Jewish Land Ethics: Shared Visions of Sustainable Biotic Communities in Judaism and the Writings of Aldo Leopold

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Jewish Land Ethics: Shared Visions of Sustainable Biotic Communities in Judaism and the Writings of Aldo Leopold
Feinberg, Ryan
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University of Florida
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Jewish Land Ethics: Shared Visions of Sustainable Biotic Communities
in Judaism and the Writings of Aldo Leopold

Ryan Feinberg


The ecologist Aldo Leopold's life of public service, scientific discovery, and academic mentorship contributed a

great many things to the world, the most profound and lasting of which lies perhaps in his influence upon

humanity's fundamental philosophical beliefs with regards to nature. This influence comes from his collection

of essays, speeches, and journal entries-in addition to the man's very way of living-which reflect his ever-

evolving understanding of the world in which he lived.

Leopold boldly asserted that environmental challenges could not be met by technological innovation and legal

reform alone; true change, he expressed on many occasions, must come from a shift in individuals' beliefs

and, subsequently, their actions. The revolution that Leopold sought was not one of increased yields and

stricter laws; rather, Leopold's revolution was one of increased understanding and stricter self-discipline. As such,

he looked to the educational, philosophical, and religious institutions of his day as potential impetuses for change.

In all three disciplines, he discovered a dearth of inspiration, and consequently he viewed them critically,

once writing, "No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our

intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched

these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it" (Leopold 1949:


Leopold was especially critical of Western religious traditions, writing in A Sand County Almanac, "Conservation

is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land" (Leopold 1949: viii). In the

final essay of that book, "The Land Ethic," Leopold went on to explain the concept in question as only allowing for

an economic, or instrumental, valuation of the environment: "Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was

to drip milk and honey into Abraham's mouth" (Leopold 1949: 204-205). In Leopold's view, the biblical accounts

of Abraham-and the traditions that they inspired-only valued nature insofar as it could benefit human beings.

A deeper, non-instrumental appreciation for the non-human earth was inconsistent with such religious traditions,

he contended.

Leopold's analysis was based upon the human society of which he was a part and came to know throughout his

life. For all intents and purposes, this society generally did view the natural world as a mere stockpile of resources

for humanity's utilization; further, the religious beliefs of that society did condone such a worldview. It is not

a stretch to find a causal relationship within this correlation. Leopold saw that environmental challenges had, at

their roots, attitudes and beliefs that stemmed from the predominant belief systems of the day; he was not the

first scholar, nor the last, to state such a connection, although he certainly was one of the most influential to do so.

A point of inquiry arises, however, when the depth and breadth of the religious traditions in question are

considered. The historical origins of the biblical Abraham emerged on the fertile banks of the Tigris and

Euphrates Rivers over four thousand years ago; the patriarch's descendants include today's Jews, Christians,

and Muslims. Any tradition with as deep a history and as wide a contingency will undoubtedly prove difficult to

label. While there are certainly Jewish, Christian, and Islamic individuals and institutions that hold

predominately instrumental views towards nature, it would be wrong to state that these views predominate any

of the religions themselves. Indeed, each religion can be best described as a collection of diverse interpretations

and practices formed by a perpetual evolution which has occurred (and is occurring) over vast amounts of time

and space.

Thus, while Leopold's analysis of the religious traditions that he saw being practiced during his lifetime was

valid (insofar as these traditions created an anthropocentric worldview that ascribed only instrumental value

to nature), it is incomplete. This critique was correct for the specific time and place in which Leopold lived-the

United States of America in the first half of the 20th century. However, the religions that he witnessed were but

the tip of a very large iceberg.

If Leopold had dug deeper into any of the three religions traced back to Abraham, he would have discovered

many more concepts of the land than just those that he acquired from scattered biblical verses and

contemporary practices; he would have discovered traditions rich in both understandings of and respect for nature

-outwardly expressed through everyday practices and rituals. In short, the ethical relationship to nature

that Leopold was calling for had been heard of and deeply known by the religious traditions that he was

critiquing; unfortunately such relationships had been long forgotten by many people.

