Does God Care What We Eat?

Sermon delivered January 22, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Some have said that the story line of every Jewish holiday is, “They oppressed us. We won. Let’s eat.” Well, it’s not that simple. Except, that is, for the “let’s eat” part. Except when we fast, every Jewish observance involves food. Passover is the quintessential example, with a sufficient culinary draw to get even my wife to cook once a year. But there are latkes on Hanukkah, Blintzes on Shavuot, Hamentaschen on Purim, and a Shabbat Dinner every week. Whenever I teach Introduction to Judaism students about Brit Milah, I always point out that the Torah does not stipulate that lox and bagels be present when a baby boy is brought into the covenant of circumcision. Nevertheless, a Seudat Mitzvah, a meal for the completion of the commandment, is appropriate for a Baby Naming, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and other happy occasions. When we return to a house of mourning after a funeral, the Seudat Havra’ah, or meal of consolation, is a potent symbol that life goes on.

So, were one to charge that just about everything Jewish has food connected to it, that person would be telling the truth. Come to think of it, even Yom Kippur is a major culinary event, with some people giving more attention to the Break-the-Fast than to the services. The people who host the Break-the-Fast I attend every year don’t even fast themselves! I can say that because they’re my parents.

Perhaps nobody should have been surprised, then, when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, devoted his Biennial sermon to one topic above all: What we eat does matter.

People were surprised, though, and disappointed. Once every two years, Rabbi Yoffie, the leader of Reform Judaism, has a singular opportunity to address our Movement about what is really most important. At a time of economic downturn, with two wars in the world, constant crises in Israel, and health care reform being debated in Congress, few thought that the Rabbi’s subject was worthy of the moment. And perhaps the critics were correct. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yoffie’s topic is worth considering, because the evidence is clear: God does care what we eat.

The Holy One’s concern for our diet is apparent from the first chapter of the Torah. Both humans and animals are told to follow a strictly vegan diet, eating only that which grows out of the Earth. Apparently, in the Garden of Eden, we were all herbivores, even the lions. Later, after Noah’s flood, God permits humans to eat meat, under one condition that Jewish law applies to all humankind to this day: The animal must be slaughtered before it may be eaten. None of us would imagine cutting the limb off a living animal to eat it. God set a standard requiring some consideration for the animal’s well being.

Later, God lays down more restrictive rules for our people. In the Torah, we are commanded to refrain from eating certain animals, and also to abstain from leavened foods during Passover. The Rabbis later made the rules much more complex, codifying the kosher laws.

Most Reform Jews don’t keep kosher, at least not in the way the regulations are understood by Conservative or Orthodox Rabbis. Nevertheless, more than a few of us refrain from eating pork, and perhaps also shellfish, the biblically prohibited foods that are not permitted into our Temple building. Some Reform Jews eat “kosher style,” not mixing meat and milk. Others believe that the mitzvah, tsar ba’alei hayyim, concern for the well-being of animals, should guide what we do and do not eat. My own personal adaptation of the kosher laws is that I don’t eat mammals. Others who study and adapt Jewish dietary traditions are vegetarians and even vegans.

Interestingly, Rabbi Yoffie did not dwell on keeping kosher in his Biennial sermon. Instead, he focused on two particular points, one to which I’ve already alluded. He urged us to be concerned about how much, even how quickly, we eat, primarily for reasons of health. He also asked us to consider the source of our food, for the good of the environment and out of concern for animals.

Some people are surprised when they learn that even physicians didn’t know that disease was spread by germs until a century or so ago. Washing hands might have been important for appearance’s sake, but that practice was not known to prevent disease from spreading. When my parents were growing up, they didn’t know that smoking cigarettes was bad for them. So we shouldn’t be surprised that folks in biblical days, and even more recently, didn’t know that eating too much could be bad for their health. Of course, for most people in ancient times, getting enough to eat was a struggle; eating too much was the least of their concerns.

