Three Different Approaches to Man Environment Relations in Sources of Jewish Thought

Theoreticians and environmentalists generally refer to two contrasting perceptions of man's place in relation to the world surrounding him: the anthropocentric perception, which places man at the center, and perceives him as having stewardship or mastery of world resources2; and the contrasting biocentric perception, which places nature at the center, and views man as one of the species whose importance is no greater than those of other species in the world, as arises from the following description:

The word anthropocentrism, whose roots are anthropo, or "human", and centrism, or "center", is a buzzword in environmental thinking. It expresses the notion that the world was made expressly for humanity. Many think that as long as we see ourselves as center (and master) of the universe, there will be no end to the environmental crisis. In today's environmental debate, the strongest arguments against the anthropocentrism come from the Deep Ecologists, who call for a "biocentric" world view.3

In forming an opinion on the issue of man's status in the world, one would assume that surely man is of central importance, since he was given the task to preserve nature, "to work it and guard it."4 And yet, a review of various sources shows that besides

2 Within the anthropocentric approach, two different approaches should be discerned: stewardship versus mastery. On this, see: Schwatz E Response (2002). Mastery and stewardship, wonder and connectedness: a typology of relations to nature in Jewish text and tradition. Judaism Ecol 93-108, Cambridge, MA.

3 Bernstein E (ed) (1998) Ecology and the Jewish spirit. Jewish Lights Publishers, Woodstock, VT, pp. 230.

4 Genesis 2:15. Notably, even this anthropocentric approach, which shows concern for man and his needs, could be viewed as having not only man's immediate needs in mind, but also the needs of mankind in generations to come. It seems that several sources illustrate this concern. One example for this is the discourse in the Babylonian Talmud in Taanit, 23a, which illustrates the importance of planting a carob tree, whose fruit a person might not enjoy himself, but which will provide fruit for future generations.

the anthropocentric approach in Judaism, the biocentric approach also exists.5 See, for example, in the book of Job, when God addresses Job from out of a storm, His concern also included places uninhabited by people.6 Later, too, God enumerates different species for which He is concerned, even though man has no need for them. Thus, God's concern for the world is direct, and is not necessarily related to man's welfare.7 This also seems to be the understanding of Maimonides, that man, or humanity, is only one species of Creation amongst many.8

Of course, to these sources one must add many other sources of Jewish thought which express the biocentric approach. One should especially mention the perception of Beshtian Hassidism (pertaining to the Baal Shem Tov), which provides in its sources a clear illustration of this approach.9

However, for a more accurate understanding of some of the sources, one must refer to a third approach, one not mentioned so far: the theocentric approach, in which neither nature nor man is at the center, but rather God, or at least the consciousness of the presence of God.

The belief in the connection between the world and God, and in God's intervention in world events, consequently making demands on humanity in return, is one of Judaism's foundations, and can therefore determine man's attitude toward God's world.

This principle also constitutes Halakhic norms, the clearest example of which is found in the bible as explanation for the commandment on the jubilee year: "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine."10 The explanation accompanying the commandment expresses a clear theocentric perception, according to which the fact and acceptance of God's ownership of the land has practical consequences, and according to the famous Midrash, although "All I have created, I created for you," nevertheless, "Take care not to corrupt and destroy my world."11

5 See expansion in Fink D Between dust and divinity: Maimonides and Jewish environmental ethics. In: Bernstein E (ed) (1998) Ecology and the Jewish spirit. Jewish Lights Publishers, Woodstock, VT, pp. 230-239.

8 Maimonides, Guide for the perplexed, Part III, Ch. 13 as well as in Ch. 12.

9 Studies have already been written on the subject, to mention just one: Manfred Gerstenfeld and Netanel Lederberg, "Nature and the Environment in Hasidic Sources", Jewish environmental perspectives, 5 (October 2002), pp. 1-11.

10 Leviticus 25:23. Rashi's comments on this verse, that man should not be selfish about the land, since it does not belong to him.

11 Ecclesiastes Rabbah (Vilna edition) 7:13. Yet, the main emphasis in the literature of the Sages and the diverse commentative literature is undoubtedly anthropocentric, placing man and his education at the center of importance, besides the emphasis on the responsibility of mankind toward nature and toward other generations who also deserve to enjoy that nature.

And yet, despite the existence of several biocentric sources, it seems that their main significance lies in their ability to create a spiritual climate that educates to viability and to an enhanced sensitivity toward the environment. However, these sources cannot serve as the infrastructure for an applicable legal doctrine containing clear instructions on what is allowed and forbidden, and how a society committed to these codes could apply and enforce their implementation.12 For this, we must turn to the Halakhic sources and their analysis:

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