What is the Jewish view on ‘stewardship’? We are told that we were given dominion over the land and all within it – it seems that some have taken that to mean ownership and the right to destroy or waste. Is that the Jewish view?
In the very beginning of the Torah, in the very first chapter, we read a verse that seems to be permission for human beings to do whatever they wish with the world that we are given:
27. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.
28. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
But in the Torah, things are not always as simple as that. In Judaism, one of the primary underlying themes, is that God gave us Torah in order to help us master ourselves. It is thus worth noticing that in the very NEXT verse, God limits human dominion over the animals – we are given only plants to eat, not animals:
29. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, on which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.
So, clearly from the very beginning, the meaning of ruling over the earth turns out to be not entirely carte blanche. After the flood, we were given permission to eat animals, but then it was only as a concession to human nature, and we, as Jews, were given a great many restrictions about how we could eat animals. The Torah in fact regulates not only the eating of animals, but how we treat them in our use of them in many ways. Here are a few selected examples (of many):
Animals that are working in the field must be permitted to eat freely (as are human laborers) from the field: they cannot be muzzled (Deuteronomy 25:4), we are obligated to relieve the suffering of a burdened animal – even if it’s owned by an enemy (Exodus 23:5). When animals are slaughtered, the process must be painless – if the knife contains even a small nick that might cause the slaughter to be painful, the meat is not kosher, and hunting for sport is forbidden. We are not even permitted to cause psychological pain to animals: one cannot take eggs from a nest without shooing the mother away, because she might be distressed, and it isn’t permitted to slaughter a mother along with her offspring on the same day, for the same reason.
The Spanish scholar and mystic Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 1194-1270) explains that the prohibition against slaughtering an animal and its offspring in one day is so that we should not have cruel hearts “or that the Torah should not permit us to destroy and uproot a species, even though [the Torah] permits ritual slaughter of this species. One who kills a mother [animal] and her children in one day or who takes them... it is as if he annihilates that species.”
Similarly, there are limitations to how humans are permitted to use the land. For example, during every seventh year, shmita, the land is not permitted to be cultivated: all agricultural activity—including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting—is forbidden, and all are permitted to eat from whatever grows of itself, and this produce cannot be bought or sold. This period is called a Sabbath for the land. (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7). We are prohibited from cutting down fruit trees during time of war Deuteronomy 20:19-20– even those of an enemy city, even to actually besiege the city - because it is wantonly destructive.
From this prohibition is derived a more general prohibition called “bal tashchit” – do not waste/destroy. The late 12th century philosopher and scholar Maimonides explains further, that we are forbidden from being needlessly destructive in any way -" Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit "you shall not destroy." (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10)
The Sefer Ha-Chinuch, a thirteenth century text which explains the 613 mitzvot, focuses on the notion of training us to be ethical. “The purpose of this mitzvah is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves.” (Sefer Ha-Chinuch, Mitzvah #529).
You can see from just a brief overview that the Jewish view, far from allowing wanton waste and destruction, takes quite seriously the idea that it is our duty to treat the world with care, and furthermore, that the original statement that we have dominion over the earth is quite clearly not without restriction, but to the contrary, Jewish law is quite strong in its view that the earth is not ours to do with as we wish – rather, the earth belongs to God, “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me." (Leviticus 25:23) Our use of it is subject to our responsibilities to God, among which are our care for God’s creation. Thuis is made clear by a midrash, “"Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Take care not to damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it after you."(Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 7:28)
Ouch! There is no, I repeat, no allowance to destroy or waste. When you have dominion over anything, this means that whatever happens is simultaneously your responsibility.
Please tell me how much sense it makes to suggest that God gave us a mandate to destroy God's world? That would be absurd. As absurd as saving money to buy your child a car, and then giving the child the car with the permission to destroy it.
Consider the verse in question (Genesis, 1:28) - "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky, and every living thing that roams on the earth."
To "rule over" (dominion) is a huge mandate, but we know that good rulers are those who respect their constituents.
It is for this reason that we have a concomitant mandate to avoid any destructive endeavors (see Deuteronomy 20:19-20). This goes for trees, for anything that breathes, for the world.
Life saving, in almost all instances, trumps any other Jewish value, but to destroy is, under normal circumstances, a gross distortion of God's vision for us.
There may be people, ostensibly religious, who claim they have a right to destroy. But they have no such right, no matter how much they claim to have it. And even less do they have a right to distort and to misrepresent God.
Rather than my re-inventing the wheel. permit you to refer you to the following excellent introductory article and all of its links. There you will find a plethora of information on Judaism, stewardship, and the environment.
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