Long before the Greenpeace movement began, a stalwart group of environmental pioneers fought against the pollution of rivers. In addition, they took steps to protect animal species under threat of extinction, and set ethical standards to maintain not only a physical, but also a moral standard of living. Become acquainted with the oldest Green party in history…
In recent decades, the message has finally sunken in. Today it is clear, at least in the Western hemisphere, that there are any number of delicate balances in the world of Nature, each of them an essential to the future well-being of the human race. Upset the scales, and man's very existence on this planet is threatened. The struggle which in the past was the exclusive domain of the conservationists suddenly has finally become important to the general populace. Nowadays, ecological problems are in the spotlight throughout the world. International committees and councils deliberate and prominent statesmen sit long hours together seeking mutually acceptable solutions to international conflicts of ecological interests.
Who today has not heard of the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, and global warming? In addition, on a local level, we experience the negative consequences of long-term environmental neglect and negligence. One of the most widespread of these is the devastating pollution of our sources of water. In 2008, there were approximately 14 million cars and trucks on the streets and highways of our globe – one for every eleven souls – each spewing out smog and other pollutants. How many antennas broadcast invisible waves all around and through our defenseless bodies? How many cell phones give off radiation about which we would rather not know?
The list is depressingly long. There are rain forests disappearing by the acre, even though no one can guarantee that the change in ecologic balances will not bring disaster in its wake. Every year, more endangered species disappear into oblivion, and it is clear that we are consuming our natural resources far more rapidly than we are replenishing them. The dimensions of wasted goods in modern society are beyond anything our ancestors dreamed of owning and using purposefully, much less tossing into the garbage. A recent study made by researchers at the University of Arizona found that 40 – 50% of the food crops grown in the United States are never eaten, but go to waste. In the typical American home, some 15% of the food products purchased find their way to the garbage can rather than being consumed. This includes unopened cans of preserved foods and other closed packaged products still suited for human consumption. Don't feel like eating it? Simply toss it into the nearest friendly garbage can. All in all, the total cost to the nation of wasted food totals some 43 billion dollars a year.
Today, the public acknowledges the problem; the question is only what needs to be done about it, by whom, and who will pay for it. Any number of scientists and government agencies are at work to devise new methods and inventions to avoid the self-destruction on the horizon. But can it work? Will innovations such as solar-powered cars, non-polluting fuels and major recycling programs suffice to save the planet from self-destruction?
Many experts believe that the answer is no. They argue that technological changes alone cannot stave off environmental destruction. We must alter not only what we do, but also how we think about our relationship to our home planet and its resources. A shift in social values and awareness is the only solution, they tell us.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in increasing environmental awareness. He declared: "The climate crisis is not a political issue; it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity. It is also our greatest opportunity to raise global consciousness to a higher level." Mr. Gore went on to define the difference in outlook we must achieve if we are to rescue planet Earth from self-destruction. Our most fundamental definitions of the purpose of human existence must be entirely reversed. Rather than asking ourselves what we can get out of life, we must ask what we can give to our fellowmen and to our planet. Rather than valuing those who have managed to amass more material wealth, those who see themselves as the center of their world, we must seek the long-term welfare of mankind as a whole and guard this globe which serves as the home we share.
Indeed, Mr. Gore's words present us with a lofty goal. However, even Nobel laureates Gore and his fellow Greens have yet to propose some marvelous method of teaching mankind to think in terms of spiritual gain. As valid as they are, Mr. Gore's words do not provide his adherents with a set of practical tools with which to lift themselves above the natural egoism built into the human personality. Like other experts in the field, the former vice president believes that environmental awareness and the ecological legislation which follows from it are recent developments. In their view, it is only of late that man has come to grasp the full importance of maintaining the flora and fauna of our planet and protecting it from damage.
In the past, man treated the earth and its resources as a bottomless pit; it never occurred to him that in his wanton exploitation of his environment, he might well be cutting off the branch on which he sits. Little wonder that Mr. Gore, together with the bulk of western academia, arrived at this conclusion. A survey of ancient cultures and medieval cultures and their legislation will reveal few examples of ecological legislation in the centuries gone by.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gore, on this one point of the history of environmental concern, we beg to differ with you. Good conservationism, ecological awareness, social responsibility, and much more, have been there for the taking far longer than you suspect. The Torah of Israel preceded you, and it did so by several thousand years.
Judaism presents a remarkably advanced model for the ecosystem, one which surpasses in its scope and depth even that of the modern Greenpeace movement. The Torah worldview is not content with merely taking punitive action against environmental offenders; it also tracks down the root cause of their negative behaviors and teaches us how to replace these harmful attitudes with a conservation-positive approach to life. As we shall see below, the Torah is the oldest record we have of so-called "green" legislation. Moreover, it has also provided the world with innovative ideas which Western society has become aware of only in recent decades. There is no aspect of ecological policy to which Jewish scholars and adjudicators did not give their attention.
In short, Mr. Gore, may we suggest that the key success in achieving the greener, more perfect world of your dreams is to be found in the Jewish bookcase?
