10/10/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Renewing Creation: Genesis and Sustainability

The late scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that more than human theology -- what people think about God -- the Bible is "God"s anthropology," a God's eye view of people. Applying that perspective to Genesis illuminates some of the key issues confronting humanity today. For though it was composed long before the wonders and horrors of modern technology, and before challenges such as global warming, Genesis provides striking insights regarding the question of global sustainability -- how to live responsibly in this world so we and coming generations can prosper -- that is the subject of international debate on the environment today.

Environmentalists shudder when reading chapter 1 of Genesis, which contains that "nasty" command (verse 28): "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens, and all the beasts that crawl on the earth." Actually, 3,000 years ago this must have been an uplifting blessing, promising hope and dignity for a society with a short average life-span and great susceptibility to natural threats. Only recently have we fulfilled this "blessing" beyond any pre-modern's dreams.

Chapter 2, a strikingly different portrayal of creation, provides the crucial counterpoint: giving human beings the task of le'ovdah uleshomrah regarding the garden, and by implication the earth. The Hebrew phrase has been translated as "to work and to guard," "to till and to tend," "to work and to watch" and, my personal favorite, "to serve and preserve."

But this familiar phrase raises a striking question: from what exactly are we meant to protect or guard the garden? Some say wild animals, or the less ordered, more chaotic world of nature outside the garden. This doesn't ring true, though, since animals are clearly included in the garden, and the entire world has already been deemed "very good," and there is no implication of a radical dichotomy between the garden and the world. The only real threat to the garden, and by extension, the world, is precisely the other pair of the dyad -- the cultivation, the human work.

The human mission is to work, to produce, to develop -- but at the same time to preserve, to guard, to be vigilant that the work doesn't get out of hand. It must remain, in a word, sustainable. Indeed, perhaps the best translation of the biblical phrase le'ovda uleshomra is "sustainable development." Working the land is crucial for human flourishing -- but guarding the earth is the critical complement.

In our struggle for the earth's fruits, we sow the seeds of our own, and the world's, destruction -- unless we temper our toil with responsibility and concern for posterity. Unfortunately, as a contemporary policy, "sustainable development" all too often really means runaway development, with the demands of sustainability shunted aside.

Perhaps that's because in the rush for practical policy, we forget the underlying question of humanity's place in the world. The Talmudic rabbis address this issue in their commentary on the "anti-environmental" chapter 1, by asking the simple question: Why was the first human created last, on the very eve of the Shabbat (Sabbath)? For us, the seemingly obvious answer is that Genesis presents humanity as the pinnacle and purpose of creation. But in the Talmud's Tractate Sanhedrin (chap. 4, 38a), the rabbis pluralistically present four midrashic answers -- all undercutting our easy reading.

First: Adam was created last, says one rabbi, so "heretics can't claim that God had a partner in Creation." The monotheistic emphasis implies constraint on behavior: though we are created in God's image, and charged with imitating God, we are not God, and must not appropriate for ourselves God-like powers of creation. People who for instance oppose wide-scale genetic engineering share this gut concern.

Second: Why, though, specifically on the eve of Shabbat? So that "the first human would immediately perform a commandment" -- observing Shabbat. A central message of the laws of the Sabbath is a limitation on our freedom to create. We learn here that the human was not the last thing created. Shabbat was, and so transcends humanity. Like the first answer, whereas we create for six days a week, Shabbat means one day of celebrating our "creatureliness" through self-limitation.

Third: The message of humility is even more caustic in this third answer: "If the human should get too haughty, he should be reminded that the gnat preceded him in Creation." There is respect that comes from seniority, and if it holds for a Creation lasting six days, then there are certainly ramifications for our current view, with life appearing literally billions of years before the first humans.

Fourth: The Talmud's last answer finally plays up human centrality. "So the human will enter immediately into the banquet. Like a mortal king who builds the palace, sets the table, and only then invites in the guest of honor..." God is the king, and we are the guests of honor at the feast.

Is this, then, the proof-text rapacious industrialists seek? Consume, guzzle and be merry?

Exactly the opposite.

Indeed, most of environmental ethics and sustainable development policy could be based precisely on the viewpoint of the guest. Just think of what you would and wouldn't do as a guest in someone else's home. How much would you eat from their table -- even if you felt it were a banquet laid for you? Would you chop up the furniture for kindling? Kill the pets? Deny other guests their share of the host's bounty?

Whether we base this sensibility on belief in God or not, we are indeed guests, here for a twinkling in the cosmic long-haul. We continue acting as the haughty master of the house at our own peril.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.