Rabbi Chaim Lifshitz










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Your Camp Shall be Sacred”

Our Ambivalent Relationship to Objects

Rabbi Ze'ev Chaim Lifshitz

 l'ilui nishmat Esther bat Mordechai

l'ilui nishmat Meyer Hirsh ben Laibel

Translated from Hebrew by Dr. Sara Nathan

A Jewish Philosophy of Ecology

 Jacob and Laban are antithetical symbol, each representing an opposite perspective on reality. Laban views reality as a relationship to objects, whereas Jacob rejects this view. Jacob’s children, the sages of Judaism, would call this view egocentric or, alternatively, pagan.

Being egocentric means that I relate exclusively to myself, and it is from this perspective that I form my picture of reality.

“Laban replied to Jacob: ‘These daughters are my daughters, and these sons are my sons, and these sheep are my sheep, and everything that you see is mine’”. (Genesis 31:43)

If it does not directly concern “me,” it has no value. It holds no potential and generates no interest. It is a mere object.  Whatever it may be – a human being, an animal, a landscape, the entire ecosystem – it does not involve me. This attitude includes ecology as well: The holistic balance of systems is only some irrelevant thing out there. Whether the ecological focus is environmental, national, historic, or even religious – it does not concern the egocentric.

Not that our generous-minded egoist is incapable of bestowing value upon any phenomenon. He can and he does, but only if it is instrumental for serving his interests. He may suddenly crowd his pockets with amulets, and Psalms books, and all sorts of religious accessories, when trouble threatens. He may just as suddenly throw them all out and decide they are not satisfactory.  They have not produced the results he expected. As soon as an object ceases to interest him – the moment it ceases to perform as an instrument that  serves his interests – it has become garbage.

The pagan approach is no different than the egocentric approach, in principle. There is one major difference, however: The egoist establishes himself as the universal center of gravity, toward which all of reality must necessarily direct itself. The pagan declares the object of his worship to be the universal center of gravity. He even nullifies his own autonomous existence before it. He perceives this object to be the source of power and the origin of all sensation. He would never – he dare not – ignore the object of his worship. He will always accommodate it, and fulfill its demands, no matter what the price. Is the price worth it? Is it not too high? Is it not an exorbitant ransom? These are questions he never considers. Would his idol demand the betrayal of his most cherished values, the sacrifice of his basic well being, he would yet obey.

Any object can qualify for pagan worship. Even environmental issues. Legitimate concerns over landscape use, involvement in the preservation of our planet’s resources – indeed, anything that falls into the bag called “nature” in post-modernist terminology, can be turned into an idol.

The sacrosanct status of this idol is soaring to the heights at the same rate that man’s godly image is losing altitude. We are no longer surprised, these days, when darling household pets inherit millions, bequeathed to them by their loving (and bored) mistresses. Interred in costly cemeteries, their priceless gravestones inscribed with phrases laden with love and devotion to such a degree – we cannot help but wonder: Had these heiresses lavished such love and devotion upon their own species, would not the world have looked a happier place? The prophet Hosea weeps over this degradation of the human image: (13:2.) “Those who sacrifice human beings will kiss calves.”

This means that a reverse correlation exists between man’s attitude to his fellow human being and to his animal: When human beings are turned into objects to be exploited, the value of the calf rises. Destined by nature to serve man – as food, as offering – the animal is granted instead “human” value: It merits a reciprocal attitude and an intimate relationship.

Please note that the Torah’s attitude towards eating animal flesh severely limits eating meat for its own sake. The attitude permeating every discussion of the legitimacy of animal use is extremely selective. Strict limitations are placed on man’s right to take from the animal. There are permissible and non-permissible species – the kosher versus the non-kosher animal. Preparation requirements are even more stringent, to render even the meat of a kosher animal permissible for use. There is a rigid prohibition against eating any part of any living animal. There are stringent laws defining kosher slaughtering methods. Only trained professionals, demonstrating practical expertise as well as complete familiarity with the laws may slaughter an animal. After all this is accomplished, there follow complex procedures for koshering the meat. When the meat is finally permitted, it is subject to strict separation laws: Any meat-related product or vessel may not come in contact with any milk-related product or vessel.

