In Vermont, where I spent the last year living (and where I still spend my time off), there’s a beautiful culture of paying attention to where food comes from. In part this is because of the agricultural heritage of the state, and lucky for me, it’s meant that I’ve made a number of friends who are farmers. As a result, over the past year I’ve farm-sat when friends have gone on vacation (to Israel, no less – our local Jewish educator is also a farmer), helped friends tap their maple trees to make homegrown maple syrup and cared for chickens and lambs. I have harvested the summer’s abundance, too: dried garlic, blanched kale, made raspberry jam from local berries picked by my own two hands, and turned pounds (literally, pounds) of basil into many frozen containers of pesto – enough for the (very) long Vermont winter! I’ve even learned to make my own sourdough bread and created my own sourdough starter.
For a Rabbi’s kid who grew up in Chicago this has been a wonderful, unexpected and delicious adventure. I feel truly blessed. I have learned, intimately, where my food comes from, and the incredible labor that it takes to feed the state of Vermont. I have also become a regular at the local farmer’s market, friendly with the guy who sells me my kale, have found a farm where I pick up eggs and bread year-round, and have, overall become much, much healthier. I have also, for the first time ever, begun to understand the place of dietary laws in the Biblical imagination and what it must have felt like to live according to an agricultural rhythm where you always worried what the new harvest might (or might not) yield. Food, I have learned, is never merely a product. It’s also a process.
This week’s parshah, Sh’mini, is known for its dietary laws, the laws of kashrut. And though I could write at length about kashrut and Reform Judaism, I’m more interested in asking us to consider how halachic structures around eating can help us sacralize and become mindful of how we eat, elevate it from noshing to something worthy of blessing. Because serious engagement with the tradition and with the parsha calls for not just a historical critical interrogation of where the laws come from but also an acknowledgment that the laws present us with an opportunity to think deeply, and seriously about how we consume (and if we are doing so ethically). And though we ultimately may not choose to give up cheeseburgers or non-kosher meat, we might at least feel compelled to engage in a centuries old conversation about what it means to sanctify this simplest of acts.
For me, this has meant making an effort to know where my food comes from, and a commitment to only buying food that is organic, free-range, hormone free, or sustainably raised (this means I eat much less meat, as it’s far more expensive this way). For others, it may mean becoming a vegetarian or vegan; but no matter what, it will mean consuming consciously, thoughtfully, in a manner that reflects our understanding of the earth – and all its inhabitants – as holy and precious in their own right. This, though not traditionally halachically observant, is halachically responsible, in keeping with the spirit of a law which asks us to bring a disciplined heart and head to what – and how – we consume.
This, in part, is what it means to eat Jewishly.
Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal.
For more on Judaism and food, check out The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore