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 [or, dominate] ur'du the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky and every animal creeping on the land." [Gen 1:28] It seems like a clarion call to profiteer off of the earth, or at the very least a problematic directive that is likely to be abused.
From Nachmanides' perspective (one of the very first Kabbalistic commentators), the true nature of the original dominion is shown in the second chapter of Genesis, when the human being names all the animals. According to Ramban (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 name and tame them.* Instead of "dominate", ur'du would mean something closer to "domesticate".
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 of animals that is part of our modern society. The actual meaning of dominion in the first chapter of Genesis does not even allow human beings to eat meat. More broadly, dominion does not grant the first humans the right 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.**
After the flood of Noah, a similar-sounding blessing is given: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land, and fear of you and dread of you will be on all the [animals], they are given into your hand...And you, be fruitful and multiply and swarm in the land..." (Gen. 9) Though it sounds almost the same, the word for "dominion" is no longer part of the blessing spoken by God. According to Rashi, this means that humans were no longer blessed with dominion.
The human family leaving the ark is granted a rule of "fear and dread" over the animals. In addition to the obvious absence of any word related to dominion in the blessing, this condition of "fear and dread" is understod sometimes as a kind of curse rather than a blessing, corresponding directly to the permission to eat meat. 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".***
Dominion is quite pointedly the opposite of "fear and dread". What we find in Jewish interpretations of Genesis is the idea that dominion means being able to use something for the sake of a greater good, not to use it up for selfish reasons that would its lead to destruction. (See Maimonides' perspective in "Rambam and the Earth".)
These interpretations are all congruent with sustainable use. The meaning of "dominion" is not the anti-environmental concept that both environmentalists and religious doctrinaires imagine. It's worth mulling over the true meaning, even though we may still want to develop a more biocentric approach to environmental ethics than thise verse can provide. 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 carry out today.
* Ramban's reading of the end of the verse, 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! This wonderful interpretation is somehwat counter-balanced by his reading of the phrase "fill the land (or earth) and occupy/conquer her" in the same verse: for him this includes the power to "act upon our will" with respect to the animals because they are created from the earth. See more on his interpretation of "conquer her" here .
** 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