Sunday, May 13, 2012

You are what you eat / Behar-Bechukkotai

Jews have a thing about food, but every ethnic group thinks it has a thing about food. For us, however, food and eating are integral to Jewish religious observance and moral values.

French lawyer, politician, and gourmet, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, published Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante two months before his death in 1826. It has never been out of print in the past 186 years. There you will find this quote: "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es." Translation: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Ronald Reagan was quoted in the Observer (March, 1981) as saying, "You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans."

“You are what you eat” suggests that there is a direct connection between the food we consume, and our physical health and state of mind. Torah would add that the food we eat both affects and reflects our spirituality; hence the extensive laws of kashrut we read a few weeks ago in Parshat Shemini. In this week’s parashah, Behar, Torah broadens the connection to an interactive triangle of land, food, and spirituality.

Torah speaks of the shemittah (sabbatical year), a year of complete rest for the land. Every seventh year the land lies fallow to regenerate itself.

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. (Leviticus 25:3-4)

What is more, after counting off seven sabbatical cycles, the fiftieth year that follows is the Yovel (Jubilee year). Then, too, the land is allowed to rest.

You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security. (Leviticus 25:18-19)

Long ago our ancestors understood the fundamental connection between the eco-system, the food we consume, and our spiritual lives. Torah affirms that human behavior -- especially unethical behavior -- pollutes the very land. For far too long, we have lost that connection, that sense of the land as a living, pulsing, vibrant part of our lives. We live in hermetically sealed homes, travel through the world in climate-controlled cars, and acquire food in cardboard and plastic containers, far from the fields in which it was grown. Our technological abilities -- which have brought so much good to our lives -- have another side. We have seen the dust bowl. We have seen the results of air pollution and water pollution.  We have seen the despoliation of rain forests. We have presided over the extinction of hundreds of species. We have also seen Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Auschwitz, and the Killing Fields.

Yet we have also seen the extraordinary view of our precious Blue Marble from the perspective of space and have come to see that we are not separate from the earth (or the universe, for that matter). We are integral to it, and dependent upon it. We have come to understand the imperative to take responsibility for the technology we build and unleash. Parshat Behar reminds us to keep land, food, and spirituality inseparably linked.

Thanks to many dedicated souls in the Jewish community, today we are reclaiming the crucial connection between the environment, kashrut, and the Jewish premium on social justice. “Eco Kashrut” and “Magen Tzedek” are leading the way.

Eco-kashrut, led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and championed by the Renewal Movement, has for several decades advocated expanding our understanding of kashrut to include ecological concerns. For ancient shepherds and farmers, God provided rain so that the earth could support their flocks and herds, and yield fruits, vegetables, and grains. For us, however, coal, oil, electric power, and insecticides are part of our food production. Our food is delivered in plastics and papers -- rarely produced from recycled materials -- that draw on fossil fuels and forests, and most often end up in landfills.

Much has been written on the environmental impact of food production. Try this and this and this.

Eco-kashrut encourages us to expand our observance of kashrut by eating organic produce and purchasing from local growers for the sake of the environment on which we depend.

The Magen Tzekek certification program grew out of the Conservative Movement’s commitment to enlarge kashrut to encompass social justice concerns about workers and animals.  Here is how they describe their mission:
The Magen Tzedek Commission… combines the rabbinic tradition of Torah with Jewish values of social justice, assuring consumers and retailers that kosher food products have been produced in keeping with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.

The cornerstone of the program is the Magen Tzedek Standard, a proprietary set of standards that meet or exceed industry best practices for treatment of workers, animals, and the Earth; and delineates the criteria a food manufacturer must meet to achieve certification. Upon successful certification, the Magen Tzedek Commission will award its Shield of Justice seal which can be displayed on food packaging.

The Magen Tzedek seal is available only for products that currently carry a traditional Hekhsher seal from an authorized kosher certification agency. It is not intended as a replacement, but rather a complementary enhancement to a brand’s reputation.
It is past time to return to the wisdom of the Torah that understands that land, food, and spirit are interwoven.

“Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying, ‘Look at My creations! See how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy My world. If you do, there will be no one after you to repair it.’” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Our ancestors knew it. We have to relearn it.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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