This study uncovers some of those forgotten wisdoms that Leopold never had the opportunity to discover and

which have been overlooked for a long time by many of the adherents of the religions themselves. Of the

diverse traditions that have flowered from the patriarch Abraham, I focus upon Judaism, although both

Christianity and Islam are also deserving of such an inquiry. The intent is not to attempt to reshape and

manipulate over four thousand years of history and culture to fit neatly into the ideas of a 20th century thinker, nor

is it to criticize that thinker for not discovering ideas that had been repressed by a number of factors throughout

the ages. The point here, rather, is to view two sources of ecological wisdom-various parts of the Jewish

tradition and the writings of Aldo Leopold-in light of one another. It is the hope of such an endeavor to gain a

better understanding of both wisdoms and to unearth from both the inspiration needed in our own day to

make reality the vision found in each of a sustainable and ethical relationship between human beings and the

biotic communities of which they are a part.


Aldo Leopold eventually came to view the world in terms of communities-the largest and most inclusive being

the biotic community. He viewed ethics as arising from this community concept, writing, "All ethics so far

evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of

interdependent parts" (Leopold 1949: 203).

"The Land Ethic," perhaps Leopold's best-known essay, discusses the extension of the concept of ethics to

the nonhuman Earth. The author explains, "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community

to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land...[it] changes the role of Homo sapiens

from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-

members, and also respect for the community as such" (Leopold 1949: 204).

"The Land Ethic" begins with a brief discussion of the evolution of ethics, starting with the ancient and

relatively lawless world of Odysseus in which ethics had presumably not yet even been extended to all groups

of people. Leopold continues by describing "the first ethics" which dealt with the relationships between

individuals and later between individuals and their society, citing the Mosaic Decalogue and the Golden Rule as

early examples of each, respectively. According to Leopold, this milestone of societal ethics is where the evolution

of moral consideration has stalled and the point from which land ethics should evolve (Leopold 1949: 203).

The philosopher is correct in citing the Mosaic Decalogue (also known as the Ten Commandments) and the

Golden Rule as two of the ancient sources of ethics. However, his analysis is incomplete as it fails to look at the

larger context in which these ethics existed-the Jewish tradition. The Ten Commandments are actually the first

of 613 commandments, or mitzvoth. Interestingly, one of these commandments is the ethical principle that

Leopold referred to as the Golden Rule. These laws are contained in the Pentateuch, the Written Law of the

Jewish people, also known as the Torah. This in turn is a part of the Tanakh, also known as the Hebrew Bible,

which includes the Writings of the Prophets (for example, Isaiah and Ezekiel) and the Holy Writings (for example,

the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes), in addition to the Torah.

The Oral Law expands upon this three-part work in writings known as Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud. These

consist of the commentaries and interpretations of the Tanakh by Jewish scholars during the first six centuries of

the Common Era. Together, the entire body of Jewish law as laid out in these texts is known as halakhot

(sing., halakhah), which translates in Hebrew to mean "way of going."

In addition to these legal traditions, there exist non-legal teachings in the form of the collection of legends and

ethical parables known as aggadah. Additionally, Judaism includes a vast body of mystical writings collectively

called kabbalah. Taken together, halakhah, aggadah, and kabbalah make up the sacred teachings of

Judaism, offering ethical guidelines for humans to follow throughout their lives.

Judaism certainly deals with interpersonal and societal ethics in depth, as Leopold suggested, but he neglected

to uncover those ethics within the Jewish tradition that deal with humanity's relationship to ecosystems and

individual plants and animals. Within the Torah alone, ethical provisions exist concerning each of the components

that Leopold cites as collectively making up the land-soils, waters, plants, and animals. Many verses from the

Torah and other parts of the Tanakh illustrate that Jewish law requires humans to place limitations on their

actions for the sake of nonhuman others. For example, the Torah contains prohibitions against

indiscriminate destruction of the Earth and cruelty to animals. These prohibitions have been interpreted by

scholars to create the Jewish principles of bal tashchit and tzar ba'alei chayyim, which translate to mean "Do

not destroy" and "the pain of living creatures," respectively (Kalechofsky 1998: 110-65).

Although Judaism's consideration of nonhumans is certain, the nature and extent of this consideration is not as

clear. While Jewish sacred texts may require a certain treatment of the environment and nonhuman animals,

Jewish scholars throughout the ages have debated the why's and the how's of this treatment. A wide spectrum

of interpretation exists for principles such as bal tashchit and tzar ba'alei chayyim, with vastly diverging opinions

as to their very meaning, the degree to which they should be carried out, and the intent that accompanies

their practice. While one scholar may explain a law dealing with the environment as ultimately being for the

economic welfare of humans, another scholar may explain the same law as being for the sake of the plants

and animals themselves (Schwartz 2001: 239).

