Friday, September 16, 2011

"Rabbi, Is There a Blessing for a Curse?" Making Food Holy Again - Ki Tavo 5771

It seems that I have been left with no choice but to talk about God. Again. Those of you who were here two weeks ago might recall our discussion of theodicy, that is, various theological approaches to why there is suffering in the world. And some of you may have seen a short piece I wrote right before Hurricane Irene hit, about how storms, floods, and earthquakes should not be understood as punishments from God.

But here we are in Parashat Ki Tavo, where the dominant theme of today’s Torah reading is two lengthy litanies of blessings and curses, reflecting the Torah’s central theological stance, which is:

א. If we do what God asks of us, then we will receive blessings from on high.
ב. If we do not do what God asks of us, then we will be cursed.

Simple, right! Reward and punishment, right there on the parchment in black and cream.

I have a great deal of trouble with the idea, as the traditional theology might suggest, that my parents both contracted forms of cancer because they did something wrong, or that the righteous victims of the Holocaust were reincarnated souls of our ancestors who had sinned in building the Molten Calf at Mt. Sinai, as was suggested recently by former Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.

Many of us struggle with this theology; the biblical character Job struggled with it, the rabbis of the Talmud, which is the primary source of the rabbinic commentary that more or less created Judaism as we know it, struggled with it, and I do too. The rabbis point to evidence that suggests that the world simply does not work this way.

Or does it?

Sometimes our actions yield results that they deserve. I think that there are some things that actually work according to what the Hindus call karma, the idea that what goes around, comes around. We also find the kernel of this idea in Jewish tradition. In Pirqei Avot 2:6, we read the following:

 אף הוא ראה גולגולת אחת צפה על פני המים; אמר לה, על דאטיפת אטיפוך, וסוף מטיפייך יטופון

“[Hillel] saw a skull floating on the surface of the water, and he said to it, ‘Even if they have drowned you because you drowned [others], those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.’ ”

What goes around, comes around. Sometimes we get what we deserve, says Hillel.

Returning to the blessings and curses in today’s parashah, it is worthwhile to note that many have to do with food. For example, among the blessings we find:

“Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” (Deut. 28:5, Etz Hayim, p. 1149)
“The Lord will give you abounding prosperity in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil.” (28:11, p. 1150)

And among the curses: “If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it.” (28:30-31, p. 1152)
“Though you take much seed out to the field, you shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it.” (28:38, p. 1153)

And others that are barely mentionable in polite company. In the world of our ancestors, food was life. If you had a good harvest, you lived well. If you had a poor harvest, you starved. Hence the gravity of these statements.


I am teaching a class in the Youth House (our Hebrew High School) this fall, a class for which I have been in some sense preparing for at least 20 years. It’s called, “Food for Thought,” and it is an examination of issues surrounding food today and how these issues are connected to Judaism and Jewish principles. The most obvious connection between food and Judaism is that of kashrut, the dietary laws, but that is a secondary consideration of this class. There is so much more to talk about - like the following Torah commandments:

Bal tashhit - Do not waste (Deut. 20:19-20)
Tza’ar ba’alei hayyim - Prevent cruelty to animals (Deut. 22:6)
Lo ta’ashoq sakhir ani ve-evyon - Do not oppress a poor and needy laborer (Deut. 24:14-15)

We read all of these from the Torah within the last two weeks, and there are more. These are principles that should be considered in food production and consumption, and the point of the class is to raise awareness of how these issues play out today. We are so far from where our food comes from that it is easy to forget that it does not appear magically in supermarkets, neatly bagged and shelved. The story behind the food, however, is a part of the meal, and arguably references the blessings and curses I just mentioned. We will conclude the semester by producing a well-considered meal for the Youth House banquet in December.

In preparation for the class, I have been reading all sorts of interesting things about the food we eat. But a funny word crossed my desk this week, one that gets less funny the more you think about it. That word is, “shmeat.” As in, “Meat, shmeat.”

Shmeat, a contraction of “sheets of meat,” is a meat product that is cultured in a lab from animal cells growing in a nutrient broth, essentially the carnivore’s answer to in-vitro fertilization. So-called “tissue engineers” have done this, and are refining the product such that it might be in the near future a product that could be eaten, just like actual meat. But it will be healthier than meat, since its chemical composition can be carefully controlled, and will not come with any of the ethical problems that some people have with eating meat from animals.

The idea of shmeat appeals primarily to scientists who are looking for solutions to the problem of how to feed the world’s population, and also sounds good to environmentalists who are concerned about the problems that mass food production creates, like greenhouse gases that cause climate change, contamination of groundwater from pesticide runoff, and the breeding of resistant bacteria from agricultural overuse of antibiotics.

Let me tell you something that may alarm you: In 50 years, the world’s population will be 9 million people. In order to feed all those people, we will need to produce 70% more food than we do today, on the same amount of agricultural land.

Already, we live in a world of mass production of food, where chickens are bred to be mostly breast and thigh, where tomatoes are picked green and artificially reddened, so that they will make it to the store shelf and still look good, and where the standard banana breed, the Dwarf Cavendish, is in danger of being wiped out by an incurable banana blight.

But let’s face it - the idea of consuming meat grown in a laboratory hardly sounds appetizing. The technology of shmeat is not yet ready for mass production, but it probably will be in a few years. (It will be an interesting question regarding whether or not there can be kosher shmeat; I'm not ready to deal with that yet.)

Why am I telling you about this? (Other than to raise the question of whether shmeat is a blessing or a curse?)

I am telling you this because I’d like to raise in your minds this question: As consumers and as Jews, what are our responsibilities vis-a-vis food production as we sail into an overpopulated, underfed future?

Furthermore, since both our tradition and our culture emphasize the importance of food and its spiritual and emotional power, how can we as Jews face the coming wave of manufactured, food-like products, or the food science methods that have produced factory farms, bypassing the traditional agricultural integration that farmers have used for millennia, or the overfishing of our seas, or the fact confirmed by law-enforcement officials in the State of Florida, that there is outright slavery, that’s right, forced labor taking place in the tomato plantations there? (Google “tomato slavery” if you don’t believe me.)

Are we not taught that eating is a holy act? That food preparation requires adhering to a set of Jewish laws called kashrut that elevate our food? Do we not say berakhot / blessings before and after eating for that very purpose? I do not have time to address those questions in depth.

But I do have one suggestion that might be helpful: We have the power to turn curses into blessings. We have within our hands the ability to make choices that change the karma, to alter the cause-and-effect cycle.  If we support a system that favors the bottom line at the expense of respect for God’s Creation, we’ll get what we deserve.

If however, we make educated choices about consumption, and work within the system to produce positive change, then we may be able to honor the complexity of the natural order and still take on the challenges of feeding the billions of new neighbors that will be joining us in the next few decades.

So how do we accomplish this?

1. Consider where your food comes from, how it was produced, how it was harvested. How far did it travel to get to your plate?

2. Strive to find sources that are sustainable, that minimize human impact on the Earth, that seek to lessen the collateral damage. When possible, buy fruits in vegetables in their proper seasons, when they come to you from nearby farms rather than from Mexico and China.  Join a CSA ("Community Supported Agriculture" program) if possible.

3. Remember also that while we all love low prices, that supporting sustainable growers costs more of our personal income, but lowers the cost to the world. Paying extra pays into the future, benefiting not only the people who grow and harvest our food, but also enables local, organic, and fair-trade producers to expand their crops and compete with the conventional growers. The real cost of a tomato is far more than what we pay at the supermarket.

We have to, quite literally, put our money where our mouths are.

The holy moment of berakhah, before and after eating food, is intended to raise our awareness. Hamotzi lehem min ha-aretz - Praised are You, God, who brings forth food from the Earth - this is a reminder that eating is not just about us. It’s also about the partnership with God.

Seek the holy choices. We can thereby turn a few curses into blessings. This is the lesson of Parashat Ki Tavo, and the lesson of the upcoming High Holidays as well: that we have the power to change outcomes.  What goes around, comes around.

Let me add that, as the fall unfolds, I will be putting web-based resources up on my blog so that you can read and learn more about these issues. Watch for it.

Shabbat shalom.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 9/17/11.)

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