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Thou Shalt Conserve Energy

By Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

“Thou shalt conserve energy” is not a biblical commandment, narrowly speaking, but it’s close. After all, the Torah’s 529th (530th by some counts) commandment, bal taschit, has long been commonly understood to mean “thou shalt not waste,” a principle that as far back as the Talmud specifically includes not wasting energy. Other laws and ideas point in this direction as well. While of course energy conservation is not the consistently overriding consideration in such a gloriously wide ranging tradition where other values are also at play, but conserving energy is squarely within our tradition — a central concern. To understand how scholars at the time of the Talmud, more than 1,500 years ago, could mandate energy efficiency as a matter of Jewish law, we must grasp the legal category of bal taschit — literally “concerning destruction,” and figuratively “do not waste.” It originates with Deuteronomy 20:19, which tells us not to cut down an enemy’s trees during a siege. Tradition reasoned that if it’s forbidden even in wartime, when the military advantage gained might affect soldiers’ lives, then we surely should not cut down trees wantonly in ordinary situations. Since the law was specific to fruit trees, the economic interpretation became “fell them only when the benefit is markedly greater than the value of all the fruit they might ever yield,” a calculus that tilts toward conservation now that we know how trees impart value far beyond their fruit, such as by providing habitat, sequestering carbon, preventing erosion, offering shade, generating oxygen and bestowing beauty. As Dr. Eilon Schwartz writes in his masterful article on the subject in the book “Trees, Earth and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology,” the rabbis of the Talmud “did not understand bal taschit as a precept solely concerned with fruit trees, but rather as a far-reaching principle which defines our responsibilities and obligations to the Created world.” In good Talmudic fashion, some scholars were more concerned with human comfort or profit, while others saw inherent value in conservation and minimizing consumption. Though the first group approached use of Creation in a human-centered or anthropocentric way, Schwartz writes that “communitarian positions on the environment nevertheless remain within an anthropocentric view.” In other words, whether you think that nature is here for human benefit or that Creation exists for its own sake, Judaism bids us to conserve in any case. And Rav Zutra, a 4th century Babylonian scholar, specifically bade us to conserve fossil fuel. In a discussion of lamps, (Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 67b), Zutra says simply that “whoever covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp, violates bal taschit.” The 11th century commentator Rashi explains that such a violator “speeds up the burning process” by failing to cover or uncover the flame in the way that minimizes how much of either type of fuel is burned. By implication, according to Jewish law, consumers are responsible to understand their fuel burning appliances and their fuels, and to employ the best available technology and methods for conserving that fuel as much as possible. Beyond lamps, most modern machines are powered by far away carbon intensive coal combustion or by gasoline set internally ablaze. Though few authorities on Jewish law have fully extended Zutra’s logic to today’s fossil fuel use, it’s easy to see how Energy Star certified appliances might be mandated, gas guzzlers and sport utility vehicles forbidden, and strict regimens for heating, cooling and lighting adopted. Such conservationist steps not only adhere to the law of bal taschit, but also comply with larger expectations that we be enlightened stewards of Creation — from the call to “serve and guard” the land in Genesis 2:15, to the concept of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, making “The Land” as habitable and sustainable as possible. We are also reminded of the Torah commandment to “put a parapet (low railing) around the roof” (Deuteronomy 22:8), the basis of what ecologists call the Precautionary Principle, reminding us that public safety and health must come before private profits. Such a precautionary approach certainly should guide our response to today’s climate crisis, in which wasteful energy use drives ever more massive adverse impacts on the poor, on the planet, and on our progeny. To aid and abet the rapid warming of Earth goes against a host of Jewish values — from “love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) to “choose life that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19), to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34). In order to defend these values, and to limit the impact of climate change, we must return to the conservationist logic of Rav Zutra. According to the medieval Sefer Hachinich (530), adherence to bal taschit is an ethical litmus test: “Righteous people of good deeds are aghast at any wanton waste, and do all in their power to stop it,” while “the wicked are not thus; they delight in destroying the world even as they destroy themselves.” In his book, “Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances,” 19th century German scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch deemed the command to conserve “the first and most general call of God.” Conservation is a core Jewish practice. Energy conservation is a mitzvah. And by reducing the carbon footprint of our communities, by burning less fuel, we let the eternal light of Torah shine ever more brightly. _________________________________________________________________________________________ Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves as the rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., since 1997, during which time the synagogue built its U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star Award winning building, installed a 43-kilowatt solar array and planted an organic garden. In addition to serving on the governance committee of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Dobb serves as the chairperson of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light and as co-chair of Religious Witness for the Earth. A co-founder of the Green Zionist Alliance and a past president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, Dobb received his doctorate from Wesley Theological Seminary.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy. The guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.

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