The Ultra-Orthodox Community and Environmental Issues

No. 415    October 1999

Classical Jewish texts refer to a substantial number of the dispersed issues which in recent decades have been consolidated within the framework of the environmental discipline. If one were now to group all “environmental halakhot” in existence at the beginning of the nineteenth century — before Jewish emancipation fragmented observance — they would add up to a sizable codex.

A contemporary expert reading such a text would be likely to conclude that, at the time, Jewish law represented by far the most advanced normative system in the Western world with respect to the environment.

This will hardly surprise those familiar with halakhah, which defines Jews’ behavior with regard to most important life issues. What non-Jewish society has discovered only in recent decades — that man’s relationship to the environment should be mainly normative, covering many areas, in order to create a civil society — was developed (partly) implicitly in Jewish law from its beginnings.

Classical “environmental halakhot” relate — sometimes in considerable detail — to a variety of basic issues of environmental protection such as preventing the destruction of elements of nature, the treatment of animals, the conservation of natural resources, the allocation of space, pollution protection, and avoiding nuisance to others.

An Environmentally Backward Society?

The environmentally-aware observer who, in the past decades, has visited the two main urban haredi concentrations in Israel, Bnei Braq and Jerusalem, gets rather the opposite impression. Although ultra-Orthodox society is far from homogeneous, it is generally perceived by others as environmentally backward.

Its public spaces, often dirty and scattered with litter, reflect a society where environmental concern is undeveloped. Walls and even traffic signs in the neighborhoods are often covered with pamphlets — a common mode of communication in a television-less society. Greenery is almost entirely absent. Many consider animals, a part of domesticated nature, to be “impure,” though the reasons for this are largely obscure.

Investigating contemporary halakhic literature, one finds very few responsa which relate to the environment. Most of those which refer explicitly to environmental concerns are from rabbinical authorities who are not usually considered ultra-Orthodox. Other responsa dealing with environmental issues do so in a halakhic context, without mentioning environmental considerations.

Halakhic References

For example, when R. Ovadia Yosef was asked whether one may cut branches from fruit trees in order to build a sukka, i.e., whether this is compatible with the injunction of bal tashkhit (forbidding wanton destruction), there is no indication in his responsum that concern for the environment is relevant to society. On the other hand, he raises a botanic argument: that the cutting of a tree’s branches results in the improved health of the remainder of the tree. One important consideration that he mentions against cutting branches from public trees for one’s sukka is that it is stealing, and the commandment cannot be fulfilled by transgressing a prohibition.

In yet another responsum, R. Ovadia Yosef deals with the matter of cutting down neighboring fruit trees in order to enlarge an apartment which is presently overcrowded. Once again, he reflects on many issues including the positive commandment of the building of the Land of Israel. He points out that it is permitted to cut down a fruit tree in order to give a family with many children more living space. On the other hand, doing the same for mere comfort and aesthetic considerations is forbidden. His responsum does not refer at all to environmental considerations.

In an important article, a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi, R. Yitzhak Silberstein of Bnei Braq, reviews a sizeable number of bal tashkhit cases. He relates, inter alia, to the cutting down of fruit trees to let light in, throwing away old bread, and the disposal of food leftovers from wedding halls.

A Tool for Mitigating Tensions

Elsewhere in the Jewish world, interest in the interaction of Judaism and the environment is slowly increasing. This is largely determined, however, by the interest in these issues shown by the surrounding non-Jewish society. Thus, the United States is the main country where the subject is on the Jewish agenda, even if only in a limited way.

The majority of Jewish American environmentalists come from non-Orthodox denominations. Nonetheless, when expressing their belief that Judaism is a pro-environment religion, they often quote classical Jewish sources, both halakhic and aggadic. This indicates that there are also potential bridging opportunities in the environmental area between various Jewish denominations. In the American public interest group COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, one finds among the approximately thirty participating organizations the roof bodies of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist communities. Ultra-Orthodoxy, however, is absent.

Having many other, more pressing, problems, Israel is not in the international forefront of environmental awareness. Nonetheless, there is some limited interest there in the issue of how classical Judaism relates to the environment.

Questions are occasionally asked in Israel with respect to the way the haredi community relates to the environment. There are various motives for this outside interest. Some observers consider that, in view of the many halakhic references to the environment, this could be a common interest for the secular and the ultra-Orthodox. Cooperation in the environmental field could thus help to mitigate some of the tensions in Israeli society, even if the environmental motivations and values of the respective sides differ.

