Q. Does Judaism support environmental causes?
The world was made for man, not man for the world. Divine creation reached its peak with the emergence of man, to whom was given the right to enjoy, inhabit and utilise nature (Gen. 1:28). According to the Midrash, God told Adam, “See how lovely and worthy of praise are My works. All are there for your sake.” (Midrash to Kohelet 7:13)
Man has priority over nature. He is no interloper or latecomer on the stage of history. His creation was part of the Divine plan. The world was brought into being as an arena for human action – but God warned, “Take care not to spoil or destroy My world”. Samson Raphael Hirsch comments, “If you destroy, you are not a man; you have no right to the things around you, and you sin against Me” (commentary to Deut. 20:20; Horeb, ch. 56).
The sources seem to imply four principles about man and nature:
• If man threatens nature, nature has to be protected against human greed and negligence.
• If nature threatens man, man has to be protected.
• If nature wreaks tsunamis, man must battle nature’s ferocity.
• In the last analysis, if man and nature become enemies, man’s rights must be upheld, and the champions of the environment must not diminish or ignore reasonable human need.
I was once involved in a situation in Australia in which a set of ethnic and religious groups nominated me to put their case to the government. At Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney, the use of undeveloped areas reserved for burial purposes was being opposed by environmentalists who argued that burying people in the cemetery might mean uprooting significant species of vegetation. I argued that legitimate human need should override the case for the vegetation. I insisted that nature was made for man, not man for nature.
Normally a healthy relationship is possible between man and nature, and the needs of nature are in the long run the interests of man too. But in a situation of conflict, reasonable human need must prevail. I said that the dead cannot be left lying in the street until the environmentalists come to their senses.