As such, it is difficult to define a single Jewish land ethic, or way of describing how Jewish people have

historically viewed and treated nature. While there have certainly been Jews and Jewish societies throughout

history that have met Leopold's criterion of valuing nature beyond mere instrumentalism, there have also been

those who have not. In light of this, Judaism can be said to offer many different paths, or ways of going,

especially when it comes to humanity's relationship to nonhuman others.


In a parable entitled "Round River," Leopold describes his understanding of ecosystems, or biotic communities,

as being "a never-ending circuit of life" (Leopold 1993, 158). He goes on to compare the material and energy

flows on Earth to a river that flows back into itself-the round river of the essay's title. As an ecologist, Leopold

could not escape the fact that all life is linked in a circular current that begins and ends with the soil; "dust

unto dust," he writes.

The quote, of course, is in reference to an idea expressed many times throughout the Tanakh. The concept

first appears in Genesis's account of God reminding Adam, "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt

thou return" (Genesis 3:19) and, later, this cyclical and humbling understanding of existence is expressed in the

final portion of the Tanakh, in Ecclesiastes 3:19: "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts. . . All

go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust."

In this way, Jewish sacred texts reflect astonishingly accurate scientific understandings of ecological

processes. Additionally, they reflect a feeling of kinship with and reverence for other forms of life. An

understanding of ecological factors important to agriculture, such as climate and soil, is evident in Jewish texts and

in the agricultural practices of the ancient societies that it both reflected and inspired.

This understanding makes sense in light of the fact that agriculture was the Jewish people's primary connection to

the land for much of their history. A portion of text from the Mishnah illustrates the centrality of agriculture to

Jews: "One who purchases grain in the market is like an infant whose mother is dry, while one who eats from

what one has grown is like an infant raised at its mother's breast" (Avot d'Rabbi Nathan 30:6).

Much of the Torah reads like a farmer's almanac, with agricultural advice based on environmental realities

ingrained into many of its chapters. For example, Genesis 41 accurately describes the unpredictable

precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns that were common in the ancient Middle East (Crist 1961: 5).

The Torah prudently calls for the storage of excess food during agriculturally productive seasons, a practice that

was undoubtedly heeded by the ancient Israelites, who knew all too well about the climatological variability of

their land.

Further, Leviticus 18:24-28 tells of a cause and effect relationship between the actions of humans and the

land's response: "And the land was defiled. . . and the land vomited out her inhabitants. Ye therefore shall keep

My statutes and Mine ordinances. . . that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out

the nation that was before you."

The biblical agricultural statutes and ordinances in question include ethical provisions directly designed to

preserve nutrients in the soil. In this way, the religious laws acted as checks against unsustainable use of the

land. For example, once planted, a fruit tree had to be allowed to grow for four years before people were allowed

to eat any of its fruit (Leviticus 19:23). This practice had the consequence of building up soil richness and fertility,

as unharvested fruit would fall to the ground and return nutrients to the soil. Quite literally, laws such a this

one prevented the kind of land degradation that would have forced the ancient Israelites to migrate to new areas,

a process that one can see as being analogous to the land vomiting out its inhabitants.

The land protection measures described in the Torah are extensive. Leviticus 25:4 tells of an agricultural cycle

in which farmers would plow, plant, and harvest fields and vineyards for six years, followed by a seventh-called

the Sabbatical Year-in which no reaping or gathering was done and the land was to lie fallow, as it was written,

"it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land."

Similarly, after seven sabbatical years (49 years), another year of rest for the land would occur on the fiftieth

year, called the Year of Jubilee. Additionally, the Jubilee (which translates to mean "release") required that all land

be equally redistributed among the ancient Israelites and food be shared with the poor, servants, and

domesticated and wild animals.

The social consequences of such practices included the creation of a community in which consideration was

expanded to include ecosystems and animals. The ecological results of the Sabbatical Year and Year of Jubilee

were clear: nutrients were allowed to return to the soil, allowing for it to retain its fertile properties for much

longer than if crops were perpetually taken each year. This seems to have been understood, as it was written

in Leviticus 25:18-19, "Wherefore ye shall do My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances and do them; and ye shall

dwell in the land in safety. And the land shall yield her fruit, and ye shall eat until ye have enough, and dwell

therein in safety."

