What are the Jewish values associated with pollution?
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Jewish Values in a Broader Definition of Pollution
In the Bible, after Adam was created, he was introduced to the Garden of Eden. The Midrash dramatizes this event, emphasizing Adam’s responsibility to preserve the purity, integrity and goodness of the world:
When the Holy One Blessed He created the first human being, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: See my works, how beautiful and excellent they are! All that I have 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.
In the two opening chapters of Genesis, Adam, as the progenitor of the human species, is enjoined to have both dominion and responsibility. In chapter 1, at the epitome of creation, God proclaims, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1, 26). God then blessed the newly created humans: "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over... every living thing..." (Genesis 1, 28). Thus, Adam created in God’s Image and Likeness, is commanded to subdue nature, master the cosmos and impose his wisdom to transform the world. He would seem to be all powerful. Contrast Genesis, chapter 2: God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it (Genesis 2, 15). The obligation for Adam in ch. 2 is to serve as custodian of the natural world, take care of the garden of trees, and act with fiduciary responsibility, i.e. with duties of loyalty and care. These two beginning chapters set the tone for the Bible and reflect two distinct dimensions and perhaps conflicting roles – controlling and regulating nature as opposed to serving withfiduciary responsibility.
How have we fared in these twin ethical/legal obligations? It would seem not very well. Pollution is but one facet of both dominion gone awry and custodianship misused and today we are causing greater damage than ever before. If we were to imagine our earth as being say 46 years old, we have created most of the damage in the last 60 seconds of our planet’s existence.
The environmental protection problems which concern us today have precedents in Jewish sources. Biblical passages dealing with the preservation of nature are elaborated upon in the Mishnah and Talmud to circumscribe environmental damage. Thus for example, in tractate Babba Batra which deals with torts, the Mishnah (2:9) necessitates distancing of carrion (dead and decaying flesh of animals), graveyards and tanneries a minimum of 50 cubits ( = about 23 meters) from populated places. Similarly, a permanent threshing floor needs to have a distance of 50 cubits in every direction" (Mishnah Babba Batra 2:8). The same applies to all industrial waste. Maimonides (12th century) states that it applies to any operations which create dust, whatever the direction of the prevailing winds (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Neighbors, 11:1). The Rosh, Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (1250–1327, Germany-Spain), discusses the problem of water pollution where stagnant water penetrated a neighbor's house giving off an offensive smell (Responsum 108:10). These rulings were codified in the authoritative 14th century compilation of the Tur Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat, 155, where the principle is that neighbors are exempt for paying damages if the pollution is caused by normal natural forces and they have taken adequate precautions. However, industries which cause dust, smog or smell and similar pollutants, may not operate except at the distance required to prevent damage.
But what really are our custodial responsibilities? Perhaps it is time to begin expanding our definitions? The narrow definition of pollution is limited to the effects on the natural environment but the broader scope of pollution encompasses many more harmful influences. In his article “The Idea of Pollution,” John Copeland Nagle writes:
We have become accustomed to thinking of pollution exclusively in terms of environmental degradation. This approach so pervades the societal mindset that people often dismiss references to cultural pollution, light pollution, spiritual pollution, and other non-environmental pollution as a mere rhetorical device.
Nagle asks for a broader definition of pollution to help society respond to a much larger gamut of effects upon our environments. This broader view of “pollution” might include cultural pollution, objecting to such phenomena as hostile work environments, violent entertainment, and pornography. Similarly, an all-encompassing Jewish view would bring back both Adam I & II to reflect on our universe as a gift to be valued, respected and preserved. Our challenge is to promote technological advancement in the Adam I role exercising an intelligent and powerful dominion over creation yet simultaneously strive to fulfil Adam II responsibilities in our service as custodians of planetary existence.
I would suggest therefore, that further discussions of a Jewish virtue ethic for filling our Divinely ordained twin roles of rulers and caretakers take into account this broader view of pollution.
Appendix: A Gradual Broadening of the Definition of Pollution
The word pollution originates from the Latin word “polluere,” which means “to soil or defile” and the term “pollution” began to be used in the late 19th century in reference to “defilement of the environment”. This definition took on significant proportions after World War II with the radioactive fallout from atomic weaponry and the realization of imminent environmental dangers. From the mid-1950s onwards, public awareness of a contaminated environment grew exponentially with legislation establishing definitions for dangers of air, water, and noise pollution. Investigators studying the effects of contaminants began proposing competing definitions of pollution and the term took on social and political ramifications going far beyond the basic scientific measurements.
Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on the verse in Ecclesiastes 7:13 (“See the Work of God, for who can fix that which has been corrupted”).
 Compare Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "The Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition 7:2, Summer, 1965, pp. 10-16.
 For a good survey of the Jewish legal view on ecology see Nahum Rakover, "Ecology," Encyclopaedia Judaica (ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik), 2nd ed. Vol. 6. Detroit, 2007, pp. 92-95.
 The Oxford English Dictionary, pg. 43 (2d ed. 1989) defines pollution not only as “defilement; uncleanness or impurity caused by contamination (physical or moral),” but also as “the presence in the environment, or the introduction into it, of products of human activity which have harmful or objectionable effects”. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1756 (1993) notes that polluted can mean “morally corrupt or defiled”.
 UCDavis Law Review, vol. 43, no. 1, Nov. 2009.
The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, pg. 582 (ed. 1995). The term emerged in Old French during the 14th century. Noah Webster’s first dictionary in 1828 listed five definitions of pollution:
1. Act of polluting.
2. Defilement; uncleanness; impurity.
3. In the Jewish economy, legal or ceremonial uncleanness, which disqualified a person for sacred services or rendered anything unfit for sacred use.
