Food is Memory, Family, and Culture

Editor’s note: This essay is from the new anthology Faith in Food, published by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Order from Amazon or directly from the publisher and read some of the glowing reviews.
Even if I knew I would die tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.

I’m writing this on the eve of Yom Kippur, the fast day that is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It’s an appropriate moment to reflect on the centrality of food in Jewish life, and on the multiple ways that our relationship to food shapes who we are and how we influence the world. I want to sketch out some of the vital elements of the traditional Jewish relationship to food, how they’re evolving today, and what we all might learn from them.

It’s an important task because religions are no longer islands unto themselves. Our communities need to stand not only for their highest ideals — which sometimes run the risk of sounding like platitudes — but also to be challenged by the tougher questions: how do your ideals play out in reality? Do they have meaning in the 21st century? Can they really help us live better lives, in all senses, and if so, how?

Jewish tradition — a maximalist tradition — makes sweeping demands on observant Jews in relation to food. It defines what is and isn’t kosher — literally ‘fit’ — to eat. It mandates that we rest one day in seven (Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest) and on that day, share joyous meals with friends and family. It requires that we make daily ongoing provision to feed the poor; that we rest the land, one year in seven; and that we treat our animals consistently well. There’s a specific religious obligation, for instance, to feed your animals on fast days. It demands that we not eat thoughtlessly, but first pause to make a bracha, a blessing, both before and after eating.

These obligations are taken seriously. I keep kosher. I say food brachot (blessings). I keep Shabbat. Like any religious tradition, it’s possible to observe these things unconsciously, unmindfully, simply by rote. But the lessons of Jewish tradition have their own cumulative impact. It’s entirely possible to be Jewish and to eat badly—again, in all senses. But the grain of the tradition exerts a considerable force towards eating mindfully and eating well.

That’s why, I think, the contemporary Jewish Food Movement has so much momentum. Hazon now has the largest faith-based Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) system in the United States—nearly 10,000 Jewish people supporting 48 different farms, creating more than 170 discrete educational events, and giving more than 40,000 lbs of produce to people in need.

Jewish farming programs are sprouting. New ethical kosher food businesses are developing. Jewish institutions are using Hazon’s Food Guide to address food in systematic ways: what food do we serve after services and at celebrations? Do we serve soda or use plastic bottles? What are the trade-offs between communal norms and individual freedoms? Where does our meat come from? Should we serve it at all? Do we grow any of our own food? Do we compost our leftovers? What about food justice? What about interfaith issues? The shmita (sabbatical) year takes place in 2014–2015: how can or could or should our relationship to food be different in the shmita year?

The Jewish community is famously fractured: two Jews, three opinions. But when I step back, and when I talk to religious leaders in other communities, I understand both that Jews have no monopoly on wisdom and—at the same time—that we actually do have much to teach in relation to food. Today all of us, in some sense, are asking: is this food kosher? Is it fit for me to eat? The lesson of Jewish tradition is that these are good questions, and they require an ongoing religious framework to help support the evolution of practice and behavior. They should be taken seriously; and genuinely as questions, not as answers. Education leads to action. Habits change slowly. Food is not just ethics and religion but also memory, family, culture. And appetite in all senses.

So as I prepare for the start of the Yom Kippur fast, I end with this: may each of us be blessed to eat thoughtfully; to be generous with ourselves and with others; and thus to create a healthier and more sustainable world for all.

Without sustenance, there is no Torah. Without Torah, there is no sustenance.
—Pirkei Avot 3:21
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