The transition from paganism to monotheism was marked, in part, by the insight that God is not fully expressed by the workings of creation but rather is above nature, beyond or outside it. As important as this insight is, it has the potential of playing into human egotism. For if we are created in God’s image and God is above and beyond the world, then are we not also above and beyond the world?
In addition, the blessing in Genesis for humans to “manage” or “rule over” the world can lead us to think of nature solely as an instrument for our use. These ideas support the view that nature can be molded to our will and that human control of nature is not only necessary for human comfort or survival, but is commanded by God.
Many of the ecological problems we face today are the result of this way of thinking. Global warming, loss of species and habitat, and toxic industrial processes and waste products can all be viewed as the direct consequence of seeing nature only as an instrument for human use and not as having its own value.
Jewish texts can also remind us how we are part of nature and that nature is not only dependent upon us, but we are dependent upon it.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “Three things are of equal importance: earth, humans and rain.” Rabbi Levi ben Hiyyata said, “…to teach that without earth, there is no rain, and without rain, the earth cannot endure, and without either, humans cannot exist.” – Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, 13:3.
We cannot survive as a species without the earth on which to live and grow our food, and without rain to water our crops and ourselves. Our interconnections with nature are so strong that our obligation to care for creation takes precedence over greeting the messiah!
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.” – Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 31b.
Even if the most important thing that can possibly happen in the entire history of the world were to happen – if redemption at long last were to come – your excitement and celebration of it must be delayed while you fulfill your responsibility to care for nature.
Nor should we think of nature as simply a means to fulfill our wishes.
It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else. – Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 456.
Loss of species diversity – from animals to apples – is caused by the narrowing of varieties for convenience, packaging and transport, or aesthetics. It is caused by people seeing species solely as a means to the satisfaction of human needs, rather than as a part of creation that has its own intrinsic value that exists for its own sake, as Maimonides reminds us.
Every decision we make, both individually – about what we purchase, about what kind of car we drive, about what kind of food we eat, about what kind of fuel we use to heat our homes – and as a society – about what kind of transportation system we will support, about what kind of crops we will grow, about how we will generate the electricity needs of our great cities – has an impact on the world and on the environment.
We can see the world as something to be used by us until it is used up, or we can take the approach the world is a gift to us from God that we are both to use and to care for. Only if we see ourselves as part of the world, and see ourselves as entrusted with the responsibility to till and tend it, will we wish to put our own selfish needs aside and fulfill that trust for future generations.
Questions for Thought and Discussion:
Rabbi Moti Rieber graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2004, and served Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois, from 2004 to 2007. He previously served as Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. He is the author or co-author of a number of articles on Jewish approaches to voluntary simplicity, and is co-author of Reconstructionist Education’s Frequently Asked Questions.