On top of this, the sages of the Talmud issue a declaration that has no match for effectively limiting meat consumption: “An ignoramus is forbidden to eat meat!” Who can confidently testify that he is not included in this prohibition?

Let us hasten to reassure all those meat gorgers and gluttons among us. We will unravel this mysterious dictum: An ignoramus is defined as a person whose behavior is not guided by goals based on values. His actions are not “for the sake of mitsva.”
Eating for the sake of a mitsva is entirely legitimate. It is a mitsva in itself. Mere ingestion of meat for its own sake is not legitimate. It is not only foreign to the spirit of Judaism, but it is a perfect example of that negative human tendency: Relating to reality as to an object.

Both egocentrics and pagans perceive reality as a thing – as an instrument. We must remember that the value of an instrument – even from a purely instrumental perspective – must always decrease. It fades. One instrument is abandoned and betrayed for another. The moment the newer instrument appears, the older one becomes irrelevant.

The instrumental approach has been gaining great grounds in our day. People are changing homes, professions, work places, spouses, etc. at an increasingly alarming rate. When they go, they leave all their furniture behind, and their photographs, and their intimately personal items. They are no more than discarded equipment.  Many today do not seem capable of  developing a personal relationship to the objects in their environment, even when these objects have served them for years. A bed, a desk, a pen… it is a Kleenex culture. Use it and trash it. Instant.

They eat fast food, which they have not troubled to prepare. They relate to food as to a technically required digestive activity that concludes in a bowel movement: A flush of the toilet and it is done.
There is no thought of causes and effects. No connection is made between the act of stuffing in and digesting, and a consciousness of Divine Providence.

There is no gratitude. There is no perceiving the act of eating as a human activity so sacred as to be capable of evoking the Divine presence. Since no such perception exists, they cannot understand or justify the Jewish blessing over food, recited before eating. They cannot understand or justify the blessing of thanks, offered to “the One Who formed the human being in wisdom, and created in him orifices…” that is recited after digestion.

Making connections, being conscious of cause and effect, experiencing gratitude – all of these are the antithesis of the tissue culture. They are based on assumptions that are entirely different, and need to be classified under an entirely different heading.
A phrase that captures the essence of the Jewish perspective on a human being’s relationship to his physical environment is found in Deuteronomy: (23:15)

“Your camp shall be sacred.”

A Jew relates to the worship of his Creator as to the central issue of his life. Yet this position is widely misunderstood, by many who stand outside the framework of Judaism. It is also widely misunderstood – unfortunately – by many who stand well within the framework of Judaism.

The Creator cannot be worshipped from a point that is above and beyond this world. This is a real error – the disdain for the material, the tendency to look down arrogantly, to attempt to simply skip over the cumulative trash heap called physical reality. Only through physical reality, and only thanks to it, can a human being worship God. Even the words of the Torah themselves, when removed from their physical context, become mere words: “Letters flying through the air.”

God’s presence can be evoked only through physical reality. Please note that this process – whereby physical reality serves its true function, and is transformed to become the vehicle bearing God’s presence – needs man: Physical reality plus a little help from a human being.

Egocentric man takes the opposite position. He does not care to transform the conditions of his physical reality into worship of his Creator. Egocentric man worships himself. He perceives himself as the ultimate purpose of the universe. Reality is there for him exclusively. Or, if he is a pagan, reality is there for its own ultimate purpose. Pagan and egoist each picture reality differently, but they share this in common: The godly dimension is completely absent.

Egocentricity is normal to a certain extent. Every person creates an egocentric circle around himself, in order to be able to function and in order to differentiate values. I, for example, am so unusually sensitive that I can even be labeled an eestenees, as the Talmud terms the person so excessively fastidious that “his life is no life.” The mildest imbalance of circumstances is exceedingly distressing to an eestenees.

Yet suddenly, here is a fist rudely thrust into my beard, while a second fist snatches my glasses off my face, and I smile, with a pleasure that must surely seem incomprehensible. The aggressor is placed in my arms in the form of a darling baby girl. My sweet granddaughter punches me with her fists and laughs happily, obviously pleased with herself, her pair of pearl teeth gleaming from her sweet lips.

