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Jewish Values: Public Health & the Environment

The relationship between the environment and the health of living organisms is inseparable. Water, air, land, and soil are critical to the survival of all living creatures. On the other hand, pollution, global warming, and pesticides, to name a few, are threats to the health of all life on earth.

Hazardous wastes are by-products of industries—some get reused or recycled, some get expensively treated or placed in special landfills, some are illegally dumped, and some are legally deposited into our air and water, which has dramatic and drastic affects on our health. There are two basic ways to lower the amount of hazardous waste that is generated: lower our consumption levels of environmentally damaging goods or spend more money on research, prevention, treatment, and enforcement (Vorspan and Saperstein, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice, p. 118). Pesticides, for example, are potentially hazardous products that are widely accepted for use on our crops. While certain pesticides are relatively safe and effective, others injure or kill birds, animals and sometimes humans. “Frighteningly, only a small percentage of the pesticides used on the food we eat have been thoroughly tested for their effects on human and environmental health” (Ibid, p. 118).

Air pollution caused both by the extraction and use of fossil fuels has a direct and negative impact on our health as well. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, air pollution in the forms of particulate matter, ground level ozone (also known as smog), nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide all trigger asthma attacks. Air pollution is also correlated with higher rates of childhood asthma in populations near major roadways and power plants.

Our relationship to nature is not that different from our relationship to our own physical health. Both our bodies and the land are reflections of k’dushah, “holiness.” The Bible teaches us: “You shall be holy for I am the Lord, your God, am holy…” (Leviticus 19:2). Everything that God creates and sustains is the embodiment of the Divine, including ourselves. Therefore, we have an obligation to treat God’s creation as holy vessels. This means respecting, protecting and preserving the world and its inhabitants.