Today, we know better. We know that, if we eat too much, we put ourselves at unacceptable risk for diabetes, heart disease, some kinds of cancer, and the list goes on. Each of us has been granted only one life. During our lifetimes, we Jews are to pursue God’s will, that we may be God’s partners in building a more perfect world. Tonight, more than on an average Friday night, the congregation here assembled is familiar with the term Tikkun Olam, because Josh has made that mitzvah the “theme” of his Bar Mitzvah. Tikkun Olam means repair of the world. We live in a world plagued by poverty and disease, “savage inequalities” of every kind. As Jews, we are expected to utilize our time on Earth to do the work of Tikkun Olam. Longevity, therefore, becomes a worthy goal for each and every one of us. Only during this lifetime does God privilege us to serve as God’s partners in repairing our all-too-broken world.

We are also taught that, when we die, one of the questions we will be asked on our proverbial “judgment day,” is: “Have you partaken of the legitimate pleasures that life has to offer?” Food can be one of life pleasures, for the half of the world that has enough to eat. Food can also be abused. Many of us have complicated relationships with food, brought upon by neurotic attitudes about eating and weight fostered during childhood. Developing a proper attitude toward food, and being able to enjoy it, is far more difficult for some of us than for others. Some of us, and not only children, stuff our faces so quickly and furiously that we are unable to enjoy that which could enhance our lives. Eating slowly is not something I do well, but it is an ideal toward which I strive. We serve God more fully when we enjoy the pleasure of food legitimately, in reasonable measure, in a way that enhances life and does not destroy it.

Most of us are not vegetarians and fewer are vegans. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to be concerned about the way that animals are raised for food in today’s world.

When my sons were younger, I recall reading them books set on idyllic farms. In these books, animals raised on the farm graze in the field, which they fertilize themselves. Everything is natural and beautiful. Unfortunately, that’s not how most animals are raised for food in our country today.

Cows and sheep and pigs are raised on feed lots. Their hooves never touch real Earth, only cement, which is easy to hose down. Chickens are raised in cages, one stacked upon another, in crowded conditions. Their feet also don’t touch the ground, only the grates of the cage. The mammals are fed corn, not grass. All these animals, whether raised for meat or milk or eggs, are given antibiotics to prevent the diseases that would otherwise spread in such close quarters. Their natural animal waste does not fertilize the Earth. Instead, it goes down drains, where it becomes a tremendous environmental problem.

Life for these animals is not living. By no fault of their own, their lives lead to the despoliation of the Earth.

No, it’s not pleasant to think of such matters when we bite into a hamburger or eat our scrambled eggs. As a result, most people don’t think about the steak as a cow or the fried chicken as, well, a chicken. If we would think about these matters, I suspect we would serve God more fully, observing two mitzvot, tsar ba’alei hayyim, concerning ourselves with the welfare of animals, and ba’al taschit, refraining from spoiling the Earth. To accomplish these goals, we need not become vegetarians or vegans, but we will have to eat less meat. We will have an incentive to eat less meat, and milk, and eggs, because the animal products we do eat will be a bit more expensive, sometimes considerably more. We can look at labels: Were the eggs laid by chickens that were never kept in a cage? Does the beef come from grass-fed cows? “Organic” is a good catch-all label, but not the only one that works.

Humans have also depleted the oceans of some species of fish. We can, and we should, look for fish labeled “sustainable.” Then we can be assured that species are not endangered by our dietary habits.

Where we can, we would do well to eat food that is grown locally, or at least nearby. We all know that transportation fuel is the most significant source of air pollution. We also know that using too much petroleum threatens our national security; much of the money we spend on imported oil finds its way eventually into the hands of those who are bent on our destruction. The buzz word these days is “carbon footprint,” but the issue is much simpler than global warming. We reduce pollution and we do our part in the War on Terror when we eat fruits and vegetables grown closer to home. All that, and it’s good for the Texas economy, too.

Tonight, as we read from the Torah, our thoughts turn to Passover, still over two months away. In our mind’s taste buds, let us savor the brisket, the matzo ball soup, the haroses. How much sweeter will that haroses be if it’s made with apples grown closer to home? And if that soup and brisket are made with beef and chickens raised humanely, they will be so much more appropriate for a festival of freedom.

Yes, God does care what we eat. So should we.