For us as people of faith, the world around us in indeed our common home; but it is above all the Creation, the manifestation of the Creator, of the Divine presence in our world, as for example Psalm 19 declares so exquisitely.
Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague in the 16th century wrote, “Love of creatures and creation is the love of God. Whosoever loves the One God, loves all the works He has made; and he who does not love His works, does not truly love Him” (Netivot Olam)
Maimonides some three hundred years earlier explained how we are to fulfil the Biblical commandments to love and fear God.
"When a person meditates on His wonderful and great works and creatures, and sees through them His wisdom that is beyond compare and limits; immediately he loves and praises and glorifies and desires a great desire to know Him, to know His great Name. As David said, 'My soul thirsts for God, the living God'. And when he considers these very things, immediately he draws back and is fearful knowing that he is a small and lonely creature standing in weak and limited understanding before The One of perfect knowledge….as David said, 'When I see the heavens and the work of your fingers , what is human being that you should remember him ?" (Mishneh Torah, Chapter 2 Section 2 of Yesodei haTorah)
For Maimonides, our awareness of the cosmos that God has created is not only a consciousness of the Divine Presence, but it is actually the means by which we fulfil the charge to love and fear God.
It is the way by which we draw ourselves towards that intimacy with God.
Accordingly for Maimonides, as indeed throughout the generations of Jewish tradition (until modern times, which idiosyncratically produced a reactionary Jewish withdrawal in ultra-Orthodox circles), not only was scientific understanding not seen as a threat to religion, but it was understood to be essential to the development of our love and reverence for God.
In that Creation that testifies to the Divine Presence in the world, the Hebrew Bible declares, the summit is the human person created in the Divine Image; and the explicit special role of the human being in this Creation is expressed in the phrase in Genesis 2:15 “and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to preserve it “.
The latter part of this call has never been more urgent. We see today not only destructive wildfires and massive floodings etc. on a scale as never before; but we see the degradation of our natural world substantially by greed and avarice, that threatens our very existence on the planet.
The central precept in Judaism regarding human responsibility towards the environment, is drawn from the specific prohibition in Deuteronomy Chapter 20 Verse 19, prohibiting cutting down fruit trees to use as weapons in a war of self defence.
The sages of the Talmud two millenia ago ,draw an a fortiori conclusion, that if in a situation of war where human life is in danger it is prohibited to cut down a fruit tree; under normal condition, destroying anything that provides sustenance is an even greater impiety, and indeed they extend the prohibition to anything that can be of use and of value.
This expansion includes any wanton destruction (TB Kiddushin 32a) and any kind of waste (TB Berachot 52b), even to over ostentation and overindulgence (TB Hullin 7b; Shabbat 140b).
Accordingly , children are raised in traditional Jewish homes with a strong awareness of the obligation not to waste - not only food, but anything that can be a source of benefit including clothing, furniture; and again to be conscious that everything that we have comes from the Source of all.
As opposed to the widespread secular approach, Judaism teaches that we are not the owners of our bodies to do with as we choose. We are the custodians of our bodies that we have the duty to care for; and indeed, Maimonides declares that maintaining a healthy diet, exercise and keeping ourselves in good condition, is our in fact moral obligation not only to ourselves, but to the Almighty who entrusted our bodies into our hands as it were.
And of course central to the ethical call of the Torah is the imperative to care for our fellow human beings.
In addition to the general principle of loving one's neighbour (Leviticus 19:18), the commandment two verses beforehand declares, "You shall not stand idly by while your brother's blood is spilt."
Jewish tradition understands this to mean that we have an obligation in the face of any possible threat to another, to do everything possible to protect him or her. In addition, the injunction that appears another two verses earlier (Leviticus 19:14) requiring us to remove the stumbling block before the blind , is understood within Jewish tradition as requiring us to do everything we can to eliminate any possible danger to another - especially towards the vulnerable.
Accordingly, anyone who fails to prevent any harm to another is seen by Jewish tradition as having transgressed these prohibitions. (see Maimonides, Yad, Hilchot Rozeach,2:3)
The threat today to human health comes not only from environmental degradation, but also from so-called developed societies lifestyles and dietary habits.
The livestock industry and its widespread use of hormones and antibiotics retained in the products and passed on in human consumption are not only damaging in themselves, but are also inextricably connected to the pandemics we have experienced and are continuing to experience, overwhelmingly resultant from human misbehavior and irresponsibility in relation to the sentient world.
Moreover, the livestock industry and the production of animal food products is the major cause of cause of global warming, as the United Nations and Lancet studies have demonstrated. These industries catering for human indulgence, cause more pollution than all the forms of transport all put together, and are the major cause of waste of water, land, and other resources.
Generally, we may say that today a carnivorous lifestyle is nothing less than a threat to the health of oneself and others.
Any serious religious ethic regarding care for our common home must demand that we reduce and if possible renounce animal food products altogether, and adopt a plant based diet as much as possible.
Failure to do so, is to expose any pious comments about our responsibility for the environment as profoundly flawed.
An ancient Jewish midrash (homily) tells of how God took the first humans around the Garden of Eden to see all the trees and plants; and He said “see how wonderful are my creations; I have made these things for your benefit. Take heed to care for them all; for if you destroy them, there is no-one else here to restore them.”
Another ancient rabbinic homily tells of people who are in a rowing boat and one of them starts to make a hole under his seat. In response to protests from the others, he says, “but this is my seat; I am not doing it under your seats”; and of course, the others say “but we are all in the same boat. What you do under your seat affects us all and we will all drown!”
More than ever before we can see today how much we are all in the same boat. Our responsibility is an immediate existential one for one another, for future generations, for humanity. But we must not forget that our responsibility for our common home is our responsibility for Creation itself - the manifestation of the Divine Presence and Providence in the world. Thus the degree to which we truly take care of its wellbeing, is the degree to which we truly love God, the Creator of the World.