Ask the Rabbi: Does Jewish law advocate recycling?

The writer points out that while humans have unique privileges, their responsibilities are greater and include stewardship over the Earth.

A young girl walks in a green park. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A young girl walks in a green park.
Recycling waste products represents the most prominent public effort toward promoting sustainable use of the earth’s resources, by encouraging recycling of waste products.
While economists and environmental activists continue to debate which strategies succeed within the broader agenda of “reduce, reuse and recycle,” most agree that any effective conservationist strategies will need to employ values resonant within our culture.
In 1967, historian Lynn White contended that biblical theology stood at the root of the ecological crisis. Citing God’s command to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule… every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28), White asserted that this mind-set prioritized human needs and encouraged the exploitation of the natural world.
Many environmentalists suggested alternative worldviews that advocated “biocentrism,” which promoted egalitarian claims to all living organisms – human, animal or plant. These thinkers further averred that those who prioritized human needs were merely hanging on to vestiges of ancient social hierarchies that had also suppressed women and slaves.
Many Jewish (and Christian) thinkers responded by asserting that anti-religious claims would only harm the environmental agenda.
They further retorted that the biblical attitude to the environment, while decidedly anthropocentric, was much more nuanced and accountable.
The biblical view of nature assuredly differs greatly from ancient mythologies which, as Umberto Cassuto noted, identified different parts of the universe with various deities. In contrast, the Bible promotes the idea that God transcends nature and has dominion over all of its resources; this stature gives God the power to grant humans their unique traits as well as entitlements to the world.
Yet as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik argued, a careful read of the creation story reveals that biblical theology also sees humans as members of the organic world, bearing important similarities to animals and plants. Humans have unique privileges but also the responsibilities of stewardship over the Earth, as exemplified by the command to “work and preserve” life within the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein understood this verse as an imperative to toil the Earth and benefit from its resources, but also to contribute back to its preservation; while Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch viewed it as a mandate to use natural resources wisely, toward their role in the broader service of God performed in the universe.
Indeed, a survey of Jewish medieval interpretations of Genesis by Prof. Jeremy Cohen found not a single commentary that displayed a dispensation for the Earth’s exploitation or destruction.
This anthropocentric view of environmentalism is well encapsulated by a rabbinic midrash which depicts what God told Adam as He gave him a tour of the Garden of Eden. “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Now, all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Be careful that you do not ruin and destroy My world – for if you destroy it, there is no one to repair it after you.” The midrash then describes how punishment for destroying the world will ultimately be meted out on our descendants, who will suffer the consequences.
Jewish law backs this nuanced theological worldview, with an attempt to help humans understand their duty to toil the Earth responsibly and regulate their shared use of its resources. The Bible, for example, ordains that agricultural lands lie fallow every seventh year not only to provide rest for workers (Exodus 23:12), but also to remind us that God is the master of the Earth. The Sages ordained several civic decrees intended to preserve the quality of drinking water, the sharing of public space, the proper disposal of waste and plumbing, and the regulation of noise and air pollution.
While these commandments and regulations provide minimal assistance in solving 21st-century environmental dilemmas, they teach basic values regarding the necessity of preventing human productivity from becoming destructive.
The most significant biblical commandment regarding the conservation of natural resources stems from a directive regarding wartime behavior.
When laying siege to a city, we are commanded not to destroy fruit-bearing trees. “You must not destroy its trees… You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). The Sages derived from these verses a general prohibition of wanton destructive behavior, colloquially known as bal tash’hit. As many medieval commentators explained, this prohibition became a broad directive to prevent wasteful use of trees, money, food and other resources.
Significantly, Jewish law regularly permitted consumption of resources when it was necessary or beneficial for human needs. Yet it nonetheless provided a serious reminder that even when the consumption of a resource is beneficial, its use must be balanced with the broader value of preserving our resources for the next generations.
Jewish environmental ethics thus seeks to provide an antidote to what conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has deemed the greatest cause of environmental degradation – “the propensity of human beings to take the benefit and to leave the costs to someone else, preferably someone far away in space or time, whose protests can be safely ignored.” It rests upon a mandate from God to both work and preserve the Earth, while demanding intergenerational responsibilities – between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.
The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars and is a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. His first collection of columns, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates (Maggid), was released this past fall.