For the environmentalist, a legal prohibition to avoid the cutting down of fruit trees means the preservation of (usually domesticated) nature. For the haredi, it means following Divine revelation, whatever its motivation. The aforementioned examples of the responsa of R. Ovadia Yosef bear this out.

Contradicting Halakhah?

The impression that the ultra-Orthodox do not care about the environment is fed further by some haredi attitudes which even seem to contradict halakhah. The regularly witnessed tearing of foliage from trees for the sukka, rather than cutting it from them, leads to their partial destruction; this may well be a transgression of the law against wanton destruction. Thus, some of those who claim to represent the strictest expression of authentic Judaism also follow, in this area at least, a rather selective attitude toward Jewish law.

No sociological research has been undertaken to ascertain the motivation for the de facto attitude of haredim toward environmental issues; thus all interpretations of these remain speculative. It remains doubtful whether the latter can provide more than a partial explanation for a phenomenon which is much more nuanced than it seems at first.

One observation encountered in literature is that this uncaring attitude has its origin in the fact that, as city dwellers, Jews in Eastern Europe were alienated from nature. This Eastern European past now serves as a model for haredi communities both in Israel and in the United States. It could explain why, despite the fact that many of its residents come from urban America, even a relatively well-to-do community like Har Nof in Jerusalem is a stone desert with no greenery.

Alienation of Nature

The claim of Jewish alienation from nature was already strongly made decades ago. Aharon David Gordon (1856-1922), who can be considered a Zionist precursor of the contemporary environmentalist, lamented the lack of contact between city Jews and the natural world, calling the Jews “a people that has been totally detached from nature, that has been enclosed within walls for millennia.”

After the environment became a concern of mainstream society in the early 1960s, one of the first Jewish writers to explicitly address the matter of Judaism and the environment was Eric G. Freudenstein. In 1970 he wrote that, today, Jews can have a greater involvement in environmental matters; this was not the case in the past when Jews who lived in urban ghettos had “to struggle for survival in a hostile world which they were powerless to influence.”

In 1985, David Ehrenfeld and Philip Bentley presented the same argument in a more extreme manner:

During the past millennium or more of Jewish history, the Jews have become, partly by choice but mostly by force, an increasingly urban people. Hedged in by laws restricting land ownership, occupations, and dwelling places, especially in Christian Europe, they often found themselves living in crowded ghettos out of touch with the natural world.

The Chasidic Jews, who more than any other group cling to this European Jewish ghetto culture of centuries past, are like the Amish in many respects, yet a people more cut off from nature and the natural world cannot be imagined. When one thinks of Jews one thinks of merchants, financiers, shopkeepers, peddlers, professional people, artists, intellectuals, and craftsmen; one does not usually think of farmers, fishermen, or naturalists although, of course, there have been exceptions.

A Conflicting Opinion

However, this alienation from nature has partly been contested by Norman Lamm, who claims that it is true only for the mitnagdim (the ultra-Orthodox of the Lithuanian tradition) and not for the hasidim.

[W]hile Hasidism does not directly declare nature as holy, it finds in it sufficient potentialities for the sacred to allow for a greater respect for and closeness to the natural world, while the mitnagdic dualism so completely desacralizes nature as to leave it completely neutral and irrelevant religiously, to be viewed totally objectively and without any feeling of relationship whatever.

For Hasidism, which is immanentistic, man has a kinship with other created beings, a symbiotic relationship with nature, and hence should maintain a sense of respect, if not reverence, for the natural world which is infused with the presence of God. The mitnagdic view, emphasizing divine transcendence, leaves no place for such feelings, and conceived the Man-nature relation as completely one of subject-to-object, thus allowing for the exploitation of nature by science and technology and — were it not for the halakhic restraints which issue from revelation, and not from theology — the ecological abuse of the natural world as well.

The latter needs some nuancing as well. The Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Yesyahu Karelitz, 1878-1953), perhaps the most important among Mitnagdic Talmudic scholars in Israel, ruled that one may spend money to travel in order to get to know the Land of Israel. In the period of the year known as bein hazmanim (between terms), many yeshiva students now travel to visit nature sites.

In one of his other halakhic decisions, R. Ovadia Yosef says that visiting the zoo is permitted because it causes man to be impressed by God’s creation. When visiting the Jerusalem zoo, one indeed finds many haredim there.

