Jewish Environmental Justice : The Common Good

An obvious implication of the concept of Tzedek is that a Jewish environmental justice ethic is concerned with the common good. The common good is often defined as “the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of individuals,” which could include all sentient beings. The common good in environmental terms means that our individual relationship with Creation cannot be divided from our relationship to all life. Therefore each of our actions has moral impacts on the totality of Creation. This is best expressed in the following midrash:

Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai taught: It can be compared to people who were in a boat and one of them took a drill and began to drill under his seat. His fellow passengers said to him: “Why are you doing this?!” He said to them: “What do you care? Am I not drilling under me?!” They replied: “Because you are sinking the boat with us in it!” (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 4:6)

There is also the Talmudic legal principle of “geirey diley” [Aramaic: “his arrows”]. In this principle, it is forbidden for a person to stand in his own property and to shoot arrows randomly while claiming that there was no intent to cause damage (Talmud Bava Batra 22b). Thus in rabbinic sources, people are forbidden to establish polluting workshops in courtyards where other people are living. This principle can also be applied to sustainability, in that we cannot claim that our unsustainable consumption is morally neutral. We know that it causes harm to other human beings to extract resources, produce the things we consume, and dispose of waste.  Judaism promotes the principle of collective responsibility even where there is no intention of damage. Striving for tzedek demands that we see we are all in the same boat.

 Author: Rabbi Lawrence Troster

Director, Fellowship Program, GreenFaith

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