Bugs in My Kale: Bringing Intention to Our Food

Thank you to the many members of the community and beyond who have become deeply engaged in the conversation: “What is Your Food Worth,” a partnership with the Feinstein Center at Temple University.  Inspired this fall by Rabbi Kuhn’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, Professor Lila Berman’s keynote “A New Judaism from the Tabletop: Food and the Transformation of American Jewish Life,” the Hazon Food Festival hosted at RS, the screening of “A Place at the Table,” study sessions, the What is Your Food Worth blog, and our congregational blog posts, let us discover how now to move from theory to practice.  

Related thoughts from a recent D’var Torah…   Week after week I bring home my box of CSA vegetables.  Recently, I was putting my veggies away in the refrigerator, and planning my strategies for getting my family to eat so many vegetables in just one week. Kale?: kale chips, kale pie, kale soup.  Red, green and purple peppers?: the blindfold-guess-the-color-of-the pepper taste test game.

As I was planning, and storing the vegetables in my kitchen, I noticed a lot of bugs crawling on my vegetables.  There were worms in the swiss chard, a caterpillar-type creature in the lettuce, and yellow lady-bug looking creepers on the garlic.  For me, this was a whole of lot of nature.

As I let out my bug screech, and felt tempted to throw the food down the disposal, I stopped myself.  Of course there are bugs on my vegetables!  The vegetables grow outside, at an organic farm. Am I so removed from nature, am I so thoughtless about my food sources, that I forgot that vegetables don’t grow in the grocery aisle?

I am grateful to our CSA, not only for the delicious, nutritious produce, but also for the awakening to a sense of mindfulness about one of my most regular activities: eating.

In this week’s Torah portion, Noach, God takes a 180 with human dietary laws.  In last week’s creation story, God gives humans every plant and tree, seed and fruit, for food.  But after the flood, God decides that human beings are too violent to be vegans.  God instructs: “every living thing shall be as food for you.  Kol remes asher hu chai, lachem yihei l’achlah.”

As early Zionist leader Rav Kook interprets, the first human murder in the story of Cain and Abel, and the corruption on the earth preceding the flood in this week’s portion, teaches God that human moral progression would need to be achieved more gradually.   Human carnivorism is God’s concession.

Modern Bible scholar Nachum Sarna teaches that, although animal flesh is henceforth permitted for food, the privilege is not unrestricted.  This concession to human weakness is not a license for savagery.

In fact, long after the Noah story, Judaism develops systems of kindness to animals, and of intention for the food we eat.  In the ancient Temple’s animal sacrifice, the Israelites ritualized the killing of an animal, and connected that animal’s life to God, before taking part in the meal.  The living-being could be eaten, but not without honoring its source, and acknowledging the loss of life.  Although difficult to understand in today’s world, animal sacrifice was not a cruel ritual; it was a way to guard us against food out-sourcing, and protect us against taking things for granted.

A few years ago, two Reform rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College, realized their relationship with food sources, was limited to the grocery check-out; and they decided they wanted to better appreciate the process of how their food comes to the table.  The two men, Josh and Gersh, began a 7-month, in-depth study of sh’chitah–the laws of kosher slaughter.  Then they went to Chinatown, purchased six live chickens, and set up a slaughter site.  Guided by Jewish law, Josh and Gersh took extreme care to cause the least possible amount of pain.  As the text instructed, when they slaughtered the six chickens, the knife was perfectly smooth, there was no interruption of the incision, the incision was at the appropriate site to sever the major structures and vessels at the neck, and the chickens were held in positions that calmed them.

Reflecting on their experience, Josh and Gersh say they will never forget feeling the bird’s breast cease expanding and contracting–feeling life leave a body.  Jewish tradition spoke to them in this life-ceasing moment, as they followed the commandment, that they cover the blood with earth, and recite a blessing acknowledging that a life was taken.  Gone, were the days when they could avert their eyes, and separate themselves from their food source.

In their kosher slaughtering journey, these rabbinical students explored one way that their relationship with food, would not end at the grocery aisle.  In our congregation’s Community Supported Agriculture, we are exploring another way, to ensure that our relationship with food does not end at the check-out counter.

Today, whether we are the vegetarians of the Garden of Eden, we are the omnivores of the post-flood generations, or we eat kosher, or raw, gluten-free, low-cholesterol, low-carb or low-salt, Judaism offers wisdom for intentional choices.

This year, our congregation is engaged in a meaningful conversation about our relationship with food.  Exploring intentionality, food-sources, health, nature, social connection, Jewish tradition, and food justice, we are asking the question: “What is Our Food Worth?”  Professor Lila Berman, who will offer a keynote address with her vision for the urban Jewish Food Movement, here, on Oct. 16, submits that the issues of the Jewish Food Movement have the potential to transform American Judaism as we know it.  So relevant is a Jewish food ethic, Professor Berman suggests food will be as paradigm-shifting today as feminism was some decades ago.  Many thanks to the Dr. Bernard & Rose Susan Hirschhorn Behrend Fund for sponsoring this upcoming keynote!

This is our time to engage with Judaism for relevant wisdom, to connect with that which sustains life, and perhaps, even to embrace the bugs in our kale.

Eternal Source of All, may we know You through Your creations.  May we bring kavannah, intention, to our table, and to our everyday lives.

The story about the rabbinical students’ study of kosher slaughter comes from the book The Sacred Table: Creating A Jewish Food Ethic, Rabbi Mary Zamore, ed.