Food Fight: A Kol Nidre Call for Sustainable Consumption

What follows is a sermon that I delivered at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. at its 2010 evening Yom Kippur service (Kol Nidre). I am Adat Shalom's founding rabbi.

You may think it odd, maybe even cruel, to give a sermon about food on Yom Kippur -- kind of like talking about ice cream at a Weight Watcher's convention. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea grew on me.

For many of my generation, "food fight" conjures up the memory of the scene from Animal House when John Belushi calls out, "Food fight!" and all hell breaks loose. But I hope this sermon results in something a bit more noble than recollections of Animal House or the craziest memory you have of summer camp.

Changing associations of well known terms is not easy, but it's possible. Remember when Madonna was the mother of Jesus? Now she is an aging pop singer who dabbles in Kabbalah. And I doubt if anyone in this room would even consider calling an upcoming gathering at your home a "tea party."

I hope to give you a new association with the term "food fight" because in this sermon I want to explore how we bridge the gap between our appetites and what we know to be good for ourselves and our world.

Food and the Planet

What first seemed like a quirky offshoot of the environmental movement has become a full-fledged social movement of its own. It is worth taking stock of what this movement is about and what it might mean for us.

There is a shelf-full of recent books that have raised the consciousness of Americans about food. Books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivores Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, each in its own way, offer some simple wisdom that is convincing. Eating less meat, more plants, fruits and vegetables and focusing on locally grown crops is good for your health and good for the planet.

The data is pretty compelling, and while it leads more and more people to become vegetarians or vegans, there is much you can do short of that. Consider the following:

  • There are 800 million people in the world today who are considered food-insecure. That number includes one in six Americans! Yet the majority of corn, soy and wheat grown in the world is used to feed pigs, chickens and livestock. It is estimated that the world could produce five to 10 times more calories than is currently the case if we ate grains directly and not use if for animal feed.
  • Another study looked at the amount of energy it takes to raise and harvest animals. If Americans cut their meat consumption by just 20 percent a year, it would be the equivalent fossil fuel savings as if every driver in the U.S. turned in their current car and replaced it with a Prius.
  • Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity has pointed the finger at the U.S. food industry for their marketing of highly processed, fat- and sugar-laced food. Though we can choose not to buy this kind of unhealthy food, our appetites are conditioned, if not addicted, to the very foods that are so harmful.
  • Nor is this a matter of whether we will look good in a bathing suit during the summer. The Center for Disease Control estimates that three fourths of all U.S. health care costs can be traced to diet (e.g., heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and a third of all cancers!).

Now just knowing that something is good for you is not always enough to get you to do it. Think about how many pledges to do more exercise get broken every year! Yet I do think that all of the buzz around the food movement has made an impact on us.

How many of you have changed your food-buying and eating habits over the past year so as to eat healthier and/or to walk more lightly on the earth?

In early May I was at a conference center run by a church in Connecticut for the annual board meeting of Rabbis for Human Rights. We davenned shacharit in the garden and every corner of the garden was bursting with the color of exotic flowers and the sights and sounds of birds flying above us. The night before I had watched a news report on the oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and how the oil spill was already starting to endanger the wildlife of the region.

During the briefest of reveries during the silent amidah, I imagined that I was standing on the last green spot on Earth, all other corners of the globe having been devastated by humanity's shortsighted desire to "pave over paradise and put up a parking lot." I thought of the Biblical verse in Genesis that tells us what our relationship to the earth needs to be: l'ovdah u'lshomrah, "to work the land in such a way as to guard and protect it." And I was horrified to consider how we have all become part of a global marketplace that supports the raping of the earth.

Our Addiction to Consumption

If we could amend the 10 Commandments like we can the U.S. Constitution, the eleventh commandment that I would propose would be, "Consume Less." And if I had a chance to give a speech on the floor of the International Jewish Assembly that was voting on the amendment to the 10 Commandments, I would invoke Yom Kippur in my speech.