Concerned Rabbis

A greater interest in the natural world did exist in some ultra-Orthodox circles in Eastern Europe. People who grew up in shtetls in Eastern Europe often relate how they went into the forests to enjoy nature. There are also individual examples of concerned hasidic rabbis who tend, however, not to be normative. “It is told of the hasidic master, R. Zusya of Anapole, that, saddened by the sight of caged birds, he would purchase them from their owner in order to set them free. He informed his disciples that he regarded this to be a form of ‘ransoming prisoners’ which constitutes a moral imperative.”

Martin Buber tells how the hasidic Rabbi David of Lelow accused a coachman in front of another tsaddik (a righteous man; in the hasidic movement, a spiritual and moral leader) of hitting his horses.

Stereotypes may indeed distort perspective. What is clear, though, is that the environmental attitude of haredim is not universally the same. Not only are Israeli attitudes not uniform, but there are differences between the various diaspora communities as well. One person living in the Squirer community in the United States pointed out that some of these hasidim have nice gardens which are well taken care of.

Seeing God’s Alps

There are other significant indications that the lack of concern for the environment is not a universal characteristic of the ultra-Orthodox community. A recent publication of the Chafetz Chaim Heritage Foundation says: “Noticing the rebirth of the natural world and pointing it out to our children is a living lesson in Hashem’s kindness and boundless creativity — a lesson available everywhere, every day. It is not just a pleasure to take notice, it is an obligation.”

The same article quotes the nineteenth century leader of German neo-Orthodoxy, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. When his students expressed surprise at his wish to visit Switzerland, he told them: “G-d created a beautiful world for us to enjoy. When I reach heaven, what will I answer when G-d asks me, ‘Did you see My Alps?'”

When another Orthodox leader, however, mentioned the beauty of the Alps to Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinsky (1863-1940) — one of the major pre-war decisors in Vilna — the latter replied that a Jew with a beard is even more beautiful.

Experiences are indeed varied. These authors were told by a modern Orthodox academic living in a mixed Jerusalem neighborhood that his wife had berated an ultra-Orthodox family who regularly left their household waste outside the dustbin. She told them that doing this would be hillul hashem (desecrating God’s image), particularly as many of the other inhabitants in the street were not Orthodox. Not only did this family mend its ways, but they even started to berate others for not following suit.

From One Garbage Pile to Another

Similarly, in a recent article in Yateed Neeman, S. Freed states that by throwing their garbage in the streets of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods late on a Friday afternoon, the local shopkeepers spoil the Shabbat of the quarter’s inhabitants and those who come to pray. Nonetheless, the author adds: “a very specific phenomenon…exists only in the ultra-Orthodox quarters: the sticking to the wanton destruction prohibition, particularly as far as old bread is concerned.”

The same article mentions that an ultra-Orthodox American Jew recently visited Jerusalem and was shocked by the piles of refuse around grocery shops, the cats enjoying it, and the inhabitants walking from heap to heap, pretending not to notice them. As a result, he has offered $20,000 for an effective solution for waste removal in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The journalist mentions that no such solution has yet been found. It would be worthwhile, however, for the Jerusalem authorities to consult the new mayor of Bnei Braq, who has effected a revolution in the matter of garbage: nowadays that city looks much cleaner than in the past.

Yet another vignette: there is an Orthodox person going around the ultra-Orthodox quarters of Jerusalem with animals so that retarded children may touch and relate to them. Many inhabitants of the area look upon this favorably. It may well be that, as this is now considered an important instrument in mainstream society for the education of retarded children, haredi society does not oppose it when it is carried out by a person acceptable to them.

In a weekly leaflet “Ask the Rabbi,” published by the Or Sameach yeshiva, a question is quoted from a person whose dog Peggy was killed by a car: “She was the epitome of unconditional love, and this has taught me a great deal. Please advise me what will happen to Peggy and will we be reunited eventually?” The rabbi’s answer is that the Torah “commands many laws of mercy and kindness towards animals to nurture this virtuous feeling of compassion….The Torah also teaches us to have gratitude towards animals….However, animals lack a neshamah (a certain level of soul) so they have no afterlife existence. At death their ruach (a lower level of soul) expires.”

New Towns are Less Evil

To make an unequivocal judgement even more difficult, Bene Braq and some of Jerusalem’s haredi quarters, such as Mea Shearim, do not give the whole picture. If one visits some of the newer ultra-Orthodox communities such as the town of Betar Illit, they seem much more developed environmentally than the ultra-Orthodox city quarters.

Comparing urban governance in Bene Braq and Betar Illit, Yoseph Shilhav reaches the conclusion that the new town is far better governed. One reason for this is that, in a new town, “due to its size and brief existence, undesirable institutions and customs have not yet sprouted. Without them, it is easier to establish proper and efficient procedures.”