The Talmudic concept of monetary compensation addresses the issue of relative damage: Compensation is relative to the relationship between “the one who causes shame and the one who is caused shame.” Had she been a stranger, I am not certain that I would have smiled. For this one is my own, whereas the other falls outside of my egocentric circle.

All human beings share this tendency. An egocentric circle is essential and natural. Difficulties arise only when the egocentric circle grows exclusive. For then, the egocentric circle denies all other values, and becomes oblivious of universal truths. At that point, Laban superimposes his picture of reality over Jacob’s picture of reality, and threatens to obliterate it.

How is Laban’s view of reality expressed practically? How is it represented in the modern world?

The American nation has undergone an emotional crisis in the wake of the Twin Towers tragedy. Its response to this tragedy provides an illustration of the moral fragility of the modern liberal. This nation has served as the model, as the moral exemplar for all nations. It has educated the entire world in matters of moral behavior. Its righteousness is universally acknowledged. While it moralizes, it simultaneously shakes its threatening fist at nations that live under the perpetual threat of terror, that are surrounded by wild beasts in human form, creatures that know no natural human limits of morality or conscience.

Clearly, unambivalently, the “supremely moral” nation instructs beleaguered citizenries around the globe to respect the “human rights” of others, even if they happen to be brutal terrorists. The rights and the privileges that these persecuted nations are required to grant their persecutors, must parallel the luxurious standard that the moralistic nation itself enjoys, as a land that had not known the fear of a savage foe for hundreds of years.

Imperiously, the moralistic nation commands the weaker nations, languishing under terror, to bite the lip and still the agonized cry. These little nations must continue to bear and to suffer – to tolerate incessant and unceasing bloodletting, in the hallowed name of American liberalism – that value system born and bred of her own egoistic, hedonistic moral abandon.

Suddenly, murderous terror strikes her. She herself is the target. It is not a media event. Nevertheless, compared to the continuous bloodletting endured by long-suffering nations, the blow is of relatively small proportion.

This pampered nation suddenly rises up, her righteous Christian morality instantaneously shed – gone, forgotten. Viciously she strikes out at random – at dubious enemies, murdering thousands of helpless and hapless human beings. She bombs hospitals and schools and innocent citizens. All who cross her path are arrested and imprisoned without trial. No one utters a murmur of protest.

It may very well be that this is the only viable response. Yet her behavior is in direct contradiction to her proclaimed values and to her expectations of others. The judgmental nation suddenly adopts the argument that persecuted nations have been pleading for decades – that mortal enemies must be fought and defeated.

The American press, “watchdog of democracy,” shining knight of liberalism, does not protest and does not condemn these “torrential outpourings of brutality.” Yet how is this? It is the administration itself perpetrating these deeds. This is no mere case of the people taking to the streets to demonstrate and to express their supposed opinion.

American journalists are questioned about their uncharacteristic silence. You do not want to raise a scandal? You do not wish to expose atrocities? What of the Geneva Convention?
The arbiters of the mass media respond with sincere amazement: “But this time it’s for real. This time it’s us who’ve been hurt.”

Interpret this as follows: As long as our situation is tranquil, we allow ourselves the luxuries of liberalism. However, when our own lives are in danger, things change, and the rules of the egocentric circle must apply. The law of the jungle then rules the day: Kill or be killed.

Here we must point to a strange phenomenon:
In liberal societies, as mentioned above, permissiveness has brought man to an extreme state of egocentric detachment from reality. Reality is worthy of consideration only insofar as it addresses him, that is, only insofar as it falls within his own egocentric circle. If it falls outside of this circle, is merely an instrument. His attitude to it is relative to the utilitarian service it can provide. If it can provide no utilitarian service, it is actually severed from his conscious awareness.
Yet what sort of human being can this be? In what sense is he called human? Can one be so immersed in one’s own egocentric circle as to be severed from every universal human value?

This total inability to perceive universal human values is precisely the “logic” that supports the suicide phenomenon. It is the ‘reasoning’ behind the utter contempt for life itself that is expressed by drug and alcohol abuse, and by the flock migration of youth to the most remote and dangerous corners of the earth. Do not imagine that these behaviors express a spirit of adventure, or courage and daring. Rather, they express an absolute contempt – unto despair – for the value of a human life.

