Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
The blessing of "dominion" or r'diyah in the first chapter of Genesis troubles many environmentalists: "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and occupy her, and have dominion over [dominate is a better translation] ur'du the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky and every animal creeping on the land." [Gen 1:28] It also seems to be a clarion call to profiteering from the earth, or at the very least a problematic directive likely to be misused.
From Nachmanides' perspective (one of the very first Kabbalistic commentators), the true nature of original dominion is shown in the second chapter of Genesis, when the human being names all the animals. According to Nachmanides, what dominion means is that Adam would call a name to each animal and then that animal would come to him – in other words, he would tame them.* Instead of "dominate", ur'du means "domesticate". Dominion is quite pointedly the very opposite of "fear and dread", which describes the human relationship with the animals after the flood.
In fact, there are no commentaries on this verse in the span of Jewish history that would justify the connection some people make between dominion and the kind of exploitation that is the basis for our form of modern society. The actual meaning of dominion in the first chapter of Genesis does not allow human beings to eat meat. More broadly, dominion does not grant the first humans the right to or to destroy anything or to use anything against its nature or instinctual need. From the Talmudic perspective, dominion in Genesis means the right to use animals to do work, and nothing more.**
Moreover, after the flood of Noah, humans were no longer blessed with dominion.
How do we know this? The human family leaving the ark is granted a rule of "fear and dread" over the animals. Alongside the obvious absence of the word for dominion in the blessing, this condition of "fear and dread" is not a blessing but a curse, corresponding directly to the permission to eat meat. "Dominion" is no longer part of the blessing spoken by God. This "power over" may sound like the parallel to dominion, but the midrashic commentaries heard the opposite message. As Rashi (the greatest medieval Jewish scriptural commentator) wrote on B'reishit Rabbah (the earliest collection of midrashim on the book of Genesis), after the flood, "fear returned, but dominion did not return".***
What we find in Jewish interpretations of Genesis are interpretations of dominion meaning use for the sake of a greater good, not for selfish reasons that would lead to destruction. Nothing that is incongruent with sustainable use. The meaning of "Dominion" is not the anti-environmental concept that both environmentalists and religious ideologues imagine, though . Only a fallen world – meaning a world denigrated by the human abuse of nature – is ruled by the kind of "dominion" or exploitation that many human civilizations and nations are carrying out today.
* For Nachmanides, the meaning of the subsequent statement that the human being could find no help corresponding to himself, no ezer k'negdo, is that even though he was able to give the other animals names, none of them was able to give him a name.
** You can read this history, along with the history of Christian interpretation, in Jeremy Cohen's excellent book, "Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It": The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text.
*** For Rashi and other commentators, fear also existed before the flood, but was abated during the flood itself so that all the species could live together peacably on the ark. Note that 'dread', chit'khem, is a new element in the relationship between humans and animals after the flood from the perspective of either Nachmanides' or Rashi's reading of the flood story.
For a guide to midrashim on the flood story related to biodiversity, see the curriculum on biodiversity written by Rabbi David Seidenberg for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006