Seven-year niche: East Bay panel addresses shmita

A farmer, a scientist and an artist walked into a Jewish museum last week, not to set up a joke but to talk about shmita.

“Give It a Rest: Food Rituals and the Biblical Sabbatical Year” — a panel discussion held Oct. 2 at the Magnes museum in Berkeley — was the first of three public conversations scheduled through May 2015. Called “Ideas of Late,” the series is organized by the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in partnership with the Magnes Foundation and J.

Adam Berman speaks while (from left) Dan Schifrin, Merav Tzur and Asa Bradman listen. photo/rowan brooks

“Here we sit in Berkeley, at the heart of the foodie movement, where my synagogue only serves chocolate that is kosher and fair trade,” said moderator Dan Schifrin, kicking off a discussion about how the concept of a Jewish sabbatical year plays out in the varied fields represented by the panelists.

Adam Berman, director of the Jewish educational farm Urban Adamah, pointed out that the first biblical reference to shmita, in Exodus, is sandwiched between exhortations to treat strangers well (because Jews were once strangers in Egypt) and to let servants and domestic animals rest on Shabbat. That juxtaposition, he said, suggests that letting agricultural lands lie fallow every seven years “has something to do with how we should relate to others.”

In the shmita year, all debts are forgiven, and every 49 years (seven times seven), all personal wealth is supposed to be given away, making shmita “the most radical social and economic concept in Judaism — the end of trans-generational wealth.” Although that economic redistribution has not actually taken place in any Jewish community we know of, Berman noted with approval that the values underlying it are “religiously mandated radical generosity.”

Asa Bradman, of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, also connected shmita with socio-economic equality.

Bradman is leading a study that follows the children of agricultural workers in Salinas from birth through high school (they’re now 14) to determine the neurological effects of long-term exposure to irritants such as pesticides in the fields and mold and rodent infestation in the home.

Sub-standard brain function is related to such exposure, he said, and lower-income children are more often affected because of their living conditions and parents’ work.

The Jewish concept of shmita presents a possible solution, he continued. Combine its “reimagining of society and a release from debt” with other Torah commandments to treat workers well and pay fair wages, he said, and it will add up to “sustainability, an agricultural system that benefits the workers and addresses housing and health care.”

The final panelist, Israeli-born artist Merav Tzur, talked about her current interest in synchronized group rituals, including food rituals in different faith groups — the Passover seder, for example, or dipping apples in honey for Rosh Hashanah.

“Eating together gives a sense of community,” she said.

The panelists then considered crop-related rituals, such as the shmita, agreeing they are powerful tools for societal as well as psychological change. Properly understood, they said, the values underlying shmita can suggest ways to a more equitable, sustainable society.

That’s already happening, Bradman said. “There’s a trend toward greater awareness of the scale of human impact on the environment, and the health impacts,” he said. “That leads to an opportunity to develop policies to combat [the degradation of the Earth].

“California has [put in place] more and more protective policies in the last 50 years. It will take another 50 years to see large-scale transformation, and there will have to be financial incentives, too.”

Protective policies? Financial considerations? If that’s not in the spirit of shmita, what is?

“Ideas of Late” will continue on Jan. 15 at the Magnes with a public conversation on boundary-stretching ideas about Jewish education.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.