Kashrus and Agrarianism
October 17, 2008
[From notes for a dvar torah given this past Friday, on Deut. 32:1-52.]
THE PARSHA IN SUM
Moses’ “poem” to the people of Israel. It is a warning; its pessimism is marked in contrast to his final blessings. He discusses Israel’s past and future departures from God.
THE NOTABILITY OF FOOD
[on God’s benevolence to Israel and Jacob]
“He set him atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock,
Curd of kine and milk of flocks;
With the best of lambs,
And rams and he-goats;
With the very finest wheat—
And foaming grape-blood was your drink.
So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—
You grew fat and gross and coarse—
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support.
They incensed him with alien things,
Vexed him with abominations.
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,
Gods they had never known,
New ones, who came but lately,
Who stirred not your fathers’ fears.
You neglected the Rock that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth.”
[at the end of the parsha:]
Moses will not enter Israel because “you [and Aaron] both broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people.” Moses and Aaron had asked, “Shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” rather than affirm that it was God’s doing; this was where they lost faith and failed.
Moses and Aaron mistreated the land; the people mistreated their food/sources of nourishment: all failed to properly acknowledge the mystery/holiness of what provided nourishment.
YES, I’M ABOUT TO QUOTE WENDELL BERRY
It is possible Wendell Berry was thinking of this passage when he wrote: “We must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.” (“A Native Hill”)
So what am I getting at? Berry’s concept of “Thinking Little”:
Picking up trash and litter. Drive cars less often, use less fuel in your home. Turn off the lights. Avoid unneeded gadgetry. Don’t waste water. “If you are fearful of the destruction of the environment, then learn to quit being an environmental parasite.” (from the essay of the same name)
Or, as Michael Pollan points out in an essay for the NY Times Magazine, pay attention to what you eat.
Indeed, this issue (topically and the “Food Issue”) is particularly Jewish—the feature, on the future of American food policy, is written by Pollan (who is Jewish) and contains another article on eco-friendly kosher foods, “Kosher Wars.” The latter article makes the astute observation that “Judaism, for all its scholarly abstraction, is a land-based religion.”
This is true. The failings in the parsha are both moral and spiritual, but the acts which display these failings—which are the failures embodied—are, immediately, failures to uphold the human duty as stewards of the land and the plants and creatures which inhabit it.
In “Kosher Wars,” Samantha Shapiro points to the following question as a controversy within the Jewish community—“Should Jews keep kosher because it is an ethical practice, or because God wants us to?”
The answer is both. If the behavior that God wants is not ethical, then we have a slew of problems which I have neither the time nor intelligence to delve into at the moment. That is to say, kashrus is a mitzvah because it is a commandment, and because—if we uphold dietary laws and non-dietary laws for ethical treatment of animals and land—we are behaving more ethically than if we did not.
THINK KOSHER/THINK LITTLE
So let’s think little in terms of food. I’m not demanding that you all start keeping strictly kosher, or start only eating locally-grown-organic foods, though I have nothing against either practice and am temporarily attracted to the latter. But stop and think about your food and drink before you eat it. Be aware of what you’re consuming—where it came from, how it was treated, how it was shipped, how it was packaged, what its cost is—monetarily, environmentally, and socially.
This might now be bordering a little too much on blasphemy, but I’d say that if you’re aware of your food, and let that inform your choices about your food, you do more to keep kosher than would if you ate blindly, even if you still choose shrimp cocktail or a ham sandwich.