Inspired not so much by the spectacle of diplomats and heads of state riding their jets to Glasgow for a climate-change conference as by the fact that this year is shmitah, during which the Bible forbids reaping and sowing, Rabbi Benayahu Tavila reflects on what duties ḥaredi Jews have toward the environment. Tavila sees as a key source for such a duty a classical rabbinic commentary to Ecclesiastes, which has God telling Adam, “Beware that you should not destroy and ruin my world.” But this duty is not absolute; rather it stands in tension with the biblical command to “fill the earth and subdue it.”
What is the cost of humanity’s extractive invasion of nature? One cost is to our self-image. Having conquered technological peaks that were hitherto science-fiction at best, we now see ourselves as being capable of virtually anything. Society sees neither technological nor (given the great benefits) moral limits to its progress, and therefore no limits to how much human beings ought to manipulate nature. But we should always remember that we do not own the earth. God does. He made the world a certain way. Harm to creation consists in destroying the capacities with which it is endowed by God.
There is a point at which the planet will not be sufficiently able to replenish itself for our children and grandchildren to enjoy what we enjoy. Technological progress without restraint means living at the expense of the unborn. This is neither halalkhically acceptable nor morally permissible.
Thus, unlike some secular environmentalists who see human procreation as itself a threat to the planet, Tavila sees in the divine command to populate the earth an obligation to preserve it:
The human’s ability to rule the world derives from his similarity to God. . . . But the commandment of conquest and dominion follows from an earlier instruction to to “be fruitful and multiply.” The plain meaning of the text refers to another, additional aspect: the ability to create, and especially to procreate. Adam himself creates “in his own image and likeness.” Even man creates in God’s image.
Our basic responsibility to the world derives from our responsibility to observe the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” . . . and this commandment itself requires us to ensure we leave future generations with resources.