Peters on Yoreh, 'Waste Not: A Jewish Environmental Ethic'

Tanhum S. Yoreh
Janelle Peters

Tanhum S. Yoreh. Waste Not: A Jewish Environmental Ethic. Albany: SUNY Press, 2019. 306 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-7669-8

Reviewed by Janelle Peters (Loyola Marymount University) Published on H-Environment (April, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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In Waste Not: A Jewish Environmental Ethic, Tanhum S. Yoreh goes from the earliest biblical instructions to the most recent rabbinic understandings of a variety of Jewish precepts that might be construed as advocating preserving the environment. The book is well written, and it includes excerpts of the primary sources under discussion. The four main chapters start with the classical rabbinic texts before going backward chronologically to the Bible and then forward to responsa. The premise of the book is that care for the environment is not simply ecological preservation of the planet but also concern for the bodily integrity of its peoples.

Some of the understandings of Jewish environmentalism are well worn. Yoreh covers the cutting down of fruit trees that is often considered to be an example of proto-environmentalism in the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. While doing so, Yoreh goes past many such discussions in his turn to deep ecologists and ecofeminists who partially base their interpretations on Baruch Spinoza's argument that nature contains no hierarchies. He also has a distinct point to make in claiming that the discussion of Deuteronomy 20:19-20 in bTa'anit 7a is "the first point where we begin to see a methodological analysis of the verse enabling the development of a general ethic beyond fruit trees and war" (p. 55). As a biblical scholar with some Jewish training rather than a proper rabbinics scholar, I found the discussion easy to follow. One quibble would be that it would have been helpful if the publisher had allowed more contextualization than a clearly labeled "Context" followed by two sentences and the block quotation of text under discussion. Nonetheless, such a minimalist rendering will surely appeal to more general audiences.

Other instances of Jewish environmentalism call out for every student of Judaism to read the text. As a graduate student, I took a class on rabbinics with Michael Fishbane, who was wonderful in conveying the rabbinical ideas of community rule and the Gates of Tears. Yet, as the class was only a quarter, we did not have time to cover such things as the prohibition of food waste by Meyuḥas bar Eliyahu (1150-1200). As I was concomitantly working on Bauhaus scholarship as a research assistant, I like to think that I would have changed my focus had I known that the prohibition on destroying anything with utility was more evidence of the divine concern for this world and its welfare. From a pedagogical perspective, I think the book is helpful in reframing the location and dynamics of the One for students who may not have extensive instruction in Jewish thought.

One of the more innovative moves of the book is to include within the scope of environmentalism self-harm and plastic surgery. Yoreh points to Ovadiah Yosef (1920-2013) about whether cosmetic surgery could be considered self-harm. Yosef looked to Bezalel Ashkenazi (ca. 1524-ca. 1594) citing Meir Abulafia (ca. 1170-1244) before reinterpreting Maimonides's prohibition of self-harm to emphasize Maimonides's notion that self-harm is only prohibited when performed in a "shameful manner" and a "destructive manner." If individuals are not seeking to shame themselves, then they are permitted to have cosmetic surgery, provided they are not "quarrelsome" about it. The book sticks to the recent interpretation and does not bring in the likelihood of one's dermatologist agreeing that any procedure is medically or aesthetically necessary and therefore not shameful.

Overall, Waste Not presents a panoply of Jewish sources about waste and worth in the world. The book does not rely on genizot to prove a Jewish impulse toward preservation of the sacred in the world, but it rather looks to rabbinic and biblical teaching and persistent Jewish belief that the divine does indeed care for creation. I highly recommend it for all readers, and I look forward to Yoreh's next work on this topic.

Citation: Janelle Peters. Review of Yoreh, Tanhum S., Waste Not: A Jewish Environmental Ethic. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. April, 2022. URL:

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