Certain Torah commandments were understood so narrowly by the Sages that they were rendered almost unenforceable. An example is ir ha-nidachat, the city strayed into idolatry, about which the Torah states that “thou shalt put the inhabitants of this city to the edge of the sword”. (Deut. 13:16) Another is the ben sorer umoreh, the stubborn and rebellious child, brought by his parents to court and, if found guilty, put to death. (Deut. 21:18-21)
In both of these cases, some Sages then interpreted the law so narrowly that they said “there never was and there never will be” a case in which the law was applied. (Sanhedrin 71a) As for the condemned city, Rabbi Eliezer said that if it contained a single mezuzah, the law was not enforced (ibid.). In the case of the rebellious child, R. Yehuda taught that if the mother and father did not look or resemble each other, the law did not apply (ibid.). According to these interpretations, the two laws were never intended to be put into practice, but were written only “that we should expound them and receive a reward”. They only had an educational and not a legal function.
Conversely, some laws were considered to be far more extensive than they first appeared. A striking example occurs in this week’s parsha. It refers to the conduct of a siege in times of war. The Torah states, “When you besiege a city and make war on it for a long time to capture it, do not destroy its trees; do not brandish the ax against them. You can eat it; you don’t have to shoot them down. Are the trees in the fields human beings, that you should besiege them too? Only trees that you know don’t produce food can be cut down to build siegeworks until the city that waged war on you falls. ”—Deut. 20:19-20
This prohibition against destroying fruit trees was known as the bal tashchit rule, “do not destroy”. At first glance, its scope is very limited. It only prohibits a “scorched earth” policy in the conduct of war. It seems to have no peacetime application. However, the Sages understood it very broadly to include any unnecessary acts of destruction. Maimonides states the law thus: “Not only does it apply to trees, but also whoever breaks vessels or tears clothing, destroys a building, blocks a source of water, or wastes food in a destructive manner transgresses the commandment of prom tashchit.”
This is the halachic basis of an ethic of environmental responsibility.
Why has the Oral Tradition, or at least some of its representatives, reduced the scope of the law in some cases and widened it in others? The short answer is: we don’t know. Rabbinic literature does not tell us. But we can speculate. A posek, seeking to interpret divine law in specific cases, will endeavor to do so in a manner consistent with the total structure of biblical teaching. If a text seems to conflict with a fundamental principle of Jewish law, it will be understood restrictively, at least by some. If it illustrates such a principle, it will be understood in a broad sense.
The law of the condemned city, where all the inhabitants were condemned to death, seems to contradict the principle of individual justice. When Sodom was threatened with such a fate, Abraham argued that if there were only 10 innocent people, the destruction of the entire population would be manifestly unjust: “Shall not the judge of all the earth not justice?” — Gen. 18:25
The law of the stubborn and rebellious son was explained in the Talmud by R. José the Galilean on the grounds that: “The Torah foresaw his ultimate destiny. He had started with theft. It was likely that he would turn to violence and then to murder.
“That is why the Torah commanded: Let him die innocent rather than die guilty.”
It is a preventive punishment. The child is punished less for what he has done than for what he can do. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who said the law has never been or will never be enforced, may have believed that in Judaism there is a contrary principle, that people are judged only for what they did, not for what they will do. Retributive punishment is justice; preventive punishment is not.
To repeat: this is speculative. There may have been other reasons at work. But it is logical to assume that the Sages sought as much as possible to make their individual decisions consistent with the value structure of Jewish law as they understood it. From this point of view, the law of the condemned city exists to teach us that idolatry, once accepted in public, is contagious, as the history of the kings of Israel shows us. The law of the stubborn and rebellious child is there to teach us how steep the downward slope from juvenile delinquency to adult delinquency is. The law exists not only to regulate but also to educate.
In the case of bal tashchit, however, there is an obvious correspondence with much else in Jewish law and thought. The Torah is concerned with what today we would call ‘sustainability’. This is especially true of the three commandments ordering periodic rest: the Sabbath, the Sabbath year, and the Jubilee year.
