A well-known verse declares, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). God is the landlord; man is the tenant, responsible for looking after the landlord’s property.
Another verse says, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to the sons of men”. (Psalm 115:16). This verse places no bounds on human beings. They are free to roam and explore the earth, with the right to consider nature as their own.
No wonder a group of Protestant theologians stated in The New York Times in 1970, “The despoiling of the world about us is rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic that views the world as put there for man’s benefit and enjoyment”.
The truer reading of the Biblical material links the two concepts – God’s ownership, and man’s rights. It says, enjoy the earth – but do not forget that it remains God’s property, not yours. He has posted up the rules, headed by Lo tash’chit, “Do not destroy!”
A similar Jewish ethic applies to the human body. “It’s my life, isn’t it?” runs the conventional question, heard from one end of life (“it’s my right to have an abortion and prevent the baby being born!”) to the other (“I have the right to die when I decide!”).
Justice Cardozo gave legal sanction to this approach when he said, “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body”.
Jewish moral teaching disagrees. Paralleling its approach to the question of land ownership and rights, it says that the body belongs to God.
Not long ago, an Australian coroner asserted that as a matter of law, the body of a deceased person belongs to the coroner: a provocative statement, possibly valid in terms of strict law, but quite unacceptable to the Bible-based moral tradition.
Biblical morality insists that no-one, neither the family, the state, or even a person himself, owns his body. No one may give permission to anyone else to injure them or mutilate their body in any way (even after death, which explains our opposition to cremation and routine autopsies).
Nor may we injure or jeopardise our own person or life. As the Shulchan Aruch HaRav says, “A person’s body is not his own property but that of the Holy one, Blessed be He”.