Jewish Passover and its Connection to the Environment

During the Jewish Passover holiday (starting Monday) it is customary for children to ask questions – a lot of them! And since here at TreeHugger we are curious how the faith/spiritual dialogue can be added to the environmental canon of knowledge, we sought out a rabbi dealing with environmental affairs. We found Rabbi Yehudah Leo Levi from Jerusalem to answer a few questions of our own. This is what the Physicist/Rabbi/Author said:

Q: How is Passover connected to the environment?
A: The connection between Passover and the environment is somewhat indirect, but extremely profound. According to the Torah (Jewish tradition), one central purpose of the creation of the human being was to complete the development the world God had created in His wisdom. The human being was put into the wonderful Garden of Eden, not, primarily, to enjoy its delicious fruits, but rather "to serve it and guard it" (Genesis 2:15). Or, in the words of the Midrash: "When God created Adam, he took him to survey all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: 'See My works, how pleasant and praiseworthy they are… be careful not to spoil and ruin My world. For, if you spoil, there is no one to repair after you" (Qoheleth Rabba 7:13). In other words, the human being is to be a caretaker, not owner, of the world.
Subsequently mankind forgot this message and turned to paganism, serving the powers of nature instead of their Creator. Thus they travelled on a path of self-destruction. To save humanity, God chose Abraham to become the progenitor of a nation which was to bring God's message to humanity. That nation was formed on the night of the first Passover for the explicit purpose of teaching mankind what God wants of them, which is primarily the development of the world, physically, socially, and spiritually. Thus, in a sense, Passover commemorates the creation of the mentors, who were to make mankind aware of their duty to care for their environment.

Q: What is the spiritual message of Passover
A: Because of His concern for a faltering humanity, God "created", on Passover night, a new nation (Israel) to become a "lighthouse" to humanity.

Q: What are some Jewish traditions in general that show the faith is concerned with protecting the environment
A: Judaism commands the preservation of the environment by prohibiting its wasteful utilization. Even during war, which may occasionally be forced on the Jewish people, they are forbidden to cut down fruit trees – even their enemies' (Deuteronomy 20:19). Jewish tradition expands this to forbid unnecessary destruction of all elements of the environment (Maimonides, Melakhim 6:10); even wasteful use of fuel is explicitly forbidden (Babyl. Talmud, Shabbath 67b). Another interesting example is the concern lest discomfort be caused to the neighbor. Especially sources of excessive smoke, unpleasant odors, dust, and vibrations are forbidden, without the permission of the neighbors (Shulchan 'Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 155:36). The reader will find there over a hundred paragraphs listing such prohibitions. A third illustration is the Torah's concern for proper city-planning. It demands a "green belt," about a kilometer wide around each city, a belt which may not be used for building. If you need more housing, start a new city. (Cf. Numbers 35 & Rabbi S.R. Hirsch's commentary to Leviticus 25:34, at length.)

Q: Can you give our readers some further references on the subject
A: Two of my books have a chapter each on the subject.
1. Torah & Science – Their Interplay in the World Scheme, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & Nanuet, NY, 2006; chap. 3.
2. Facing Current Challenges – Essays on Judaism, Lambda, Brooklyn, NY, 1998; Essay 36.

Other papers I recommend:
Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, "Judaism and the Quality of the Environment," in Challenge, A. Carmell and C. Domb, eds., Feldheim, Jerusalem/New York (1976); pp.500-525.

E.G. Freudenstein, "Ecology and the Jewish Tradition," in Judaism and Human Rights,
M.R. Konvitz, ed., Norton, New York (1972) ; pp. 265-274.

A website dealing with Judaism & the environment that Rabbi Levi recommends: http://www.canfeinesharim.org/

To contact Rabbi Levi email. Or the Jerusalem College of Technology.


Rabbi Levi’s bio:
I grew up in New York. There I got my academic degrees: B.E.E., M.Sc., Ph.D. (Physics), my Rabbinic ordination and a professorship at City College. In 1970 I moved to Israel to set up the Physics/Electro-Optics Dept. at the Jerusalem College of Technology – the second such department in the world. (I had to write the text-book myself; it was eventually published by Wiley in N.Y.) Ten years later, I was appointed Rector there. Since my retirement in 1991, I am continuing bi-weekly lectures there, primarily in Judaism. I also give a weekly lecture at the Jerusalem Academy of Jewish Studies.

Tags: Holidays | Israel

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