International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Way into Judaism and the Environment

by Jeremy Benstein

Introductory Essay by Noah J. Efron

“The theology of Judaism…concerns itself not with theory but primarily with practice."  So wrote Rabbi Samuel Belkin (1911–1976), a renowned scholar and president of Yeshiva University in New York. Jewish thought, Belkin was right to observe, is best captured in the attitudes of Jews towards what they do rather than in their attitudes about what they believe alone. For this reason, one of the best ways to understand Jewish attitudes towards nature in general (and towards the investigation and manipulation of nature that characterize science), is to consider their attitudes towards the environment and their sense of how they ought to behave towards it. Jeremy Benstein’s The Way into Judaism and the Environment provides an excellent introduction to this important issue.

The Way into Judaism and the Environment begins with a consideration of a highly influential 1967 article in the journal Science, in which historian Lynn White Jr. asserted that the biblical injunction for man to master nature explains why people readily abuse their environment. Other scholars have seen in this injunction a Judeo-Christian foundation for science, as well. Reviewing a wealth of sacred texts – Bible, biblical commentaries, Midrash, Talmud, and later rabbinic legal and exegetical discussions – Benstein illustrates the fact that matters have always been more complicated than White and other scholars implied. The biblical notion that people are stewards of nature did warrant, for some Jews, a utilitarian, and sometimes exploitative attitude towards the natural world. Many other Jews, however, saw in the natural world something sacred and precious to be treated gently and with awe. (Ironically, both attitudes could spur an interest in science, which was sometimes viewed as a way of enslaving nature and forcing it to serve human needs, and sometimes viewed as a way of emphasizing the majesty of God’s creation). This book clearly presents the complexity with which nature is regarded within the Jewish textual tradition; this, in itself, is a great achievement.

In the second half of the book, Benstein addresses the way this complex tradition finds practical expression. He portrays Jewish approaches to much-debated contemporary issues like human population growth, agriculture and food production, genetic engineering, the impact of industrialization and urbanization, and a raft of other matters that together fit under the rubric of “sustainability”. In so doing, Benstein describes in concrete terms the complicated interplay of religious sensibilities and customs with attitudes and behaviors concerning nature, as well as with the sciences through which we understand nature and the technologies through which we increasingly control nature. The portrait is alive with detail and nuance.

Finally, Benstein considers the unique position of the Land of Israel in Jewish understanding and treatment of nature. This discussion raises profound questions of interest not only to Jews: Is it possible for some aspects of the natural world to be uniquely sacred? How might the notion of sacred geography comport with modern ontological and epistemic commitments?  What, for instance, are the implications of sacred geography for science, which takes a universalist view of nature?

In raising and addressing from a Jewish perspective these and other questions concerning the nature of nature, The Way into Judaism and the Environment provides insight of incomparable value to students of Judaism and other religions alike.