Judaism, Stewardship and "The Fruit Tree Verse"

Here's an email on the theme of Judaism and environmental stewardship that I sent to my congregation a couple of months ago. I hope you find it useful!

Rabbi Steve Folberg

At our June, 2012 Monthly Symposium, we were privileged to learn about environmental stewardship from Jewish and Roman Catholic perspectives. Our representative Catholic speaker was Barbara Budde, and Rabbi Rachel Kobrin presented a variety of classic Jewish texts on Judaism and the natural world.

Among other Jewish texts, Rabbi Kobrin taught a famous story from the  Babylonian Talmud. A character named Honi plants a fruit tree. A bystander asks him how old he is. When Honi reveals that he is getting on in years, the bystander chides him: "At your age, why are you bothering to plant a fruit tree? You will never live long enough to taste its fruit." Honi famously responds, "Do you see these beautiful trees that surround us? They were planted for me by my ancestors, so I am planting this tree for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

As it turns out, the foundational Torah reference that provides much of the basis for Jewish environmental concern, known in rabbinic literature as Bal Tash-hit ("you shall not destroy"), is a verse from the book of Deuteronomy that also deals with fruit trees.

In a Torah portion called Shoftim that we're going to be reading toward the end of the summer, the book of Deuteronomy (20:19 - 20) forbids chopping down fruit trees in order to construct siege works in a time of war. Jeremy Benstein, an Israeli teacher, explains that "given the nature of siege warfare, the potential suffering that an extended siege may cause, and the need for construction material to get through a city's defenses, limiting the use of [fruit] trees was a serious restriction. And one need only think of Napoleon's scorched earth policy or the devastating American chemical defoliation of Vietnam to realize that the issue of destroying nature in order to wage war is not limited in time or place."

What's the reason for this law? It turns out that the Hebrew of the verse is rather difficult, and can be read in two very different ways. The classic King James translation reads the verse like this: "Thou shalt not cut [fruit trees] down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege." This is an "anthropocentric" or human centered understanding of the verse - as human beings our lives are dependent on fruit trees and the food they produce. This is how the medieval Spanish Jewish Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra understands the verse.

But the much newer Jewish Publication Society translation, the one that appears in the Torah commentaries that we use at Congregation Beth Israel (Austin, TX), renders the verse very differently: "But you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege?" What the King James version reads as a declarative statement is taken in the newer translation as a rhetorical question. And this is precisely how one of the greatest of our Torah commentators, the French Rabbi we call by the nickname Rashi, understands the verse: "Are trees like people, that they can run away from an advancing army and take refuge in town?" The answer is, of course not! Trees are innocent bystanders. Therefore, Rashi implies, don't involve them in your conflicts. This way of understanding the verse, which we might call "bio-centric," makes no reference to human needs. In this understanding, trees (and other living things, as the rabbis later expanded this principle) have a life of their own. We may use them, within limits, as means for meeting human ends, but they have an intrinsic value beyond that. In the end, by the way, the principle of "anti-destructiveness,"Bal Tash-hit," was extended by the rabbis to forbid any kind of wanton destruction.

Why, then, would (for example) working to reduce air pollution and "carbon footprint" through legislation and lifestyle choices be an authentically Jewish mitzvah; a religious precept? 

The first translation of our "fruit tree verse" would imply that we must make certain that future generations of human beings have clean air to breathe and a stable, livable climate to sustain their lives. But the second reading of the verse reminds us that the miracle of Creation - which we, as Jews, praise God for sustaining twice every day before the Shema - is that which God declared to be "very good," "tov me'od," in and of itself. It has its own dignity and worth and beauty, and as God's handiwork, we are enjoined to protect it for our children's sake, but also for its own sake.

In the words of the late President Lyndon Johnson, "If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it."

In the realm of direct service and action, Congregation Beth Israel (Austin, TX) will be doubling down on efforts to "green" our Temple and reduce our environmental footprint. 

In the arena of advocacy, Texas Impact, a multi-faith justice advocacy coalition associated with Texas Interfaith Power and Light (TXIPL), is mobilizing faith communities to support proposed new standards that would limit carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants for cleaner air, a healthier planet and a better future for our children and grandchildren. I encourage you to click here to learn more about the issue and how you can send a supportive comment regarding the proposed, new standards, if you are so moved. 

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is also supporting the proposed, new carbon emission standards. Click here to learn more about this support and how you can get involved.

Wishing you a beautiful and restful Shabbat -- 

Rabbi Steve Folberg

"You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it." -- Rabbi Tarfon,


© 2013 Interfaith Environmental Network