Ein Kemach, Ein Torah: Thoughts on Food Choices, Social Justice, and Torah
Prepared for Adat Shalom, Erev Shavuot, May 18, 2010
Growing up in my food-centric family, I thought that being Jewish meant eating delicious food, special food—and a lot of it with our extended family. When I was about 5 or 6, I remember scooting a kitchen chair up to the counter, to “help” my mother cook. What were we doing? We were cleaning chicken for making soup. Mom gave me a raw chicken foot to gnaw on to keep me out of trouble while I watched her pluck the pin feathers. Another time, we were busy making challah for Shabbat. She would pinch off a bit of dough for me and patiently show me how to knead it, roll it and braid it. After imitating her I’d pop the raw dough in my mouth.
Everyone seems to be talking about food consciousness these days—organic, local, free range, farm markets, farm to school, know your farmer—everyone from Michelle Obama to celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver has something to say about healthy, fresh food. And since I’ve recently changed my career focus to sustainable agriculture and food systems, I was curious to learn what the Torah had to say about Judaism and food. I’ve come to learn that ‘buy fresh, buy local’ is not a new marketing campaign but a 2,000 year old practice.
The title of my talk, Ein Kemach, Ein Torah, paraphrases Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah who proclaims: “Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no flour.” Kemach literally means flour, but its meaning also refers to sustenance, nourishment, wages, wealth, or security. I interpret this to mean without adequate physical nourishment and security we aren’t receptive to Jewish learning, and likewise, without Jewish learning we may lack the ethical grounding to make wise choices about food for ourselves or our society.
Tonight I give you an enticing taste of how Torah teachings are so relevant to today’s personal and societal food issues. In your handout, I list a few resources I used, including Food For Thought, Hazon’s Sourcebook on Jews, Food, and Contemporary Life.
Stewardship of the Land
Our agricultural roots go all the way back to Adam. From Genesis, “God took the [first human], and put him into the garden of Eden to till it (le’ovadah) and to tend it (leshomra)” —not only to work the land but, as steward also to protect it. How many have read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma or In Defense of Food, or have seen the films, Food Inc, Fresh, and King Corn? These recent wake up calls illuminate the destructive practices our industrialized food production has had on our land, our health, workers, and animals.
A first step in reversing these practices is mindfulness of what we have. Blessings allow us to pause, be mindful and to give thanks. There are many blessings for food —who can name some food blessings?
Examples:…borei peri ha’gafen, Blessed are You, Creator of the fruit of the vine; and hamozi lechem min ha’aretz…One who brings bread forth from the earth.
Did you know about blessings specifically for other grains,
Blessed are You…Creator of types of nourishment.
…Creator of fruit of the tree;
…Creator of fruit of the earth;
And the catch all for everything else: Blessed are You, by Whose word all things came to be.
The next time you offer a food blessing, think about the food before you, how it was grown, who prepared it, what’s in it, and the distance it travelled to your plate.
The practice of Kashrut is built upon three separate sets of laws : first, what is permitted (tahor) and what is prohibited (tamei)—; second, the laws of kosher slaughter; and third the separation of milk from meat, “You shall not boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk”, because, it is explained, that it is cruel to snatch away livestock from its mother before it is weaned. The Shulchan Aruch explains that this phrase is repeated in the Torah three times: once for cooking the two together, once for the prohibition of eating, and once for deriving pleasure. Or as interpreted in a conversation between God and Moses :
God: Thou shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19)
Moses: You mean we should not mix meat and milk?
God: Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 34:26)
Moses: Ah. You mean we should wait three hours between meat and milk!
God: Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21)
Moses: Got it, God. You mean we should have two complete sets of dishes.
God: Whatever, Moses. Have it your way.
Today, the term Eco-kashrut broadens our thinking to include environmental and social justice, and raises issues around the ethical choices we make. Modern-day practices like fair trade, sustainable agriculture, and humanely certified meat enter our current lexicon yet all are based on traditional Jewish values, such as :
Bal tash-chit… not needlessly destroying;
Tza-ar ba-a-lei cha-yim…respect for animals; avoiding suffering;
O-shek… not oppressing workers; and,
Shemi-rat ha-guf… the protection of one’s own body.