Yet only attack this atrophied, overindulged child, who cannot even exert himself to cherish his own existence, and he is transformed into a wild beast. Suddenly he is exposed, in all his ugly hypocrisy.

Adding insult to injury, the enraged – still supremely moral – child continues to moralize. He continues to brandish the gun of liberalism, threatening nations of the world, who continue to languish under terrorist threat: For me, it is permissible to respond to terror, he shouts indignantly. I may and must express my righteous wrath. All you others – may not and dare not…

Wherefore the double deal? How to explain such mutually contradictory responses? On one hand, their survival mechanisms are atrophied to the point of complete contempt for their own existence – as a consequence of their extreme, egocentric detachment from reality. One the other hand, and simultaneously, their survival instincts are violently aroused. We observe them with amazement, as they rear their heads and bare their teeth.

Two antithetical responses occur at the same moment. Yet both draw from the same foul source: Both derive from an absolute absence of commitment to (or even consciousness of) universal human values: “God’s praises are in their throat, yet a double-edged sword is in their hand.” “The voice is Jacob’s voice, yet the hands are Esau’s hands.”

It is terrifying to observe moral duplicity. Our forefather Isaac observed it in Esau, “and he was overcome by a great dread.” “He saw hell opening below him.” (Midrash)

The hypocritical culture – Esau’s legacy – is symbolized by the pig: A pig lies on its back, displaying its split hooves for all to see: “Look, I am kosher,” it seems to say – publicly advertising its own purity. Yet its claim is false: It is not a kosher animal, for it does not chew its cud.

Apparently hypocrisy is a uniquely human need, once man has lost his humanity. It seems that only animals are capable of a purely animal existence, openly devoid of values. Man cannot willfully allow himself such an admission. “Not on bread alone will man live.” To openly avow an egocentric worldview is impossible. If he disdains values, he will not be brazen enough to admit it. He will invest in self-deception. How? By subscribing to values that do not compel him to deviate from his egocentric circle.

To hide his moral nakedness, he appoints himself moral guardian over his fellow. He attends carefully to his moral cosmetics, investing in elaborate treatments for every little wrinkle that appears in his grotesque face.

The life of the double moral standard is a deadly camouflage: “He saw hell opening below him”. One is lulled into a feeling of moral well being. By taking refuge in energetic moral guardianship over one's fellow, one can avoid taking the reckoning of one’s own moral bankruptcy. What the righteous one sees, the wicked one attempts to ignore.

The moral guardian preaches rights and liberties for all and sundry. He does not discriminate; objects, plants, animals and human beings – all are equal before him. “And man’s superiority over the beast – is naught.” Hence the zealous preservation of nature at the expense of human beings.


Situated somewhere along the vast expanse that stretches between creativity and destruction, is the ecological problem. Only the human race could create such a problem. Only human beings are characterized by two conflicting tendencies – the urge to create and the urge to destroy. All other creatures, lacking intelligence, are limited in their urges, and in their activities – in keeping with the limited capacities granted them by their Creator. Reason is the root of all creative growth, and also the root of all sin. As reason increases, destruction increases, and the capacity to create increases accordingly.

Yet the main arena of experience, of man’s real creative activity, is the human arena. It is here that the crucial relationship between the individual and society unfolds. In this relationship, two separate spheres – “I” and “other” – must come together. This encounter is charged with tensions, and riddled with obstacles, and all but consumed by the conflicting drives, needs, and furies that attend it. Human tendencies contradict one another. Human drives and human emotions jog along precariously, holding on to the track that stretches – taut as a violin string – between the polar extremes of human need. Freedom struggles with belonging, self strives against ego.

Human relationships may be laden with love, to the point of bursting. They may be burdened by hate, to the point of loathing. Ideally, they can be wellsprings of life-giving water. All too often, they are deprived of love and kindness. Neglect results in stagnation. They are soon contaminated. Overgrown with slime, they grow putrid, eventually succumbing to the well-poisoners, people-haters, and despoilers of human tranquility.

