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Maimonides

Maimonides and The Art of Waste Recycling

By: Lawrence Collin

On one of my recent trips to dispose of garden refuse at the Southend Corporation Civic Amenities Site, I was fortunate to encounter two Hasidic gentleman (in the vehicle behind, not as corporation employees). Sensing that a casual encounter of this nature seemed like a perfect opportunity for a friendly chat, I opened by enquiring if they knew the correct beracha for getting rid of refuse. ‘Pesach is the best time for that’ came back the reply, as one of my newly found friends struggled to extricate a mountain of cardboard from their people carrier. Gambling on the odds of a lasting friendship sprouting from amidst this sea of giant containers, diversely filled with cardboard, wood and garden refuse, I decided to raise the stakes, and asked what they thought Rashi or Maimonides would have had to say on the tedious subject of waste recycling. This conversational gambit immediately floundered, and our worlds – which had so briefly coalesced in the most unlikely of circumstances – again separated, each of us back to our own space and our own Veolia waste container.

When I came home, I checked this subject out in more depth. Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon,1135 – 1204) would surely have taken a view about waste recycling, as he seemed to have a view about most things. Sure enough, the great man did not disappoint. He stated that a Jew is forbidden to “smash household goods, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a spring, or destroy articles of food”. Many Rishonim (commentators between C.1000 and 1500CE) concluded that wasting any resources of benefit to humans is a Torah prohibition. Escaping Almohad persecution in Cordoba, Spain, Maimonides and his family eventually arrived at the city of Fustat (now Cairo, Egypt). With its tall buildings, narrow streets and putrid air, it is highly likely that he would have been the first to give the thumbs up for a waste recycling facility only a short ride on ones ass from the main city gates.

It appears that Maimonides not only had a strong Jewish environmental ethic but also, in his Guide for the Perplexed, he took a holistic approach about how Judaism should be practiced in relation to the outside world. Beauty could also be seen every day, in all sorts of ways, whether as newly blooming flowers or as a magnificent sunset. Chief Rabbi Mirvis may even have recently experienced such beauty - the Divine Presence (or Shekhina) - when he recently watched his beloved Tottenham Hotspur thrashing Manchester United 3 -0 at Old Trafford.

The central Jewish theory that supports recycling or sustainability is none other than Tikkun olam, which literally means fixing or repairing the world, and Veolia appear to have sussed this out perfectly. If Hashem’s role was to create the universe, then it is Veolia’s and my role to protect it, and thus my weekly trip to one of their many recycling bins is but a small price to pay. Plus their super-friendly employees are a bonus (everybody there is now called a ‘waste operative’ or ‘recycling specialist’. Whatever happened to the good old ‘bin man’ of yesteryear?). If the Ten Commandments had been written today, I suspect that an eleventh one would have been added – ‘Thou Shalt Recycle’.

Alas a trawl of the literature did not throw up much about Rashi. However, I was intrigued to discover that a company called ‘Rashi Peripherals’ are based in India and are renowned for their environmental policy of recycling electronic and electrical equipment.

Coincidence? Hmmm.


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