Harvesting Jewish learning to nurture an environmental ethic

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld leads Tu B'Shevat Text Study

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld leads Tu B’Shevat Text Study

Yesterday, AARC and the Jewish Alliance for Food, Land, and Justice hosted 50 people for two lovely events, led by our visiting Rabbi, Michael Strassfeld.  Tu B’Shevat–the “birthday of the trees”–provided us a great occasion to focus for the weekend on Judaism and the environment.

Another post will talk about the Tu B’Shevat seder.  In this one, I want to share with people who couldn’t make it to the afternoon text study some of the passages and insights offered by Rabbi Michael.

We started with two verses from Deuteronomy (20:19-20):

When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees may you destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.

It’s an interesting passage, with several ideas in it.  For starters, the text suggests that even in war, ethical constraints remain–and not just the most urgent ethical constraints, dealing directly with human lives.  Fruit trees take many years to grow, and of course they are important sources of food.  So this rule against their destruction may be founded on the obligations the current generation has to the future.

It’s a limited point, though; the explicit permission to use other, non-fruit-bearing, trees as battering rams and so on makes that clear.  This is not a modern environmentalism; it’s expressing something narrower. Still, we learned, Maimonides extended the concept somewhat:

It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a (besieged) city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. . . . [This applies] not only to cutting it down during a siege, but whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent.  . . . It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater (than that of the fruit it produces).  The Law forbids only wanton destruction.  . . . Not only one who cuts down (fruit-producing) trees, but also one who smashes household good, tears cloths, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys aricles of food with destructive intent, transgresses the command Thou shalt not destroy (bal tashit). 

So according to Maimonides, the passage in Deuteronomy amounts to a comprehensive ethical ban on “wanton destruction,” whether in time of war or not, whether of a fruit tree or something else.  This is broader, for sure–but still very limited.  It reaches only wanton destruction: destruction that is for no appropriate purpose.  And the focus remains on present-day human purposes.  It seems to me the passage from Maimonides doesn’t quite capture the cross-generational insight from the original Torah passage.  But that’s what we moved to next.

Genesis 2:15 tells the story of Adam: “God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and take care of it.” (le-avdah ule-shamra)  Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28, a midrashic text, expands on this:

In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, God took the human and let the human pass before all the trees in the garden of Eden.  God said “See my works, how fine and excellent they are!  Now all that I have created for you have I created.  Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.

Here we see much more of a stewardship idea.  And Rabbi Michael explained, too, that the Hebrew root, shomer שמר, has a legal connotation of guardianship or obligation to protect. (It seemed from what he was saying to match the Anglo-American common law of bailors; people strongly obligated to protect property lent to them.)  So this is a more expansive view; humans are stewards of the earth, obliged to protect it for future generations.  As well, the midrash includes a very modern sense of the malleability of nature at the hands of humans, the potential for wholesale destruction or corruption. It’s an early warning of the possibility of environmental devastation which didn’t really crystallize for hundreds of years.

All that said, the passage remains very human-focused; it quotes God saying that “I have created [the trees] for you”–for people to use. The next passages widen the circle of concern even more.  First, a passage from the Mishnah, Berakhot 35a:

Our rabbis have taught It is forbidden for a person to enjoy anything of this world without a berakhah (blessing)… R Levi contrasted two texts. It is written: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof'(Ps. 24:1); and it is also written: ”The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth God has given to human beings” (Ps.115: 16). There is no contradiction: in the one case, it is before a blessing has been said; in the other case, after. 

All things belong to God, then, and when we use them, it’s a gift, not a matter of right. And many people in the study session talked about how the practice of blessings helps them to appreciate the interconnectedness of nature and humans.

And Midrash on Psalms 117:

Rabbi Tanhum hen Hiyya taught: The sending of rain is an event greater than the giving of the Torah. The Torah was a joy for Israel only, but rain gives joy to the entire world, including animals and birds–as it is said: “You [God] take care of the earth and irrigate it…” (Ps. 65: 10). 

This is not merely universalist with respect to humankind, but respect to all creatures.  It’s a stunning passage, really, in light of the Torah’s centrality to the Jewish experience.

And finally, from two additional midrashic texts:

Our rabbis said: “Even those things that you may regard as completely superfluous to creation, such as fleas, gnats, and flies, even they too were included in creation; and God’s purpose is carried out through everything-even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, or a frog.” [Genesis Rabbah 10:7]

Why did God create loathsome reptiles and creeping things? … God created Adam and brought him into the world. And God created Adam for no other purpose than to serve God with a whole heart and God would thus find contentment in him and in his descendants after him until the end of all generations. But then after Adam complied with the command to be fruitful and multiply, one [descendant] worshiped the sun and the moon, another worshiped wood and stone, and thus every day Adam’s descendants came to be deemed by God as deserving annihilation. Nevertheless, upon considering all the work of God’s hands in the world of creation, God said: “These [human beings] have life, and those [other creatures] have life. These have breath and those have breath; these have desire for food and drink, and those have desire for food and drink. Human beings ought to be deemed as important as cattle, as beasts, at least as important as the variety of loathsome reptiles and creeping things which I created upon the earth.” At once God felt some measure of contentment and resolved not to annihilate humankind. And so you see that reptiles and creeping things were created in the world as a means of humankind’s preservation. [Eliyahu Rahbah, ch. 1]

These passages, Rabbi Michael taught, radically invert the hierarchy of concern that puts humans at the top.  Errant humans–those who worshiped the sun  or idols–were preserved from destruction because God thought they were not less worthy than snakes, scorpions, gnats, or frogs.

Kol HaKavod to Rabbi Michael for sharing his deep knowledge of Jewish teachings with us.  I know I learned a ton.