Today we have eco-kosher hekhshers, the symbols on product labels, showing which products are not only kosher, but adhere to environmental and social responsibility in the way it was raised.
Our holiday cycle from Purim to Shavuot is steeped in celebration of agricultural harvest and symbolic food choices we make. In the four weeks between Purim and Pesach, we clean our houses and discard our chametz. Nigel Savage, author of Food for Thought, challenges us to take stock of what’s important in our life and lighten our load, such as getting rid of junk food and soda and instead focus on food that nourishes us. What mindful food choices have you made in recent years?
Eating in Community
As I mentioned, my family observances were always—less liturgy and more food—along the lines of, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Eating in community and extending hospitality around meals is a central theme of Jewish life. At Adat Shalom our own weekly Shabbat oneg lunches, monthly in-home Shabbat dinners, village gatherings, and Pesach matching seders nurture this tradition within our community. This year we’ve started a new tradition to share “Adat’s Own Grown” in community and to offer Tzedakah.
In Leviticus it is written: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger…”
Tzedakah has two meanings—we are most familiar with its translation as charity. The other meaning is justice, or today to signify social justice—meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements to exist. Those who have a surplus must share with those who have less. Just as in the time of the Torah, we enact Tzedakah today with food.
Adat Shalom’s Mishnah Garden:
Of all the lessons in the Torah about food, I chose the themes of—land stewardship, mindfulness and blessings, our food choices, eating in community, and Tzedakah—for a reason. Each of these themes is exemplified in our new Mishnah Garden. Spearheaded by Fred Pinkney and Alissa Stern and all the volunteers who constructed, planted, and tend it, our garden offers many lessons of Torah. We learn how to grow our own food. We will soon share its delicious bounty in community with—“Adat’s Own Grown” oneg salads. We will offer Tzedakah when we harvest for Manna, our local food bank, whose recipients are thrilled to receive fresh food as part of their food packages. Watch for newsletter, listserve, and blog postings for opportunities to participate in these mitzvot.
Torah is like a fig tree. Its fruit does not ripen all at once, but bit by bit. And so it is with learning Torah: lessons unfold bit by bit, old lessons take on new meanings and challenge us to put these teachings into practice today. So the words, Ein Kemach, Ein Torah resonate with me — and I hope they will for you, too, when soon you taste the fruit of the earth from our Mishnah garden at an oneg and join in the harvest for Manna so that we may nourish others.
Ein Kemach, Ein Torah: Thoughts on Food Choices, Social Justice, and Torah
Prepared for Adat Shalom, Erev Shavuot by Cheryl Kollin
May 18, 2010
1. Ein Kemach, Ein Torah, Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no flour.” (Pirkei Avot 3:17-21)
2. “God took the [first human], and put him into the garden of Eden to till it (le’ovadah) and to tend it (leshomra)” (Genesis 1:26-30)
3. Three sets of Laws of Kashrut
a. Permitted (tahor) and prohibited (tamei) Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11
b. Separation of meat and milk: “You shall not boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk”, (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26) and (Deuteronomy 14:2-21)
c. Kosher slaughter Talmud, Masekhet Chulin
4. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger…” (Leviticus 19:9-10)
A Few Resources
Hazon (“vision”), a New York based non-profit organization that works to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, as a step towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all. Their food work includes a CSA, blog, annual conference, a family-education project, and source book. http://www.hazon.org
Food for Thought, Hazon’s Sourcebook on Jews, Food, and Contemporary Life (2009)
The Jew and the Carrot, Hazon’s Blog that features Jewish Food news, recipes, stories, interviews. http://www.jcarrot.org
Challah for Hunger, a national organization with local chapters, exemplifies both meanings of Tzedakah. Volunteers bake challah on campus kitchens, which are sold to students, faculty and the community. Half the proceeds are donated to the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Sudan Relief and Advocacy Fund; the other half is donated to a charity of the local Chapter’s choice. http://www.challahforhunger.org
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Natural History in Four Meals by Michael Pollan, (Penguin, 2006)
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan, (Penguin, 2008)
Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply by Vandana Shiva (South End Press, 1999)
KOL Foods (for “Kosher Organic Local”) meat and poultry http://www.kolfoods.com
Food Inc, (2009); Fresh, (2009); King Corn (2008)