Human ecology devours the larger part of human energy and intelligence. Interpersonal relations are the ultimate energy hog. You are left with hardly any reserves, when you finally decide to invest in the ecology of the environment. Only environmental efforts that relate directly to human ecology can reap success, because environmental ecosystems depend on the human tensions that fluctuate between the urge to destroy and the urge to create.

The tensions themselves derive from man’s animalistic tendencies, which center round egocentricity. They know nothing of consideration for the environment. They know only the urge to survive at the universe’s expense, and more often, at another human being’s expense. The animalistic tendency leans toward taking rather than towards giving.

Human egoism is much more destructive, by far more deadly, than the survival instincts of the other animals. This is because a human being can draft his godliness – that is, his powers of reason and his conviction that he is sole owner of the universe – into the service of his egoism. Endowed by his Creator with a conviction of ownership of the universe in order to bear responsibility for the universe, as partner to the Almighty, man instead misuses this quality. He makes use of the feeling of possession – a corollary of personal responsibility – in a distorted manner. He chooses to view the universe as his own private property: It is there only to cater to his egocentric whims. The result: Rampant, rapacious, oblivious ecological destruction.

His powers of imagination and intelligence vastly expand his destructive urges. Their reach far exceeds the mere fulfillment of his existential needs. The other creatures take modestly from the world; they are satisfied with the simple fulfillment of existence’s humble needs. Whereas man, when his negative character grows unruly and uncontrolled, is capable of ravaging the fundamental systems of the universe. It is in man’s power to erase nature’s – and morality’s – most basic boundaries.

“Envy, lust, and pride,” warn the sages of the Talmud, can deviate far indeed from the simple satisfaction of legitimate existential needs. “If he has a hundred, he wants two hundred.” “No one dies with even half of his lust in his hand.” “Whoever chases after honor – honor flees from him.” Pursuing these goals is like trying to quench one's thirst by drinking salt water. Rather than fulfilling the need, it exacerbates it. When envy, lust, and pride are man’s main motivators, then intelligence and creative imagination become the reinforcements and the  servants of man’s capacity to destroy.


When the Torah raises a topic that might be called supportive of an ecological slogan – such as the Biblical dictum “your camp shall be sacred” – it is never discussed as a separate issue. This is an important point: Environmental ecology is never separated from its human context. “Your camp shall be sacred” (Deuteronomy 23:15) is found among commandments that deal with other issues entirely, that are ostensibly focused on relations between human beings. These relations, in turn, are contingent upon the relationship between man and God. Therefore, although they seem to address social ethics at their most prosaic level, they are in fact “matters of sanctity”, incumbent upon anyone who would serve God.

There is a prohibition against praying in a filthy location, found together with the prohibition against incest. “A shameful thing shall not be seen in you.” In the same context, “you shall not turn an escaped slave over to his masters!” And a prohibition also against prostitution, and other related issues. All of these fall under the same heading: Laws of Warfare!

War is the archetypal paradigm of destruction. How can the Torah legislate moral behavior – between man and his fellow, between man and his God – within the context of battle, under conditions of mortal combat?
Just so. The act of waging war is the most extreme condition of risk for man’s godly image. Therefore, it requires the most severe prohibitions, and the most extreme precautionary measures.

There is no higher priority than human ecology, even in times of conflict. The human arena is the ecosystem most in need of perfect balance, for everything else depends upon it. Its tapestry must be woven of the finest threads.

Although it is an invisible force, human ecology is the operative power vector in the ultimate encounter: It is where heaven meets earth. Two axial models intersect in this encounter: There is a vertical axis that connects man with God, and there is a horizontal axis that connects man with his fellow.

In its broadest sense, the Torah views ecology as a triple encounter: Man/God, man/man, and man/environment. Remove one side of the triangle, and you cause the entire triangle to come apart, for each depends upon the other. Ecology in Judaism is thus a three-dimensional entity.

It makes no sense, and it is also quite useless, to sever the dimension of height, of God, from moral discourse. Without “the [Divine] commandments [regulating relations] between man and his fellow,” morality is emptied of values. It degenerates, to become a pragmatic morality that is measured in dimensions of mutual egoism. “A love that is dependent upon something – when that thing is cancelled, then love is cancelled.”

