Towards a Jewish Land Ethic

BY: Tali Adler

The concept of a comprehensive “land ethic” was first introduced by Aldo Leopold, the famous American environmentalist, in his 1948 book, A Sand County Almanac.[i] In this seminal work, Leopold described the need to expand the scope of ethics to include not only humanity, as it had been defined until that point, but the biosphere as a whole, including plants, animals, land, and water. Leopold argued for a non-anthropocentric ethic in which humanity would be seen as merely one segment of the Earth’s total population with the responsibility to behave in an ethical manner with respect to the Earth itself as well as to its other inhabitants. In his famous essay, Leopold wrote that the prevailing attitude until that time was one that advocated human use of the Earth and its resources in whatever manner people saw fit. He claimed that this attitude stemmed directly from Judeo-Christian ethics, particularly the famous twenty-eighth verse of the first chapter of Genesis in which God commands the first man and woman to “dominate the earth and subdue it.”[ii] Such an understanding of the Jewish approach was not unusual in the works of those who advocated ecological reforms and responsibility to the Earth. Indeed, in his essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” the famed historian Lynn White, Jr., went so far as to assert that the Bible bore the primary responsibility for the Western mentality towards the natural world and its disastrous effect upon the natural environment.[iii]

However, despite the common and famous misperceptions, a close examination of traditional Jewish writings and biblical law shows that Judaism does not simply view the Earth as man’s domain to rule however he sees fit. On the contrary, Judaism takes a theocentric view of the world that sees both man and the Earth as God’s creations and under His ultimate control. Although Man is certainly superior to the animals in that he was created in the image of God, this superiority does not grant him ownership of creation. Judaism warns against the human tendency to view the Earth and its inhabitants as existing only or primarily for human benefit and takes precautions to ensure that man treats them with the proper respect.

An attempt to rebuff the claim that Judaism takes a purely anthropocentric view of the world must begin with the verse most cited by the claim’s proponents, Genesis 1:28, in which God blesses man, telling him, “Peru u-revu u-mil’u et ha-arets ve-kivshuha,” “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.”[iv] Those who blame the Bible for a pervasive proprietary attitude of callousness toward the Earth generally stop their analysis of Genesis here. However, further analysis of the first book of the Bible shows that man’s “mastery” over the Earth is severely tempered by the knowledge that he is but one of the Earth’s many inhabitants and must treat the others, as well as the Earth itself, with respect. This message is made clear at the beginning of the second chapter of Genesis when God commands man “to guard and keep” the Earth.[v] Man is granted permission to consume vegetation but is still forbidden from eating meat. Clearly, if Man is given any special position of authority here, it is as a guardian of the Earth, not as its owner.

It is only after the failure of the first generations of  an and the subsequent Flood that man is granted permission to eat meat.[vi] God grants this permission in a blessing to Noah after the Flood waters abate. Although this blessing echoes the original blessing granted to Adam, one key element is missing: the blessing of “dominion” over the Earth. Man may now consume meat, as many animals do, but he is no longer deemed worthy to rule over the other species. It is only when God deems man responsible enough to refrain from needlessly harming other inhabitants of the Earth that he is worthy to be their guardian. Rabbinic sources view this permission as a form of concession to man’s immorality and bloodlust granted only after the generation of the Flood had proved man’s inherent wickedness.[vii] However, even this concession comes with a caveat: man may kill animals for food, but he is forbidden from consuming their blood, which is said to represent their “life.”[viii] Ramban comments that the rationale for this is that “the possessor of a soul may not consume another soul, since all souls, both human and animal, belong to God.”[ix]

The Jewish idea that man is merely a part of nature and not its center is expanded upon throughout the Bible and rabbinic literature. In the Book of Job, God spends approximately two chapters reproving Job for his belief that man, and particularly Job himself, is the center of the world. Indeed, God asks Job, “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk grows pinions, spreads his wings to the south? Does the eagle soar at your command, building his nest high?”[x] God emphasizes that man shares the Earth with many other inhabitants and should not believe himself to be the sole focus of creation. The Psalmist, too, took this view, writing poems in which nature itself praises God, entirely independently of man. This theme would continue to play a role in rabbinic literature throughout the centuries, most notably in Perek Shirah, a hymn written in the year 900, in which animals, trees, and the stars themselves are quoted as having their own songs to praise God.

Many halakhot can be interpreted as attempts to reinforce such sentiments and remind Man of his obligation to respect the Earth and its inhabitants. The most obvious of such laws is that of bal tashhit, the commandment against needless waste of resources. The law is derived from a passage in Deuteronomy regarding the laws of war:

“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?”[xi]

Rashi explains that the verse seeks to emphasize that the tree is not part of the group against whom the nation is waging war. Instead, the tree is an independent entity with its own right to life, regardless of its environment, and should thus be saved from needless destruction.[xii] The Rabbis later expanded this injunction to prohibit any unnecessary waste or destruction of either natural or man-made items.[xiii] In his seminal work Horeb, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch states that the law of bal tashhit is, in effect, “the warning of God: ‘Do not corrupt or destroy anything’ […] from the earth which bears them all to the garment which you have already transformed into your cover.”[xiv] Bal tashhit is a clear proclamation that things, both animate and inanimate, have a right to existence outside of their benefit to humanity and that man is forbidden from wantonly destroying them.