Healthful Urban Centers – Rings of Green
Already thousands of years ago, rabbinic legal texts discussed endless issues dealing with ecological justice. One of the accomplishments of Torah law is to protect the right of each of us to a flourishing, healthful environment. Starting over three thousand years ago, Jewish law adjudicated between neighbors regarding damages caused by unfair environmental practices.
In contrast, let us ask ourselves when Western man first began to make a conscious effort to make fresh air and vegetation accessible to one and all.
In 1898, an original thinker, Englishman Ebenezer Howard, presented his then-innovative vision of the "preplanned city." His ideal metropolis was an urban area of limited, predefined dimensions, to be surrounded by a belt of green. Howard also proposed to separate residential areas from industrial parks, an idea downright revolutionary in those days. Furthermore, Howard postulates that the residents of his utopian, green-belted cities will be emotionally balanced and peace-loving. This phenomenon would prevent the development of social and moral ills so prevalent in the world's oldest, best-established cities.
To us, children of the twenty-first century, it may seem surprising that such sensible ideas were set forth only in the late nineteenth century. The first city in the world to be planned and built on these principles was England's Letchworth Garden City, established in 1903. Even then, an ecologically thought-out city was not a commonly accepted ideal. Letchworth came about not by government backing, but as the result of a private initiative backed by supporters of Howard's proposals. Only half a century later, in the 1950's, did Howard's life-preserving concepts become widely accepted as an integral principle of modern urban planning.
With his innovations, Howard achieved three objectives: to keep urban expansion to tolerable limits, to create a clear separation between residential and industrial areas, and to enhance the contact between human residents and the world of nature by ensuring there would be wide, inviting public parks accessible to all, no matter where in the city their homes might be located.
Howard was widely praised as a visionary who could see and understand concepts his contemporaries failed to perceive. However, the fact of the matter is that the urban pattern he proposed was a close imitation of that set forth in Chapter XXXV of the Book of Numbers, thousands of years beforehand. There the Torah clearly describes the layout of the special residential centers designated for members of the tribe of Levi. Each city must include two rings of open land as integral parts of the city. The inner ring was to be some 1600-2000 feet wide, while another, outer, ring around the entire city was to be approximately 3200 to 4000 feet wide.
What purpose did the inner ring of public land serve? The eminent eleventh century commentator, Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, (Rashi), explains in Tractate Eruvin, page 33: "A part of the countryside around, to be built into the city, to beautify it. And no one is permitted to build a house (there) or to plant a vineyard, nor to sow seed." In more modern terminology, we would call this inner circle of land a nature reserve. In contrast, the outer green ring is to be allocated for agricultural use.
The Halachah – Torah law – clearly states that the status of these two circular areas is absolute. They cannot be offered for sale nor can they be appropriated for other purposes. Furthermore, the law states that, although the Torah establishes this template when laying down the instructions for the cities of the tribe of Levi, the same regulations should serve as the blueprint for all the cities of Israel.
The green ring that surrounds the city serves two purposes. It prevents creeping urbanism, and at the same time, provides city dwellers imprisoned in their towers of concrete with a precious taste of the natural fields. Judaism views this bond with nature as essential to man's emotional balance.
No additional legislation was required in order to curb urban expansion. When the population outgrew existing boundaries, the only way to alleviate the pressure was the establishment of new cities on land that was as yet undeveloped and was not yet cultivated for agriculture.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of Frankfort, Germany, commented on the topic of the Torah's urban planning:
"It seems that this law is intended to limit the city's spreading, so that it not become a huge metropolis whose inhabitants are completely cut off from the open fields. Open land delineated the boundaries of the city; no other legal instrument was needed. If the city became overcrowded, the only solution was to establish a new town on land that was not being used for agricultural purposes."
This is only one of the Torah's regulations which contributed to maintaining the city dweller's quality of life. Other examples include the prohibition of opening a factory or workshop emitting smoke or foul odors to the west of the town, where the wind would blow the offensive air into the city itself. Another regulation forbids opening any factory or workshop that produces smoke or soot in Jerusalem or its suburbs, lest the pollution deface the walls encircling the city.
Keeping the Environment Pristine
The dilemma of environmental pollution is high on the list of the ecological issues nowadays. This problem came to the forefront as a result of the growing number of cases featured in international media, such as that of the Exxon Valdez. This oil tanker caused an ecological disaster of huge proportions when it ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the open seas. Another tragic disaster occurred in Bhopal, India, where thousands of people perished when a malfunction in a chemical plant released a cloud of poisonous gas into the air.
Such cases and others like them raise a host of fundamental questions, such as: Is a person to be held responsible for environmental disasters if he allows them to occur in populated areas? Is it possible to restrict the use a person may make of his private property when it disturbs his neighbors or endangers their well-being?
A perusal of Jewish sources will quickly lead us to the conclusion that the sages of old were mindful of these questions, and dealt with them at length. We see that Rabbi Moses Maimonides, (1135-1204) in his Laws of Neighbors, Chapter XI, Paragraph Six, states that a person must avoid bringing home any potential source of hazard to those around him, unless his neighbors have foregone their right to object and have agreed to his doing so.
