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Jewish Statement: The Assisi Declaration

The Jewish festivals celebrate, in joy, the cycle of the seasons of nature. Photo from Wikipedia:

The Jewish statement is taken from The Assisi Declarations, a delcaration made on religion and nature in 1986 in Assisi, Italy.

“WHOEVER IS MERCIFUL to all creatures is a descendant of our ancestor Abraham.” (Bezoh 32b). In the sacred writings of Judaism, Jews are described over and over again as “merciful people, the children of merciful people.” (Yebamot 79a, Shabbat 133b). The Talmud even tells us (Shabbat 151b) that heaven rewards the person who has concern and compassion for the rest of creation, but this assurance of reward is not the major moral thrust of Jewish teaching. Our tradition emphasizes that Jews are commanded to do what is moral, “not for the sake of receiving a reward” (Abot 1:3). The good is necessary even when it does not redound to our immediate, personal benefit.

When God created the world, so the Bible tells us, He made order out the primal chaos. The sun, the moon, and the stars, plants, animals, and ultimately man, were each created with a rightful and necessary place in the universe. They were not to encroach on each other, “Even the divine teaching, the Torah, which was revealed from on high, was given in a set measure” (Vayikra Rabbah 15:2) and even these holy words may not extend beyond their assigned limit. “And the Lord took man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to tend it and guard it” (Genesis 2:15). Soon Adam, man, the one creature who is most godlike, gave names to all of creation, as God looked on and approved.” And the name that Adam gave to each living being has remained its name” (Genesis 2:19) forever. In the Kabbalistic teaching, as Adam named all of God’s creatures, he helped define their essence. Adam swore to live in harmony with those whom he had named. Thus, at the very beginning of time, man accepted responsibility before God for all of creation.

Judaism, of course, knows the doctrine of the world beyond death, but its central concern is with life in this world. The tzaddik, the righteous Jew, is not a pillar saint who has withdrawn from the world. He is someone whose conduct in the very midst of life helps to establish that which seems impossible – one can live in this world of righteousness without encroaching on the rights of other people, or of any of God’s creatures.

The festivals of the Jewish religion do call upon us to stand before God, in the awe at His majesty, trembling before His judgements, but that is not the dominant mood of the Jewish faith. The festivals celebrate, in joy, the cycle of the seasons of nature. The rabbis even insisted that: “He who has denied himself any one of the rightful joys in this world is a sinner” (Baba Kama 91b). The highest form of obedience to God’s commandments is to do them not in mere acceptance but in the nature of union with Him. In such a joyous encounter between man and God, the very rightness of the world is affirmed.

The encounter of God and man in nature is thus conceived in Judaism as a seamless web with man as the leader and custodian of the natural world. Even in the many centuries when Jews were most involved in their immediate dangers and destiny, this universalist concern has never withered. In this century, Jews have experienced the greatest tragedy of their history when one third of their people were murdered by unnatural men and, therefore, we are today particularly sensitive to the need for a world in which each of God’s creations in what He intended it to be. Now, when the whole world is in peril, when the environment is in danger of being poisoned and various species, both plant and animal, are becoming extinct, it is our Jewish responsibility to put the defence of the whole of nature at the very centre of our concern.

And yet it must be said, in all truth, that this question of man’s responsibility to the rest of creation cannot be defined by simply expressing our respect for all of nature. There is a tension at the centre of the Biblical tradition, embedded in the very story of creation itself, over the question of power and stewardship. The world was created because God willed it, but why did He will it? Judaism has maintained, in all its versions, that this world is the arena that God created for man, half beast and half angel, to prove that he could behave as a moral being. The Bible did not fail to demand even of God Himself that He be bound, as much as man, by the law of morality. Thus, Abraham stood before God, after He announced that He was about to destroy the wicked city of Sodom, and Abraham demanded of God Himself that He produce moral justification for this act: “Shall not judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:25). Comparably, man was given dominion over nature, but he was commanded to behave towards the rest of creation with justice and compassion. Man lives, always, in tension between his power and the limits set by conscience.

Man’s carnivorous nature is not taken for granted, or praised, in the fundamental teachings of Judaism. The rabbis of the Talmud told that men were vegetarians in earliest times, between creation and the generation of Noah. In the twelfth century Maimonides, the greatest of all rabbinic scholars, explained that animal sacrifices had been instituted in ancient Judaism as a concession to the prevalent ancient practice of making such offerings to the pagan gods (Mareh Nebuhim 111:32). The implication is clear, that Judaism was engaged in weaning men from such practices.

Judaism as a religion offers the option of eating animal flesh, and most Jews do, but in our own century there has been a movement towards vegetarianism among very pious Jews. A whole galaxy of central rabbinic and spiritual teachers, including several past and present Chief Rabbis of the Holy Land, have been affirming vegetarianism as the ultimate mean of the Jewish moral teaching. They have been proclaiming the autonomy of all living creatures as the value which our religious tradition must now teach to all of its believers. Let this affirmation resound this day and in the days to come. Let it be heard by all our brethren, wherever they may be, as the commandment which we must strive to realise. This cannot be achieved in one generation, and it will not happen through pressure from within or without. Jews will move increasingly to vegetarianism out of their deepening knowledge of what their tradition commands, as they understand it in this age.

Our ancestor Abraham inherited his passion for nature from Adam. The later rabbis never forgot it. Some twenty centuries ago they told the story of two men who were out on the water in a rowboat. Suddenly, one of them started to saw under his feet. He maintained that it was his right to do whatever he wished with the place which belonged to him. The other answered him that they were in the rowboat together; the hole that he was making would sink both of them. (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6).

We have a responsibility to life, to defend it everywhere, not only against our own sins but also against those of others. We are all passengers together in this same fragile and glorious world. Let us safeguard our rowboat – and let us row together.


* Link here for the The Big Green Jewish Website.

* Link here for the US Jewish group Hazon, which presents environmental messages through promoting outdoor physical challenges.

* Link here for the award-winning Jew and the Carrot eco blog.

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