Such practices demonstrate an understanding of natural processes, such as nutrient cycling and soil anchorage,

and the dependency of society upon these processes. The non-ownership of the land by the ancient Israelites

shows that they understood themselves to be a community within a much larger community-that of the God

that they worshiped. Leviticus 25:23 proclaims: "For the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me."

During his lifetime, Aldo Leopold witnessed a disaster with striking resemblance to the Torah's warnings

against improper land use. The year was 1935, and the disaster would come to be called the Dust Bowl. From

the once-fertile but now dry and barren Great Plains, the land quite literally "vomited out" a mass exodus

of impoverished farmers to the west and black clouds of dust to the east, with soil from Colorado eventually

reaching the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (Meine 1988: 348).

The disaster, far from being natural, was caused by poor agricultural practices, perpetuated by a society devoted

to unchecked progress. Needless to say, the farmers who immigrated to the Great Plains states as early as the

1870s and came to be known as "sod-busters" did not let their land grow fallow every seven years. Instead,

they destroyed the innate wind and drought resistance of the region's native soil by plowing long straight

rows parallel to the wind, leaving large fields bare of any vegetation, and replacing diverse indigenous plants

with single cash crops (Worster 1994: 226).

From this ecological tragedy and others, Leopold came to view agriculture as a crucial link in the relationship

between people and their environment. He once wrote, "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One

is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from

the furnace" (Leopold 1949: 6).

On Monday, April 15, 1935, one day after the dust storms of the Dust Bowl reached their climax on what would

come to be called "Black Sunday," Aldo Leopold gave a speech entitled "Land Pathology" at the University

of Wisconsin (Meine 1988: 349). The speech was an important one; it contained Leopold's first use of the term

"land ethic" and represented a shift in his thinking. The consequences of humanity's exploitation of nature

were becoming painfully obvious-the Dust Bowl being the most glaring example-and Leopold learned the lessons

of each anthropogenic disaster in a process of perpetual rethinking of his understanding of the Earth.

Just as Judaism contains within it a spectrum with an instrumental valuing of nature on one end and

intrinsic valuation on the other, so do the writings of Aldo Leopold. Judaism's spectrum spans across its various

texts and interpretations across time; Leopold's spans across his life, with his early career exhibiting

very instrumental views towards nature and his later career valuing the nonhuman Earth for its own sake.

In a 1915 article entitled "The Varmint Question," Leopold espoused the reduction of predator populations for

the benefit of more popular game species (Flader and Callicott 1991: 47). The word "varmint" alone should

indicate how Leopold viewed nature at that time. His perception was similar to the instrumentalist Abraham,

whom he would later criticize. His position on the issue was influential, and the government waged a war

against predators that exterminated many species of so-called varmints.

As noted above, Leopold's experiences and observations throughout his life changed his views. He

witnessed ecosystems crash after having their predators slaughtered and their soils depleted in the name

of increased yields of game and crops, respectively. Such observations stirred Leopold to rethink the fundamentals

of his profession. This shift took the form of a growing interest in non-game wildlife, a personal change in belief

over the importance of predators, increased criticism of manipulations of ecosystems, speaking of ecosystems

as organisms, and a non-economic valuing of nature. By 1936, Leopold started speaking in terms of "wildlife"

rather than "game," and, in 1938, he changed his title from "Professor of Game Management" to "Professor

of Wildlife Management" (Meine 1988: 351-87).

By the time he wrote "The Land Ethic," there was very little instrumental valuing of nature in Leopold's writing: "It

is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and

a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I

mean value in the philosophical sense" (Leopold 1949: 223).

Trained as a scientist and dedicated for a good portion of his career to the sustainable exploitation of nature,

Leopold came to describe the Earth poetically for no other purpose than to express his feelings of awe:

This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all.

To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of the hills

and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit

quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then

you may hear it-a vast pulsing harmony-its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths

of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries (Leopold 1949: 149).

Judaism, too, tells of a nature that sings and of plants and animals and Earth and stars that contain the secrets

of existence. As in Leopold's writings, feelings of reverence and awe within Jewish texts stand on the opposite end

of a spectrum from more anthropocentric sentiments found elsewhere. Poetic verses that express kinship with

and respect for nature are especially abundant in the third part of the Tanakh, the Holy Writings. In an essay

entitled "Adam, Adamah, and Adonai," Rabbi Jeff Sultar contrasts this part of the Tanakh with its predecessors,

the Torah and Writings of the Prophets, as placing nature in a more prominent position (Sultar 1998: 19). In

biblical books such as Job, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, nature metaphors and direct statements of the

land's complexity and importance abound.

