The Bible Does Not Validate Endless Exploitation and Domination of the Environment

By Rabbi Ellen Bernstein
September 27, 2021

As a college student in the early 1970’s, in one of the first environmental studies programs (U.C. Berkeley—CNR) in the U.S., I was taught that the “Judeo-Christian” tradition was, in part, responsible for our present-day environmental crisis. We had been required to read historian Lynn White’s influential essay, “The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” in Science magazine, in which he argued, among other things, that the Bible gave humanity a mandate to control and exploit the natural world.[1] As a young person who had no knowledge of the Bible nor any positive experience of religion, I naively accepted this idea.

White’s interpretation of the biblical creation stories had enormous ramifications on a whole generation of environmentalists and their students, as well as on many Christian and Jewish clergy and scholars. White’s article also had an enormous effect on me. It caused me to ask questions about how Judaism understood our relationship with the natural world. I began studying the biblical portion of the week and realized that those who argue that dominion means domination tend to take the verse out of context, paying scant attention to the verses that precede or follow this mandate. Furthermore it was—in part—in response to Lynn White’s essay that I came to found the first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, in 1988.

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