The festival we usher in tonight forbids almost all forms of consumption -- food, water, electricity and fossil fuels. It is essentially an exercise to convince us that we can get closer to God, closer to more sacred and ethical living, if we spent less time consuming. When we do that, we should become aware of two things.

First: As we tread more lightly on the planet by consuming less, we get closer to the experience of the rest of the world's population. Our calls for greater justice for the impoverished people of the world ring hollow when we are part of an American society that is only 5 percent of the world's population but which consumes more than 20 percent of the world's food, water and energy.

Second: We learn that the key to following a more sacred and ethical life is the discipline that comes from accepting limits to indulging our voracious appetites for whatever we want, whenever we want it. World events like the Gulf oil spill, global warming and weather-related disasters -- all the result of human activity -- are teaching us that both human beings and the planet pay a steep price for a life without limits.

It is time for us to assign a moral value to the consequences of our over-consumption of everything, both as individuals and as a society. The best morality play for this lesson comes in the book of Numbers chapter 11. The Israelites are, at this point in the Biblical narrative, wandering in the desert and romanticizing their recollections of Egypt as a place where food, particularly meat, was abundant. In the desert God was providing a vegetarian option -- Manna -- on a daily basis, and a double portion on Friday so that no collection had to be done on Shabbat. But the Manna had become stale (pun intended) and the people called for a return to Egypt just so they could eat meat. Consumption had become more important than freedom.

Moses looks to God for some relief from the ongoing complaining of the people, and God complies by sending a flock of quail that conveniently drop out of the sky in the vicinity of the Israelite encampment. The quail is both a response to an outcry and a test. And the Israelites fail the test. They consume so much quail so quickly that a plague overtakes the tribe and thousands die, many with the meat of quail still in their mouths. Our ancestors ate themselves to death. The Torah calls the place of this incident, Kibroth Taavah, the graves of consumption! It may foreshadow our own future. The graves of consumption, indeed!

If Kibroth Taavah is the time and place that the children of Israel faced their consumption test, Yom Kippur is ours. This is our "food fight." Are we slaves to our appetites, or are we capable of being motivated by a higher consciousness that limits what we consume, how much we consume, and how we produce that which nourishes our bodies? And if we can pass the test on Yom Kippur, does that not tell us that we can apply that discipline in the days, weeks and months that follow this festival?

We Are What We Eat, and How

There are exciting things happening in the Jewish world around food that suggests a refreshing level of seriousness about living our ethics. I spent a day this summer at the new Jewish Farm School housed at the Pearlstone Retreat Center outside of Baltimore. Participants for the summer were mostly Jews in their 20s who took seriously all the lessons I am speaking about this evening: environmentalism, growing one's own food, making eating into a sacred activity and more. There are similar Jewish experiments taking place all around the country. Very exciting!

More examples: More than two decades ago the Reconstructionist movement began talking about Eco-Kashrut, suggesting that what made food kosher was not just about eating permissible foods prepared in the right way but taking into consideration the environmental impact of the food as well. The Conservative movement of Judaism recently approved a new form of oversight for food establishments called Magen Tzedek, a "justice seal" which will certify food companies only if they are meeting appropriate standards for wages and benefits for their employees and are abiding by stringent standards for ecological sustainability in their business practices. An Orthodox group has begun yet another campaign in several U.S. cities called Tav haYosher, an "ethical seal" which will signal to Jews that restaurants are paying their employees fairly.

The message is coming through loud and clear. To live an ethical life will require a new level of consciousness about our consumption habits.

Sacred Meals

There is yet one other lesson that Judaism can teach us about food. It is the concept of the sacred meal. Many of you have read about the Slow Food Movement that started in Italy. It was a response to the phenomenon of fast food, which is symbolic of everything wrong with our Western approach to food. But Judaism anticipated the Slow Food Movement by centuries (and not just because of the bad service in kosher restaurants.)

