In recent years the American Jewish community has been the target of a campaign that tries to argue that Jews are theologically obligated to support each and every green fad to come along. Several organizations have arisen in the name of “eco-Judaism,” which is nothing more than the endorsement of the environmentalist political agenda in the name of Judaism.
An example from the Left Coast is the campaign of the so-called “redwood rabbis,” a Tikkunesque group of people who hold prayer meetings and protests in redwood groves where they pray to G-d to punish to make lumbering illegal. Other green fads have long been preached “theologically” by the PC wing of the Reform synagogue movement, especially the Religious Action Center.
In light of all this, a few basic points should be noted:
1. There is nothing in Judaism that can be interpreted as a prohibition on harvesting lumber. Lumber is but another bounty of the earth, put there to be utilized and exploited by man.
2. There is absolutely no basis at all in Judaism for the claim that animals or plants have “rights” and even less so that they have “spirits” along the lines claimed by people like “Renewal Rabbi” Arthur Waskow.
3. Animals have absolutely no recognized “interests” that need be respected in Judaism and may be used for food and clothing. Animals have no “rights” at all, although Jews are expected to avoid intentional and unnecessary cruelty to them. Vegetarianism is not prohibited by Judaism, but eating meat is strongly recommended as a form of celebration such as for the Sabbath and holidays.
4. It may be that a given endangered animal or plant should be protected from extinction but, if so, it is simply because it is in man’s interest to do so, and the animal or plant’s “interest” or “rights” are irrelevant. If it were in man’s interest for a species to become extinct (some insects and bacteria come to mind), then there is absolutely no reason why they should not be made so.
5. Where it is indeed in man’s interest that a species not become extinct, this interest still needs to be traded off against all other of man’s interests. There is no reason why man’s needs, desires, material consumption, comfort or pleasure cannot weigh more than man’s interest that a particular snail or flower not become extinct. Hence, there is no theological reason why housing, food, recreation, transportation, etc., cannot count for more than preserving this or that species in such tradeoffs.
6. If there is no a priori reason why each and every species of life need be preserved, there is even less basis to argue that there is any religious or moral basis (in Judaism) why individual members of species, like individual wildlife animals or individual redwood trees, should be preserved if it is in man’s interest that they not be. “Man” of course would have to determine such decisions through the usual channels of decision making, such as democratic voting or through market mechanisms.
7. There is no reason why each and every forested area need be preserved as such. If it is in man’s interest that a particular forested area be developed or harvested for housing, industry, etc., there is no reason why this should not take place. If enough humans vote and believe that it should not be deforested, or if enough people are willing to pay with their own money in order to buy that land and preserve it as pristine forest, then that should happen. There is no reason why humans cannot vote to create protected park land — but also no theological compunction to do so.
8. While some redwood giant groves should be preserved, if I may be forgiven the presumption of speaking for mankind, there is absolutely no reason why each and every redwood tree or grove needs to be preserved.
9. There is no reason why all forested areas need be preserved as such. There is no special reason in most cases why “old-growth forests” need receive any special attention. In the East, few people can even distinguish between an old-growth and new-growth forest. Denuded land becomes indistinguishable from old-growth forest after a few decades. In the West, the mean difference between an old-growth and new-growth forest is the mean interval between forest fires. Since the age of an old-growth forest is the same as the period since the last forest fire, many new-growth forests have trees much older than old-growth forests. Redwoods and sequoias may be exceptions, because they do not burn.
10. In fact, the forested area in North America has been increasing steadily since 1920. Ditto for Western Europe. Deforestation takes place mainly in the Third World, in many cases for fuel — especially since our Arab friends jacked up energy prices in 1973. Commercial lumber
harvesting actually increases forested areas: out of commercial interest, the private sector protects trees and forests better than federal bureaucrats. Many green organizations have recognized this and have been lobbying for privatization of federal forests. Cutting down a whole forest might or might not impede its restoration and regrowth. There are plenty of examples of whole forests being destroyed naturally, such as at Mount St. Helen’s, and then quickly growing back.
11. There is absolutely no serious hard evidence that deforestation affects global climate. And in any case, as noted, in the developed world forested areas are increasing.
12. Advanced capitalist countries are the least polluted places on the planet.
13. There is no serious evidence that human activity has caused global warming or any “ozone hole.”
14. The planet is not in danger (see parashat Noach). The Jews are.
15. Many Jewish liberals are far more concerned about saving whales than saving Jews.
16. Many animal rights groups and radical environmentalists are anti-Semitic.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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