This article was written by Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger.

There is no such thing as “the environmental crisis.” Water does not pollute itself, nor does our planet’s atmosphere absorb more carbon emissions by accident. Rather, there is a crisis of human values; humanity makes political, economic, technological and social choices which have brought us to the far edge of a sustainable life upon this fragile planet. Religion is nothing if it doesn’t speak to our values and choices, and thin indeed if it doesn’t awaken in us a sense of wonder and awe at the miracle of life in all its diversity all around us each day.

Thus, when we consider what Judaism might say about the problem of living more lightly on the earth, we might begin, appropriately enough, “in the beginning.” The very first words of the Torah tell us that there is something, and not nothing, because God is good, and created a world of blessing. Some of us read Genesis more literally, and some read it as metaphor or symbolic language, but the larger point is this: we don’t live in world of random molecules and endless chemical reactions, we live in a wondrous Creation. A sense of reverential awe at the complexity and beauty of our world is the foundation of any religious environmentalism.

According to Judaism, more specifically, we live in a world where our lives can have great meaning, but we are not the masters nor owners of this world. We are stewards, charged with “tending and tilling” the garden of Creation. The Psalms remind us that we share this Creation with countless other species. The end of the book of Job teaches clearly that we must be humble in a world teeming with countless forms of life, each one created for its own purposes, each part of a system whose ultimate design is beyond our complete understanding. The Torah has laws pertaining to the compassionate treatment of animals; we are never to cause unnecessary suffering. Judaism is twisted and perverted when animals suffer; the merciless culture of industrial agriculture which has affected some parts of the kosher food industry does not represent Jewish ethics or values.

A law in the book of Deuteronomy (20:19-20) which originally pertained to warfare, enjoining the destruction of fruit trees to make siegeworks, was understood broadly by the ancient sages as prohibiting the destruction or wasting of any useful or sustaining resources. Conservation is a religious value in Judaism; we respect our planet by treating its resources as precious and vital. Consumer culture does not reward a conservation ethic; too often we are judged by what we own, rather than by the content of our character, as Dr. King put it. Religion and environmentalism seek the same transformation of human values, away from greed and materialism and towards an ethic of reverence, wonder, compassion and humble stewardship.

(Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger has worked as an environmental educator, an interfaith chaplain, and pulpit rabbi, and is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El and Associate Chaplain of Vassar Bros Medical Center, both in Poughkeepsie. He holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto, where his Master’s paper synthesized environmental ethics, Jewish theology, and contemporary environmental philosophy. Rabbi Neal spoke on Theological Perspectives on Judaism and the Environment at the Sacred Earth Leadership Forum that was held on Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at Vassar College.)