Shilhav points out that this was already known in Talmudic times: “A person should always try to reside in a town whose inhabitation is recent, for, since its inhabitation is recent, its transgressions are few.” Indeed, it may well be that, for many inhabitants, the pressures of life determine their future behavior, whatever one’s original intentions may have been. Expanding families require additional space and more effort to make a living. The father’s desire to dedicate as much time as possible to Torah learning counteracts concern for one’s environment.

It is only with time, waiting to see how this and other new ultra-Orthodox towns develop, that one will understand better whether basic attitudes toward the environment are changing. It should also be pointed out that no small number of the Betar Illit inhabitants are newly haredi, bringing with them skills and approaches from their secular past.

Similarly, Kiryat Sefer — another new town — advertises that “it has fixed new standards in quality of life for the ultra-Orthodox. Parks and green gardens…this city has even won a prize of excellence from the Council for a Beautiful Israel.” Some of its builders consider that, in order to attract new residents, they should offer them plants for a nominal fee.

It should also be noted that the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem originally demonstrated an awareness of the value of the environment. In the articles of the association that they founded in 1874 it is written that, in its central square “trees will be planted to bring a pleasant wind and good odor to the inhabitants.” The same articles also forbid causing noise or smoke. “Everybody must watch out in his deeds, even in his inner rooms, that he will not cause any damage or nuisance to his friend and neighbor, either near or far.”

Poverty and Modernity

Part of the explanation for haredi lack of concern for the environment undoubtedly derives from the fact that so many are among Israel’s lowest income populations. Bene Braq is one of the poorest cities in Israel, and many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox quarters belong to the lowest economic stratum of the city. Basic environmental concern, however necessary in any civil society, is de facto a luxury still largely confined to nations and individuals without major financial concerns. Viewed from that perspective, one might be inclined to say that the haredi attitude toward the environment is not very exceptional. While by no means the sole determinant, socio-economic status may well be an important one.

One may speculate further on yet other motives. Until a few decades ago, the environment was an issue of concern only to marginal groups in society. Thus, one can hardly expect a very conservative and often counter-cultural group such as the haredim to follow what is still partly a fashion in mainstream society.

Furthermore, the image of environmentalism is one of a modernity of thought which, in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, is a priori suspect. It is also identified with the secular world. What is more, some animal-protectionist currents of environmentalism are known for their opposition to Jewish ritual slaughter. In addition, the environmentalist discourse has developed its own semantics which sound alien to the haredi. The fact that some characteristics of the environmental movement are distinctively post-modern (its fragmentation) or anti-modern (its glorification of an imaginary past where man was closer to nature) are not even noticed.

One sociologist with whom we have discussed this issue suggested that, as Zionism is perceived to attach major attention to nature, those who are non-Zionist or anti-Zionist should be opposed to it. He contrasted the verdant kibbutzim with Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. This, then, would just be one more expression of what has sometimes been called “the ethos of haredi counter-culture.”

Other Motivations

Were haredim to inquire more deeply into environmentalist thought, their hostility to it might even increase. Besides the pragmatic voices of environmental concern, the fragmented environmental scene also includes ideologists who express distinctly non- or anti-monotheist ideas. Some of these voices are distinctly pagan, focused as they are on the sacredness of nature.

Yet another aspect determining the Israeli haredi’s attitude toward the environment is that his concern is mainly for his own home. The public domain is that of the alien state and thus, at least partly, evil. The authors were told by one observer that this attitude finds expression during protest demonstrations when some extreme haredim throw dirty diapers at policemen, or burn the city’s waste containers. These acts embody their association of the Zionist state with dirt.

The motif that the home belongs to oneself while the public domain is that of a government with whom one does not identify, is not exclusively confined, however, to the ultra-Orthodox community or even to Israel.

Uri Marinov, the first Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of the Environment, made a similar remark for Israel in general, noting the difference between the inside and the outside environment. “Our apartments are beautiful and clean, but people perceive the outside as belonging to the municipality.”

One modern Orthodox community rabbi goes much further. He told one of these authors that he travels regularly in Israeli landscapes that are hard to reach, where never an ultra-Orthodox sets foot. He is appalled by the amount of litter thrown there by supposedly nature-loving hitchhikers. Referring to the fact that not particularly haredi poor neighbourhoods are also dirty, he tends to believe that neglect of the environment is hardly specific to the ultra-Orthodox.

