Between forkfuls, lets be food thoughtful and kosher

From the moment we broke our fast at the end of Yom Kippur through Sukkot, we ate ourselves silly. One could easily surmise from all this gastronomical activity that we mark such an auspicious time of year not through our words or reflections, but through our stomachs.

We’re not just “the People of the Book,” but “the People of the Kishkes.”

The cycle of fasting and feasting gives us the opportunity to pause and think about what exactly we put in our mouths and what that says about us. We have an abundant food economy, almost $1 trillion in food production. But getting to this number, we created an industrialized food system — one that separates eaters from growers; consumers from the land; and those who have the greatest access to food from those who do not.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas

Who have we become? Can we really say that this is kosher?

Let’s take three snapshots that highlight the absurdity and perfidy of our food system, with hopes of outlining how our ancient food ethic is a solution to this very modern problem.

Snapshot one: There are magazines, newspaper sections, festivals and even entire cable networks dedicated to all things food. We are obsessed with food and our overindulgence of it.

Yet nearly 50 million of us don’t know where our next meal is coming from. In California, there are over 6 million people who are food insecure, and in Los Angeles County, where I live, 17.5 percent of all Angelinos are hungry, and 20 percent of all children are hungry.

How can we be so overfed and underfed at the same time?

Snapshot two: Along its way to our plate, our food passes through many hands. Ninety percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida in the winter months.

As a result, Immokalee, Fla., is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farm workers. Since 1970, their wages have dropped to almost nothing, and living conditions are something out of a Steinbeck novel with workers living in the backs of trucks or in converted shipping containers without electricity or running water. The harvesters, who bring us our food, can hardly put food on their own tables. How can this be?

Snapshot three: In my grandfather’s day, if he wanted a strawberry milkshake, he would go to an ice cream store,  where they would mix ice cream, strawberries and milk. Today, our food really isn’t food.

Here are a few ingredients of a strawberry milkshake from a fast-food restaurant: Amyl acetate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, diacetyl, ethyl methylphenylglycidate … and 40 other ingredients I can’t pronounce. The words “milk” or “strawberries” are not included.

Processed food makes up to 60 percent of American diets. There are more than 6,000 chemicals used to preserve, emulsify, freeze, dehydrate, rehydrate, flavor, texture and color processed foods. What we know to be food isn’t food anymore. What exactly are we eating?

Each of these “snapshot” problems challenges our humanity, our health and our Judaism. From health to hunger, our food system is broken. We Jews can’t stand brokenness; we always aim for healing and fixing. We heal relationships through teshuvah (forgiveness), and we fix the world through tikkun olam.

It is time that we fix the brokenness of our modern food system by reaching back to our most ancient of food ethics, kashrut.

Many have argued that kashrut’s time has passed because it is arcane and out of step with modern living. However, more than milk and meat (separately, of course), kashrut symbolizes everything Jewish. If a Torah has a word missing, we say, “It’s not kosher.” If the roof of our sukkah doesn’t balance the right amount of shade with sunlight, we say, “It’s not kosher.”

Kashrut is the bridge that blends our food ethics into the rest of our lives.

It’s what makes something not only good and right, but also makes it Jewish.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Jews don’t just look at things, we look through them. We look at a Torah and contemplate its depths, its history.

We look at our world with amazement, because of the depth of knowledge that is sown into the nature’s template. We look at moments in time, not for the fact of their passing, but for value they give us to transform ourselves into better people.

He called this “depth theology.” To address the brokenness of our food system, we need “deep kashrut.” We cannot just look at our food; we have to look “through” our food — beyond its materiality to its history, its depth, and to its ability to empower or impoverish the hands that brought it from the field to the fork.

There is a movement that seeks this new sense of food that is forming in homes, synagogues and gardens across the country. This movement represents the rising tide of Jewish identity in the 21st century.

Nationally, an entire ecosystem of organizations is emerging. It is being led by Hazon (which aims to create healthy and sustainable communities); Pursue: Action for a Just World (a project of American Jewish World Service and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps); Magen Tzedek (an ethical certification for kosher food); and Uri L’tzedek (an Orthodox social justice organization).

In Los Angeles, a group of us who work on these issues calls itself Netiya. The word means planting and growing in Hebrew, and it comes from the second chapter of Genesis, when God planted a garden in Eden and placed humanity in it to watch over the bounty.

As we put food on our tables for Jewish feasts in 5772, we should ask: What’s really in it? Who worked to bring me this food? Did anyone or any animal suffer for me to eat? And most importantly, who is not sitting at the table with me tonight?

These are the authentic questions that in our time we must ask to sow our values into all of our food choices. This is the essence of “deep kashrut.”

It fulfills the adage of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a renowned Torah scholar who lived from 1865 to 1935, who said, “Make the old new, and the new holy.”

With this integration in mind, we can grow a more restorative, just and environmentally friendly food system — a food system that we can truly say is deeply kosher.


Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas
of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is the founder of Netiya, an L.A.-based network of Jewish organizations focused on food education for environmental and social justice. He can be reached at nfarkas@vbs.org.