4. In medicine, the involuntary emission of semen in sleep.
5. In a religious sense, guilt, the effect of sin.
 In 1952, the Great Smog in London killed thousands of people and caused 100,000 more to become ill with respiratory problems. It was the worst air pollution event in the United Kingdom prompting the first major modern environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act of 1956. In the United States, from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, Congress passed the Noise Control Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act as contaminating the environment became a major concern for the safety of the world.
In addressing this question, it is useful to begin with a methodological observation, appropriate to this question and to all others of its nature: there are differences in vocabulary between some of our modern concerns and the language of our classical and authoritative sources. In such cases, we need to find the closest parallels in our tradition, and then "translate" those expressions into contemporary vocabulary, consciously and responsibly.
In the topic of "Jewish values associated with pollution", we need to apply this general principle. Until the last century, there was only a slight consciousness of the long-term and irreversible potential for damage associated with pollution. People thought that the power of atmosphere, ocean and land to diffuse and neutralize pollutants was sufficient to free people from any need to curb their behavior. Even a half-century ago, when Rachel Carson sparked the modern environmentalist movement with her Silent Spring, public opinion was divided, and today, there remain skeptics who dismiss global warming and other examples of dire consequences of human environmental irresponsibility. Consequently, we would not expect to find a plethora of classical Jewish sources on pollution per se.
On the other hand, it is demonstrable that Judaism has always inculcated a respect for the environment, as God's creation. If, prior to the Industrial Revolution and the modern population explosion, there was no specific need to elevate that sense of respect to a special value and set of behavioral mandates, the basic concept of environmental stewardship is demonstrably an authentic Jewish teaching. To extend these verses to support a contemporary Jewish call to curb pollution is a legitimate application of old wisdom to new problems.
We may cite three biblical texts as paradigmatic for articulating an ethos of environmental stewardship: Genesis 1:31, Genesis 2:15, and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. In the first of these verses, we read that God, seeing all of the Divine work of Creation, pronounced it "very good." This is an amplification of the "behold, it was good" phrase associated with each of the six individual days of creation. We may infer from this that, for the environment, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." If we drive a species to extinction, we imperil the entire eco-system in which it played its part. Pollution, along with climate change and habitat destruction, is one of the most culpable drivers of extinction, now proceeding at a pace comparable with the great extinctions of the geological past.
In Genesis 2, the Garden of Eden story, God places the human(s) in the Garden, "to work it and to safeguard it." That expresses a basic understanding of our relationship to the natural world. Humans are entitled to work it for our benefit, but not to the point of damaging it irreparably. The "working" and the "safeguarding" need to remain in balance.
The Deuteronomy text, known to many as the second paragraph of the "shema" prayer, castigates the Israelites for idolatry. It warns them that the consequences of worshipping false gods will be ecological catastrophe and the destruction of our land's ability to sustain us. This passage was an embarassment to certain non-Orthodox thinkers, a few generations back. For example, the great Reconstructionist theologian, Mordecai Kaplan, omitted that passage from his prayer book. After all, how could a modern Jew, imbued with a scientific world view, believe that God micromanages the environment to allow rain to fall upon the just and withold it from the unjust? But today we may rightly read that passage as especially timely. For,in castigating idolatry, the biblical text may be understood as an indictment of the thoughtless environmental irresponsibility that we, as a species, are practicing on a dangerously augmenting scale. At its heart, the behavior of the polluter says that there are no limits that humans need to respect, no human actions whose consequences will trigger natural changes that we can not control or remedy. That refusal to recognize our basic limits is a form of self-worship-- the most characteristic idolatry of our era. Seen in this light, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 is chillingly relevant: when we idolize ourselves and fail to live gracefully within God's world, we bring about ecological disasters that will sweep us away.
Turning from biblical to rabbinic literature, we likewise find texts that we can marshal for the case that Judaism mandates respect for God's creation and prohibits behavior, such as pollution, expressing disrespect for the environment that God has made. Genesis Rabbah 10, commenting on Genesis 2:1, "[The heavens and the earth were finished} and all their hosts," emphasizes that every species has its worth in the divinely-constructed ecological web. "Even those species that you see and conclude are superfluous in the world, such as flies and gnats-- even they are among the things divinely created; and God uses each of them to fulfill Divine purposes." Here, again, is a basic statement of respect for the diversity of life on earth, and by extension, an underpinning for a contemporary expression of the Jewish ethos of environmental responsibility.
In summation: the application is contemporary, but the Jewish teaching to respect God's world and to avoid polluting it is fully authentic. In fact, today, it is more important than ever that Jewish teachers expound this teaching vigorously.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. (Psalm 24:1)
Lift up your eyes on high and see, Who created these? (Isaiah 40:26)
God said to humanity, "See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Think of this, and do not corrupt or destroy My world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, Chapter 7, Section 13)
You ask a good question, and one which is always important to discuss. While there are many facets to a discussion about environmentalism, you specifically asked about pollution.
The key Jewish value guiding us on the issue of pollution can be found in the Torah, we are taught:
"When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission." (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
From this text, we are taught to be mindful of the nature around us, even in a time of battle. From this text, the great Jewish value of "Do Not Destroy," or "Baal Tashchit" is drawn. Simply put, this is an overarching theme in Jewish life relating to our connection with the environment.
Since the earth belongs to God, and God placed humanity in its care, and we have biblical and rabbinic teachings that guide our sensitivity to this task - Judaism has relied on this value of Baal Taschit - Do Not Destroy - as a reminder of how best to be stewards of the environment.
We know we should not waste. We know we should recycle. We know we should care for the earth. We know we should not pollute. To do the opposite is an affront to the task we have been given - Jews and non-Jews alike - this is a concern for all humanity.
There are a number of great websites that go further into depth. Three that I recommend are:
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