For many, the Tanakh's account of Job is an important parable for explaining humanity's relationship with the rest

of creation. The Book of Job tells of one man's struggle with his own existence and his subsequent challenging

of God, who he views to be unjust. The response from God challenges Job's egocentric and

ultimately, anthropocentric, worldview. From a mighty whirlwind, God answers Job's challenge:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Declare, if thou hast the understanding...

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea?

Or hast thou walked in the recesses of the deep?...

Canst thou bind the chains of the Pleiades,

Or loose the bands of Orion?

Canst thou lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season?

Or canst thou guide the Bear with her sons?...

Doth the hawk soar by thy wisdom,

And stretch her wings toward the south?

Doth the vulture mount up at thy command,

And make her nest on high? (Job 38-40)

After being shown the miracles of existence, Job's eyes are opened to the important but non-central place that

he and other humans reside in the universe. He answers God:

Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer Thee?

I lay my hand upon my mouth...

...Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not,

Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not...

Wherefore I abhor my words, and repent,

Seeing I am dust and ashes (Job 42:1-6).

Job's metamorphosis is similar to Leopold's. Both men, after fully experiencing the world around them, could

not deny its beauty and complexity. Both came to rethink the place of humanity in the world; for both, the shift

was from a humanity on top of a stockpile of resources to humanity among a much larger community of beings to

be revered.


Aldo Leopold's critique of religion was not so much a condemnation of past misdeeds but a call to action for

the future. This call, which came during the 1940s, has been answered in many ways over the past half century,

as religious institutions have increasingly responded to environmental problems facing their communities and

world. This trend, as can be expected, is part of a larger response by the world religions to social justice issues

in general. Sacred texts and rituals have come to be viewed not only as ends themselves but also as means

to making the world a better place. For many, social action has become religious action and two formerly

separate aspects of human existence have joined forces.

Indeed, Judaism has taken on a vast array of modern social justice issues in the past half century, as one can

now find Jewish institutions working on everything from ending world hunger to promoting peace to fighting

for animal rights to achieving ecological sustainability. It is the latter two issues that are of interest here, as

they illustrate that contemporary Jews have at least partially embraced those parts of their faith that deal with

the nonhuman Earth. Further, many Jews, through their thoughts and actions, illustrate that they have

embraced (knowingly or not) many aspects of Leopold's ethical writings.

Jeremy Benstein, a scholar and activist who serves as one of the deputy directors of the Heschel Center

for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Israel, described the basis of his environmental advocacy as being,

"A feeling that something is terribly wrong with the way individuals lead their lives, and the ways societies

construct themselves and their relationship to nature. Progress is making things worse, and we are

exchanging quality for quantity, mystery for mastery" (Benstein 2004).

Benstein, like Leopold, feels that the environment will only be saved through changes in beliefs about ethical

matters; furthermore, his analysis of the progression of ethical thought echoes that of Leopold, as he said, "The

goal of the environmental movement should be to get people to think three dimensionally" (Benstein 2004). The

first two dimensions-economic and social concerns, respectively-have been realized by humanity, according

to Benstein; it is the third dimension-the ethical consideration of nature-which must be realized to a greater

extent if humans ever hope to solve the many global environmental threats facing the world.

Concerning Judaism's contributions to environmentalism, Benstein is somewhat skeptical and feels as though there

is still much work to be done. He feels that the religion has much to offer but that more interpretations of its

dealings with nature need to be developed and brought to the surface so that more people can be exposed to

them (Benstein 2004).

A scholar and activist who is attempting to do just that is Dr. Richard Schwartz, a mathematics professor from

New York who has dedicated a large portion of his life to educating others about Jewish teachings that deal

with animals and the environment. Schwartz has authored several books-including Judaism and Vegetarianism

and Judaism and Global Survival-and currently serves as President of the Jewish Vegetarians of North

America (JVNA) and Coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV).

For Schwartz, Jewish teachings undoubtedly deal with the nonhuman Earth and encourage compassionate

treatment towards animals and sustainable living with nature. When asked about Judaism's potential

contributions, he replied, "I have long felt that Judaism and other religions have much to say regarding solutions

to current problems. So, I decided to try to make others aware of how the application of religious values

could reverse environmental and other threats, and also potentially revitalize religion" (Schwartz 2004).