It is equally useless to distance the umbrella of godly values from the arena of human activity, for this abandons the world to the arbitrary whim of the man-beast. We mean by this irreversible ecological damage.

For when the godly dimension is distanced, the human image is weakened, and then the environment becomes a burden upon man. He perceives it as a confining and restrictive framework. Gone are the vast, spreading, wide-open, seemingly eternal horizons, where his free and creative spirit might have expressed itself, had it been permitted a godly dimension. The environment is the enemy. One must either attack or escape.

Thus the world is abandoned, and gradually devoured. The jaws of destruction are inexorable, faithfully reflecting the processes described by the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy: All things move from a state of integration to a state of disintegration.

There is no antidote to this insidious process. The law of entropy exempts no one and nothing. This law offers the best possible evidence that nature is not an independent entity. It cannot function on its own. Nature is dependent upon the Creator of the universe. It is also dependent upon man.

Yet how can man protect nature from entropy when he himself is subject to the law of entropy?

With human dependency upon the law of entropy comes the loss of one's inner personal vision. This is expressed in lack of consistency, in excessive openness, and in undiscriminating acceptance of environmental input. When one operates under these conditions, one is vulnerable to destructive influences. When functioning in the entropic mode, one is easily brainwashed. One accepts outside input to the point that one loses one’s own freedom. Entropy has the effect of blurring the uniquely human image.

Man’s destructive urge is capable of transforming him into an enraged monster: When the sense of ownership, of being nature’s landlord, sheds its sense of obligation towards and responsibility for nature, the monster is unleashed. There is no peril greater than this.

Torah places man in a framework. It requires him to observe mitsvot. It limits his liberties as it were. Yet its real effect is of a broadening and liberating nature. The commandments are designed, directly and indirectly, to slow, to arrest and even to reverse the process of human entropy. Included in this category are the commandments that relate to the human biological processes, such as the mitsva of immersion in a mikva, the prohibition against specific foods, and the mitsva of Shabat. The interpersonal mitsvot as well, “between man and his fellow,” contain this aspect: They protect man from entropy at the physiological, psychological and sociological levels.

At the broadest level – and included in this are some of the Torah’s most well known ecological principles – we find environmental protection: “Resting the land,” the laws of the Sabbatical and of the Jubilee, etc.

The Jewish priority, then, is to invest effort in inculcating a sense of responsibility. “All of Israel are accountable for one another.” “Let a man always view the universe as though it were poised in perfect balance between the scales of merit and liability. It awaits only his action, to tip the scales.” Thus we learn that both the privilege and the obligation to decide the fate of the universe lie in human hands.

Here we may ask a practical question: Which comes first? Of the three ecological dimensions, what has highest priority? This is an intrinsically rhetorical question. It resembles the Talmud’s classic unanswerable: “Is study great or is action great?” The Talmud replies: “Great is study, for it brings to action.” In other words “there is no ‘earlier’ or ‘later’”, no greater or lesser priorities. Rather, “whatever mitsva comes to your hand, do not miss its opportunity.”

We must admit that ecology finds the Jew in far from ideal circumstances. Immersed in a hostile environment, he does not control the surround. He secludes himself in his home, reinforcing the ghetto walls that sever him from nature. Compelled to this choice; he prioritizes the spiritual and human dimensions over those of environmental ecology – by default and through lack of options. He is also well aware of his loss, in terms of lack of access to the broad vistas that expand the mind, that illuminate the imagination and that heighten awareness.

Therefore, the Jew yearns for redemption. He prays for personal redemption, and for the political redemption of the nations. In the Jewish dream of redemption, the sacred sanctuary is rebuilt, and the ecological vision is fulfilled: Balance is restored between the lower worlds and the upper worlds – between matter and spirit. “The sanctuary below” embraces “the sanctuary above.”

Jacob our forefather is filled with wonder at this vision of the parallel sanctuaries of matter and spirit: “This is none other than God’s house, and here is the gateway to heaven.” Rashi explains that this refers to a total correlation: All vectors are balanced between the sanctuary in heaven and the sanctuary on earth. (Genesis, 8:17.) It is a paradigm for an ultimate state of balance between the primary ecosystems.