Tuesday, September 14, 2010

2nd day Rosh HaShanah sermon 5771/2010: "Spirituality of Food"

Art Linkletter, who died earlier this year at age 97, was the host of various TV shows that interviewed kids and got them to say “the darndest things.”  I have a friend and colleague whose college roommate was chosen to be on this show when he was a little boy in the early 1960’s.  This was a big deal for his whole family.  His siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, and his grandparents, were all watching.

I should add that this boy’s family was Jewish.  As was the case with many families of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the grandparents remained extremely traditional -- but the boy’s parents’ generation, less so.
Art Linkletter comes up to the boy and says, “What is your favorite food?”
The boy thinks for a moment, and then says, loud and clear on national television, “Bacon.”

And apparently you should have seen the eye contact between the grandparents and the parents immediately after they saw that, because until that very moment, the boy’s grandparents thought the parents were still keeping kosher.
In that story, what are the Jewish traditions about food?  An outmoded set of rituals that you do to placate the older generation, practices that real Americans have dispensed with already. If you retain them, it’s only to spare yourself the embarrassment of stories like the one I just told.

But here’s another Jewish food story.

Once, an Orthodox rabbi, a Conservative rabbi, a Reconstructionist rabbi, and a Reform rabbi
travel to India together.  It sounds like a set-up for a joke - except that it really happened.  This was one of the most celebrated interreligious dialogue events, and the subject of a now-classic book, The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz. 
It all happened almost exactly 20 years ago.  The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism,
noted that his community was having difficulty raising their children to treasure their identity,
especially since so much of the Tibetan Buddhist community was in exile from their homeland of Tibet.  One of his followers suggested:  “If you’re concerned about how to transmit culture and heritage and identity, even in exile, you should really chat with the Jews, who have managed to do it for 2000 years.”

The Dalai Lama was intrigued, and he encouraged a diverse group of Jewish leaders, including several rabbis, to travel to Dharamsala in India, where he lives, to meet with him and his community.  He asked them various questions about what has been the secret of the survival of the Jewish people for two thousand years.  Was there anything that his community to do to emulate the success of the Jewish people?

Early on in the trip, the rabbinic participants concluded a meal in India and then recited the birkat ha-mazon, the blessing after meals, as is natural for a group of observant Jews.  One of the participants,  Rabbi Joy Levitt (today the director of the JCC of Manhattan), noted the utter surprise of the Dalai Lama and his followers.
What is that, the Tibetans asked.
A prayer of thanksgiving after food.

What does it say?
Well, it starts out thanking God for the gift of food, then goes on to thank God for our connection to the earth, to the land of Israel, to the city of Jerusalem.

And the Buddhists asked, incredulously, ‘And you say this prayer every day?”

They answered: Different Jews may recite it with different frequencies, but traditionally it’s recited after every meal, approximately 2-3 times a day.

Immediately when the Dalai Lama heard about this, he instructed two young Tibetan monks
to compose a similar prayer to help Tibetan Buddhists around the world to focus their attention to Tibet at the conclusion of every meal.

Rabbi Levitt says: “I was stunned by this new light cast on this very familiar prayer.
I have recited Birkat Hamazon for my entire life - and yet had never really grasped its role in preserving the Zionist dream in the hearts and minds of Jews throughout the generations. Since my return from India, I have never recited those words without thinking both of the Tibetans and of my deep longing for Zion at peace.”

Our community learned this story from the Jewish environmental activist Nigel Savage, when he visited our community in January.  The story highlights one of the greatest things about interfaith dialogue, which is that when you look at your religious tradition through the eyes of someone else, you come to see extraordinary aspects of your own religious tradition that you never noticed before.
Additionally:  it is nice to see that Judaism and Buddhism have a kind of a symbiotic relationship.  Judaism has learned so much from Buddhism about Buddhism’s specialties -
like meditation, like having an embodied spirituality through physical practices like yoga, and cultivating awareness of the present moment.  And Judaism has been able to help out Buddhism with Judaism’s area of spiritual expertise.  And what is Judaism’s area of spiritual expertise?
Yes... the spirituality of food.

