3 Ways Jewish Law Relates to Laudato Si

07/13/2015 04:59 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2016

Pope Francis's recent encyclical made headlines because of climate change, but his teachings are much broader concerning human responsibility to care for life on the planet. Good for him! It is time to bring the moral resources of all our traditions to this issue.

Jewish law incorporates basic principles about humanity's relationship to the environment, derived from biblical precepts that are 3000 years old. Here are three of them:

1 BAL TASHCHIT, a rabbinic expression for not wasting things. The term refers to Deuteronomy 20:19, when the army is told Lo tashchit, don't destroy: "When you are besieging a city, do not destroy its trees with an axe, for they are to eat from, and [repeating for emphasis], do not cut them down!" One might have thought that in the desperation of war, the lives of trees would be unimportant, but no. The passage continues passionately, "Is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?"

This is an incredible statement of plant rights! Of course, Judaism assumes that plants and animals can be used for sustenance of human life and creativity. But it also suggests that we should ask about every plant or animal that we use for other than sustenance, is this a necessity of human life, that we should seize it like war booty?

Rabbinic Judaism extends such principles to our personal lives. "Do not destroy fruit trees" is extended from the war situation to fruit-bearing trees anywhere, for "they are to eat from," and that is why they shouldn't be cut down. If we must remove a fruit tree to build a necessary structure, such as a house or pipes for plumbing, we should try to transplant it if possible. We shouldn't cut it down just to improve the view or enlarge a play area. We can prune it for its health or that of neighboring trees, but otherwise it's best not even to cut the branches.

A further extension: It is forbidden to destroy any structure that is fit to be used, unless there is a constructive purpose behind it. So one can destroy one house to build another, but destruction otherwise is forbidden. It's not okay, for example, to release one's pent-up anger by taking it out on mere "things," even if that would relax the person. Is it part of your war, that it should be ravaged by you?

On the positive side, this principle encourages saving things that are useful. Many years ago, I was visiting a family that was deeply immersed in Jewish observance. As I was chatting in the kitchen with the woman, her husband walked in and picked up a broken piece of a toy from the kitchen floor. I might have expected him to say, "When did this break?" or "Who did this?" But his words were, "Does this have a use?" His wife looked at it and replied "No," and only then did he toss it in the trash.

A memorable moment: "Does it have a use?" Is it still good for the purpose it was made to serve? Might it have another useful purpose? It cast a new light on my mother-in-law's habit of saving pieces of string and shmattes, and a less favorable light on our "disposables" society. "Do not destroy" supports recycling, but in more conservative societies, it meant finding uses for things before you casually toss them. Reusing plastic jars instead of buying Tupperware, tearing ruined clothes into different sizes for the "rag bag" instead of buying paper towels -- those are still good ideas.

Wasting money and resources is another dimension. Leaving lights on unnecessarily, using heating or air conditioning when no one is in the house, over watering one's yard -- these are all things which have to be examined under Jewish law, whether at home or in one's business.

We can extend the principle to all of creation, remembering it is a gift that comes along with our life. We can ask: Did you create this, that it should be destroyed or discarded carelessly by you? One medieval sage wrote, "The purpose of this commandment (of not destroying trees and other things) is to teach people to love and respect good things. This love will help ensure that they will keep away from bad, destructive things. The way of good people is to be happy with the world and not to destroy even a mustard seed." (From the classic Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 529 )

2 TZAAR BAALEI CHAIM. The word tzaar means suffering (related to the Yiddish tzuris), and baalei chaim here means living creatures. One is forbidden to cause suffering to animals. This means not inflicting unnecessary pain, and comes from the verse in Exodus 23:5, "If you see the donkey of your enemy straining under his load, and you are refraining from unloading it, go and unload with him." Similarly, we are forbidden to muzzle an ox while it is pulling a plow, because that would deny the ox the pleasure of eating while working for us. When we use animals for our benefit, we must be sensitive to their feelings. We even allow them to enjoy unusual freedoms when we do: our domestic animals don't work for us on Shabbat: "Don't do any work, not you or your son or daughter or your animal or the stranger that is within your gates."

Jewish law doesn't prevent us from benefiting from animals, for food or other purposes that serve human life. Usefulness is a criterion, but in addition, with tzaar baalei chaim, one must consider whether our use causes the animal pain. If so, we must eliminate the pain or find another way to accomplish what we need. Along this line of thought, using animals for entertainment, or in experiments that might cause fear like sending them alone into space, should give us pause.

3 KAL V'CHOMER, literally meaning "light and weighty." In English, we would translate roughly, "all the more so": If a small matter like X requires our attention, then how much more so does this apply to Y, a more weighty matter. For example: If one should relieve the distress of a pack animal that is temporarily straining under a heavy load, how much more so for a pregnant sow who can't even turn around in her cage? How much more so for a chicken who has been fed in a way that makes it too fat to move?

Or, if one must relieve the distress of one pack animal, how much more so that of whole communities of humans, whole ecosystems of many animals, who are suffering from environmental pollution? from loss of land due to sea level rising? from water that is not fit to drink? We are obligated to relieve their pain.

These practical principles that everyone can understand -- not wasting and not causing unwarranted suffering -- have vast implications. Think about them in your own life, and remind yourself that each of us, in our own ways, can support Pope Francis's call to act from a higher consciousness.