In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Judaism and the Environment

  • Introduction
  • Judaism and Animals
  • Jewish Environmental Organizations
  • Jewish Environmentalism on the Web

Jewish Studies Judaism and the Environment
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0118


Judaism has had much to say about the relationship among God, humanity, and the natural world, but the discourse of Judaism and the environment (that is, nonhuman biota) emerged only in the 1970s in response to the charge of Lynn White Jr. that the responsibility for the current ecological crisis (i.e., soil degradation, air and water pollution, rapid loss of biodiversity, extreme weather events, and the depletion of natural resources) lies squarely at the door of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible, so White claimed, instructed humanity to dominate the natural world in sanctioning human conduct that, over time, brought about the ecological crisis. In response, Jewish theologians and religious leaders disputed this reading of the Bible, arguing that the Bible does not give license to dominate the natural world but rather regulates human interaction with the natural world. Indeed, the biblical command to the first earthling to “till and protect” the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) poses the paradigm for the desired relationship between humanity and the natural world: humans must care for the natural world of which they are part. Elaborating the biblical approach, rabbinic Judaism articulated an ethics of responsibility toward the natural world that God has created. Since the first Earth Day on 22 April 1970 all strands of modern Judaism—Modern Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, and the Jewish Renewal Movement—have engaged in rethinking Judaism in light of environmentalism. In the 1970s and early 1980s the discourse was somewhat apologetic as Jewish theologians and religious leaders defended Judaism, arguing that the Jewish religion does not authorize exploitation of nature but rather calls for the protection and conservation of nature. Published in Jewish journals whose primary readership was Jewish, these essays explained how the belief in God as creator of the world leads to protection of that which properly belongs to God; they explicated biblical and rabbinic norms and values about the environment; they articulated the ethics of responsibility toward the Earth and its inhabitants; and they highlighted the degree to which Judaism is not a glorification of nature but a moral critique of nature. While Jewish theologians began to think through Jewish attitudes toward the environment, the discourse of religion and ecology developed as a distinct specialization within the field of religious studies. Committed to interreligious, comparative analysis of world religions, the discourse of religion and ecology stimulated a discourse on Judaism and the environment because Jewish scholars were invited to contribute essays to special volumes on religion and ecology and to identify what is distinctive about the Jewish approach to environmentalism. By the mid-1980s it was firmly established that Judaism should not be seen as a contributing cause of the environmental crisis but, rather, as a religious response to it. This article surveys the discourse on Judaism and the environment by exploring not only the development of Jewish understanding of nature over time, but also the impact made by contemporary environmentalism on the academic discipline of Jewish studies. To understand Jewish attitudes toward the environment, consideration must be given to Jewish conceptions of nature.

Jewish Environmentalism

The Jewish environmental movement emerged as a distinctive discourse in Jewish life only when environmental activists who were Jews by birth sought to ground their environmental sensibility in the Jewish tradition, both in the Diaspora and in Israel. Jewish religious environmentalism began as a grassroots movement that has gradually attracted the interest of scholars in Jewish studies. At the forefront of the Jewish environmental movement was Ellen Bernstein, the founder of Shomrei Adama (“Guardians of the Earth”), an organization that eventually grew to ten local chapters with membership of several thousands. Shomrei Adamah produced a quarterly news journal, provided speakers for events, ran educational wilderness trips, and captured the imagination of many Jewish scholars, leaders, rabbis, and young adults, for whom it developed a range of educational materials. In the environmental discourse, passionate concern for the well-being of the environment dictated the approach to the primary sources, which were selected to support environmental activism. For this reason the academic discipline of Jewish studies was rather slow to respond to the growing Jewish interest in environmentalism. The first session on Judaism and the environment at the annual convention of the Association for Jewish Studies was held only in 2003 and for the past decade the organization has given relatively little attention to the topic. The academic discourse on Judaism and the environment grew not because of Jewish studies but because of the interreligious discourse of religion and ecology to which Jewish scholars were invited to contribute. By the early 2000s, while the organized Jewish community became more engaged with environmentalism, the academic discourse on Judaism and the environment became more robust, resulting in Anthologies, Single-Authored Books, Chapters in Reference Books and Encyclopedia Entries, and essays in peer-reviewed Special Journal Issues.

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