This is confirmed by many and, indeed, it is not even specific to Israel. One person, told of the huge amount of litter remaining on Mt. Meron after the Lag B’Omer festivities, responded that he had seen similar piles in Amsterdam in one of its main squares, after a pop concert had taken place there. The same goes for many football stadia around Europe.

The same argument — of public versus private space — is frequently heard in other Mediterranean countries. This pertains to Italy, for example, where the state is not perceived as an expression of the will of the people but rather as an instrument which serves those in power, i.e., the political class and their clientele. It is often noticed that many Italians care much more about their home than the public square.

Political-Religious-Ideological Aspects

All of the above provides many speculations, indications and counter-indications. The broad picture is that there are more questions than answers; confusion reigns. To get better insights into the main motives governing haredi attitudes toward environmental matters, there is thus a need for socio-cultural field research which would identify the relative importance of the above-mentioned factors.

Besides the cultural and sociological aspects of the haredi attitude toward the environment, there are also ideological, political, and religious ones. Some additional understanding on the issue could thus be gained, perhaps, from analyzing not only Talmud and Shulkhan Arukh, but also other religious texts which are studied in ultra-Orthodox circles, and assessing what these say about subjects of environmental relevance. One could see whether there are references in these texts to elements such as the general ideological attitude toward nature, animals, natural resources, pollution and nuisance, and the allocation of space.

It may be observed that, environmental considerations aside, the allocation of space in ultra-Orthodox quarters is indeed different from that of other sectors of society. This is true for more than public space alone where, obviously, sports areas, cafes, theaters, and museums require much fewer square meters — if any — than in other communities. The allocation of space in the private sphere of the ultra-Orthodox is also different. Each area in the haredi home has its own specific designation.

Yet another issue that often goes unnoticed is that there are dayanim (rabbinical judges) who specialize in nuisance matters in neighbor relationships.

Why Encourage Haredi Awareness?

Among the many issues mentioned, there is one major reason why the subject of raising haredi interest in the environment should concern the mainstream of society. In an increasingly polarized Israel, the environment is a subject which can become a modest instrument for finding matters of common interest between opposing sectors. In the tense situation that is fast developing, even such modest instruments are important.

Putting together the classical Jewish sources referring to the subject, one finds that Judaism has a specific vision of what, today, is called the environment. Although the religious considerations which lead to this vision are very different from those of modern environmentalists, the normative behavior toward the environment that halakhah implies would show a considerable overlap with that of environmentalists. Making these sources available in a way which is meaningful to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and in publications acceptable to them, is one way of promoting environmental awareness.

Even here the field is not totally virgin. Nosson Slifkin, a student at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, has written a book in English on “the reflection of the Jewish year in the natural world,” which comes with recommendations from various ultra-Orthodox rabbis. A series of illustrated books in Hebrew for haredi schools deals with issues in the context of halakhah, such as garbage in the public space, or damage caused by a child.

One could expect that some initiative to promote Jewish environmental studies and awareness in the ultra-Orthodox community would come from people with a professional environmental background who have recently become Orthodox. Occasionally one does meet such individuals. This, however, is likely to remain a slow process and, to a certain extent, it might be doomed, as it is bottom-up rather than top-down, i.e., not coming from the halakhic authorities of ultra-Orthodox society.

It seems likely that the one single move which would be most effective in making ultra-Orthodox society systematically aware of the multiple halakhic rulings on environmental issues would be to get a major Torah authority interested in the matter.

Soliciting Responsa

One act through which outsiders can trigger an acceleration of this process is by putting halakhic questions on environmental matters to leading rabbinical authorities and asking for responsa. It is in this way that halakhic thinking on biomedical ethics, another modern subject, has made such headway and has become common in all walks of the religious community, including the haredi one.

There are already a few rabbinical responsa of rabbis, both ultra-Orthodox and others, on matters of environmental concern. These include issues such as the wearing of fur coats, the keeping of pets, active and passive smoking, attending bullfights, medical experimentation on animals in order to develop new drugs, and the destruction of surplus food in order to stabilize prices.

Even if there is incomparably more concern in ultra-Orthodox society about personal medical issues than about the environment, halakhic responsa and the development of halakhic thought would not be a function of the magnitude of concern, but rather of the number and depth of the questions put forward. Nor would it be difficult to find halakhic authorities willing to answer such questions.

About Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.

About Prof. Avraham Wyler

Prof. Avraham Wyler lectures in physics and technology of materials at the Jerusalem College of Technology. He holds a doctorate from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands where he is a consultant to the National Research Institute of Metals. He is an ordained rabbi.