)

There are three ways in which we may relate ourselves to the world: we may exploit it, we may enjoy it, we may accept it in awe

Suggested Discussion Questions

What actions do we take towards the environment that represent these three options of how to relate to the world?

Human Responsibility for the Environment

Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13

Translation Original
When the Holy One created the human being, He took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: Behold my works, how beautiful they are. All that I have created is within your domain. Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one else to set it right after you.
ראה את מעשה האלהים כי מי יוכל לתקן את אשר עותו, בשעה שברא הקב"ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך, ולא עוד שאת גורם מיתה לאותו צדיק, משל משה רבינו למה"ד, לאשה עוברה שהיתה חבושה בבית האסורים, ילדה שם בן גדלה שם ומתה שם, לימים עבר המלך על פתח האסורים כשהמלך עובר התחיל אותו הבן צווח, ואומר אדני המלך כאן נולדתי כאן גדלתי באיזה חטא אני נתון כאן איני יודע, אמר לו בחטא של אמך, כך במשה כמו שכתוב הן האדם היה כאחד כתיב הן קרבו ימיך למות.

Suggested Discussion Questions

Describe ways humanity “works” the earth. Are these good or bad or neutral?

Describe ways humanity “protects” the earth. Are these good or bad or neutral?

Do these two concepts (of “working” and “protecting”) contradict or complement each other? How?

Pursue the meaning of “working” the earth. This could include exploring it, using it, developing it, changing it. It could include building upon it, damming the waters, harnessing its renewable energy, inventing materials, medicines, fabrics, farming, etc., to increase the quality of human (and animal) life. Does this midrash endorse such uses or not? It seems to do so when it says, “All I have created is within your domain.” Humans have been given the world, according to the biblical story, and are instructed by the word “l’ovdah” (work it) to make it a better place.

The question is: what is permissible in the arena of “working the earth” and what is not? When is it necessary and good to “protect and preserve” the world. L’shomrah has both meanings: as if the best way to protect something is to preserve it. Is that always the case?

Do you find it compelling that a contemporary environmental ethic is reflected in this classical text? What differences do you notice between contemporary environmentalism and the perspective reflected in this text?

What do you think about the idea that each individual has a personal obligation to protect the environment? How might that be different from making an individual contribution towards a collective effort?

Treatment of the Earth: Trees

Abraham Joshua Heschel, "A Passion for Truth" (Jewish Lights Publishing, April 1995), p.24

Human beings must cherish the world, said the Baal Shem. To deprecate, to deride it was presumption. Creation, all of creation, was pervaded with dignity and purpose and embodied God’s meaning

Suggested Discussion Questions

What does it mean to cherish the world? How can we express this value?
What is the relation between creation of the world and our commandment to cherish it?

Deuteronomy 20:19-20

Translation Original
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. [JPS]
כִּי תָצוּר אֶל עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא תַשְׁחִית אֶת עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר: רַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר תֵּדַע כִּי לֹא עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית וְכָרָתָּ וּבָנִיתָ מָצוֹר עַל הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר הִוא עֹשָׂה עִמְּךָ מִלְחָמָה עַד רִדְתָּהּ

Suggested Discussion Questions

What is the intention of this law? To what extent is it followed?
What does this text imply about environmentalism?

Sustainable Behavior

Ecclesiastes 1:4

Translation Original
One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever. [JPS]
דּוֹר הֹלֵךְ וְדוֹר בָּא וְהָאָרֶץ לְעוֹלָם עֹמָדֶת:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What is our responsibility to maintain the earth for future generations?
2. What does it mean that the earth remains the same forever? Is this true? Must we sustain it or can it sustain itself?

Environmental Practice

Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b

Translation Original
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai ... used to say: if you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah. [COEJL]
רבן יוחנן בן זכאי... אם היתה נטיעה בתוך ידך ויאמרו לך הרי לך המשיח. בוא ונטע את הנטיעה [ואח"כ צא והקבילו].

Suggested Discussion Questions

What does this text say about the importance of planting trees and commitment to environmental sustainability?