Compassion and Self-Concern in Halakhic Environmental Decision-Making

The prevailing stance in Jewish orthodoxy is that environmental issues are extra-legal and not under the purview of halakhah (Jewish law). While considered important, environmental protection falls only under “midat haḥasidut” (extraordinary piety). This ultimately translates into environmental protection being treated as non-obligatory and only under the purview of righteous behavior rather than obligation. This has created a significant barrier to halakhically driven environmental decision-making. I argue that this worldview emerges from the process of conceptualizing the prohibition of bal tashḥit—“waste not,” the prohibition against wastefulness originating in Deuteronomy 20:19. This verse gave rise to two worldviews: one which was prioritized of not destroying the environment out of compassion for the non-human world, and another marginalized worldview that emphasized a self-concerned environmentalism which equates harm to the environment as self-harm. Privileging this latter worldview creates a pathway to advance Jewish legal discourse and align it with mainstream environmentalism.

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