You think I’m kidding?   Just start by thinking about the Jewish holidays.  From hamentaschen, to apples and honey, to latkes, to figs and carob, each holiday has some special food and some special food practice.  There are days like Shabbat when you’re supposed to invite people to eat in your home, days like Sukkot when you’re supposed to eat, not inside, but OUTSIDE your home, and then days like Purim when you’re supposed to send your food out so that it can be eaten in other people’s homes in your absence.  There are days like Shabbat and other holidays when Jews are encouraged to drink wine, and days like the first 9 days of the month of Av when Jews are supposed to avoid wine.  There are days like Shabbat when we can eat but not cook,
and days like Tisha B’Av when we can cook, but not eat. On Passover we’re supposed to play with our food - making outlandish concoctions of bitter and sweet that no one would ever eat of their own volition.  Actually, Passover, with all its foods to be avoided, is in a category by itself.
Like “Iron Chef” but in reverse.  And on Yom Kippur we’re not supposed to eat at all (though many of us spend that entire day thinking about food all the time).  It’s a mitzvah to serve and eat food at a bris or a wedding. It’s a mitzvah to bring food to a shiva house.  There are blessings before food, and after food, that differ based on what the ingredients of the food are: if it grows in the ground, if it grows on trees, if it’s one of 7 special kinds of produce from the land of Israel.
And believe it or not, with all of this list so far, I actually haven’t yet mentioned the system of kashrut - which prohibits certain foods entirely, which prohibits eating certain foods in combination, and which requires that many foods, actually all meat, be prepared in particular ways.  All of this means that observant Jews have to be pretty aware of exactly what they are eating, and when, and what the ingredients are. Yes, every culture has its special foods - but not quite like THIS. And every religion has some kind of ritual surrounding food - but again, not quite to this degree.

But very few people look at this entire system and see it for what it is - reframing the act of eating so it is not a mere biological function, and not merely a social and recreational activity,
but a spiritual practice. An act of holiness.
It was a preschool parent who first pointed out to me that someone who comes to a Jewish preschool, watching the prayers that were recited, how holidays were celebrated, and the content of many of the songs, would quickly get the impression that Judaism really is all about food.
It’s only after they become adults that they realize that it’s really partially true. In fact, the 18th c. Eastern European mystical sage known as the Darche Tzedek went so far as to say: “The main service of God is through eating…and the tzadikim, the righteous ones, meditate as they eat, in love and fear of God. They eat like they are praying.”

In fact, this is exactly how we might describe what is most distinctive about a Jewish spiritual approach to the world.  Jewish ritual specializes in making each moment special, in sanctifying mundane and everyday actions.  And what could be more mundane and everyday than the act of eating?

For each of the past 13 years, I have had the opportunity to teach introductory classes in Judaism for kids and adults.  Without fail, the one topic that is hardest for people to connect with
is kashrut -- the Jewish dietary laws.  Not surprisingly. For someone who didn’t grow up with them, they seem outlandish, they seem like the very most irrelevant part of Judaism.  And many people from this community have told me so.  In all these years, I have not broached the subject on the High Holidays.

But as time goes on, I have a feeling that the food-oriented dimension of Judaism is being catapulted into the category of the MOST contemporary and MOST relevant facets of Judaism.
We’re increasingly realizing that our relationship with food is a most important facet of our relationship with the earth and all its inhabitants.  And a relationship with food holds one of the keys to a Jewish understanding of our relationship with God and the world.

It has often been my practice to choose a particular mitzvah, or set of mitzvot, to highlight on the 2nd day of Rosh haShanah, My goal today is not to get anyone to suddenly start keeping kosher.
But if kashrut is utterly distant and irrelevant to you, perhaps I can shed some light on why some people, including me, find it to be valuable. And if Kashrut is significant in your life, perhaps I can give you some new ways to think about it, and to articulate it to the people who will inevitably ask you why you’re still living in the 18th century.

When I started teaching about Kashrut, often I would be asked, “How could your food choices POSSIBLY be connected to ethics and spirituality?”  Interestingly, I don’t get that particular question so much anymore.  Because today it’s obvious that food is connected to ethics and spirituality.

A fundamental message of kashrut is that different food choices carry different ethical implications. Twenty years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner said it very bluntly when he boiled the essence of Kashrut down to one principle:  “Eating meat is a moral compromise. There is a difference between eating a hamburger and eating a bowl of cereal.” And he correctly noted that Kashrut is not really about food - Kashrut is about meat:  what kinds can be eaten, how it is to be slaughtered, how it is to be prepared, and what it is to be served with and not served with, because, of all foods, meat is what uniquely requires the taking of a life.

But today we would probably expand upon Rabbi Kushner’s statement.  Writers like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others remind us that there are lots of moral compromises involved in the act of eating that we might not even have been aware of. Sure, eating a hamburger involves the taking of a life, and eating a bowl of cereal doesn’t.  But suppose this hamburger came from the meat of a calf that was allowed to run free on the farm throughout its life, without injections of hormones or other interventions, fed healthy feed, and then slaughtered in a painless manner?  And suppose the grain for this bowl of cereal was sprayed with potentially dangerous pesticides, harvested using exploited foreign labor, and then sold by a company with a terrible record of treating its employees?  Now which one is the greater moral compromise? It’s harder to tell, isn’t it?  If we take the themes of kashrut to heart, we should try to figure it out – and to minimize the inevitable ethical compromises we make when we eat.
The last couple of years have highlighted ethical lapses in food production - especially the production of meat.  And sadly, much kosher meat - which is really supposed to adhere to a “higher standard” - falls short of what is ethical in terms of treatment of animals, treatment of workers, and treatment of the environment.  We can be proud that within the next year, Conservative Judaism will begin to mark products with its ‘Magen Tzedek’ - a seal of approval, similar to a kosher supervision symbol, that marks kosher products that adhere to a set of objective standards to ensure that people - whether they keep kosher or not - who want to bring an ethical sensitivity to their act of eating can easily do so.