Judaism views the dinner table as a mikdash meaat, a miniature Temple. According to Jewish custom, when we sit down to a meal, we engage in a ritual washing of the hands; we say a blessing over the bread, thanking the source of life who brings forth bounty from the earth. We use food as a way to connect with people we love around the table. We say grace after the meal.

Studies have been done about the correlation between families that have a tradition of a family dinner at least four nights a week and well-developed children. Barbara Kingsolver calls the family meal "nurseries of democracy" where children learn the art of conversation, sharing and listening -- the habits of civility. And yet, how many of our households lack the routine of the family meal? How many of us are part of the statistic that 40 percent of Americans watch TV during their meals, suffocating any natural family communication. That is not even counting the number of people who come to the dinner table connected to their iPods or Blackberrys.

Action Plan

I'll let you in on a trade secret. Rabbis love it when congregants tell them that they liked their sermon. But at least this rabbi is happier when a congregant tells me that as a result of a sermon, they made a change in their behavior.

So here is a concrete, three-point action plan for every one of you:

  1. Change your food-buying habits so as to give preference to locally grown produce, and cut back on the eating of animals in favor of that which grows from the earth.
  2. Try to institute a regular sacred meal at least once a week. Try to make it coincide with Shabbat if at all possible. And if you already have a tradition of a regular sacred meal, see if you can't do it twice as often.
  3. Cut back on your consumption -- food, driving, clothes, consumer goods. Not because you can't afford it but because it does not improve your life and it harms the planet. Our ancestors left a corner of their fields for the poor. The act symbolized the Jewish view that you don't have to consume everything that is available to you. Sharing with the poor acknowledges that wealth is determined not by what we take for ourselves but by what we give over to those who have less. I also have come to believe that simplifying our lives by cutting back on consumption is the meaning of the famous verse by the prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you? Only to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God."

Food is thus a metaphor for a much larger understanding of our consumption behavior. I hope that, as a result of this sermon, the phrase "food fight" will no longer conjure up thoughts of John Belushi but rather will result in a pledge that each of you takes to live a more simple, humble and modest life. It may well be that the unintended gift of the current economic recession is the realization that we can get by with less and actually have a more fulfilling life.

The Tree of Life

A final metaphor.

The movie Avatar offers a vivid depiction of the very issue I've raised this evening. It portrays a human race that is over-techified, totally lacking in compassion and committed to wiping out a native population of a distant planet so as to access the mineral wealth that exists there. The human race -- representing us -- are obsessed with consuming more. The aliens in the movie are the good guys. They are called the Na'vi, the Hebrew word for prophet. The Na'vi see themselves as sacredly connected to each other and to their planet, Pandora. The planet gives them sustenance. At the very center of Pandora is a sacred tree that represents Divine energy. It is the life force of every creature on the planet. The image, of course, is the Garden of Eden, and the tree is what the Torah calls the etz chaim, the tree of life.

My friends, on this holiest day of the Jewish year when we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life, we very much need to get back in touch with the etz chaim in our life and in our world. The etz chaim is not only a metaphor for an idyllic Garden of Eden but it is a symbol of a way of life that we are called upon to follow -- a transcendent source of energy that connects us to the earth and, through the earth, to each other.

In our liturgy we sing: etz chaim hi l'machazikim bah, v'tomcheha mushar, "it is a tree of life to those who hold it tight; all who live by it, will be enriched." We have more than enough knowledge to tell us what kind of behavior we need to engage in to sustain the etz chaim in our life and in our world. All that stands between us and that way of living is our appetites. To conquer those appetites, it is worth engaging in our own personal "food fight".

As we pray this season to be inscribed into the Book of Life, we would do well to remember the Native American teaching, "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." In the coming year may we each of be able to re-shape our living patterns so that we ourselves become trees of life; and may we be privileged to pass on that legacy to our children and to our children's children.