Other laws that encourage man to realize the limits of his authority over creation include the injunctions against causing unnecessary pain to animals. These laws include prohibitions against harnessing species of different sizes together (causing the smaller one to be dragged along with the larger one),[xv] or muzzling an animal while it is threshing (in essence, making it work amidst food without allowing it to eat).[xvi] These laws are designed to prevent animals from suffering unnecessary physical pain, a practical step to ensure that humanity realizes that it cannot do with other creatures as it sees fit without moral boundaries.

Indeed, the rabbinic tendency to encourage humane treatment of animals expands even to areas where it seems counterintuitive: the laws of kashrut, particularly those involving the ritual slaughter of animals for food. The laws of kashrut require that the animal be slaughtered in a particular way, with one clean cut, designed to minimize suffering. In addition, the law requires that the animal’s blood be covered. Certain rabbinic sources interpret these laws as attempts to instill a sense of shame in man and remind him that the ideal diet is a vegetarian one. Most prominent among these rabbis is Rav Avraham Yitshak ha-Kohen Kook, who writes:

“A sense of shame is the first step towards a cure. […] Cover the blood, remove your shame! These acts will bear fruit, and eventually people will learn the lesson. The silent protest will then emerge in a loud and powerful voice, and will achieve its aim. The command to slaughter in a sanctioned and painless manner underscores the message that we are not dealing with a castaway object – a lifeless automat – but with a living thing.”[xvii]

In his famous Talelei Orot (Dewdrops of Light), Rav Kook went on to write that eventually, in the messianic age, humanity will return to an entirely vegetarian diet as a result of its heightened sense of morals. This idea, that the ideal that we should strive for is a world that includes animals as beings that we do not consume, is a strong component of the Jewish land ethic.  Biblical narratives and laws are meant to guide the Jewish people in particular, and humanity in general, to an era in which all the Earth’s inhabitants will be treated ethically.

Judaism’s sensitivity towards the ethical treatment of nature extends beyond the bounds of animal life to include the land itself. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy each describe the laws relating to shemittah, the sabbatical year. The Torah warns that if the laws of shemittah are not observed, the people will be exiled from their land so that the earth may enjoy the years of rest it had missed.[xviii] This passage makes it clear that the law of shemittah commands that the people allow the land to rest for its own sake, rather than for any ostensible agricultural benefit. Of course, the law has other ramifications as well: in the Torah’s suspension of the concept of private ownership of land, man is reminded that he does not, and indeed can never, have absolute control over the Earth. The Earth is its own entity, which, like man himself, ultimately “belongs” to no one but God Himself.

One of the most intriguing aspects of shemittah is the language the Bible uses in its description. In the passages describing shemittah, the Bible uses the word shabbat (sabbath), a word used in only one other context in the Bible: the command to refrain from all forms of creative work on the seventh day. Interestingly, this is the only biblical command that applies to animals as well as to human beings: people are forbidden from working their animals on the Sabbath. In prohibiting man from all forms of creative work, the Bible essentially mandates one day a week where man is forbidden from altering the natural environment in any way. According to R. Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “Shabbat reminds us of our earthly status as tenant and not overlord.”[xix] The biblical concept of Sabbath and its links to the laws of shemittah seem designed to instill an awareness of the fact that man’s rightful benefit from nature is not absolute. The Earth has a purpose and right to exist entirely of its own, independent of its benefit to man.

In spite of Judaism’s incredible plethora of textual support for a “land ethic,” the idea of environmentalism is often underemphasized in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. Orthodox Jewish day schools rarely focus on the parts of Jewish law that deal with the human relationship to the land. Although Jewish holidays and festivals relating to the land are duly celebrated, they are often viewed primarily as ritualistic in nature rather than as meaningful celebrations and reminders of the Jewish perspective on man’s relationship to the land and environment. For two thousand years, this was sufficient. Without a land to call their own (and, indeed, without legal ability to own land in many countries of the Exile), Jews had little need for a land ethic in their daily lives. Today, however, this is no longer true. The Jewish People has returned to Israel, once again assuming responsibility for agriculture and acquiring the privilege of land ownership. If Orthodox Judaism is to thrive and continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century, this attitude must change. Orthodox Jews must begin to realize that the fact that the Jewish People is no longer “a people without a land” means that they must undergo a religious paradigm shift in addition to the political one they have already undergone. It is time that Orthodox Judaism revive the millennia-old concept of a religious commitment to the land and the environment and accept the responsibility that comes with that revival.

Tali Adler is a junior at SCW majoring in Political Science and Jewish Studies.


[i] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).

[ii] Ibid., p. 246.

[iii] David Vogel, “How Green Is Judaism? Exploring Jewish Environmental Ethics,” Business Ethics Quarterly 11,2 (2001): 349-363.

[iv] All translations from Tanakh are from the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (2000).

[v] Genesis 2:15.

[vi] Ibid. 9:3.

[vii] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, 1996), p. 289.

[viii] Genesis 9:4.

[ix] Ramban ad loc.

[x] Job 39:26.

[xi] Deuteronomy 20:19.

[xii] Rashi ad loc.

[xiii] Shabbat 67b, Hullin 7b.

[xiv] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, transl. by Isidor Grunfeld (London: Soncino Press, 2002), pp. 279-280.

[xv] Deuteronomy 22:10.

[xvi] Deuteronomy 25:4.

[xvii] From Rav Kook’s Talelei Orot (Dewdrops of Light), cited by Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, 1996), p. 138 (emphasis mine).

[xviii] Leviticus 26:34-35.

[xix] Saul Berman, “Jewish Environmental Values: The Dynamic Tension Between Nature and Human Needs,” Human Values and the Environment 1,3 (1992): 1-72, at p. 4.