May 2012


Kayam Farm, at the Pearlstone Retreat Center, near Baltimore, MD.

I recently attended a retreat at the Pearlstone retreat center outside of Baltimore. Among the many things that make Pearlstone a lovely place, and a model for something that should exist in many more communities, is the Kayam Farm. Kayam is a working farm that produces vegetables, eggs, and goat milk and cheese—some of which is served at Pearlstone itself, and much of which goes to a community supported agriculture (CSA) initiative.

But what really distinguishes Kayam is the fact that it is rooted in serious Jewish learning. This is more than saying, ‘We are practicing tikkun olam with our farming.’ No—the folks who work at Kayam study the laws of Shabbat and more fully appreciate the meaning of resting from labor (it’s about a lot more than turning off your iphone). They study the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, not causing suffering to animals, which applies not only to how we treat our pets, but to verses in the Torah that mostly have meaning in the context of farming: not yoking different species of animals together (Deut. 22:10), not muzzling an ox when it is threshing (Deut. 25:4), sending away the mother bird when fetching the eggs from a nest (Deut. 22:6-7), and many more.

But most striking, the Kayamers study the agricultural laws of the Torah related to planting. These laws form an entire order of the Mishnah (Zeraim) which has typically not been studied in depth by most Jews, even those who study in yeshivot. Why? Because the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud understood that most of these laws apply only in the land of Israel. With the advent of religious Zionism, these laws became a major area of study and application once again.

The association of Torah-informed farming with the land of Israel is thus one deeply etched into my mind. It’s the idea of the kibbutz hadati, the religious kibbutz. It’s the image of the farmer who rises early to put on tefillin, and then goes out to milk the goats, feed the chickens, and work in the fields. It’s the thought of all of that taking place in Hebrew.

So it was a jarring experience to see it all happening—in Maryland, not the Galil. What does it mean to imagine applying the Torah to agricultural settings outside the land of Israel? On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about it: Jews learning Torah, developing a language of Torah and farming that enables a richer, healthier, more sustainable life. Wonderful! But on the other hand, there was something deeply unsettling about it, as though these good things were happening, but in precisely the wrong place. Most Rabbinic literature deals with the notion of mitzvot teluyot ba-aretz, the commandments that are dependent on the land of Israel, as a question of whether a mitzvah applies outside the land of Israel, not whether one could voluntarily observe it. The very notion of observing the Sabbatical year outside of Israel, for instance, is a non-sequitur both because of the extra stringency inherent in the idea, and because, traditionally, observing Israel-dependent mitzvot has been viewed as a privilege of living in the land of Israel. To a traditional mind, the mitzvah simply doesn’t make sense outside of it.

All of this happened this week, in the days leading up to Shavuot. Shavuot, of course, has a double-identity. In its identity as z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai—outside the land of Israel—it is a holiday accessible and meaningful to all Jews in all places. Jews around the world can study Torah on the night of Shavuot and know that they are part of a people doing the same thing across the globe. But in its identity as chag habikkurim, the festival of first fruits, its significance is talui ba’aretz, dependent on the land of Israel. Outside of Israel, this notion doesn’t make sense, because the first fruits mentioned in the Torah are those of the land of Israel: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits…” (Deut. 26:1-2).

We take as a given that Israel is interwoven into the fabric of Jewish life. Yet it is an old trope in American Jewish life that America itself could represent an Israel of its own, that not only can’t we make aliyah because of economic or family ties, but that we actively want to build a Jewish life here in this place. The Reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries took this as an article of faith. The Kayamers of the 21st century are experimenting with a fascinating take on the same theme. Personally, I disagree with the impulse to observe Israel-specific mitzvot outside of Israel. I view the mitzvot of the land of Israel as only fulfillable there, whether they are understood as a legal obligation or a special spiritual privilege. But I can’t help but admire the dedication and creativity of people who are seriously engaging with the questions, who are farming and learning and bringing Israel into a larger contemporary conversation.

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Among the mitzvot enumerated in parshat Emor is this one, familiar to us from the Torah reading from many of our holidays: “Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day” (Lev. 22:28). Maimonides and Nachmanides famously disagree on how to understand this commandment. In his Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam includes this verse along with the commandment (Deut. 22:6) to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs from the nest. “There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes. The purpose of both commandments is to alleviate the suffering of the animals.