On the Sabbath, all agricultural work is prohibited, “so that your ox and your donkey may rest”. (Ex. 23:12) It sets a limit to our intervention in nature and the pursuit of economic growth. We become aware that we are creations, not just creators. The earth is not ours but God’s. For six days it is handed over to us, but on the seventh we symbolically abdicate this power. We cannot perform any “work”, that is, an act that changes the state of something for human purposes. The Sabbath is a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the limits of human effort.
What the Sabbath does for humans and animals, the Sabbath and Jubilee years do for the earth. The earth also has a right to its periodical rest. The Torah warns that if the Israelites do not observe this, they will suffer exile, “then the land will make peace for its sabbaths, as long as it is desolate and you are in the lands of your enemies.” Then the land will rest and make peace for its sabbaths. (Lev. 26:34)
Behind this lie two concerns. One is environmental. As Maimonides points out, overexploited land eventually erodes and loses its fertility. The Israelites were therefore commanded to conserve the soil by granting it periodic fallow years, not seeking short-term gain at the cost of long-term desolation. The second, no less significant, is theological. “The country, says God, is mine; you are only migrants and visitors to Me. (Lev. 25:23)
We are guests on earth.
There is another group of commandments that direct us against excessive interference with nature. The Torah prohibits the crossing of cattle, the planting of a field with mixed seeds, and the wearing of a garment of mixed wool and linen. These rules are called chukim or “statutes”. Nahmanides understood this term to mean laws that respect the integrity of nature. To mix different species, according to him, was to presume to be able to improve the creation, and is therefore an affront to the Creator. Each species has its own internal laws of development and reproduction, and these must not be altered: “He who combines two different species changes and thus defies the work of creation, as if he believed that the Holy, blessed be He, has not completely perfected the world and now wishes to improve it by adding new types of creatures.
Deuteronomy also contains a law against taking a young bird with its mother. Nahmanides sees the same underlying concern here, namely the protection of species. Although the Bible allows us to use certain animals for food, we must not slaughter them to extinction.
Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century gave the most compelling interpretation of biblical law. The environmental protection statutes, he said, represent the principle that “the same respect that you show to mankind, you must also show to every lesser creature, to the earth that bears and upholds all, and to the world of plants and animals.” They are a kind of social justice applied to the natural world: “They ask you to regard all living beings as the property of God. Destroy none; abuse none waste nothing, use all things wisely… Consider all creatures as servants in the house of creation.
Hirsch also gave a new interpretation to the phrase in Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image after our own likeness”. (Gen. 1:26) The passage is confusing because at this point, before the creation of man, God was alone. The “We,” says Hirsch, refers to the rest of creation. Because only man would develop the ability to change and possibly endanger the natural world, nature itself was consulted as to whether it approved of such a being. The implied condition is that humans can only use nature in ways that enhance it, not endanger it. Everything else is ultra vires, outside the purview of our stewardship of the planet.
In this context, a phrase from Genesis 2 is decisive. Man was placed in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and protect it.” (Gen. 2:15.) Both Hebrew verbs are significant. The first – le’ovdah – literally means “to serve him”. Man is not only a master but also a servant of nature. The second – leshomrah – means “to keep it”. It is the verb used in later Torah legislation to describe the responsibilities of a custodian of property that does not belong to him. He must be diligent in his protection and is responsible for negligent losses. This is perhaps the best short definition of humanity’s responsibility to nature as the Bible conceives it.
Man’s domination over nature is thus limited by the requirement to serve and conserve. The famous story of Genesis 2-3 – eating the forbidden fruit, and the subsequent exile from Eden – makes just this point. We can’t do everything we can do. Transgress the boundaries and disaster ensues. All of this is summed up in a simple Midrash: “When God created man, He showed him the panoply of creation and said to him: ‘Behold all My works, how beautiful they are. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you. So be careful not to destroy my world, because if you do, there will be no one left to fix what you have destroyed. ”
We know far more than ever before about the dangers to Earth’s ecology posed by the relentless pursuit of economic gain. The guidance of oral tradition in interpreting “not to destroy” expansively, not restrictively, should inspire us now. We must broaden our horizons of environmental responsibility for the sake of generations yet unborn, and for the sake of God, whose guests we are on earth.
*Footnotes can be found at www.rabbisacks.org.