The Acton Institute’s 2007 book Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition offers insight on Jewish theology as it connects to creation and our place in the world. The following list provides seven key quotes from “The Spiritual Nature of Human Work,” an essay in the book written by Jewish scholars.
1. The religious Jew has much appreciation for the beauty of nature. We are filled with gratitude for these natural treats to our senses that are also natural treats to our senses that are also natural resources vital to the human race. In fact, a collection of benedictions is part of every religious child’s early-learned faith arsenal. From the earliest age, Jewish children smilingly utter the benediction for a rainbow upon seeing this arc in the heavens. When seeing a beautiful tree, the ocean, hearing thunder, and for many other manifestations of God’s world, we say a fervent “thank you.”
2. But factories and skyscrapers also reflect Jewish values. A factory speaks of the human yearning to emulate God’s power to create. A city speaks of humans living together in peace and harmony as instructed by their Father in heaven. For this reason, the Temple was to be constructed in the heart of Judaism’s quintessential city, Jerusalem, rather than in a remote corner of unspoiled countryside. While forests and swamps are certainly recognized to be part of God’s creation, merely leaving them in their original and pristine condition is ignoring God’s directive to harness the forces of nature for the benefit of the human race. We are to leave our imprint upon the world in a way that improves what we found. The metaphor is the gracious landlord who allows rent-free tenancy in a not yet fully completed home, asking only that its tenants constantly work to improve its condition. Leaving it as we found it is poor repayment for the generosity.
3. The general hostility toward industrial development that is often evidenced by environmental activists is frequently rooted in a pantheistic opposition to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and is as old as the Tower of Babel. Judaism takes note of how industrial development tends toward the spiritual and away from the merely material. In our own times, this is quite clear as we see development lead societies past the manufacture of steel and large machinery to the creation of data and knowledge. One hundred years ago, Americans were building ships and railway locomotives. Today that work is often being done by more recently emerging economies, while we have marched on to produce products whose value per unit of weight vastly exceeds anything that was produced by our old heavy-industry economy. Judaism views this as a movement toward human recognition of the primacy of the spiritual over the material. It is no coincidence that this tendency for society to move toward the spiritual also brings along with it less disruption of nature. Instead of imposing barriers to industrialization upon the developing world, we would be better served to assist developing nations in moving through this early phase of growth. In this fashion, each part of the world can make its own decisions and judgments about how it will balance its own needs. There are parts of the world–and will probably always be parts of the world–where immediate access to food and shelter trumps all other concerns. Those of us in the developed world may not want a rubber-tire factory next door. However, if we lived near Cairo and presently were neighbors to the world’s biggest garbage dump, which is populated by ghostly skeletons rummaging through the filth to find food for another day’s existence, we may welcome the arrival of a tire plant to displace the garbage dump. Judaism has great faith in the ability of ordinary human beings to make their own decisions and to find ways to overcome tragic circumstances.
4. This faith comes from another religious conviction not shared by many environmentalists. Again, if we are nothing but sophisticated animals, it is only right that important decisions should be made for us by an elite group of people playing the roles of zookeeper or farmer. In this view of reality, we are not capable of determining for ourselves just how much prosperity we are willing to sacrifice to halt development. Since nature is the ultimate good, our zookeepers will determine that no burden is too heavy for us to shoulder in service to our god of nature. Judaism insists that we are exalted creatures built in the image of our Creator and equipped with almost godlike powers to create. Thus, Judaism opposes attempts to deprive humans from making their own personal choices; we each have the freedom and the responsibility to order our own behavior toward God’s law. Naturally, Judaism also does not protect us from our own poor choices. Part of moral growth is living with the consequences of bad decisions. Part of Judaism’s preoccupation with an oral transmission is the ongoing accumulation of experience that validates the Torah’s laws.
5. The basic Jewish principle of balance and middle path also conflicts with the contemporary environmental doctrine that preserving each spotted owl and each kangaroo rat is more important than any costs borne by humans and any sacrifices made by people. Judaism would never countenance loggers suffering the indignity of joblessness in order not to disturb the nesting habitat of the owl. When homes for people become dramatically overpriced because of the regulatory costs of providing for the habitat of the kangaroo rat, Jewish tradition also must object. People need not justify their needs or desires to nature. They are warned only against destroying things for no good purpose.
6. The view being presented here is occasionally made less palatable by the admittedly immoral practices of some of the participants in our economy. When a large and powerful corporation inflicts measurable damage upon its neighbors, for example, and then takes refuge in legal tactics, a wellspring of local frustration understandably bubbles up. Morality cannot allow people to evade responsibility by hiding behind the corporate veil. The corporation is nothing more than a vehicle for human cooperation. By surrounding a disparate group of people with a culture, an ethos, and an entire system, the corporation allows individuals who otherwise might have to be subsistence farmers to cooperate with one another in a larger and more lucrative enterprise. This cooperation allows for the provision of goods or services to their neighbors in such a manner as to allow them all to derive desirable income from the venture. Nonetheless, a corporation possesses no right to inflict upon its neighbors damage that its employees, managers, or shareholders would be prohibited from inflicting individually.
7. We see, therefore, that Judaism views development as people following their Creator’s mandate to be fruitful, to multiply, and to conquer the earth. Instead of maintaining a sentimental and false image of nature, we religious Jews understand that nature is harsh and unforgiving. We understand that since the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the struggle imposed upon us by God is to extract a living from an often reluctant earth. We must do so without laying claim to the benefits of another’s labor and without recourse to dishonesty or theft. Our task is, in essence, to subdue nature and redirect it for holy purposes. Even the traditional Jewish practice of circumcision speaks to this godly mandate. The world I gave you is not perfect, says the Almighty. Even your own bodies await your finishing touch. Even more so, we are told, the entire earth awaits your finishing touch. Your labor is welcome, and its results are pleasing to me, says the Lord. For this reason, Judaism is prouder of man’s skyscrapers than of God’s swamps, and prouder of man’s factories than of God’s forests (pp 23 to 26).