There is an exception to this rule in the case of four specific types of hazard, namely smoke, dust, odors, and vibration. Regarding these disturbances, a person may lodge a complaint even if he initially did agree to forgo this right. Even if he initially absolved his neighbor from responsibility for any of these four phenomena, a person may later change his mind and lodge a complaint. Needless to say, these four factors remain key irritants with which the modern city dweller is compelled to contend.
The Rambam adds that every resident is entitled to enjoy peace and quiet without having to deal with annoyances imposed on him by his neighbors. Thus it follows that the law gives him the right to prevent his neighbors from engaging in any practice which will attract ravens or other birds to the area. The same ruling applies to any factor which will make the immediate environment any noisier than it is at present.
This statement formed the basis for a verdict handed down by Rabbi Isaac BarSheshet (the Ribash), a renowned scholar and decisor of the fourteenth century. A Jewish resident of Castile lodged a complaint against a neighbor who was a weaver by trade. When in use, the neighbor's loom, which was presumably of sizable dimensions, made the walls of the plaintiff's house vibrate. The defendant countered that it was his right to do as he pleased within the four walls of his house, and added that moving the weaving machine to another location would involve great expense. Rabbi BarSheshet decided in favor of the complainant. In rendering his decision, he laid down a legal principle of great significance: "A person has no right to avoid a loss to himself by bringing harm upon others."
These examples are but a random sampling of the ancient juristic legacy found in the Torah which protects the individual's right to a healthful, harmonious environment free of hazards. Our Sages clearly set forth the duty of each resident to refrain from causing harm to those living around him or to the environment as a whole.
Pollution of Society’s Ethical Environment
The Jewish Sages took responsibility not only for the physical environment, but also pioneered in the field of spiritual ecology. According to the Jewish worldview, each of us is entitled to live in harmonious community, unchallenged by morally negative stimuli. This is a far cry from the world as we experience it today. In modern, Western societies, we are bombarded by violence, licentiousness, avarice, and crime, whether white-collar or outright theft, bribery, and worse, from the moment we open our eyes in the morning until we drift off into hopefully peaceful slumber, at night. (There is no guarantee, for that matter, that the violence and bloodshed to which we are exposed by day will not disturb our dreams and those of our children even when we are asleep.)
We know all too well that internet, television, literature and newspapers flood our daily lives with brutality and provocations of all types, forms, and colors. Rather than enhancing our social ethic, modern media grossly pollute it. Anything that erodes the moral sensitivity threshold, which negatively affects the moral environment, or weakens the individual's inner resistance to evil, constitutes cultural pollution no less a hazard than a toxic gas or a radioactive cloud.
Negative cultural messages permeate the inner layers of the mind and pollute the groundwater of the human soul. They affect the sub-conscious and corrupt our personality – and particularly, that of our youth – without our realizing what is happening to us. Just as the science of ecology has taught us, the damage is not immediately apparent. We know that toxic substances accumulate for years before the catastrophic effects of their poisons are visible to the naked eye.
What is more, uncontrolled, massive exposure to the explicit and implicit messages of the Affluent Society reinforces the egoistic tendencies inherent in each of us; as a result, we tend to give more and more precedence to our own needs over those of others.
The end result of repeated exposure to the "I come first" culture? As dangerous a threat to the ethics of our society as the ozone hole or an El Nino. It may override any previous values, since it derides any moral considerations which stand as an obstacle to my realizing my heart's desires, or, "doing my own thing."
Let's imagine a child growing up in a healthy, balanced spiritual environment. We are careful to provide him with healthful foods, free of toxic pesticides. Our home and his school are located in areas free of harmful air pollutants. Each day he is exposed to inspiring vistas of the beauty of nature.
Equally important is the spiritual food we provide for him. Is it rich in "spiritual vitamins?" Is the child surrounded by people who present a model for kindness and giving, for self-control and consideration for others? Is our child learning to live with modesty and self-dignity? If so, the chances are very good that he will mature into a healthy, caring, socially responsible citizen of his world.
Mr. Al Gore speaks of spiritual thinking, but he does not suggest a practical plan for transforming a more and more self-centered, self-destructing ethos into an altruistic society oriented to the noble values for which he strives. The Torah does furnish us with a working plan. The solution to this seemingly complex challenge is to be found in the words of our Sages:
"When G-d created Adam," the Midrash relates, "He took him on a tour of all the trees of the Garden of Eden. He said, "Look at My works; see how beautiful everything is. Keep this in mind: Do not ruin any part of it; do not destroy My world, for, if you do ruin it, there is no one who will come after you and repair it."
The message is clearly stated: There is a direct line of cause and effect between what we do and what our world will have the resources to do for us. Man, and only Man, must accept the responsibility for what is happening on our planet, and what will happen to it in the future.
Let's meet the challenge head-on. If we join hands and pitch in together, we can look forward to returning this world to its pristine, healthful state, physically and spiritually, just as when it was first created.