Observance and environmentalism: being a Jewish South African tree hugger

By Ilana Stein (First published in Dafkadotcom June 2022)

​​I always wanted to be a game ranger. When I began working in conservation tourism, I discovered a world filled with people who discussed rhino numbers and elephant footprints with an intensity that inspired me. 

I was thrilled to be part of this group of people who, when faced with habitat destruction, extinction of species and environmental degradation, would unequivocally declare “not on our watch.” But as a practicing Jew I found myself asking whether Judaism explicitly cares about the environment.

It was only with the advent of the Internet in the late 1990s that I found there were other Jews who were not only committed to protecting the environment, but who saw such action as a Jewish value. I discovered the ‘Zoo Rabbi’, Natan Slifkin, for example, who wrote about the “mitzvah of conservation”. This encouraged me to delve further into the Torah, where I found that there was plenty that spoke to care for the earth. 

Religion and environment

In Environmental Education and Education for Sustainability, a South African textbook on environmental education, Johann Dreyer argues that all world religions have environmental ethics embedded within their creeds or commands. Yet, as Dreyer points out, adherents do not necessarily follow or live by these decrees. This includes Judaism. 

​Just as in the case of other religious groups, in Judaism there are many comprehensive stipulations concerning the utilisation of and disposition towards the environment. The question is why these stipulations are apparently not observed by all its adherents (p.114).

Garden of Eden philosophy and laws

The idea of care for and guardianship of the earth is found explicitly in Genesis 2:15: ‘And the Lord God took the human and placed the human in the Garden [of Eden], to work it and to guard it (le’ovdah uleshomrah)’. It is this balanced view, of benefiting from the world’s abundance yet understanding that it is precious and precarious, something to be protected, and therefore to be used mindfully and cautiously, that should be a guiding light not only to those who connect to Torah but to the world in which we live. 

The Torah and Talmud have numerous laws that, if kept to their full extent, speak explicitly to this. These include not destroying anything needlessly (Deuteronomy 20:19); not being cruel to animals (Exodus 23:5); and laws forbidding the disposal of dangerous waste materials in the public domain (Talmud Baba Kama 3a), against air pollution (Mishna Baba Batra 2:9) and even littering (Maimonides, Hilkhot Tmidin U’Musafin 2:15).

There’s a law regarding environmental planning, possibly the first in history: Command the children of Israel… open land around the cities shall be given to the Levites… And the open land shall be for their cattle and for their possessions and for all their animals (Numbers 35:2-5). This idea, that there be greenery around a city is similar to today’s concept of creating parks as ‘green lungs’ within an urban environment. 

Jews are halachically commanded to live lighter on the earth. Shmita — the sabbatical year — is a law mentioned first in Exodus 23:10-11: (10) And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof; (11) but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat

As can be seen in this text, what seems to be an agricultural event is in fact also a societal imperative: the beneficiaries of the Shmita are the poor. Shmita is seen as a resetting of values, of disconnecting us from the race for more things, more money; it resets the haves and the have-nots. It encourages us to live more mindfully and less materialistically. 

As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein states, “Shmita detaches man from his material property and from that almost crazy idea that overcomes him the other six years of the sabbatical cycle, namely, that he must hold for dear life to his property and possessions. During the sabbatical year, we are inculcated with the idea of yielding and waiver, of detachment from the world of money and property.” 

Religion vs. environment or religion and environment? 

While the theory suggests that the two meld together seamlessly, historically this has not been the case. Religion and environmentalism have been seen to be at odds. In an article in the journal Science in 1967, Charles Lynn White famously blamed the state of the world, with its rapacious greed for development and fossil fuels, on the Judeo-Christian tradition. From the 1970s onwards, environmentalists often viewed religion with disdain, and the major faith traditions typically either saw environmentalists as the enemy of faith and God, or tended to start the conversation on the back foot — in a defensive mode. This was true across religions, and only in the US were ‘green Jews’ beginning to emerge: Canfei Nesharim (On the Wings of Eagles), Hazon and COEJL

Are South African Jews green?

Despite the growth of the green movement in global Jewish circles, the South African Jewish community has lagged behind. In an attempt to instill greater environmental awareness in the South African Jewish community, I began teaching courses called Ethics of Eden through the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning. The aim was to show that environmental ethics can not only be found in Judaism but are central values. While those who attended seemed to enjoy and learn from it, I felt that I needed to evaluate better the South African Jewish community’s approach and commitment to the environment.

In 2020, for my Master’s thesis, I investigated whether combining environmental adult education and Jewish education could inspire Jewish adults in South Africa to connect with the natural world, and encourage them to live more sustainably. My findings suggested the following were impediments to living a more green and sustainable life:

Lack of knowledge about the Torah’s views on environment:

This is primarily because it is not taught currently in any of the Jewish day schools in Jewish Studies.

In the ultra-orthodox communities, environ-mentalism is seen as the preserve of the liberal left. Further, grappling with certain concepts, such as evolution, is seen as dangerous to belief.

All interviewees mentioned the novelty of bringing Jewish thought into a contemporary subject and seeing the environment as expressed as a Jewish value. The responses included:

They had no idea that Judaism had any environmental concepts.

The respondent knew that nature was mentioned in the Tanakh, as in agricultural law or the creation narrative etc, but had never seen these being connected to contemporary environmental issues.

The interviewees had not learned about the environment from religious leaders (rabbis).

Consumerism: In the many sectors of the community, consumerism is rife and the view of limiting oneself for the good of the planet is not seen as important, let alone a Jewish value.

A disconnect with nature Cape Town vs Johannesburg Jewry:

Amongst Johannesburg Jewry, the disconnect from nature was most prevalent.

Paradoxically, many are enthusiastic about going to the Kruger Park but do not see a connection between nature and a need to protect the environment. Further, most do not connect nature to a spiritual identity. 

Amongst respondents in Cape Town, there was a greater connection to and concern for the environment. 

Having said this, there are limitations to the findings. Firstly, the sample size of my study was extremely small. Secondly, since I was approaching those who had already taken this course, the sample was self-selecting. 


​The concept of humanity being inherently connected to and dependent on the earth should be part of all Jewish schools’ curricula. Indeed, this is more vital now than ever, not only from an environmental point of view, but from a moral one in the face of the 21st century’s drive for mindless consumption.

Two concepts may help the South African Jewish community rethink its current approach. One is broad, the other, basic:

Shmita is not kept outside of Israel, but its inherent idea of ‘reset’ should be. As Avi Sagi and Yedidya Stern write, “[Shmita is] a call to set apart a bubble in time, which slows economic activity down, and which fosters care, compassion and even partnership between all those who share the earth, including animals. The race will resume in the eighth year, because humanity needs it, but the idea and its memory will linger beyond the confines of the sabbatical year, to the other six years of feverish productivity.”

Perhaps more importantly is the concept of mitzvah — the idea that individual actions can and do change the world. If we can get past the headlines, the denials and the apathy, and see the blue-green planet as the home that the Creator saw as ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31) and understand that the power of one act, regardless of whether one wants to do it, whether big or small, can in a very real sense bring about Tikkun Olam — the healing of the world. 

Ilana Stein combines her degrees in Nature Conservation and English, and an MA in Jewish Education in her work as a writer for conservation and ecotourism in Africa and as a Head of Education of The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning in Johannesburg.

• Published in the November 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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