Priests and Rice, Rabbis and Wheat

A Balinese rice farmer attends a prayer before harvest in Jatiluwih, resort island of Bali, Indonesia, Friday, June 1, 2012.
A Balinese rice farmer attends a prayer before harvest in Jatiluwih, resort island of Bali, Indonesia, Friday, June 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati)

On a beautifully sunny afternoon, a group of us prepared for Shabbat by making challah bread from wheat that we had grown ourselves in our own synagogue-based garden. On one level, the event was decidedly ordinary: people have cultivated wheat and baked bread for thousands of years. But on another, it was a visible -- and tasty -- affirmation of the relevancy of Jewish values.

We started our "Mishnah Garden" -- named after Jewish oral tradition -- a few years ago at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, a synagogue located just outside of Washington, D.C. Like other houses of faith that have vegetable gardens, the Mishnah Garden is a cornerstone in our commitment to the earth and offers a vehicle for praying with one's hands, much as Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about praying with ones' feet when he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma.

For the past few years, under Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb's leadership, we've grown hundreds of pounds of vegetables in our Mishnah Garden that we've donated to Manna, a local soup kitchen. We've also grown parsley and horseradish which we've used for our own Passover Seders. We made a stab at planting most of the seven biblical species: wheat, barley, pomegranates, grapes, olives, dates and figs (our "snowbird" olive tree fared well after spending the winter in a congregant's warm home, but our pomegranate tree sadly did not). By planting actual and metaphorical seeds in our Mishnah Garden (the first book of the Mishnah is ironically called "Seeds"), we hoped to connect our modern lives to our Jewish agricultural roots, which, over the last hundred some odd years, we've gotten pretty disconnected from.

In the first half of the 20th century, the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordecai Kaplan, taught that we modern Jews live in two civilizations: the secular (in Kaplan's time, it referred to American) and the Jewish. Today, of course, modern folks of all religions live in multiple communities, connecting on various levels with their hometowns as much as places like Bali, 10,000 miles away.

Our Mishnah Garden, for example, shares a bond with the priest-managed rice cultivation "subak" system in Bali, which this summer was deemed so valuable to humanity that it was named to UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Since the ninth century, the Balinese used the subak system for rice cultivation. In the 1970s, the Balinese government created what was ironically called the "Green Revolution" with the intention of modernizing agriculture on the island. Through this policy, the government required farmers to continuously plant rice rather than leaving the land fallow for periods of time; insisted on high-yield varieties of hybrid rice rather than traditional strains; and took control of cultivation and irrigation patterns from the local priests.

Although the Green Revolution did initially produce more rice, continuously planted fields soon attracted more pests than did areas left fallow, and there were more water shortages than there had been under the traditional system. A computer simulation model developed by anthropologist Steve Lansing showed that the traditional priest-managed system was actually more effective than the new methods.

So the Balinese went back to the old system, run by the priests. They succeeded in re-embracing the Balinese philosophical principle of Tri Hita Karana that connects the divine, people and nature, which informed the traditional "subak" system for rice cultivation. And established that when it comes to rice, priests make better managers than the government.

Ancient texts of the Abrahamic faiths, too, are replete with precepts governing irrigation and crop rotation. The bible's Psalm 107:33-35, for example, talks about the consequences of poor irrigation practices. Leviticus 25 gives the land a break with sabbatical planting cycles, whose fallow periods control pests and rejuvenate the earth. And the Koran says that water shouldn't be taken for granted (56:68).

These Scriptures have as much to say about agricultural practices as do the texts invoked by the Balinese priests. Unfortunately, industrial societies don't read their texts with the same relevancy as do countries still rooted in agriculture. In our urban culture, fallow periods mostly refer to sabbaticals, and the closest thing that passes for irrigation is a garden soaker hose.

But times are changing here too. Scripture in hand, American faith leaders are encouraging their congregations to develop gardens to grow vegetables for the poor, install solar panels, implement a range of waste-reducing and energy-conserving measures, rally to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, encourage wind energy, and abolish mountaintop removal mining activities in an increasing effort to improve how we care for creation.

Like the Balinese priests, American religious leaders are in a unique position to push the environmental agenda. The Evangelical Environmental Network offers regular trainings in the biblical basis for creation care. Maryland and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light has numerous resources to help congregations and their members become greener; so do the National Council of Churches, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Many of these movements find surprising alliances, with fundamental Christians and liberal Jews working toward the common goal of environmental stewardship.

From the Balinese experience, we learn that priests can be the better stewards of the crops and natural resources. And we are increasingly learning from rabbis and other American faith leaders that religion can motivate people toward better environmental stewardship -- in ways that secular nonprofits or governments, alone, cannot.

Religious Environmentalism