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Factsheet on Jewish Environmental Teachings

This is the third factsheet in a series of five

A. Jewish Environmental Teachings

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. (Psalm 24:10

The Talmudic sages assert that people’s role is to enhance the world as “co-partners of God in the work of creation.”(Shabbat 7a) They indicate great concern about preserving the environment and preventing pollution. They state: “It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery” (Kiddushin 66a). Threshing floors had to be placed far enough from a town so that it would not be dirtied by chaff carried by winds. (Mishna Baba Batra 2:8) Tanneries had to be kept at least 50 cubits from a town and could be placed only on the east side of a town, so that odors would not be carried by the prevailing winds from the west (Mishna Baba Batra 2:8,9).

…You [God] are the One Who sends forth springs into brooks, that they may run between mountains, to give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures of the forest quench their thirst. Beside them dwell the fowl of the heavens;… You water the mountains from Your upper chambers;… You cause the grass to spring up for the cattle and herb, for the service of people, to bring forth bread from the earth…. How manifold are Your works, O Lord! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your property…. (Psalm 104)

The preservation of the land of Israel has been a central theme in Judaism. The three festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) are agricultural as well as spiritual celebrations. Jews pray for dew and rain in their proper time so that there will be abundant harvests in Israel. Jewish tradition prohibits abuse of natural resources and the environment.

The following midrash is very relevant to the realities indicated below:

In the hour when the Holy One, blessed be He created the first human being, He took him and let him pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I have created, for you have I created it. Think upon this and do not destroy and desolate My World, For if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.” Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28

B. Environmental Realities of Modern, Intensive Animal-Basd Agriculture

Please note that these statistics were obtained for the third my 2001 book, “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” so some updating might ne necessary in some cases.

Animal-based agriculture is a prime cause of environmental crises facing the United States and much of the world today:

1. Current livestock agriculture and the consumption of meat contribute greatly to the four major gases associated with potential global warming: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons. The burning of tropical forests to create land to produce cattle feed releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Also, the highly mechanized agricultural sector uses a significant amount of fossil fuel for energy, thus contributing greatly to carbon dioxide emissions. Cattle emit methane as part of their digestive process, as do termites who feast on the charred remains of trees. The large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers used to produce feed crops for grain-fed animals create significant amounts of nitrous oxides. Also, the increased refrigeration necessary to prevent animal products from spoiling adds chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere.

2. The tremendous quantity of grains grown to feed animals requires extensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Various constituents of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, are washed into surface waters. High levels of nitrates in drinking water cause illnesses for people as well as animals.

3. Overgrazing by cattle in arid and semiarid areas is a prime cause of spreading deserts in many parts of the world. Cattle production contributes greatly to all causes of desertification: overgrazing of livestock, over-cultivation of land, improper irrigation techniques, deforestation, and prevention of reforestation.

4. The runoff of cattle wastes from feedlots is a major source of pollution of ground water and streams. U. S. livestock produce an astounding 86,000 pounds of excrement per second. Food geographer Georg Borgstrom has estimated that American livestock contribute five times more organic waste to water pollution than do people, and twice as much as industry

5. Each year over 5 billion tons of topsoil are eroded in the U.S.; about 85% is due to livestock agriculture.

6. Largely to save 5 cents on a fast-food hamburger made from beef which is exported to the U.S., the earth’s tropical rain forests are being bulldozed at a rate of 100 acres per minute, a rate which would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania every year. Each 4-ounce fast-food hamburger patty made from imported beef requires the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical forest to create grazing and pasture lands that do not regenerate.

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