When asked if Leopold's idea of extending ethical consideration to nonhumans was consistent with Judaism,

Schwartz gave an unequivocal "Yes, absolutely." Furthermore, in his scholarship, he cites Jewish teachings

that illustrate that Judaism not only allows for compassion towards animals and environmental sustainability

but actually demands it (Schwartz 2004).

The Heschel Center and JVNA are two of the larger organizations working on the issues in question in Israel and

the United States, respectively; but there are also many organizations working on the local, grassroots level.

One such organization, Jews of the Earth (JOTE), located in Boulder, Colorado, seeks to effect change locally

by "greening" Jewish institutions in the community and providing programming that combines elements

of environmentalism and Judaism (Ziskin 2004).

An activist with JOTE, Daniel Ziskin, described the reasons for his involvement with environmentalism as

being irrevocably connected to his religious views: "My Judaism is strongly linked to ethical behavior. And I

believe that the environmental consequences of our actions are an ethical component of our lives. So if we

live recklessly in regards to the Earth and the critters that co-inhabit her, we are violating our Jewish mandate to

act ethically" (Ziskin 2004).

When asked about whether Judaism is consistent with the idea of Leopold's land ethic, Ziskin replied: "Yes, I think

it's very appropriate. Judaism is all about putting limits on your own behavior for the benefit of others,

your relationship with the Creator, and yourself. So, a definition of ethics that emphasizes limitations is

consistent with a Jewish perspective. I believe that eco-Judaism is exactly what [Leopold] was describing . . .

the extension of moral concern to the land and the other critters" (Ziskin 2004).

The lives and careers of Benstein, Schwartz, and Ziskin, as well as many others like them, indicate that

Jewish teachings about nature are still in the hearts and minds of Jewish people today. If Judaism offers a

multitude of interpretations and courses of action, then modern Judaism is increasingly choosing those paths

which sustain the Earth and show compassion to other members of the land community. Perhaps if alive

today, Leopold would view Judaism, as well as other religious and philosophical traditions, in a much more

positive light, as much forgotten ecological wisdom has been remembered since the ecologist's passing in 1948.


There is an ethical teaching in the Jewish tradition: "The ways of Torah may be likened to two roads, on one of

which fire and on the other snow is encountered. If one goes along one path, one will be burned to death, and if

one proceeds along the other, one will perish in the snow. What, then, should one do? One must go between

the extremes."

Perhaps the greatest point of commonality between Judaism and the writings of Aldo Leopold is that each offers

a middle path between the extremes of human existence-on one end a state of frozen stagnancy numb to the

world, and on the other, a state of frantic motion proceeding at a pace that threatens to set the world ablaze.

Both appreciate the unique nature of the human experience and encourage the living of a meaningful life that is

fully engaged in the world. However, both seek to place limits upon human action so as to sustain and honor

the world and the many communities that exist therein.

Judaism emerged from among the great empires of the ancient world and it rejected many of their tenets.

When imperial powers were moving in every direction, destroying everything in their path, and then imposing

their vision of what was right upon those conquered, Judaism was recycling the same land among the same

families every fifty years and farming on that land in a way that preserved soil fertility, conserved wild plants

and animals, and treated domestic animals and workers with compassion.

Leopold emerged on the heels of the Industrial Revolution and witnessed the environmental costs of modern

society's pursuit of perpetual progress. He realized that humanity's economic system was operating at a rate

that threatened to outpace the rates of many ecological processes. The need to slow down was apparent to him.

He wrote, "Conservation is a bird that flies faster than the shot we aim at it" (Leopold 1993: 145).

Today, both the ecological wisdoms of Judaism and Leopold offer true middle paths-paths that fully embrace

the world and allow humans to live a meaningful life, but that do not do so at a grave cost to the communities of

life with whom we live and are a part of. Both offer wisdom that holds the potential to replace many of

the ecologically unsound dogmas of our current age. In a time when the sustainable relationship between

humans and their biotic communities that has existed throughout history is in danger of being lost forever,

traditions and individuals such as Judaism and Aldo Leopold hold the promise to revive such relationships back to life.


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12. Worster, Donald. 1994. Nature's Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

13. Ziskin, Daniel. 2004 August 20. Interview.


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