But kashrut is not only about ethics. It’s also about awareness and holiness.  One of the implications of Judaism’s focus on food and food rituals is that it makes it that much harder to eat mindlessly if you’re keeping track of whether foods are kosher or not, and what blessing you’re supposed to say over them.  And thus keeping kosher, ideally, encourage mindful eating.
Does this mindfulness happen all the time? Of course not.  But it’s the ideal, and ideals never become realities unless someone makes the effort.  In fact, the sage Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin used to say that even if you eat just one food each week in a mode of true awareness and appreciation, that elevates all the less mindful eating you did that week.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that many people around the world could probably benefit if they ate even one food item each week in a state of mindfulness and awareness.

A unique initiative that our synagogue community has undertaken this year is our sponsorship of a CSA - Community Supported Agriculture, in which people in our community purchase a share of the produce of a New Jersey farmer that gets delivered to the synagogue every week, thanks to the initiative of a number of people from our community, especially coordinator Julie Steinberg, and many volunteers.   We didn’t do this just as a service to our members.  We also did it for Jewish spiritual reasons – because the experience of eating is transformed when you have a bond with the producers of the food, when you know something about the story of the food. 
I first began to understand how contemplating the origins of our food enhances our spiritual connection to our food and the earth, the first time I saw a sign language interpreter
sign the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread. The blessing, of course, goes, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz.  Who brings forth bread from the earth.” And the interpreter signed it very literally, in a set of signs that I can’t replicate here,  but that looked like he was extracting bread from the earth.  Of course, bread doesn’t literally get extracted from the earth. The process by which we get bread from the earth is so tortuous that we may usually eat bread completely oblivious to where it came from.  But the goal of the blessing is to help us to focus our attention on the food’s origin.  In fact, most of the Jewish blessings for food include a reference to the food’s origin. And food educators note that one of the ways to help people to eat more consciously, and make food choices more consciously, is to encourage them to consider the ‘back story’ of their food and where it came from.

Coming off of a year of multiple environmental disasters, we can only hope that tomorrow’s decision-makers will feel a closer bond with the environment than today’s decision-makers -
that they will regard it as a partner to be cooperated with rather than a victim to be stripped of its resources.  And perhaps a deeper awareness of the earth as the source of our nourishment
can help them to develop a new understanding of their relationship with the earth.  If we’re going to succeed in rectifying over a century’s worth of environmental damage, it’s going to happen through a combination of corporate and government initiative, and the outlook changes and lifestyle changes of people like you and me, coming to a new understanding of our relationship with the earth.

Human beings are remarkably adept at tuning out routine experiences, at becoming jaded and unfazed by almost anything, so long as it happens frequently enough.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said about the stars in the sky: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of God which had been shown!...”  It’s specifically because the stars, and other amazing phenomena in the world are around all the time,  that we ignore them.  And similarly, the miraculous act of eating becomes mindless routine because it happens so regularly. The Jewish rituals around food, ideally, defamiliarize us,they slow us down just enough to appreciate eating as a gift from God.

Then there’s another dimension of Kashrut -the Jewish identity dimension.  Is Jewish identity a function of who you are inside, or is it a function of what you do?  The answer is clear -- and demographic studies of the Jewish community plainly indicate:  It’s possible for someone to feel very Jewish inside, but they are going to have a very hard time transmitting that Jewish identity to the next generation unless there are demonstrable Jewish things that are part of their lives on a regular basis.

Someone from this community who was starting to adopt kashrut once told me: Listen: I understand all the spiritual and ethical reasons for keeping kosher.  But let me tell you what Kashrut really accomplishes for me.  Every day, on an hour by hour basis, I am thinking about being Jewish, because, for the first time in my life, the fact that I am Jewish is affecting my choices about what I order in a restaurant, what I pick up in the supermarket, what I am ordering from FreshDirect.  Before starting to keep kosher, I might think about being Jewish, say, a couple of times a week,or from shabbat to shabbat, but this keeps my Jewish identity ever present. And without kashrut, I don’t know what else would do that for me.”

Like everything else in Judaism, Kashrut is not an all-or-nothing proposition.  Some people observe the laws strictly in their entirety, while others chart their own relationship with the tradition.  While traditional Jewish texts certainly urge the former, they also recognize that many people do the latter.  This year, may our individual teshuvah processes include ways we can deepen OUR relationships with God and with the world; may we challenge ourselves to bring ever greater awareness to even the mundane aspects of our lives, so that we can truly declare, along with the angels: מלא כל הארץ כבודו - the entire world is full of God’s presence.
Shanah Tovah!

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