A New Commandment: Killing Spotted Lanternflies?

A green sign is displayed in someone's front yard. It says, " Stop. Scrape. Squash." and shows pictures of spotted lanternflies in different stages of their life cycle.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture urges people to kill spotted lanternflies; Jewish thinkers believe it is permissible under Jewish law and ethics. | Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

Under the shoes of many-a-Philadelphian, you may find a squished spotted lanternfly: black-speckled gray and red wings, splayed limply across one’s outer sole.

The spotted lanternfly made its Delaware Valley debut in 2014 when it traversed from Southeast Asia to the United States. Making their home in trees of heaven, the lanternflies lay wads of eggs, and have multiplied rapidly, secreting a sticky substance that attracts black mold and harms local crops. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has a clear request for those who encounter the insects: Kill them on sight.

“There are good bugs, and there are bad bugs,” said Shannon Powers, the department’s press secretary. And according to Powers, spotted lanternflies are bad bugs.

Though entomologists seemingly have no moral quandaries putting spotted lanternflies on their hit list, Jewish thinkers approach the killing a little more cautiously. A number of rabbis admitted to reluctantly squashing lanternflies if they spot one, but did not feel equipped to answer whether killing them is a Jewish solution to the issue of combating invasive species.

Still, however reluctant some local Jewish thinkers were, the consensus on killing the bugs was clear:

“It is permissible,” said Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of B’nai Abraham Chabad in Philadelphia. “You’re not allowed to kill a creature for no justifiable reason. If a creature is a nuisance or doing damage, then there’s no problem killing it.”

The reasons for killing the lanternflies are more than justifiable, Powers said. In addition to the insects flocking to areas where people gather — outdoor dining and sporting events — creating an unpleasant environment for humans, they have had a tangible agricultural and economic impact.

Spotted lanternflies are particularly fond of grape plants, attacking vineyards by consuming sap that the plants produce, and converting it into a substance called “honeydew,” which they spray on the plants, blocking photosynthesis and attracting black mold that draws in other insects.

Besides this not boding well for the Jewish people’s consensus kiddush drink of choice, it also has devastating agricultural repercussions.

Since the lanternflies’ arrival, they have threatened more than $18 billion in Pennsylvania’s commodities, Powers said.

For that reason in particular, Rabbi Yitzchok Leizerowski of Bais Medrash Harav in Philadelphia believes that stomping on spotted lanternflies may even be a mitzvah.

Pikuach nefesh — saving a human life!” Leizerowski said.

Even if it’s a preventative measure, killing a spotted lanternfly could be considered a mitzvah — commonly translated as “a good deed,” but in actuality means something closer to a commandment — because the bug’s death could ensure the economic survival of a farmer or preserve a future food source.

For those still uncomfortable with the idea of taking a life, even of an insect, consider weighing the pros and cons, said Michael Weisberg, the chair of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the philosophy of science and biology.

“A lot of times, either you have to try to kill that invader, or you’re going to let the rest of the ecosystem suffer,” he said.

Weisberg doesn’t believe this is feel-good work. 

In the Galapagos Islands, invasive feral goats were eating the vegetation that giant tortoises, a protected species, ate. In order to conserve the environment for a species dwindling in numbers, scientists opted to kill the goats.

A vegetarian for most of his life, Weisberg avoids killing animals, but agrees with the decision to kill the goats, recognizing that there is an ecological balance that sometimes must be maintained.

Luckily, ethically and Jewishly, killing an insect is less morally-gray than killing a mammal, such as a goat.

“Certainly that’s a difference between animals and insects,” Goldman said.

In Jewish thought, living things exist in a hierarchy: “There’s the inanimate ground, which gives rise to plant life, which gives rise to the next level of life, which is to be used by mankind,” Leizerowski said.

Weisberg agrees with this difference to an extent. He believes that killing an insect is different from killing a mammal, as they are biologically different in how they experience pain.

“Insects have pretty limited ability to suffer,” Weisberg said.

So next time you encounter a spotted lanternfly and are at the crossroads of whether to stamp (or stomp) it out, know that you are in the company of many Jewish authorities — of the academic, religious and moral varieties — when it comes to the ambivalence of taking another life.

And while you don’t have to enjoy it, you can be reasonably certain you won’t have to repent for it, either.

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