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April 2, 2001

Stewardship a divine imperative

David Blumenthal is Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies
in the Department of Religion


I have been following the debate on ecology and the expansion of the University from a distance but, as it approaches its culmination point, it seems to me that there are three issues that need to be addressed.

First, it is not likely that there will be a real conflict between the builders and the guardians. It has been my experience that the Emory Board of Trustees and senior administration have shown themselves to be ethically serious in their vision for the University. Sensitivity to issues of ecology is no longer the issue of wild-eyed radicals; it is central to all real- estate planning. I, therefore, feel certain that, when push comes to shove, the University will act in a way that preserves the ecology of our small piece of the planet.

Second, should there be a conflict between our need to expand and our need to be respectful of the environment, we need to recall that one of the central texts of our civilization, the Bible, calls us to be thoughtful of our priorities. Three examples:

• “And the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it, to till it and to care for it.” (Genesis 2:15, King James; New English Bible) The original Hebrew is probably best translated as “to work it and to guard it.” No matter what the correct translation, the text calls out for interpretation: What is the difference between “working/dressing/tilling” the land and “keeping/caring for/guarding” it?

The medieval Jewish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, comments that God envisioned two types of relationship to the environment: One is to “work” the land, that is, to make the environment serve human purposes—in the words of Ibn Ezra, “to water the garden”; and the other is to “guard” the land, that is, to keep it from being spoiled—in the words of Ibn Ezra, “to keep the animals out so that they not contaminate it.”

• “When you lay siege to a city for a long time in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees, setting an axe to them for, from them, you will eat; nor shall you cut it ... Only a tree which you know is not a fruit-bearing tree shall you destroy and cut; you will build siegeworks against the city which is making war against you until it falls.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

The text is clear that fruit-bearing trees may not be cut, but non-fruit-bearing trees may be cut, presumably for use in the siegeworks. Jewish tradition took this insight and developed an ecological principle called “Thou shall not destroy,” the guiding principle of which, based on the Bible, is: That which is useful to humans may not be destroyed, and that which is not useful may be disposed of. Thus, even an old fruit tree may be destroyed; or if one is very poor and has only a fruit tree, it may be destroyed; and so on. The inner logic here is that the blessings of creation are there for our use but not for our abuse. Nothing may be destroyed without adequate reason.

• The Bible ordains the “sabbatical” and the “jubilee” years—years in which the land lies fallow and may not be worked. Here, too, the environment is to be preserved for two reasons: First, the earth is not an object we possess and can dispose of at will. Rather, we are the stewards of our environment. Second, ecological sensitivity serves the greater purpose of helping humanity. (English has no word for “sabbatical” or “jubilee”; these are Hebrew words that have been anglicized.)

Third, what these three passages show is that Emory should have a formal policy, and that it should be one that allows us to “work” the land while compelling us to “guard” it, against even ourselves. We should have a policy that does “not cut down fruit trees” except under dire circumstances, and which provides “sabbatical” and “jubilee” time for the environment.

This should be so, not only because this is part of our western, Judeo-Christian tradition, but because it is rational. It is in our own best interests, as the logic of the texts also shows.

The policy should not favor the builders over the guardians, or vice versa; but, in case of doubt or conflict, the policy should, if it is to be true to our roots and reason, err on the side of protecting and not using.


Back to Emory Report April 2, 2001