Ramban disagrees. “The real reason” for both mitzvot “is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy, that we may not become cruel, for cruelty envelops the entire personality of man, as is well known from the example of professional animal killers who often become hardened to human suffering” (Ramban on Deut. 22:6). Where Maimonides sees the purpose of the mitzvot here as focused on the suffering of the animals, Nachmanides sees them as addressing human moral development. Ramban cites the teaching of Abba Gurya in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:14), who evaluates a number of unfavorable occupations and concludes by saying “even the best of slaughterers is a companion of Amalek.” Which is to say, killing for a living ultimately leads to cruelty in human relations. (Nechama Leibowitz’s second essay on this parasha develops these positions further.)

Neither Rambam nor Ramban could have imagined a world in which meat came to the mouths of people without some exposure to the process of killing. While death was a more regular feature of pre-modern, and certainly pre-industrial life, its ubiquity also had the effect of humanizing it. It was normal to kill an animal for food, and it was known by sages throughout the ages that too much killing would make a person cruel. Today, however, most of us who eat meat never interact with the animals we’re eating. Indeed, the thought that the beef or chicken on our plate was once an actual living creature grosses us out. We are not used to animal life, and we’re not used to animal death either.

Thus animal-welfare conversations today tend to focus more on the Rambam’s line of thinking: it’s about animal welfare, or animal rights. If we’re vegetarians, or if we simply advocate for greater sensitivity in ritual slaughter or the raising of livestock, we make our arguments in terms of the welfare of the animal. We don’t tend to adopt the Ramban’s line of thinking, because we’ve industrialized the process of slaughter to the point that, like the gas in our cars that we never actually see, the meat that arrives on our supermarket shelves wrapped in plastic is divorced in our imagination from any human process other than stocking it on the counter.

But what if we did? What if the question in our consumption of meat, and food in general, was more about what kind of moral and ethical development it entails and leads to? This, after all, is the Rambam’s ultimate point: the purpose of showing compassion for animals is to cultivate our sense of compassion for all of God’s creation, including human beings. It is to fulfill the Rambam’s understanding of the ultimate imperative of the mitzvot, v’halachta bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways.

That is the greater challenge of kashrut (a challenge which my colleagues at Uri l’Tzedek tirelessly address). God is not mechanized. Our relationship with God, and with one another, shouldn’t be either.

Shabbat shalom.

I have a few one-liners that have stuck with me through the years. They were single sentences uttered in a conversation, or sometimes a public talk, that entered my ears and locked in my memory. Years later, I can still recall both the words and the moment of delivery. (And if you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve come across them before.) Here are my top three:

  • During a class in Jerusalem years ago, Levi Lauer remarked, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.”
  • In my junior year of college, my friend Josh Cahan, sitting on my dorm room couch, told me, “Feigelson, you could make a really great leader, if you just stopped seeing what’s wrong with people and started seeing what’s right with them.”
  • In my first year working at Hillel, Michael Brooks, the longtime director at the University of Michigan Hillel, was giving a talk in which he observed, “Most questions that matter are about membership.”

This observation of Michael’s has resonated with me ever since, and experience confirms it. On an emotional level, to be included or excluded in a group, to feel inside or outside, is a powerful experience from childhood through the rest of our lives. None of us wants to be left out, but we also don’t want to include everyone in everything. We want to be loved, but we also want to know that the love we give and receive is special.

On a cognitive level, we are constantly grouping together–creating in and out–all the time. As infants we begin to label people and things as in or out, this or that, same or different. As we get older, we get more sophisticated, but the move is the same: we group like with like, or we creatively mix like with not-like, or find ways that things that seemed to be different actually have a lot in common. A computer, at its core, comes down to 1 versus 0.

Rashi and Ramban famously diverge in their interpretation of the words kedoshim tih’yu, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Rashi interprets kedusha as separation from other things, while Ramban emphasizes the likeness that results from this move: kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach, sanctify yourself within that which is permitted to you. Both begin with the act of separation. But where Rashi sees the thrust of the command on separating not-holy from holy, Ramban puts more weight on unifying the holy with the holy. One emphasizes the power of difference, the other emphasizes the power of similarity.

We can’t escape the divisions that make up our lives. We are physical creatures, limited in space and time. We can’t be in two places, or two times, at once. We are always outside something. And yet we have moments when we can transcend reality, and imagine ourselves as occupying more than one space and more than one time, when we can be inside everything. Throughout his drashot, the Sefas Emes draws on Shabbat as the embodiment of this kind of transcendent consciousness: a day of unification, when we step outside the time and space that define the regular material world. Shabbos enables us, for a moment, to go beyond the question of membership, to go beyond the inside-outside dichotomy. It is the full expression of kedusha according to both Rashi and Ramban: a day apart that is actually a day when we come together, when we sense that we are part of an exclusive club, of which everyone is a member.

Shabbat shalom.